Automotive History: Talbot – Almost Invincible

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Do the French have a word for “prestige”?

 

What image does the name Talbot conjure up for you? Stylish British drop-top? Swoopy French streamliner? Blue grand prix car? Unloved ‘80s econobox? In the UK and France, many cars were produced as Talbots throughout the 20th century. Find a French-English dictionary and let’s peel the layers of Talbot’s torturous tale.

 

A French car with British Root(e)s, or death by STD

In 1903, the 20th Earl of Shrewsbury, Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, began a joint-venture with French car-maker Adolphe Clément to produce Cléments in Britain. After the First World War, Clément-Talbot joined forces with Darracq, a British-controlled French automaker founded in 1897, and Sunbeam to form the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq (STD) conglomerate. No effort was made to rationalize production: French-built Talbot-Darracqs (just called Talbot after 1922), British Talbots and Sunbeams were completely different cars.

The ‘Invincible’ Talbot, built in the UK from the 1900s to the 1990s… minus a couple of 'vincible' decades…

The ‘Invincible’ Talbot, built from the 1900s to the ’90s, minus a couple of ‘vincible’ decades…

 

When STD collapsed in 1934, its British assets were bought by the Rootes group. “Talbot-London” (subsequently  Sunbeam-Talbot) cars were built in England until Rootes retired the marque in 1955. (Read Roger Carr’s brilliant Rise, decline and fall of the Rootes group for more details on the British side of this saga.)

The Rootes group used the Talbot name for two decades, but the British and French Talbots were completely different.

Meanwhile, in the Parisian suburb of Suresnes, the other STD Talbot (pronounced tal-boh) factory was taken over by former STD executive Tony Lago in late 1934.

In the UK and British Empire markets until the mid ’50s, French Talbots kept the name Darracq to avoid confusion with the Rootes Talbots. Those, in turn, were sold as Sunbeams in France and several other continental markets.

My head hurts...

My head hurts…

 

Talbot on the Seine

In Suresnes, Venetian-born and fluent in French and English, Antonio (a.k.a Antoine or Tony) Lago sensed that moving toward sportier cars would provide both income and publicity. Talbot abandoned their slow-selling straight-eights, improved the looks of their factory bodies and refocused on fours and sixes, from the elegant 2-litre ‘Baby’ saloon to the exclusive 4-litre sports coupe. The late ‘30s were the best years for Talbot sales.

This factory-bodied 1937 T23 had a 3-litre hemi six and conservative (yet chic) styling

This factory-bodied 1937 T23 had a 3-litre hemi six and conservative (yet quite chic) styling.

 

One of the Figoni “goutte d’eau” (teardrop) T150 4-litre Spécial Sport coupés—the sculptural supercar of the late '30s, French-style.

Sculptural supercar: the Figoni goutte d’eau (teardrop) T150 4-litre Spécial Sport coupé.

 

None of the pre-war Talbot models went back into production after 1945. At the 1946 Salon de l’automobile, Talbot-Lago (as it was now usually known) introduced a new model, the 170hp 4.5-litre straight-six T26 Record sedan, coupe and convertible. In 1947 came the T26 Grand Sport (GS), a two-seater, 200hp version of the Record—the fastest (120mph) European car at the time. The 2.7-litre 4-cyl. T15 ‘Baby’ model was introduced in 1949 to broaden the range. The T15 engine produced an impressive 125 hp, but was not very reliable.

The T26 factory cabriolet: elegant, powerful, unaffordable. Do the French have a word for “élite”?

The T26 Record factory cabriolet: elegant, powerful, unaffordable. Do the French have a word for “élite”?

 

The 4-cylinder T15 shared its overall styling and much of its chassis with its T26 stablemate. The T15 engine produced an impressive 125 hp, but was not very reliable.

The 4-cyl. T15 shared its overall styling and much of its chassis with its T26 stablemate.

 

The T26 GS was the basis for Talbot-Lago’s post-war grand prix car and later Formula 1, the T26 C when that competition began in 1950. That year, T26s came in 1st and 2nd at Le Mans and Talbot-Lago production reached its (very modest) post-war peak: 433 T26s and T15s were sold, most of them with a factory body.

Louis Rosier finished 5th in this T26 GS at Silverstone in 1950. Rosier and his son Jean-Louis drove a Talbot-Lago to victory at Le Mans in 1950. For the 1951 edition, he raced the T26 GS with Fangio but did not finish. In 1952, the T26GS led the race for 22 hours before breaking down.

Louis Rosier finished fifth in this T26 C at Silverstone in 1950. Rosier and his son Jean-Louis drove a Talbot-Lago to victory at Le Mans in 1950. For the 1951 edition, he raced the T26 C with Fangio but did not finish. In 1952, Talbot led the race for 22 hours before breaking down.

The presidential Talbot being used by Auriol’s successor, René Coty, circa 1954. A few stretched T26s ferried various dignitaries, including the king of Saudi Arabia and the bey of Tunis. President Coty preferred the softer Citroën suspension and did not use this Talbot much.

Also in 1950, a stretched T26 Record chassis was selected by French president Vincent Auriol for a new Saoutchik-bodied state parade car. Above: the presidential Talbot being used by Auriol’s successor, René Coty, circa 1954. A few stretched T26s ferried various dignitaries, such as the king of Saudi Arabia and the bey of Tunis. Coty preferred the softer Citroën suspension and did not use this Talbot much.

 

Talbot-Lago in the ‘50s: the lame duck years

Lago needed to sell about 1000 chassis per year to break even—he never got close, and running a works Formula 1 team proved ruinous. Production dipped to 80 cars in 1951 as Talbot-Lago went into receivership. Lago managed to convince his creditors to give his clumsily revamped range a go and sold the F1 cars, but the writing was on the wall. .

Talbot’s new heavy and boxy berline for 1951 was not seen as an improvement. This T15 could barely reach 80 mph as a result. Few were made.

Talbot’s new heavy and boxy berline for 1951 was not seen as an improvement; T15s could barely reach 80 mph as a result. Few were made. By 1955, production was down to 17 chassis. The last factory-bodied T26 was the GSL coupé, a very elegant and modern design that was fiddled with but kept fundamentally the same in all subsequent Talbot-Lagos.

The handsome T26 GSL coupé, designed by Carlo Delaisse, sold only 15 units from 1953 to 1955.

The T26 GSL coupé, designed by Carlo Delaisse, sold only 15 units from 1953 to 1955.

 

The last Talbot-powered model, the 4-cyl. 2.5-litre T14 LS two-seater coupé, was a 7/8ths scale reduction of the T26 GSL, although with miserly sliding windows to cut costs and increase elbow room. Only 54 were built in 1955-57, including two convertibles. The next model, the America, had a BMW V8 and left-hand drive, but only about 12 were sold in 1958.

The Talbot-Lago 2500 T14 LS: same same, but smaller. Talbots were only available as two-seaters from then on, all with a factory body.

Talbot-Lago 2500 T14 LS: same same, but smaller. Talbots were only available as factory-bodied two-seaters from then on.

 

Tony Lago spent the ‘50s trying to save his factory, which was increasingly used for various subcontracting jobs to pay the bills, not to make Talbots. The factory was even churning out Isetta bubble cars in the late ‘50s. In December 1958, his health failing and his business in tatters, Lago sold out to fellow paisan and Simca CEO Henri-Theodore Pigozzi, whose main motivation was additional factory space.

Simca half-heartedly assembled a final handful of Simca-Talbot coupés with a simplified interior, a raised roofline and a pitiful 95hp Simca (ex-Ford) 2.3-litre flathead V8.

Junior Exner’s little atrocity was neither a Talbot, nor a star, nor a six. We all know what “Fin” means in French, right?

The Talbot name was last used for a show car designed by Virgil Exner, Jr., the “Talbot Star Six”, whose Detroit-built body sat on an old Simca 8 chassis and was presented at the Paris Salon de l’automobile in October 1959. Junior Exner’s little atrocity was neither a Talbot, nor a star, nor a six. We all know what “Fin” means in French, right? The last Simca-Talbot coupé was sold in 1960, the year Tony Lago died, aged 67. Talbot was history, or so it seemed…

 

The phoenix rises from Chrysler Europe’s ashes…

In the ’60s, both Simca and Rootes eventually became part of Chrysler’s short-lived European empire. Chrysler never bothered with Talbot, despite rumors of resurrecting it. Chrysler Europe’s main plants were in France (Simca in Poissy), the UK (Rootes in Rayton and Linwood) and Spain (Barreiros in Madrid), producing cars and trucks under a confusing variety of marques: Simca, Chrysler, Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam, Singer, Dodge, Fargo, Matra… The old Rootes brands were gradually retired throughout the ‘70s, but unlike Ford and GM, Chrysler’s European strategy was going south and things on the US front were pretty grim too.

Mid-1978, Peugeot bought Chrysler Europe, which had unwittingly reformed the old STD group. In an attempt to do away with the Pentastar’s bad image in Europe, Rip van Talbot was awakened in the summer of 1979. Talbot was a prestigious nameplate that the Brits thought was British and the French thought was French. What could go wrong?

Peugeot had a year to rename Chrysler’s European products, but the cars above still have a Pentastar on their grille. This is the French range for MY 1980 (left to right, front to back): Talbot-Matra Rancho; Sumbeam (British-made); 1510 (ex-Simca 1308/Chrysler Alpine); Horizon; 1610 (ex-Chrysler 160/2-litre made in Spain by Barreiros); Talbot-Matra Bagheera; 1100.

It was not the smoothest of takeovers. Peugeot had a year to rename Chrysler’s European products, but the cars above still have a Pentastar on their grille. This is the French range for MY 1980 (left to right, front to back): Talbot-Matra Rancho; Sumbeam (British-made); 1510 (ex-Simca 1308/Chrysler Alpine); Horizon; 1610 (ex-Chrysler 160/2-litre made by Barreiros); Talbot-Matra Bagheera; 1100.

But at least in motorsport, there was a brief moment of success. Peugeot bought half of the Ligier F1 team and, with Matra’s V12 engine, the “Talbot-Ligier” scored two wins in the 1981 season. That year also saw Talbot win the World Rally Championship manufacturers’ title, thanks to the spirited performance of the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. Not too shabby for a zombie!

The Scottish-built Sunbeam, with a little help from Lotus, was one of the last WRC winners with two-wheel drive (the rear ones). Peugeot closed the Linwood factory in 1981, thereby ending this model’s life on a high.

The Scottish-built Sunbeam, with a little help from Lotus, was one of the last WRC winners with two-wheel drive (the rear ones). Peugeot closed the Linwood factory in 1981, thereby ending this model’s life on a high.

 

… Aaaand it’s gone… again

Peugeot’s rebranding of Chrysler Europe cars was unfortunately done haphazardly and on the cheap: the 1980 Talbot Sunbeams still sported a Pentastar on its grille, as did Avengers and the 1610/2-litre. Other models, such as the Horizon or the 1510/Alpine, had new Talbot grilles but retained the ‘Simca’ script on their trunk. The two Matra-Simca cars were rebranded as Talbot-Matra and a new model, the Solara (a three-box variant of the 1510/Alpine), was quickly introduced in early 1980.

The Avenger’s multiple personalities: a Hillman, a Chrysler and a Talbot in the UK, a Plymouth in the US, a Dodge in South Africa and Brazil, and even a Volkswagen in Argentina until 1991! What’s the French for “déjà vu”?

The Avenger, a car with multiple personalities: a Hillman, a Chrysler and a Talbot in the UK, a Plymouth in the US, a Dodge in South Africa and Brazil, and even a Volkswagen in Argentina until 1991! What’s the French for “déjà vu”?

Branding mishaps, quality control issues, the ill-fated Tagora and industrial action on both sides of the Channel quickly degraded Talbot’s image. Talbot was tanking fast, and even a semi-success such as the Peugeot 104-derived Samba couldn’t save it. The 1979 energy crisis also depressed the car market and gravely affected Peugeot’s overall financial health.

The all-new Talbot flagship, the RWD Tagora, developed under Chrysler, entered a crowded market segment with little to offer. As expected, it was a total flop (20,000 sold from 1981 to 1984).

The all-new Talbot flagship, the RWD Tagora (CC here), developed under Chrysler, entered a crowded market segment with little to offer. As expected, it was a total flop (20,000 sold from 1981 to 1984).

The mid-engined, fiberglass-bodied three-seater Talbot-Matra Murena came out in 1981 to replace the Bagheera, but did not have an engine to match its abilities. After 1983, Matra partnered with Renault to make the Espace, which Peugeot showed no interest in.

The mid-engined, fiberglass-bodied Talbot-Matra Murena three-seater (1981-83) replaced the Bagheera, but did not have an engine to match its abilities. Matra then partnered with Renault to make the highly successful Espace, which Peugeot showed no interest in.

Bleeding money, Peugeot needed a miracle to save its bacon (the 205). They pulled out of the F1 game, closed some factories and gradually cut down the loss-making Talbot range from 1982 on, starting with the older RWD cars (Sunbeam, Avenger, 1610/2-litre) and the 1100 sedans and estates (though the 1100 van soldiered on until 1985).

By 1985, the British Talbot range was in its final throes and started to use old Rootes model names to rekindle interest in its ageing cars, such as this Talbot Alpine Minx, to no avail.

By 1985, the British Talbot range was in its final throes and started to use old Rootes model names to rekindle interest in its ageing cars, such as this Talbot Alpine Minx, to no avail.

Sales sank as the public’s confidence in the marque decreased in all markets, except in Spain, where Talbots were also manufactured and remained somewhat popular. By 1987, Talbot cars were no more again. But this being Talbot, one final humiliation was in store: the UK-only Talbot Express van carried the beleaguered Talbot badge until 1994.

The Express, a badge-engineered Fiat Ducato / Peugeot J5, was an ignominious curtain call for a historic brand. These were popular in Britain as camper vans; decent ones still command fairly high prices.

The Express, a badge-engineered Fiat Ducato / Peugeot J5, was an ignominious curtain call for a historic marque. These were popular in Britain as camper vans; decent ones still command fairly high prices.

Luxury and sports cars with locally-designed sixes, V8s and/or V12s are still being made in Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan, the US and, until pretty recently, Eastern Europe. France hasn’t had anything of the sort since the mid ‘50s, when Citroën, Hotchkiss and Talbot-Lago quit making their respective straight-sixes. The Simca V8 was really a Ford flathead; Facel-Végas used Chrysler V8s and BMC sixes; the Citroën SM was Maserati-powered. The only modern French six, the infamous PRV, has not really remedied this loss of prestige, notwithstanding its use on many platforms, including the dreaded Talbot Tagora.

Voilà! The Talbot name is now well and truly buried, again. Peugeot still owns the name, but seeing how the resurrection went in the ‘80s, there probably won’t be a Talbot car in the 21st century.