Last post, I went on about how my family’s 1961 Plymouth Suburban defined “car” for me as a toddler. While I stand by that assessment – based largely on recollections of how impressive the Plymouth’s design was for a child just beginning to define what an automobile was – it’s now time to turn to another car that was elemental to what would eventually inform my own vehicular choices.
Some has been written here on CC about Simcas, but much of that by necessity focused on Simcas in their more or less native European environment. As the astute CC reader knows, these little French cars did officially make it over to the U.S. via Simca’s alliance with Chrysler. First in the late 1950s, and again in the mid-1960s, Chrysler brought over the Simca in an ultimately fruitless attempt to break VW’s dominance of the small car market. One of these, a 1964 1000, wound up for 10 years alongside of my family’s relatively giant Plymouth station wagon. Documentation is sparse, but we may have set some sort of record for length of Simca 1000 ownership on the East Coast.
The Simca likely came into our lives via exposure at a Baltimore Chrysler-Plymouth dealer on one of my dad’s visits to seek out Plymouth repair. When he was desperate enough, he would resort to taking that car to the dealer. The transmission problems that eventually killed it usually qualified as something that would make him “desperate enough”.
I do know that it came from Penn Brothers Plymouth (which I can find virtually nothing about online) as I vividly recall the gigantic dealer badge below the left tail light. That badge – and you can just make it out in the initial picture – seemed particularly large since it was obviously created to be placed on a much larger car butt than that offered by the Simca. But no doubt “Penn Bros” was not going to make a smaller badge to fit a smaller car, so the big one would have to do. This sort of thinking, we shall see, effected much about how Simcas fit within the American dealer universe.
Data shows that the 1000 had a wheelbase of just over 87” with a total length of 149.5”. It was 58.5” inches wide. That made it 32% shorter and 27% narrower than the 61 Plymouth Wagon. And given that the Plymouth wasn’t even necessarily a giant car by standards of the day (the wagon was only 4” longer than the regular full size Plymouth), it’s obvious that the Simca was clearly a very little car. In fact, that’s what my family called it. The “Little Car”. This was contrasted with the “Big Car”, which was the name for the Plymouth. No wasting of brain cycles on excess imagination in my family.
The Simca wasn’t just small compared to full-sized American cars, but it was actually smaller than the Beetle that was its primary competition. Shorter and narrower than the Beetle, it must have looked tiny compared to most anything that one would commonly see on the road. Less obvious was that the Simca also less a bit less expensive than the Beetle. But I’m pretty sure that what sold my parents the most on the Simca was that it had 4 doors. Speak nowadays to nearly anyone who grew up riding in the rear seat of a 1960s VW Bug and it won’t be long before you surface memories of what we used to call “car sickness”. Memories of doing more of a trip than a run down to the store are generally censored and may induce PTSD.
On the other hand, doesn’t that 1000 look roomy?
It would appear that the folks in the second shot have opted to travel door-free. That wasn’t legal in Baltimore.
Even if it had been legal, this brings up another aspect of owning a Simca in 1964 America, and that has to do with the Metric System. We didn’t have the proper wrenches to take off the bolts that were holding the doors. I’m only being a bit facetious – we had no plans that I know of to remove the Simca’s doors. Nevertheless, outside of “import mechanics” and/or dealers that specifically sold import cars, the average auto mechanic in the U.S. in the mid-1960s had only Imperial-sized tools. This was something that perhaps did not occur to people who bought Metric-standard cars from their local Plymouth dealer. I am sure that at the time it did not occur to my parents.
Presumably the place that sold you your car would have the tools necessary to work on it…right? Well, maybe not. But even if the dealer was all set, where you actually took your car for service almost certainly was not. Living those years in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina it just wasn’t a sure thing that the average gas station mechanic would have tools appropriately sized to perform even the most basic operations such as an oil change on what was commonly referred to as a “foreign car”.
In the case of the Simca, while it had a pretty outstanding warranty (5 years, 50,000 miles, quite generous by the standards of the day) the fine print disclosed a problem
The owner had to hold up their end of the bargain by regularly servicing the car via oil changes and lubrication services as well as changing what we might now consider simple supplies (e.g., air, oil, and fuel filters). The success of warranty claims would depend upon being able to successfully provide proof of proper maintenance. And there’s the rub. Once we got away from the purchasing dealer, it was increasingly difficult for my parents to find anyone to service the car. They didn’t know of any “import mechanics” (and likely would have been fearful of being ripped off by having to go to a “special” garage). The number of Plymouth dealers that chose to carry Simca – and presumably therefore have properly trained mechanics, Metric tools, and ready access to Simca parts – was not tremendous. I am sure that my parents were not the only Simca owners who experienced this situation.
Ownership problems were exacerbated by damage that my parents unwittingly inflicted upon the Simca by taking it to their normal sources of auto repair…that is, whatever local gas station was convenient. In the prehistoric days before Jiffy Lube, the local gas station was where most cars were serviced…a story told by the once-ubiquitous doorjamb stickers that nearly every car had.
My family’s Simca made visits to gas stations for its every-3-months or 4000 mile oil changes, but sadly early on in ownership one of those friendly gas station mechanics decided to attack the car with Imperial tools. A rounded off oil drain plug (that was thereafter difficult to fully tighten) and several other damaged parts meant that the car constantly leaked oil and had a variety of other maladies which were almost all related to maintenance parts. Once we moved away from Baltimore to rural Virginia there was simply no way to get the car properly serviced. Hence it limped on ever downhill until its ultimate demise at about the age of 10 (that will be another COAL chapter).
Surely some of these problems were due to my parents’ “thriftiness” (recall the car top carrier from last week). Even in those days, import mechanics did exist, particularly in the college towns (Roanoke, Raleigh) where we usually wound up. Nevertheless “foreign car specialists” were still rare and most of those college-professor-owned VWs and Volvos were serviced at dealers. The success of VW and Volvo is in no small part due to the establishment of a relatively robust dealer network. Robust at least on both coasts and in cities. No such luck for Simca which was brought over the pond as a poor step-child by what turned out to be an indifferent parent company which had plenty of quality control and dealer network problems of its own. It’s sad – to me – that these neat little cars so quickly passed from the U.S. automotive scene. Never terribly common, for all of the reasons discussed, they simply vanished by the mid-70s. I probably haven’t seen one in-person for 30 years, and I believe that one was in a junkyard.
Before closing the book on my family’s 1964 1000, I have to note that it also helped set the stage for other important parts of my adult love of cars. I never drove the Simca (I was still in elementary school when it left the family), but even as a pre-driver it impressed me for its ability to carry all four of us in relative comfort. We seldom took it on the heroic length trips that were the job of the Suburban, but day trips a couple of hundred miles out into the surrounding area were common (as the pictures above from the Shenandoah Parkway and Maryland’s Eastern Shore demonstrate).
While I loved the excess of the Plymouth, the Simca demonstrated that you could still get places, in comfort, with stuff (the family’s full set of blue SAMSONITE hard suitcases fit in the Simca’s front trunk). As I grew older, I became increasingly aware of how the smaller car offered advantages such as ease of parking and efficiency of operation. The former demonstrated when we made regular trips into DC (once I discovered dinosaurs at the Smithsonian, that became a nearly weekly go-to destination). While we’d spend an hour driving around mall (in the DC humidity, suffering the nylon-viscose) looking for a space to park the Plymouth, there was nearly always some off-sized half space to parallel park the Simca right in front of a museum. Having the right-sized car for the job could save a lot of sweat and energy. The part about efficiency of operation was demonstrated when my Dad chose the Simca to commute between Baltimore and our new home in Roanoke for 6 months.
The realization that good things came in different-sized packages – and sometimes smaller packages were better – became clearer and clearer as I inched closer to choosing my own cars to drive. At the same time, the concept of Big Car and Little Car was firmly implanted in my brain. The story of the next Big Car (glimpsed above) – and my finally starting to drive some of these things – will be next week.