Carshow Classics: 1977 Chrysler Alpine 1.3GL, 1985 Talbot Solara Minx 1.3 – Growing Pains Can Show In Many Ways

Businesses growing, through mergers and acquisitions, and cars growing, through engineering developments such as larger and more powerful engines, longer wheelbases and body variants are not new phenomena. They have been apparent for as long as anyone can remember. From William Morris adding a larger engine to his Cowley to make an Oxford or the body variations on Henry Ford’s Model T, from Billy Rootes making a major player by aggregating smaller ones or Walter Chrysler’s exploits in the 1920s, there is nothing new under the sun.

This is. The Simca 1307 and 1308 (1.3 litre 7 or 8cv, or horsepower in the eyes of the French tax man), and known as the Chrysler Alpine in Anglophone markets and its close relative, the Talbot Solara, was an example of both these transformations, and adds a third one.

But first, some history for context. Chrysler had spent the 1960s collecting businesses in Europe to build Chrysler Europe, an uneven three legged stool consisting of Simca in France, Rootes Group in the UK and Barreiros in Spain, collectively building a wider mish-mash of products than just about any other business, before or since. Simca had the 1000 rear engine small car, the front wheel drive hatchback 1100 (1204 in North America) which was more like a Golf Mk 1 than anything else that preceded the Golf, and the conservative rear wheel drive 1301 and 1501 four door saloons. Key to this tale is that the 1100 range was the market leader in France in the early 1970s; the first 1967 car arguably played a key role in defining the European family hatchback – transverse engine, end on gearbox, three or five door hatchback; In 1973, almost 300,000 were built; the 1974 1100Ti has a claim on being the first hot hatch; the 1977 Matra Rancho derivative maybe started the compact SUV/crossover format.

Rootes had the small rear engine Hillman Imp, the mid size Hillman Avenger, the slightly larger Hillman Hunter (the Sunbeam Arrow family) and the 1950’s hangovers that were the large Humbers, and a range of commercial vehicles, sold under the Commer and later Dodge brands. Barreiros assembled Dodge Darts and built diesel engines and trucks for the protected Spanish market. This was all brought together and under Chrysler control by 1969, with various vehicles showing Chrysler influence from the late 1960s inwards. In the UK, the 1970 Hillman Avenger was Chrysler funded, as was the sales dud that was the French built but Franco-British designed Chrysler 180.

From this summary, we can see that there was a conflict in the centre of the market, based around the front wheel drive Simca and the conventional Avenger, and a need to replace the next larger car from both parties, as both the 1301/1501 and Hunter/Arrow were starting to age, and it was beginning to show. In the UK, BMC’s front wheel drive cars were making the Hunter look like an old solution whilst the Vauxhall Victor FD and Ford Cortina Mk3 made it look like a conservative one, with a dated interpretation of the conventional format. OHV engines and leaf springs were not the way to go any more. In France, the rear drive saloon format of the Simca contrasted strongly with the contemporary Renault 12 and 16 and Peugeot 304, never mind the Citroen GS. The Peugeot 404 was closer conceptually, but sold in a higher spot in the market.

As happened with the 180 project, both the British and French engineering teams were tasked with generating ideas for the solution to this. The UK solution was based on the Hillman Avenger estate, clothed in a hatchback body fitted with the engine the UK had proposed to develop for the Chrysler 180, in 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 sizes. The Avenger was more modern than the Hunter, with rack and pinion steering and a coil sprung rear axle, but was also a fairly style led product in the Rootes tradition.

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Simca proposed a rear drive hatchback using the Chrysler 160/180/2 litre engines with front wheel drive. Both arguments had merits, and significant costs. But the Simca and Rootes organisations now found out that Chrysler’s pockets, whilst deep, were not that deep. Neither were the likely timelines deemed acceptable.

In 1972, Chrysler US defined the preferred solution – an extension of the Simca 1100. The logic makes perfect sense – the 1100 was a successful, respected and capable car, and the monocoque was pretty light by contemporary standards. There was room to stretch the nominally 1100cc engine, ultimately to 1592cc, the idea of a hatchback Simca was fully accepted in the major market (France, and also the Benelux areas) and was seen as the coming standard across Europe and even the British market was considered receptive to a hatchback. We had the Austin Maxi, the Renault 16 was doing steady if unspectacular business, and was a respected product as well. A look through the archives at BLMC and Vauxhall will show many examples of similar thinking being applied – indeed the early 1970s Vauxhall Viva and Victor estates could be considered hatchbacks, the press criticised the Austin Allegro and Princess (ADO71) for not having hatchbacks, and there was a hatchback Rover in the works and you’d suspect Chrysler knew about it in the incestuous environment of the Coventry motor industry.

The scene was set therefore for a collaborative Franco-British product. French engineering, with a British designed body, to be built in France, to directly replace the Simca 1301/1501, and to supplement, with a view to replacing, the Arrow in the UK.

The engineering was a logical development of the 1100. There was a three inch longer wheelbase, an increase in track and width and the rear torsion bar suspension was replaced by trailing arms and coil springs. The front suspension stayed with torsion bars, and the engine and gearbox were carried over.

The base engine was the 1294cc version of the 1961 Simca Poissy overhead valve four cylinder engine, first seen in the Simca 1000 rear engine saloon and then familiar in 1118cc in the 1100, which was first evolved for the 1972 100 Special and then the 1974 1100Ti. There was also a new 1442cc version available, giving 85bhp, which was more powerful and torquey than any of the Ford, Vauxhall, BL, VW or Renault 1.6 litre competitors, in a car that weighed no more either. Straight line performance, particularly from the larger engine cars, was fully competitive.

One thing that never changed in the car was engine’s propensity for rattly tappets. Whoever, however, whenever they were adjusted, within a few thousand miles the distinctive loud tappet rattle would be back. And it’s not as if the rest of the car was particularly quiet either – even discounting the tappets, this was always a pretty noisy and unrefined engine.

The style of the car was all new, with no link to the older Simca or Rootes products. It was styled in the UK at the old Rootes facility in Coventry under the direction of Roy Axe and, while not original or ground breaking, a pretty decent looking car resulted. It achieved the trick of looking new whilst not frightening the horses but, particularly after the 1980 facelift, started to show its age relatively early. If you can see hints of Lancia Beta and early VW Passat in there, you are probably not alone. Renault 5 style resin bumpers were a novelty in the class. To me, the early cars have aged well.

The interior of the car was up to the standard of the exterior style – it was undoubtedly up to the minute in style and features. Compared with the preceding Rootes and Simca cars, or the competitors, it was also arguably more attractive than most, and competitively spacious. There was the usual folding rear seat and the suspension was configured to contemporary French (that is soft, long travel) standards, although the seats on the initial cars were much firmer than many, and gave an unusual but comfortable combination of a soft ride with fairly significant roll whilst firmly positioned in the seat. And, yes, the gearlever was always that long.

The feature orange car is a UK built 1977 Alpine 1.3GL, which was the outright winner of the 2018 Festival of the Unexceptional, a celebration of what it says. A deserved winner – I haven’t seen an Alpine look like that, since well, Dad bought one in 1979.  His first of three.

The Simca was first shown in public at the Paris motor show in October 1975 and then the Chrysler Alpine, using an old Rootes name, at the London show at the end of the month. Reaction was positive at both. Production started in September; sales in France started immediately and in the UK from January 1976, with slightly contrasting fortunes.

In France, where it replaced the Simca 1301 and 1501 range, the car was a sales success with demand creating supply issues. By May, over 1,000 a day were being built and 250,000 were built in just over a year. In the UK, sales ran at a few thousand a month. To France, this car was a logical progression front the well loved, best selling 1100, and was initially sold with Simca, not Chrysler, badging deliberately. In the UK, where it did not replace anything (except the Simcas imported in low volumes) but was expected to complement the Avenger and Hunter, it was seen as front wheel drive, a hatchback, French and with a small engine, which were all features which limited the commercially vital fleet market’s acceptance of it. The Ford Cortina was the best seller back then, and solidly so, the Morris Marina was still doing good volume and the underdog first generation Vauxhall Cavalier was getting a good reception. There were many others too – VW Passat, Fiat 131, Renault 16, Citroen GS, Datsun Bluebird, Toyota Carina…it was a competitive part of the market. The leading hatchback on the market was the Austin Maxi, which was always a distinctive or courageous choice, depending on your viewpoint.

Initially, much marketing effort was put into making a virtue of these differences, showing the Alpine and the hatchback concept as the “The Seven Day a Week Car”. Or, selling the idea of a hatchback and then this hatchback.

The press reaction was pretty strong, though not overwhelming. Autocar’s first major test was pretty warm, but did mention, in that slightly coy way of the old motoring press, the noise. Sometimes, you had to read between the lines – I suspect this was code for “it makes a heck of a racket”. This was an issue for the entire run, though later cars were improved by more sound deadening and higher top gears.

CAR rated the Alpine ahead of the Renault 16 and the VW Passat (B1), albeit by a short head and with observations on the driving position and refinement.

But, despite the positive reviews, it was still a tough wicket for Chrysler UK, with a car that did not fit every preconception. Not easy for a business, Chrysler UK, that was teetering on the edge financially.

Not that it showed in the dealer training material.

In January 1976, after much negotiation, the UK government and Chrysler came to an agreement around the future of the business. Essentially, in return for a bail out, Chrysler agreed to various actions, one of which was assembly of the Alpine for the UK market in Coventry. From August 1976, Alpines were being assembled in Coventry, from kits shipped in from France, a model of production that would last until 2006, latterly for a series of Peugeots.

Also in 1976, the car won the European Car of the Year award, perhaps to the surprise of some, depending, of course, on the validity you apply to such awards. Still, over 250,000 were built in 1977, claiming over 7% of the French market and additional versions with luxury trim packs and automatic transmissions were becoming available, and from 1979, an option of a 1.6 litre version of the Poissy engine. Sales had peaked though – 1978 saw 160,000 built and 1979 just 112,000, partly as buyers opted for the newer Horizon, the European take on the Omnirizon and another Simca 1100 derivative.

1978 saw the end of Chrysler in Europe as well, as Peugeot bought the entire business and Chrysler left Europe.

A year later, the Chrysler and Simca badges were gone, replaced by the revived Talbot nameplate.

The major event thereafter was the only significant facelift of the car, in late 1979 for 1980 models – the distinctive reverse rake front clip was replaced by a more familiar profile, accompanied by bigger bumpers and rear lights. There were also trim and minor interior changes, a reshuffle of the range and an extension of the availability of the 1.6 litre engine. Power steering, then unusual in the class, became standard on much of the range, to counter the heavy (zero offset) and low geared steering and slightly awkward driving position and steering actions dictated by the relatively low profile.

The most significant change in 1980, with the arrival of the saloon derivative, marketed as the Talbot Solara. This was a typical hatch to saloon evolution, using the same doors and interior.

It was sold above the Alpine, with a new top model labelled SX in the UK, with all the mod cons Talbot could offer, including a trip computer as the unique showroom novelty. Finally, the Hillman Hunter was formally retired, although its sales had been minimal for some years.

Aggregate production in the early 1980s was around 100,000 a year across the two models. In the UK there was a series of efforts to ginger up sales, with versions named Arrow, picking up on the Hunter family name, and, ultimately the Rootes names Vogue, Sceptre, Minx and Rapier all took their turn on the cars.

The market reality was harsher though – the competition did nothing but get tougher. The Vauxhall Cavalier went from strength to strength, especially with the Mk2 (J car) from 1981; the Ford Sierra from 1982 made it look even older, the VW Passat, Golf and Jetta were doing ever stronger business in the UK and from the PSA family the Citroen BX in some ways matched the concept of the early hatchback cars, and the Peugeot 305 saloon was typically rated more highly than the Solara.

The second feature car is a 1985 Solara Minx 1.3. Minx denoted the lower trim level, with Rapier being the higher level, but this example was a specially decontented Minx, intended to be a dealer plinth car. By decontenting the car, deleting features such as the power steering, various interior trim features and fitting cheaper wheel trims and bump strips, obviously a lower price could be achieved. Put the car on a plinth and in come the customers. The salesman then either declares that car sold or talks them into a more expensive model with the missing features back in. The intention was for each dealer to have one, and then for Talbot to recall them for sale or lease to a fleet customer, or to employee schemes or similar. This one reportedly never went back but was sold to a retail customer.

By 1983, French production had stopped, with all production being in the UK and in Spain, for left hand drive only, where the Solara had some traction as a taxi. UK and Spanish production ended in 1985.

Production was also completed by Valmet in Finland for the local market, which utilised some SAAB interior components, which is why this car appears to have SAAB 900 seats and badge. There was some assembly also in Colombia as the Dodge Alpine, though numbers were very limited.

Todd in New Zealand also assembled a small number.

The Alpine is also reputed to be the template for the Moskvich Aleko 2141. Visually, there is a clear link, but there is little or no evidence of anything, other than copying, such as a proper Fiat-style partnership with Moskvich, and the drive train was very different, with a longitudinally mounted engine and MacPherson strut front suspension. Inspiration for a visual clone and body engineering techniques, but not much more, I suspect.

Ultimately, this car showed the effect of growing pains in various ways – building a bigger car based on the Simca 1100 and its engine was not actually as easy as it may have seemed; building a bigger business from Rootes, Simca and Barreiros was not straightforward, and blending that into Peugeot-Citroen whilst keeping its identity just as difficult. And taking on GM and Ford in Europe ultimately failed too.