The “revival” of Talbot did not last very long (1980-1987) and engendered precious few new models. Most Talbots were legacy cars of the ex-Chrysler Europe empire, i.e. Simca and Rootes. Aside from the ill-fated Tagora and the Matra Murena, Talbot did create one new car during their short renaissance that initially sold quite well, the Samba. Let’s take a look at that missed opportunity in more detail.
Just a quickie refresher for anyone wondering what Talbot was: it was originally a British-made French car, which later got split either side of the Channel. The French side was bought by Simca in 1959, while the British side was killed off by Rootes in 1955. Both Simca and Rootes were then bought by Chrysler, which proceeded to scuttle its short-lived European empire through mismanagement, underfunding and tough luck, only to sell the whole Anglo-French (and Spanish) affair to Peugeot in 1978. Peugeot rebadged nearly all the models as Talbots by 1980. For a more detailed history of the British side, read this; for more on the French side, read this.
In 1978, superminis accounted for about a third of car sales in Europe. The likes of the Renault 5, the Volkswagen Polo, the Fiat 127, the Ford Fiesta or the BL Mini were making a killing. Chrysler Europe’s offerings in this segment were somewhat lackluster: the Simca 1100, which debuted back in 1967, and the Chrysler Sunbeam, whose antique RWD platform screamed “stopgap”. The new Horizon was to way to go, so Chrysler’s product planners chopped a few inches (and the rear doors) off one to see if that did the trick. Unfortunately, that’s as far as this experiment went: Chrysler could not afford the development costs. Peugeot came to the rescue and ditched the whole idea.
Indeed, Peugeot had a supermini of their very own since 1972, the 104. It came in two distinct flavours (and wheelbases): the four-door saloon and the tiny “104 Z” hatchback coupé. Using the 104 was already well-trodden ground for Peugeot. When they rescued Citroën in 1975, Peugeot’s first move was to create the Citroën LN – essentially a 104 Z with an Ami 8 flat-twin. In 1978 came the Citroën Visa, a 104 saloon platform with a Citroën body and a choice of either Peugeot’s 4-cyl. or a 650cc Citroën twin. Neither model exactly broke any sales records (though the Visa eventually found its clientele, once it had a bit of a facelift), but they allowed Citroën to be present in an essential segment with a modern product quickly and for relatively little cost. Now that Peugeot had ex-Chrysler plants in three countries to keep busy, the 104 platform would do just fine.
Talbot were still semi-autonomous when the Samba programme was undertaken. As such, Talbot engineers figured that the 104 Z platform was too small for the car they wanted, so they lengthened it a bit. They were also determined to avoid the Citroën LN’s pitfall – too obvious a clone – and shoot for as much Talbot sheetmetal as they could. In the end, the 104 gave its front door frames (but not its outer skin), as well as its hood and hatch. The rest of the car was Talbot-only, and the car’s family resemblance with the rest of the range was carefully crafted. Engine-wise, the capable but heavy (and noisy) Simca plants were not part of the package. The Samba ended up with the 104’s all-alloy OHC 4-cyl. in either 1124cc (50 hp DIN) or 1360cc (72 hp DIN) form, with a 4-speed manual for the former and a 5-speed for the latter.
The Talbot Samba was launched at the Paris Motor Show in October 1981. After the previous year’s ill-fated Tagora and the not-so-new Solara, it was the first completely new Talbot made under Peugeot’s auspices. And the last, as it turned out. The range consisted in three trim levels: the standard LS and the better-equipped GL had the 1.1 litre engine; the GLS appeared in early 1982 with the 1.3.
And in the spring of 1982, a surprise beckoned: Peugeot had co-opted their old partner-in-crime, Pininfarina, to design a Samba cabriolet. This was an unexpected – and welcome – addition to the Talbot range, heretofore devoid of ragtops. As the 1982 model year came to a close, the numbers seemed to indicate that the Samba was a big hit: about 120,000 units had been shifted. The cabriolet had its moment in the sun, too: for a while, it became a must-have on the Côte d’Azur when the Aston Martin was in the shop. The future seemed bright, but storm clouds were already gathering.
The problem wasn’t so much the Samba itself as the Talbot range and marque. The range consisted in rebadged Simcas that were looking stale (except the Horizon), as well as a range-topping Tagora that, while new, was a complete bomb. On top of that, the Poissy plant suddenly became a hotbed of industrial action in the summer of 1982. Strikes there were marked by previously unseen levels of violence, which carried on into 1983-84, exacerbated by the economic downturn France experienced at the time.
Talbot sales dipped in 1983 – including the Samba, which barely registered 80,000 sales. That autumn, the Peugeot 205 debuted, and the Samba became old-fashioned overnight. A panicked Talbot tried to rekindle some of the old Simca magic by proposing the Samba Rallye, with a 90 hp engine and go-faster decals, as well as the Sympa limited edition (our CC).
This “Sympa” was merely a Samba GL with colour-coded stripes, seat piping, inside trim and wheels, along with a sunroof. Yellow ones such as our CC were the most common, but there were also blue and red ones for the 1984 model year. This was all for naught as Samba registrations for that year went down to the 40,000 mark. Peugeot knew by now that Talbot was a lost cause. The Tagora was already consigned to the dustbin of history along with the Matra contract, but the rest of the range (Samba, Horizon, 1510, Solara, 1100 van) soldiered on to 1985, with predictably dire results. The Samba declined to less than 20,000 units that year and under 7000 the next; the plug was mercifully pulled at that point. The last Talbots were made in Spain (mostly Horizons) in 1987.
Talbot did not sink without a trace, though. The Horizon replacement (tentatively dubbed Talbot Arizona) became the Peugeot 309. A revamped supermini (above) was also in the works, which was recycled as the Citroën AX. Of all the Talbot cars of the ‘80s, the Samba was doubtless the most successful and long-lasting on the curbsides of Britain, France and Spain.
Automotive journos at the time described the Talbot Samba as the best version of the Peugeot 104. It managed to eschew the Citroën Visa’s unhelpful weirdness, the Citroën LN’s image and performance issues and the Peugeot 104’s staid and dated looks. The fact remains that the Samba was based on a ten-year-old platform that was never noted for its dynamism. In a highly competitive segment that now included an increasing onslaught of Japanese FWD hatchbacks, the little Talbot was a modest one-year wonder, tragically undercut by events and by its parent company’s launch of the supermini par excellence, the 205.