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1973 was a busy year for Chrysler South Africa with a number of new Valiant models going on sale. But perhaps the most exciting one was what they referred to as an American-styled utility car (that is a bakkie to you and me). This new bakkie look was similar to that of the Chevrolet El Camino and judging by the title it was given took aim at the Ford Ranchero… enter the Rustler.

With the name Rustler, which in American means cattle thief, Chrysler subtly tried to work the ranch-life image into the marketing plan, the way Ford had done. Like other Valiant models, the Rustler was of Australian origin and hit the roads and ranches in either 108kW three-speed manual or 127kW three-speed automatic format.

Load capacity came in at just over 750kg and, despite its ladder frame and beefed-up suspension, drove in a relatively smooth manner similar to the Valiant sedans of the time. This was made possible by a heavy-duty independent torsion-bar set-up at the front and a smart dual-rate leaf spring at the back.

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With no load, the performance was also sedan-like with the automatic reaching the 100km/h mark in 13.5 seconds and the manual in 16.9, with a top speed for both of 160km/h. Unladen, the automatic’s fuel consumption came in at 15 litres per 100 kays at cruising speed, while the manual had the upper hand here, just going sub-10. Filling the tank would have only been advisable on payday – both variants swallowed 84 litres but it does mean a range of 550 and 900 kilometres respectively (loaded you’d see something like 400 and 800 each).

This very unbakkie-like performance theme carried across to the interior with an armrest, two-speed interior fan and heater, as well as a full range of instruments including ammeter, temperature and oil gauges.

Bench seating, which had sufficient padding and springing, was good for three adults (four if one was a scrumhalf) in a row and gear levers in both manual and auto was column mounted to mitigate those awkward gear changes floor-mounted bakkies deliver. Safety wasn’t forgotten either with the Rustler getting three-point seat belts, telescopic steering column, dash fascia padding and dual-line brakes with an anti-lock valve at the rear which even worked without a load weighing the back down.

Farm vehicle, load carrier, long distance commuter – the Rustler was a true utility vehicle blurring the lines between a classy runabout and workhorse brilliantly. And by coming in similarly priced to the six-cylinder El Camino (R2 610) and Ford Ranchero (R2 595), the Rustler (R2 645) stole more than just cattle – it stole valuable market share from the two biggest players, along with a place in many South African hearts. Due to the nature of the work they carried out in period, it is now extremely difficult to find any of these three utility cars in top-notch, original condition today.

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