[ First Published on 31 August 2016; revised, chopped up, re-upholstered and much augmented in May 2019. ]
In the UK and France, many cars were produced as Talbots throughout the 20th century. (And yes, it really follows from yesterday’s Simca episode, so read that one first, if you haven’t already.) So, what image does the name “Talbot” conjure up for you? Stylish British drop-top? Swoopy French streamliner? Blue grand prix car? Unloved ‘80s econobox? All of the above?
It’s difficult to be more blue-blooded than Talbot. It was founded in 1903 by *holds breath* Major Sir Charles Henry John Chetwynd-Talbot, 20th Earl of Shrewsbury, 20th Earl of Waterford, 5th Earl Talbot, 5th Viscount of Ingestre, 5th Baron Dynevor, KCVO. So Charlie here began a joint-venture with French car-maker Adolphe Clément to produce Clément-Talbots in Britain. In 1920, Clément-Talbot joined forces with Darracq, a British-controlled carmaker located near Paris, and Wolverhampton-based Sunbeam to form the ill-fated (and ill-sounding) Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq (STD) conglomerate.
Little effort was made to rationalize production: French-built Talbot-Darracqs (just called Talbot after 1922), British Talbots and Sunbeams were completely different cars. This quickly became an issue, given that Talbot name worked just as well in French. There were now two completely different Talbots on either side of the English Channel.
The solution: the French cars usually went as Darracq in British-dominated markets, and Sunbeams usually dropped the “Talbot” on some of their Continental markets. Both Talbot logos were graphically unrelated and usually stated the car’s provenance (“London” versus “Paris” or “Suresnes”). This odd arrangement continued even in the post-war years. In the ’50s, some French cars were also badged as “Lago” in some markets, also for copyright reasons. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
That case of STD turned septic and the conglomerate collapsed in 1934. The British assets were bought by Rootes; “Talbot-London” cars were soon merged with Sunbeam, creating Sunbeam-Talbot. For some reason, Rootes retired the Talbot marque in 1955 (read Roger Carr’s essential Rise, decline and fall of the Rootes group for more details.)
Meanwhile, in a western Parisian suburb, the other STD “Talbot” (which they pronounced “tal-boh”) factory was taken over by Antonio (a.k.a Antoine or Tony) Lago, who arrived on site mid-1934. Lago was another Italian polyglot, former UK importer for Isotta Fraschini and Director of the Wilson Self-Changing Gear Co. – but also STD board member.
He sensed that moving toward sportier cars would provide both income and publicity. And since the other STD board members were happy to see the French side go away, a sweetheart deal was struck. Lago had to move quickly, and he did.
Under Lagos’ leadership, Talbot abandoned their slow-selling eights and improved their looks, including a return to the 1930 grille design that became a permanent fixture. From late 1935, production was refocused on an all-6-cyl. range, from the elegant ‘Baby’ saloon to the exclusive 4-litre sports coupé. By 1937, the previous generation cars were all gone, including the above Dix. Lago imposed a modicum of standardization that streamlined both chassis and body production, allowing his prices to be competitive.
There are countless stunning pre-war Talbots – they were beautiful in a factory body. But the one that caught the world’s attention was the T150 SS Goutte d’eau (teardrop), a small series of curvaceous coupés made on Talbot’s low-slung sports chassis by Figoni & Falaschi in the late ‘30s. It’s the usual ten-made-and-no-two-alike type of car, priceless rolling sculpture and all that.
The late ‘30s were the best years for Talbot sales. A new Talbot Minor with a 2.3 litre 4-cyl. was launched in 1938 to replace the small sixes and the factory body became a little more rounded, but otherwise, things were ticking along quite nicely. Somehow, Lago had transformed the rather staid Talbot marque into something highly fashionable and desirable – and even profitable. Delahaye made the same play at the time with the 135/148 and also won big.
But then, that silly 1940-45 hiatus happened. None of the pre-war Talbot models would go back into production after 1945. Lago had spent the war years planning his next coup, and he struck as soon as possible.
At the October 1946 Paris Salon de l’Automobile, Talbot-Lago (as it was now known) introduced a new model, the 4.5 litre T26 Record sedan, coupé and convertible. The engine size had been determined by racing concerns, as 4500cc was the maximum allowed for un-blown engines at the time. In its standard Record spec, the twin-carb straight-6 provided 170 hp. The chassis was a straightforward affair: transverse leaf-sprung IFS, live rear axle with longitudinal leafs, hydraulic brakes and a Wilson 4-speed to keep your feet warm. Unlike the disastrous Delahaye 175, the T26 Record was a relative hit.
The chassis, gearbox and engine were very well put together; the T26 sounded good, ran very well, drank copious amounts of rationed fuel and it looked great. Talbot had always had an in-house body shop – unlike, say, Alvis or Delage, who had to rely on various coachbuilders. And the standard Talbot body, which came as a 4-door saloon, a 2-door cabriolet and two slightly different 4-seater coupés, was all most folks wanted.
The factory body was conservatively styled, but flawlessly executed and inexpensive. Others ordered the chassis only and picked a carrossier, as per the custom (body) of the era. In 1947 came the T26 Grand Sport (GS), a short-wheelbase triple-carb 190 hp version of the Record and the fastest (120 mph) European production car at the time.
The initial T26 GS were 2-seaters with a very short (265cm) wheelbase, which made for some odd proportions sometimes. Figoni had defined the essence of the late ‘30s Talbots in his Teardrop Lago SS, but in the late ‘40s, Saoutchik was the T26’s mad carrossier. But then, the GS was only available as a chassis anyway. What else could a millionaire ask for? A limo? There was also, as we can see above, a long wheelbase chassis available on request.
Said requests for the LWB T26 were few, but significant – including the crowned heads of Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Jordan. All opted for Saoutchik, as well. Not that other coachbuilders didn’t also try their hand at the best French chassis of the era, as there was little work coming from Delahaye, whose own 4.5 litre chassis had laid an egg. Some French coachbuilders were quick to adapt / recycle their designs to the Talbot’s specs.
This was one Figoni’s only jobs on the T26 GS. Chapron’s effort (bottom right) was more classic, but superbly executed. But there were also a few foreigners buying Talbots – and getting them bodied locally, as per the pre-war days.
Here are some of these exotic rarities. The Farina, displaying the longer (280cm) late GS chassis, was even displayed on Talbot’s own stand at the Grand Palais. My personal favourite is that Belgian 4-door – quite an unexpected car. But beyond coachbuilt beauties, the T26 also featured a racier side.
The T26 GS was the basis for Talbot-Lago’s post-war grand prix car – and later Formula 1, when that competition began in 1950. The F1 engine was the same T26 block, but with a different head and a few other tweaks, pushing it to 260hp. Also in 1950, T26s came in 1st and 2nd at Le Mans – after years of unfruitful attempts, Lago was finally tasting victory. In 1951, as the F1 cars proved uncompetitive, the Talbot works team hoped to get another Le Mans win, but only managed 2nd and 4th place. Talbot came close again in 1952: well in the lead and almost 23 hours in, Levegh’s T26 barquette (designed by Charles Deutsch) broke its crankshaft…
The 2.7-litre ‘Baby’ T15 was introduced in 1949 to broaden the range. The new 4-cyl. was a reduced version of the T26’s 4.5 litre 6-cyl. engine, using the same principles (twin lateral camshafts, hemi head, etc.) and usually mated to a Wilson 4-speed, as per most Talbots for over a decade. It sat on a shorter wheelbase (295 cm) due to its shorter hood, but otherwise looked almost identical similar to its bigger stablemate.
In 1949, Talbot-Lago made 225 cars — only around a dozen over the previous year. In 1950, production reached its (very modest) post-war peak: 433 T26 Record / GS and T15 Babys were sold, most of them with a factory body. But already, it was clear that the 4-cyl. T15 had badly missed its mark. To wit, Salmson sold 1000 of their deluxe saloons and cabriolets that year – Hotchkiss over twice that number. The Baby was a botched effort: relatively quick on paper, but actually loud, strangely fragile and heavy, it lacked a few elementary things, like a heater.
In April 1951, Talbot-Lago had to file for bankruptcy. The F1 and endurance scuderias, the underused Suresnes works, the failed T15 and the competition of Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and others were too much to bear. Lago needed to sell about 1000 chassis per year to break even — he never got close. Production dipped to 80 cars.
But Tony Lago had made another fatal misstep. In an effort to modernize output, he decided to ditch the old 1946 factory body and, using the Farina special above as a source of inspiration, replaced it with the car below. This happened in the spring of 1951, just as people lost all confidence in Talbot due to their being in receivership.
The situation was not improved by Lago deciding to focus only on 4-door saloons, losing the glamorous convertibles and coupés to outside coachbuilders. Unfortunately, the awkward and bulbous saloon body was still made in the traditional way, with wood-framed steel panels. It weighed 200 kg extra compared to the old body, which was all the Talbot needed. Lago really started panicking.
A new 6-cyl. version of the Baby – still a 2.7 litre engine, with identical hp and other features, but with six pots – appeared in late 1951. The 4-cyl. Baby continued in parallel and the “new look” body was spread across the range to the T26, though some old-style saloons in stock were available at a discount price through to 1952. I might as well post this again, from the Salmson DS article:
Talbots were never cheap cars, but by 1950 they were already outdated, like most of this array of last-gasp saloons. The T26 was sort of designed as a traditional high-luxury item anyway, but the failure of the Baby and the new factory body were a huge drain on the company’s resources. Having two identical cars in 4- and 6-cyl versions (Armstrong Siddeley should have taken note) made no sense. Making the car uglier and heavier was downright suicidal. Nobody was interested – the “small” Talbot remained a dud.
At the 1953 Geneva Motor Show, Tony Lago was struck by this T26 GS convertible, designed and made by Talbot’s main importer in Switzerland, Hermann Graber (also known for his work with Alvis). Finally, something tasteful and modern to clothe the prestigious GS! Lago probably showed it to Carlo Delaisse, a stylist who worked for Chapron, while Talbot revised the GS chassis by adding another 10 cm of wheelbase and fine-tuning the engine up to 210 hp.
Delaisse used the idea of the Graber’s front end, but gave his coupé some hips that turned into delicate fins – a most stylish result. First shown in October 1953, the T26 GSL was at last a Talbot for the ‘50s. In contrast to the disastrous saloons, it was modern in the best sense of the word.
Which is lucky, because this was the last Talbot body ever designed: all subsequent cars look almost identical to this, though there were major changes underneath along the way. Business slowed to a crawl. In 1955, Talbot sold only 17 units – including the last Babys and saloons.
Tony Lago pulled all the stops, called in every favour and worked like a man possessed to make his last throw of the dice. The last Talbot-powered model, the 4-cyl. 2.5 litre T14 LS two-seater coupé, was announced in the summer of 1955, but production only really took place from early 1956. It was like a 7/8ths scale reduction of the T26 GSL in looks, but quite new otherwise: the wheelbase lost 40 cm, the new box-section chassis was lower and the body was now all-metal.
It was still not light enough, though: the all-new twin-carb 4-cyl. produced only 120 hp, propelling the 1000kg car at a respectable (but hardly extraordinary) 180 kph via a Pont-à-Mousson 4-speed manual. And still far too expensive. For the price of a Jaguar, one had to make do with two cylinders too few, less oomph and a somewhat Spartan interior, with miserly sliding windows to cut costs and increase elbow room. Only 54 were built in 1955-57, including two convertibles.
Now, Talbot was running out of just about everything. The Le Mans cars were Maserati-engined antiques. The cost of casting engines was making things even more difficult. Tony Lago’s solution was to put BMW’s all-alloy V8 (de-bored to 2476cc, to keep the car in its tax band) and left-hand drive on the previous car, but call this one “Talbot America.” It seems about 12 were sold in 1957-58.
Tony Lago had spent the whole of 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 now. In July 1958, his health failing and his business in tatters, Lago sold out to long-time neighbour, fellow paisan and Simca CEO Henri-Theodore Pigozzi. Simca half-heartedly assembled a literal final handful of Talbot-Simca coupés with a new interior, a raised roofline, and a welcome return to wind-down windows.
BMW were allegedly never paid their V8s, so Simca had but one option for the engine: the Vedette’s pitiful ex-Ford 2.4 litre flathead V8. With a twin-carb set-up, they made it reach a pitiful 95 hp. Many reacted with disgust – this Frenchified V8-60 wasn’t meant to power a Talbot, they claimed. At FF 2.3m, it was the half the price of a Facel-Vega Excellence. Or of two Citroën DSs.
The Talbot name was also used for a show car designed by Virgil Exner, Jr. The 1959 “Talbot Star Six”, whose Detroit-built body sat on an old Simca 8 chassis, was displayed on Talbot’s tiny stand at the Motor Show that October. It was the end of an era. As the very last Talbot coupés were finally sold in 1960, Tony Lago died, age 67.
Talbot was now gone from both sides of the Channel. As we saw yesterday and you likely know anyway because you made it this far, both Simca and Rootes, each owner of the Talbot name in their respective jurisdictions, eventually became part of Chrysler’s short-lived European empire. Chrysler never bothered with Talbot, despite rumors of resurrecting it.
In the summer of 1978, Peugeot bought Chrysler Europe (effective on January 1st 1979) and, in an attempt to do away with the Pentastar’s relatively bad image in the European market, hit upon the idea to resurrect the old Talbot name. The decision was announced in July 1979. Talbot was a prestigious nameplate that the Brits thought was British and the French thought was French. What could go wrong?
It was not the smoothest of takeovers, as we shall see. But at least in motorsport, there was a brief moment of success, despite the alarming levels of marque salad. Peugeot bought half of the Ligier F1 team and, with Matra’s V12 engine, the “Talbot-Ligier” JS17 scored two wins in the 1981 season. The follow-up JS19 was less successful, but at least the Talbot name was back in the sports pages.
Talbot also competed for the World Rally Championship manufacturers’ title, thanks to the spirited performance of the “Talbot-Sunbeam-Lotus.” Still a mess of brands, but a successful rally car that helped sustain interest in the model during its final years. These were the last 2-wheel-drive cars to hold the WRC title, in 1981.
Peugeot’s rebranding of Chrysler Europe cars was done haphazardly and on the cheap: the 1980 Talbot Sunbeam still sported a Pentastar on its grille, as did the Avenger and the 2-litre. But not the Horizon or the 1510 (ex Simca 1307/1308), who wore the circled T on their grilles early on. The now ancient 1100 had wisely never bothered with a grille logo, so at least those only needed new script badges.
Peugeot seemed to have had a rather amateurish touch, when it came to PR and advertising. For the 1980 model year (and into 1981), most of the French-made cars retained the “Simca” script on their trunk. In the press, the new marque was most often hyphenated – it was Talbot-Chysler, Talbot-Simca, Talbot-Matra. All of this did not help (re-)launch Talbot as a brand.
Well, what about a new model? A three-box variant of the Simca 1308 / Chrysler Alpine was quickly introduced in early 1980 as the Talbot Solara, complete with new Talbot styling cues. It was a mediocre effort, which chiefly cannibalized the sales of the Talbot 1510, as the hatchback was now called. But much worse was to follow.
PSA had the worst financial year of its existence in 1980 – Talbot’s first full year. And it looked like ’81 wasn’t going to be a picnic, either. Peugeot-Citroën had done well in 1976-79. But even then, profitability went down as high inflation squeezed the margins. The group was pretty overstretched: 220,000 workers in 30 factories producing 26 different models of cars across three countries. The second Oil Shock really hit the automakers in 1980, and now overladen with Talbot, the PSA ship almost capsized. Until then, Talbot had been run at arm’s length. But in the summer of 1980, Peugeot decided to merge itself with Talbot to try and salvage something out of the mess they knew they were headed for.
So, funny twist: they built themselves this Talbot Titanic…
Peugeot inherited a poisoned present from Chrysler: the new C9 executive saloon. A big RWD job that would take over from the ageing 180/2-Litre, but aim higher. Peugeot had no use for this car, but Chrysler had made a ton of investment into it. It was basically ready, so it would go ahead.
Sochaux’s bean-counters intervened: gone was the planned transaxle and in went the 505’s much narrower rear axle; the transmission went back to the traditional layout. The front suspension was also Peugeot-sourced, as was the one thing Chrysler didn’t have: a V6.
The Talbot Tagora went on display at the 1980 Paris Motor Show – a full range, from the Simca-engined 2.2 litre (115 hp DIN) base model, to the Peugeot-sourced 2.3 litre (80 hp) “DT” Diesel to the swanky 2.7 litre (165 hp) PRV6 “SX” version, with snazzy alloy wheels.
Peugeot went for giving the Tagora a touch of exclusivity, so the V6 was twin-carbureted to its highest output yet: 165 hp DIN. Even the Renault Alpine was out-horsed. Actually, the one at the Motor Show was a 2.2 dressed as a V6, they didn’t even have one ready yet.
The Tagora only started hitting the dealerships in February 1981. But no matter, some would wait for it. Fastest French saloon? 6-cyl. Talbot? Must be great. The cheapest model, the 2.2 with a 4-speed, cost a fairly reasonable FF 59,000 – but the DT and the SX were north of 80,000. That put the Talbot Tagora squarely on the turf of BMW, Ford, Opel and Mercedes-Benz – not to mention the other three cars one could get with a PRV6…
That Talbot never had a prayer. The big thirsty saloon market was badly hit by the 1979 Oil Shock, but really, the Tagora just pointed to where Talbot were going, along with the rest of the group. In France, PSA (Peugeot, Citroën, Talbot-Simca, Talbot-Matra) saw their market share go from 42.6% in 1979 to 30.3% in 1982; production was down by a third. But even if they had not hit economic headwinds, it’s difficult to envisage a world where the Tagora would have been a success. As such, it was an abject failure. (Similar words could be used for the Alfa and the Lancia…) Talbot sold fewer than 20,000 Tagoras in three model years – it was gone by late 1983.
This was a Deadly Sin indeed. Peugeot could ill-afford to take a bath like this. It was time to cut some losses, but would the patient survive? The launch of the Samba, a quick and easy 104 clone, met with some success. Alas, it was already too late.
The remains of the Simca range disappeared, one after the other. The 1100 left in 1981, as did the 2-litre (though it lingered on in Diesel form in Spain until 1982); the 1510 vanished from the French range after 1982 (but carried on in the UK and Spain); the Matras quit in 1983… On the British side, the Avenger was pentioned off in 1982, a year after the Sunbeam. To counter this mass extinction, the only new addition was the Samba. Talbot’s market share continued to deteriorate everyplace, except perhaps Spain.
Peugeot could not afford to divert what little cash they had from the two saviors of the company: the Peugeot 205 and the Citroën BX. They arrived in 1983. By this point, Talbot’s main Poissy works were locked into a series of protracted industrial disputes, which further sullied the marque’s fading image.
The atmosphere in the Poissy plant was gloomy, having lost 25% of its workforce since the takeover. Yet somehow, they muddled through – by making Peugeots. Originally built by Ford in 1939, ceded to Simca in December 1954 and now producing the last Talbots, Poissy still operates today as one of Peugeot’s main domestic factories.
The last Talbots made in France were the Samba and Horizon, until the end of 1986. The C27/C28, which was supposed to replace the Horizon, was production-ready nonetheless. At the eleventh hour, Peugeot decided to re-badge it from “Talbot Arizona” to “Peugeot 309.” The 309 made no real sense within the Peugeot range, as reflected by its nomenclature and in the article above, where they pegged it as the “206.” (Peugeot math!) Poissy’s engine plant had to keep churning out the old Simca blocs, so somebody had to design a car for them.
One final ignominious note: the last Talbot-branded vehicle was not a Spanish Horizon, it was an Italian-built British market clone of the Fiat Ducato. When PSA launched the project with Alfa and Fiat, they planned to sell the vans on the British market as the Talbot Express from 1982. Isolated from its Alfa/Citroën/Fiat/Peugeot brethren, it carried on regardless until 1994, still using the otherwise defunct Talbot name, in its final, glorious, career-topping 2-litre van form.
What an encore.
Talbot demonstrated that you only live twice – first as tragedy, then as farce. It was tragic how Tony Lago managed to keep the marque alive throughout the ‘50s, when his 4-cyl. range had misfired so badly. But that was par for the course. Small automaker screws up new model, goes into tailspin – this is routine for the Deadly Sins series.
The wrinkle is that 1979 re-birth. While these are not uncommon (see: Bugatti, Invicta, Lagonda, Stutz and many more), a sudden rebranding of an entire range like – over three countries, no less – is is quite unprecedented in the post-war era. The crown jewel was the Tagora, a true blue Deadly Sin if there ever was one.
Talbot’s second demise was probably a foregone conclusion. The whole thing unravelled pretty quickly, though if it hadn’t been for the success of the Samba, Talbot might have disappeared even earlier. Instead, that once glorious name ended up stuck on little hatchbacks and British campervans. How the mighty had fallen. And what an awful mess in terms of marketing and brand management…
But enough with the lamentations. We must save some tears for tomorrow’s post. Speaking of which, as an ocular palate-cleanser, here’s a lovely Figoni Teardrop Talbot, sitting at the old Suresnes delivery hall to see us out.
Tomorrow, we take an aspirin and examine the last third of the Escher print: Matra!
Curbside Classic: 1953-1955 Sunbeam Alpine – First Dibs, by Don Adreina
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European Deadly Sins series