In yesterday’s post on the recent International Simca-Matra-Talbot Rally held in southern England, we saw the progression of Matra’s heritage from its sports cars of the ’60s to the Renault Avantime luxury MPV. This report will focus on Simcas, and the company’s path to becoming the dominant partner in Chrysler Europe. Many of these cars deserve the full CC review but here’s a taster of the show, and the Chrysler Europe story.
Chrysler Europe was a combination of the British Rootes group (Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam and Dodge trucks), the French Simca Company and the Spanish Barreiros, a builder of trucks and diesel engines and an assembler of US Chrysler products for the Spanish market. Simca had steadily grown in independent capability, progressing from building Fiats under licence to buying Ford’s French operations and subsequently becoming a true all-round manufacturer.
The earliest cars on display were the Simca Vedette, a large (for Europe) four door saloon inherited by Simca when the Ford’s French operations were purchased in 1954. The new 1954 Vedette had a much more contemporary style and the option of a 2.3 litre side-valve V8, derived from the baby flathead Ford V8-60 engine, as well as a three-speed gearbox with a column shift and live rear axle.
In 1957, Simca significantly updated the Vedette, with a longer body, bolder grille and ubiquitous tailfins. The older car continued with the 1.3 litre engine from the smaller Aronde, under the name Ariane and car went on to have long life, being further facelifted and produced in Brazil as the Simca (later Chrysler) Esplanada, until 1969.
Simca’s first independent product, not based on a Fiat design or inherited from Ford, was the Aronde, manufactured from 1951 to 1964 in various guises. (PN’s CC here)
The first cars are distinguished by the large central element of the grille, looking a little like the central third headlamp fitted to early Rover P4 saloons.
The black car is a 1955 Grand Large Coupe, with a three–piece wraparound window and pillarless side window arrangement.
Later cars gained a revised roofline, larger windscreen and slightly calmer body styling creases, as well as larger engines and a range of trim packages as options, such as the Montlhery shown here. The plot clearly worked–by the end of the 1950s, Simca was France’s second best-selling brand.
From 1957, to the end of Aronde production in 1962, Simca offered a Coupe and Convertible version of the car, built around the same principle mechanical elements and bodies by Facel. Rather confusingly, the Coupe was called the Plein Ciel, or Open Air, and the Convertible as the Océane.
There were the inevitable range of changes over the years, but the essential elegance of the car shines right through continually.
Although it was a two-seater, it is easier to think of it as Sunbeam Rapier competitor rather an Sunbeam Alpine or MGB alternative.
Simca broadened out into the small car market in 1961, with the rear-engined Simca 1000, or Simca Mille in French, saloon. (CC here) This was compact (even by European standards) and was developed from a concept Fiat had outlined to replace the Fiat 600, but which was offered to Simca’s Directeur-General Henri Pigozzi by Giovanni Agnelli. At the time, of course, Fiat was still a large but not controlling shareholder in Simca, so this was not necessarily surprising.
The concept was like similar many cars of its time, ranging from various Fiats to the Hillman Imp, the Renault 4CV and of course the Beetle. Engine at the back, small boot in the front, compact four-seat cabin and in the case of the Simca, some right-the-first-time (maybe Corvair inspired?) styling.
Simca developed the car gently over the following years, with a sequence of front grilles (for a rear engine car!) and ultimately, performance-oriented Rallye versions. The Rallye concept of a high performance, compact car, matching closely to the Mini Cooper, was carried on by Peugeot with the later 106, 205 and 306 Rallye variants into the 1990s.
Simca also produced the 1000 Coupe, which may be the one of the most attractive rear-engine sports coupes ever. The styling was actually by Giorgetto Giugiaro, whilst he was at Bertone, and the car evolved to have a 1200cc engine and 109 mph capability, moving it from being a Fiat 850 Coupe competitor towards being more of a match to the Renault Caravelle and Floride.
Simca’s next larger car was the 1100, an unassuming and low profile car that deserves greater recognition as being the template for the mid-size hatchback, with a transverse engine with “end-on” gearbox within a five-door hatchback body. It has been covered well on CC previously, but one more view of the distinctive rear end is always worth sharing.
And have you seen one with a bonnet and grille like this mock up? It had been prepared by a French owner as an homage to British car stylists; what if Rootes had adopted the Simca 1100 in 1969?
CC recently looked at the Simca 1301 and 1501, the replacement for the Aronde.
Beaulieu did not disappoint in the selection offered, with first and second series cars in evidence, including this pristine and atmospheric (far left) example, complete with recorded French music broadcasts from 1966.
The 1501 was also offered as an estate, and was perhaps the last European estate (rather than SUV) to have a 2 piece split tailgate. There is something appealing about this example–what I call the “patina of authenticity” .
To many people outside the organisation, Chrysler Europe first came to public notice in 1970, when the first car badged as a Chrysler was marketed in Europe. The Chrysler 180 was a perfectly conventional, but contemporary, 1.8 litre saloon, aimed at the Opel Rekord, Peugeot 504, Fiat 125 and maybe even the BMW1800 saloon. It fell between the Ford Cortina and Zephyr in size, in the same way that the Vauxhall Victor FD did, and in many ways was a very similar car to the Victor.
It was essentially a British-developed car, but with a Simca engine. The car replaced the Simca 1501 in France and Europe, and extended the Chrysler UK offering upmarket, into a section of the market in which Rootes had not participated since the Humber Hawk was discontinued in 1967. Indeed, Rootes’s original plan had included a 2.5 litre V6 version of the car, which was stillborn.
Europe also got a 1.6 litre version, known as the Chrysler 160 and in 1972 there was a 2 litre version, known as the Chrysler 2Litre, offered exclusively with a vinyl roof and Borg-Warner 3 speed automatic. With the exception of Spain, where it was a popular taxi, it bombed. There are only three (180 and 2 litre combined) still registered in Britain, so to see two cars from the Czech Republic was quite special. After all, the first car I moved under power and solely under my control was my father’s 2-Litre. Děkuji vám, že jste svůj vůz v České Republict!
The next Chrysler Europe product was a lot more successful, though–the 1975 Chrysler Alpine, known as Simca 1307 and 1308 in France and most of western Europe. This was a hatchback, essentially a lengthened Simca 1100 with larger engine, either 1.3 or 1.45 litre options, very sharply styled by a UK team led by Roy Axe. Personally, I think it has aged very well, and certainly better than several other contemporaneous designs (for example, the Renault 18 or several Japanese competitors), and it was one of the first cars to have the plastic bumper/valance assembly we now take for granted.
By the standards of the British family car market of 1975, this was clearly one of the better products available, with the stylish, flexible and comfortable interior, pretty decent handling and sound economy. For the engine size, it was fairly powerful, if a bit noisy (the tappet adjustment lasted only a few months each time) and the driving position slightly cramped by the low roof height and consequent low-mounted steering column.
This car was good enough for something else–the offer by Chrysler to assemble it in Britain was enough for the British government to give Chrysler UK £125m (say $1400m now) of grant aid to keep the UK facilities open, and fund the development of the Hillman Avenger-based Chrysler Sunbeam hatchback.
The car had a good reception on the market, selling very strongly initially, and winning (European) Car of the Year in 1976.
The Alpine was facelifted in 1980, with new headlights and grille, and the much-needed option of a 1.6 litre engine and five-speed gearbox. The range was expanded by the addition of the Talbot Solara saloon version at the same time, in a range that matched the Alpine.
By 1983, Talbot (as Peugeot had rebranded all the European operations purchased from Chrysler in 1978) were trying many ways to get business, one of which was to append (in the UK at least) old Rootes model names to the Alpine and Solara. So the basic models were the Alpine and Solara Minx and upmarket variants were Rapiers. The Alpine is now a very rare sight on the UK’s roads, and indeed across Europe, largely because of corrosion–the number left in the UK is probably well under 100.
There was, of course, one last variant of the Simca 1100 that will be recognised across North America. The Chrysler Horizon was arguably one of the first US-European scale world cars, ahead of the 1980 Ford Escort and the Cavalier (Chevrolet or Vauxhall J-car of 1981).
Actually, whilst there were many common features, there were many that were market specific, like everything under the body from engine to transmission and suspension, as well as major elements of the interior and the expected trim differences. Paul has highlighted many of these in his CC of the Omnirizon. I have to say though, that I suspect the appearance of the European version is closer to that originally planned by Roy Axe than the rather fussy American versions, largely due to the required 5 mph bumpers.
The Horizon was initially produced at the Simca factory in Poissy, in Paris, but UK production started at the former Rootes factory in Coventry in 1980, and also in Spain, where mostly diesel engined variants were built.
Like the Alpine two years earlier, the Horizon had a great start in the market and won (European) Car of the Year in 1976. However, the failure of Chrysler Europe in 1978 and the subsequent branding changes, some basic deficiencies in the car, such as very heavy steering, some odd ergonomics and increasing and improving competition showed its age.
And final the new Talbot was the Samba supermini, based very closely on the Peugeot 104Z, and built mostly in a three door format. To add a bit of glamour to the image of the Talbot range, a Cabriolet was also offered, with a convertible roof engineered by Pininfarina, who were long established as Peugeot’s specialist of choice for such cars. From 1982 to 1984, 13,000 were built, with the majority sold in France where it became a cult hit with the young and glamorous in Paris.
The Talbot name died in 1986 with the end of the Horizon and Samba, and to many people, Simca and Rootes died then as well, although the Horizon’s Simca engines endured to 1991 in the Horizon-based Peugeot 309. Peugeot continued production at Coventry until 2006, producing Peugeot 306, 307 and 206 models for the UK and some other European markets, and the Simca factory at Poissy is still going strong, for PSA Peugeot-Citroen.