Until more recent times, French automakers tended to fall into two camps: “progressive” and “conservatives”. Citroën represented the left wing, with its avant garde FWD, aerodynamics and suspensions. Peugeot was the stolid conservative, developing a continuous evolution of its basic RWD architecture for many decades. Renault leaned left, but not as far as Citroën. In the 60s, Simca straddled the fence with three distinct platforms: Progressive FWD hatch ( Simca 1100), rear-engine (1000), and conventional RWD. We’ve covered the first two, so today we’ll take a look at the last of the three, a very conventional but attractive French sedan that likely will not be familiar to most of our American readers. But you’re hear to learn something new, Oui?
Simca (Société Industrielle de Mécanique et de Carrosserie Automobile) has a convoluted history, tracing its origins to SAFAF, Fiat’s agent in France, before moving into the local assembly of Fiats in 1928. In 1935 Simca was officially founded, jointly by Fiat and SAFAF to produce licensed versions of Fiats.
In 1954, Simca, though still majority owned by FIAT, purchased Ford of France’s operations at Poissy in Paris and by the end of the 1950s was ahead of Peugeot and Citroen in volume terms. In 1958 Chrysler bought into Simca, taking 15% (initially from Ford) rising to 77% by 1970, with FIAT taking a very passive role. Somewhere, someone on business school course will have submitted a thesis about a successful challenger brand gaining market share and new investment.
Much of Simca’s volume in the 1950s came from the Aronde (Swallow in old French, as echoed on the traditional SIMCA logo), which was the first Simca not be based directly on a Fiat. It was a strictly conventional saloon with typical styling for its times, showing some north American influences. Visually, nothing remarkable; indeed the whole car was much like a dozen other European saloons of the time. But it was very successful, targeting a niche that was not being exploited by the the other French makers: a conventional but stylish saloon, and one a bit cheaper than the Peugeot. The Aronde was also quite popular in the US during the 50s import boom.
The 1300 and 1500 of 1963, which replaced the Aronde, were sharp looking but technically conservative cars, with a rather Italian look, unlike the more US-inspired Aronde. In its general appearance and mechanical specifications, this could easily be an alternate-universe Fiat 1500. And quite a nice looking one, at that.
Except perhaps the tail, which is rather weak with those generic round tail-lights. Style wise, this represented a distinct difference to both the American influenced styles of similar cars from Britain or Germany (the Hillman Minx, Ford Cortina, Vauxhall Victor or Opel Rekord) and the surprisingly numerous Pininfarina designs, such as the BMC’s Austin Cambridge/Morris Oxford twins and Peugeot 404.
Simca offered a choice of 1.3 or 1.5 litre 4 cylinder engines with overhead valves, 4 speed gearbox (with a column change on LHD cars), live rear axle and, on the estate (known as a Break in France), a removable load area floor that doubled as a picnic table. The 1.3 litre was the old Aronde Rush unit but the 1.5 was a new engine. One interesting feature of the right hand drive cars was that although the gearchange was floor mounted, the layout was a reverse of the familiar format, with first gear right and forward, and fourth back and left.
In 1966, Simca updated the 1300 and 1500 to create the 1301 and 1501, in a manner very reminiscent to the change Triumph made to the 2000/2500 range 2 years later – a longer front and tail, but with the glasshouse, wheelbase and mechanical elements unchanged. The result in both cases was a more elegant car, with an emphasis on length. Cleverly, Simca achieved this using the same front wings (fenders) as before, lengthening only the bonnet. The rear was new, including another six inches of boot space and much more modern rear panel arrangement, and inside a new, more upmarket interior. Overall, a pretty good looking car had become a very good looking one, although the estate only gained the front end changes.
Changes thereafter were slight. Both versions got a typical weird 70s grille with additional driving lamps (so French – I love them!) in 1972 and the 1301 got the 1475cc engine as seen in the 1501. The last link with the Aronde was therefore gone.
Once the Chrysler takeover of Simca was complete in 1970, and the company named Chrysler France even if the cars were still sold as Simca, the future looked bright. An ambitious new owner, a UK partner, the Rootes group, whose product was mostly lagging behind Simca’s, and the country’s best seller and a plan for Simca’s products formed the basis of most of Chrysler Europe’s new cars.
Unfortunately for Simca, the ambitious new owner was unable to afford to fulfill its ambitions, as Chrysler soon ran into difficulties in its home market and didn’t have the capital or other resources to make its European venture truly competitive for the long haul. The first new product, the Chrysler-Simca 160/180 (Chrysler 180 in many parts of Europe) was not a success and by 1975, the UK side of the partnership was seeking government help, even as the new Simca 1307/1308 (known as the Chrysler Alpine in the UK) was winning European Car of the Year, and replacing the 1301/1501. It and the Horizon of 1978 were closely based on the Simca 1100 and were commercially successful, but even that was not enough to stop the company being sold to Peugeot-Citroen in 1978. Chrysler’s 1970s brush with bankruptcy saw to that, as well as the great weaknesses of Chrysler in the UK.
The remaining cars were re-branded as Talbot and within 10 years all evidence of the Simca name and models had gone. Some of the engines survived in some Peugeot models, such as the 309, and to this day the Poissy plant is a major Peugeot production facility.
I saw the featured car, an early 1301, on a recent trip to south west France, and it was the only Simca I saw in four days, apart from a Simca 1000 Coupe, which is coming to CC, soon. It has clearly been where it is for some time, but one does have the sense that a new battery and can of petrol would soon have it moving. Simca’s spirit and history suggest it deserves to.