Well, it cannot be put off any longer: we’re finally coming to the Simca saga. This edition of French Deadly Sins will attempt to untangle one of the most complex automotive clusterfucks ever devised by modern man. Tomorrow, we will (re-)visit the ancient Talbot marque, which was famously resurrected to replace Simca, only to fade away again. And then, we’ll look into the whole Matra side of things – another genealogical headache. But let’s kick off with the meat-and-potatoes: What happened to Simca?
The lead character in our Simca story is “Henri-Théodore” Pigozzi. Born in 1898 as Enrico Teodoro, Pigozzi arrived in Paris in 1922. Pigozzi wasn’t an immigrant per se. He was more of an expat, sent by Fiat to find sources of scrap metal for the Turin factories. Pigozzi was a Fiat man through and through. And he noticed there were a number of Fiats on French roads. They were imported, but tariffs on imports made them less competitive than if they were assembled locally. The 26-year-old Pigozzi persuaded Fiat that he was the man to do it. He rented a small factory and CKD kits were sent over from Turin – subject to a much lower tariff, naturally.
The operation was an immediate success: almost 30,000 cars were sold in the first 20 months. In 1926, Pigozzi was officially made CEO of Fiat-France, even as a bigger factory was bought in Suresnes, just west of Paris. This area was quite the French Motown at the time: only Berliet, Bugatti, Mathis and Peugeot were based out in the provinces.
The CKD operation had its limits, though. Custom duties on spare parts were increased in 1930, and Fiat were keenly aware that this hamstrung their efforts in France. Pigozzi’s solution was to increase locally-sourced content: by 1933, the French Fiat 508 Balilla was 100% made in Suresnes. The second step was to create a new company, the “Industrial Company for Automobile Bodies and Mechanicals” or Société industrielle de mécanique et de carrosserie automobile (SIMCA, pronounced “Seem-kah”), in late 1934. The cars proposed by Simca-Fiat, as the business was known initially, were virtually identical to the 1-litre Fiat 508 Balilla and 2-litre 518 Ardita.
The issue of production capacity soon became evident. The Simcas were too expensive because they were not produced on a modern assembly line. But this was the heart of the Depression and Automakers were going bust left and right. Jérôme Donnet, who had just built a huge factory in Nanterre, declared bankruptcy in the last weeks of 1934, around the same time as André Citroën.
While Michelin took over Citroën, Simca-Fiat acquired the state-of-the-art Nanterre factory, but ditched the Donnet range. Pigozzi was, at age 36, at the helm of one of the biggest operations in the Parisian auto-belt. All he needed now was a smaller car than the 11CV that was the marque’s mainstay up to now: that segment was getting far too crowded for comfort (see: Berliet).
The tiny Fiat Topolino, known as the Simca 5, arrived in 1936, soon followed by the Fiat 1100 (Simca 8). The cars became plain “Simca” after 1937, but the designs were just as Fiat as before. Simca’s strategy was to increase volume as much as possible, and the 5 and 8 were perfect for the French motorist of the late ‘30s.
The dark war and German occupation years were tough on a man like Pigozzi, who was viewed with suspicion by all sides: an Italian citizen, he was de facto under the protection of the occupant. But he was not too cooperative and kept well-placed friends on the French side of the equation. As a citizen from an enemy country, Pigozzi necessarily went through a bumpy ride after the Allies liberated Paris in August 1944.
After couple of years in legal limbo, Pigozzi managed to regain control of his creation. He promptly kicked out J.A. Grégoire (See: Hotchkiss and Panhard) and his front-drive follies and resumed production of the 5 and 8.
Simca’s first “non-Fiat” design was a Nanterre-made restyle of the Topolino called the Simca Six. Displayed in 1947 but not really produced until 1949, it was Simca’s first taste of failure. The car was too small for its segment, competing against 4-door saloons like the Citroën 2CV, Panhard Dyna X and Renault 4CV. Simca killed off their little car range in 1951, focusing instead – from now until the end, really – on the “standard 1200cc family car.” The only real competition in this segment was Peugeot, so this promised to be a juicy money-maker.
Work on the new mid-range Simca began in 1946 and was entirely undertaken in Turin, alongside the Fiat 1400. Pigozzi wanted a slightly smaller 1300cc car, with its own look, though it still used the Fiat 1400’s monocoque body. The Simca 9 Aronde, one of the marque’s iconic models, arrived in late 1951 and was an immediate and prolonged hit, taking Simca to stratospheric heights.
Pigozzi was careful to also provide Simca with a halo car. The Simca Sport, a Farina design that was also seen on early Ferraris, was included in the range in 1948. The body was built in France by the famous Facel firm and mated to a Simca 8 1200 chassis. That was upgraded to the 1300cc engine in 1951.
Simca Sport production was entrusted to a new but promising player in the field. Facel CEO and chief designer Jean Daninos provided several iterations of the deluxe Simcas, which were easily the carmaker’s most luxurious product to date. Until the closing weeks of 1954, that is…
In another display of excellent business acumen, Pigozzi negotiated the acquisition of Ford’s French branch (Ford SAF), along with its modern and massive Poissy factory, as well as a range of V8-powered cars and trucks. The American-designed Vedette began to bear Simca badges in early 1955, giving Simca a ready-made executive range and the only 8-cyl. car made in France – and eventually, in Brazil. The Simca V8 story is worth a whole post to itself, which fortunately exists already.
Having the Aronde and the Vedette meant that Simca’s production volume (around 200,000 cars per year) exceeded Peugeot’s, and Poissy – Simca’s largest factory by far – could be harnessed to potentially double that number. Once truck-makers Unic and Saurer were purchased in 1955-56, combined car and truck production at Simca was at times higher than even Citroën.
The Aronde kept being refreshed every couple of years, and now included 2-door variants: a splendid hardtop coupé and a handy wagon. And if you didn’t fancy a factory-made one, there were options out there…
There were also quite a few coachbuilt specials made in those days. Pigozzi was close to his compatriot Joseph Figoni, whose last custom bodies were made on Simca chassis. But there were others too – Simca was now a major player on the European scene.
Simca’s ownership had evolved to include a few French and Swiss investors, as well as Ford, but Fiat kept a controlling share. In 1958, Ford and some of the smaller investors sold their Simca shares to Chrysler, who wanted to have a foothold in Europe like the other Big Two. Always seeking extra factory space, Pigozzi purchased his old neighbour and compatriot Antoine Lago’s Talbot works in the summer of 1958.
At that precise time, a strange episode took place at Poissy. The Aronde’s latest facelift was about to be unveiled, and the firm’s production managers took it upon themselves to start a pre-series of 700 cars. When he discovered the cars in August 1958, Pigozzi flew into an almighty rage. He hadn’t given the design his final personal green light, and he absolutely hated it. Assembly was immediately halted and the cars, all finished in black, were parked in Bacalan, near Bordeaux. Most were discreetly exported to the Eastern Bloc (especially Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany) in 1959 – the Simca that went to the cold…
The Pigozzi-approved P60 facelift was presented a bit later, but that was to be the Aronde’s last. The key to success was necessarily going to involve a new small car, which Fiat engineering and Chrysler money would facilitate.
The Simca 1000, a 1-litre rear-engined 4-door saloon, was launched in 1961. Perhaps it was not the wisest choice in terms of layout in retrospect, but at the time, the rear-engine solution still had its appeal – especially over at Fiat.
The 1000 sprouted a handsome Bertone coupé variant in 1963, taking over from the old generation Simca Sport. That Italian connection remained strong… But the little 1000 had a lot of sporting potential, for those who cared to look for it.
Carlo Abarth did just that: in late 1962, he began importing Simca 1000 floorpans and started a series of Abarth-Simca specials, packing an Abarth engine in the tail and draping the whole with a stylish lightweight body. Choices included a 1.3, a 1.6 and a 2-litre – the last of which was really in the same realm as the Porsche Carrera.
These were outrageously expensive and blindingly quick (200 to 230 kph), making them the only genuine sports cars ever associated with the name Simca before the tie-up with Matra. They were certainly the fastest street Simcas ever – though altogether only a couple of hundred were made until 1965.
The bigger headache was the replacement of the rest of the range. Simca had created the Ariane in 1957 by marrying the Aronde’s engine with the Vedette’s pre-facelift body – a roomy family car ensued, much cheaper than the V8-powered models. The model sold very well. Plus, Simca bought the iconic G7 taxi company in Paris around this time, making the Ariane a must-have with that profession for years. The V8 cars were allowed to die off in 1961 without a successor; the Ariane retired in 1963.
By this point in time, the Aronde had had its day as well, at least in terms of looks. Simca and Fiat worked on a completely new bodyshell, longer and wider to match the Ariane’s measurments, but kept the Aronde’s suspension and engine pretty much untouched, with the exception of a new 1.5 litre version. The Simca 1300/1500 was launched in 1963, amidst tempestuous changes within the company.
Fiat sold a majority of their Simca shares to Chrysler in late 1962, giving the Americans 65% of Simca’s automobile branch. But Chrysler soon realized they had been duped: Pigozzi had split Simca’s car-making and truck branches, the latter being called Simca Industries, in 1960. Simca Industries also included the group’s forges, the Nanterre plant and several subsidiaries. Pigozzi (and Fiat) remained in control of that side of the business, which was essential to the whole. This meant that Chrysler were forced to buy components and spares from Simca Industries, at least for the meantime. Pigozzi was fired from his post as CEO in May 1963 and replaced by former Sud-Aviation boss Georges Héreil.
Henri-Théodore Pigozzi – alias Monsieur Simca – died of a heart attack in 1964. Simca Industries, which was also distributor of Fiat cars in France, kept producing trucks under the Unic marque for decades and became one of the largest car importers in the country, even as Neckar deserted the field. Chrysler’s buying spree continued, as the American giant took over Rootes in the UK and Barreiros in Spain.
On the new car front, work had been pressing ahead on a completely new design, in the works since about 1961. A sketch by a young Robert Opron, then working at Simca’s small styling studio, had caught the eye of Fiat designers, and the idea blossomed into a completely new car. The Simca 1100’s handsome hatchback design was refined and mated to an all-new transverse-engined FWD platform – all very modern for the time.
Chrysler initially balked at the model’s technically more complex solutions, but the Simca designers won them over. Launched in 1967, the Simca 1100 became a huge hit throughout Europe (though it bombed badly in the US).
Chrysler figured that the French were competent enough for the compact segment, but not the executive one. A form of internal competition within Chrysler Europe was taking place in the second half of the ‘60s, pitting the Simca “Projet 929” against the Rootes boys’ efforts. The Brits wore or less won the whole deal – they did have much more expertise in big cars than Simca did – and the new “big” Chrysler Europe car went ahead.
The result, unveiled in 1970, was the Chrysler 160/180. It was not badged as a Simca or a Humber, hoping instead to reap the benefits of the “magic” of the Chrysler name. That was Chrysler’s view of it, anyway. Chrysler even conjured up a 6-cyl. version for the Australian market, the infamous Centura.
In Europe, it was available with a choice of 1.6, 1.8, and later 2-litre Simca 4-cyl. engines, which were deemed quite adequate. At issue were the 160/180’s bland styling, rather derivative and Detroit-esque, courtesy of Roy Axe, the man behind the Hillman Hunter and Avenger. The Chrysler 180 fit well into Rootes’ range, but seemed a bit lost above Simca’s. The car’s conservative underpinnings and somewhat bastardized nature did not help, either.
Two other important events took place in 1970 for Simca. One was the Matra deal, inked in December 1969. The upstart marque, which was a defense contractor before buying out René Bonnet, brought massive amounts of racing cred to Simca, as well as a daring GRP-bodied coupé, the Matra M530. It was an interesting machine, but used a Ford engine. Matra were quick to develop its successor, the 1973 Matra-Simca Bagheera. This became a new line for Simca: mid-engined coupés, using the same 1.3 as found on the marque’s rear-engined, RWD and FWD saloons. Simca tried to spin that into a good thing…
The Matra joint-venture also meant that Simca’s partners Chappe & Gessalin were put into an uncomfortable position. Chappe & Gessalin had developed their own GRP-bodied Simca-engined sports car, the CG marque, which had been available via Simca dealers since late 1967. The CG became somewhat superfluous after 1970, yet carried on for another three seasons, its sales eroded down to a few dozen cars by 1973. The Matra-Simca Begheera took over that year and the CG marque died out.
Also, from January 1st 1970, the company was officially renamed “Chrysler France,” as part of Chrysler’s grand European plan. This meant the Pentastar replaced every Simca swallow emblem on the many Simca showrooms in France and abroad, but very little else. The Simca name was far too entrenched to disappear from the cars themselves, or from the ads. At most, a discreet pentastar logo was added to the wing or the dashboard. Only the Chrysler-branded cars had them on the grille – at least, initially.
Barreiros, who mostly manufactured Dodge trucks but also a few Darts, had become “Chrysler España” and began to assemble some Simca models for the local market. Chrysler UK’s remains could also now be distributed through Barreiros and Simca, though few people were tempted. But whereas the Rootes brands were already on borrowed time, it seemed that the Simca marque was here to stay.
The RWD 1301/1501 range was getting mighty long in the tooth, but kept a loyal fan-base – especially in Benelux and Germany, for some reason. The 1501 saloon disappeared from the French range in 1970 to make room for the Chrysler 160, but returned in 1974 when it became clear the big Chrysler was a failure.
On the more bread-and-butter saloon front, the Simca range in the first half of the ‘70s was ageing gracefully, but still ageing. The little 1000, like its adopted cousin the Hillman Imp, was on the production line for eons. By the end, with its square headlamps and plastic faux-grille, it had changed beyond recognition…
The FWD 1100 was Simca’s strongest seller by a mile, impervious to the Oil Shock and still fresh thanks to its hatchback, as well as its successful utility versions. The 1100 was in the ‘70s what the Aronde had been in the ‘50s: the ubiquitous Simca, with that distinctive tappetty engine note. Other models were rather second-fiddle.
The integration of Chrysler Europe’s disparate British, French and Spanish components was starting to work better, though. The proof of that was the Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308, which debuted in late 1975 and was elected European Car of the Year for 1976 – finally killing off the venerable 1301/1501. The 1307/1308 featured an airy British-designed hatchback body, FWD and polymer bumpers. The car was an immediate hit, but in fact Simca were only barely keeping up with the Joneses. Ever since Peugeot and Citroën started broadening their range in the ‘60s, Simca was permanently the smallest of the four main French automakers; their market share continued to slip.
In the UK, the 1307/1308 was marketed as the Chrysler Alpine. I am indebted to CC contributor Yohdai71 for his recommendation of a series of ‘70s British automobile reports, made by Thames TV. It’s just five minutes – well worth your while. And it hints at the fact that, by in 1976, things were looking rotten in the kingdom of Mopar. Chrysler had a big enough headache with the remains of Rootes, but now that Simca’s health was ailing also, the game was more or less up. In fact, given the state of Chrysler overall, it would take major miracle (or some sort of merger) for Mopar to continue existing at all.
Nevertheless, the Horizon was introduced in November 1977 and got rave reviews. It was a new kind of Chrysler – their first true worldwide compact, to be built and sold on both sides of the Atlantic and across most of the corporation’s marques: a Simca in France and Spain, the Horizon was a Chrysler in Britain and a Dodge or Plymouth in the States. Another one with an identity crisis…
Model Year 1978 was the rear-engined Simca 1000’s last. The 1100, now over ten years old, took over as the cheapest car of the range, but it was clearly on its last legs. So few 180/2-litre Chrysler saloons were being sold (about 11,000 made that year) that the whole line had been moved to Barreiros, as the car had a small following there. On the British side, the Imp was already dead, soon to be followed by the Hunter, the Avenger barely hanging on and the new Sunbeam was already flaming out. Despite the British government’s generosity, Chrysler’s bean-counters were seeing red everywhere.
The small circle of decision-makers on the European automotive scene knew that Chrysler’s life was in jeopardy. Talks with Peugeot had started since 1976, but the recent merger with Citroën had slowed things down. And both sides were trying to finagle the best deal possible, naturally. When the deal was announced in August 1978, no money changed hands.
Well, Peugeot officially paid Chrysler US$1 for Simca, Rootes and everything else, which included US$400m in debts. In actuality, Peugeot also paid US$230m in cash and gave Chrysler a 15% stake in PSA, as the Peugeot-Citroën-Talbot conglomerate became known. Chrysler even borrowed US$100m from PSA against that in 1980.
Peugeot found themselves without cash and with a highly indebted collection of factories across three countries, whose fast ageing output was pretty similar PSA’s own. Simca still had a relatively good image on the Continent, but it was deemed impossible to rebadge the Chrysler UK cars as Simcas. The marque simply did not have enough chops for the Great British market. Somebody at PSA realized that Simca and Rootes both owned the Talbot name, so the decision was made to lose both Chrysler and Simca in favour of Talbot, starting from Model Year 1980.
And so Simca passed away in the summer of 1979. At least in theory – in practice, some 1980-81 cars still had Simca badges on the rear and Talbot on the front. Whatever the actual date of its demise, the Simca name was unceremoniously dumped on the ash-heap of automotive history. However, none of the Simca-branded cars really qualify as a Deadly Sin – some were more successful than others, but they were all competent enough. Unlike, say, the Rootes side of the equation. On the Dodge side, PSA found a way to recoup some of their losses by selling off the truck line to Renault.
This meant the immediate disappearance of the Karrier and Commer nameplates, but Chrysler UK also sold trucks under the Dodge, DeSoto and Fargo brands. Renault thought about this for a bit and actually elected to keep the Dodge name on the grille, but badge it as a Renault. This lunacy went on for several years.
But back to the car side. The Chrysler 180/2-litres sold rather poorly, but critically, it was badged and marketed as a Chrysler (until that name was ditched for 1979-80). And it was just one of a wide range of Chrysler-France cars – the other ones, Matra included, still sold ok. Simca lost ground mostly due to the gradual growth of imports. France became one of the biggest Fiat importers in the world in the ‘70s, which didn’t help…
Simca’s eroding market share was cause for concern, but not execution. The main problem was Simca’s profitability, which wasn’t very high at the best of times. Having a range composed of FWD, RWD, mid-engined and rear-engined cars was not necessarily a problem for Fiat, but for a much smaller operation like Simca, that was perhaps a fatal flaw. Chrysler were stuck with this inheritance (and a similar one across the Channel called the Hillman Imp) but took years to act. Simca had a small FWD 4-door ready to replace the 1000 just about ready by 1968, but it remained a prototype. It could have taken on the Renault 5. But no, the rear-engined cars went on, and slipped ever lower in the rankings.
And there were plainly a lot of political and national pride issues at play. While Simca had managed to climb these dizzying heights, they did so with Fiat’s technical and financial backing. Pigozzi, seen by his peers, his staff and his partners as a mercurial and manipulative man, kept Simca in relative isolation within the French automotive landscape. Pigozzi was famously mistrusted by De Gaulle, who knew Simca’s size made it a key industrial asset, but its ownership was a source of permanent tension.
Fiat was replaced by Chrysler and the isolation only increased: Simca became an American Trojan horse, an even worse threat to deal with than the Italians. Simca, for Peugeot-Citroën’s top brass, was all that and more, it was the acronym of a relentless, brilliant, dynamic and at times daring competitor that had plagued them since the ‘30s.
And in the final analysis, Simca was just an avatar of Fiat that went rogue. Fiat created many – Autobianchi, FSO, Neckar, Zastava and, in a roundabout way, Steyr-Puch and Premier. Notice how they’re all dead now? Simca was a creature of Fiat, and they died like a creature of Fiat: without much regret, but also without Deadly Sin.
That will not be the case for tomorrow’s post, though. See you then.
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European Deadly Sins series