In 1955, flathead V8s were no longer powering North American cars. The creator of this legendary engine, Ford, had moved on to more modern designs. Side-valves were on their way out in most places. OHVs (sometimes via OHC) were becoming the norm, as flatheads displayed rather limited efficiency. But one company stuck with flathead V8s, as it had inherited a revamped V8-60 from Ford in a brand new body shell. That company, Simca, would build our small V8 into the ‘60s.
As we have seen in the previous episode of this series, Simca (Société Industrielle de Mécanique et de Carrosserie Automobile) bought Ford SAF’s main manufacturing plant in Poissy, just west of Paris, in 1954. With the plant came a new unibody car, the Vedette 55, powered by a 2351cc flathead V8 called “Aquilon,” a direct descendant of the original V8-60 of 1935.
The Only V8 In Its Class
There was nothing quite like the 1955 Simca Vedette. Production 8-cyl. cars were extremely rare and exclusive in Europe by then, far more so than in the ‘30s (or even the ‘60s).
Here they all are. Clockwise from top left: Rolls-Royce’s heads-of-state-only Phantom IV sported the world’s last “production” straight eight; BMW had come out with the 502’s all-alloy V8 in 1954; Facel-Vega had just introduced its DeSoto hemi-powered FV1; a trickle of potent Pegaso Z-103 sports cars were available in Spain. (Also, a handful of the 2-litre Fiat 8V chassis were still up for grabs, though production had already stopped.) All very high-brow and, except for the BMW, made in homeopathic quantities.
And then, there was the Simca: an affordable mini-American car for the well-heeled middle-classes. Simca’s range in 1955 still included a few of the older Ford SAF cars (the Monte-Carlo coupé and the Abeille commercial saloon). The new V8 cars were the Trianon (base trim), the mid-range Versailles and the snazzy Régence. The rest of the range were 4-cyl. Arondes, a very successful car designed by Fiat, Simca’s parent company. Simca also produced the Unic and Cargo (ex-Ford) trucks and Somua tractors.
Domestically, Simca downplayed the “Vedette” name. It was associated with Ford SAF and its earlier car, neither of which had been overly successful. In France, the car was usually referred to as the “Versailles.” Although the motoring press derided the Aquilon’s ancient design and well-known shortcomings (overheating, thirst and sluggishness), the Simca Vedette sold very well: over 42,000 in 1955.
The car’s relatively low price was due to Ford SAF’s cost-killing exercise of 1953-54, which was then furthered by Simca boss Henri-Theodore Pigozzi, who drove the unions out of Poissy and methodically nickel-and-dimed every component and every outside supplier. Incomes were increasing in France (and Europe generally) in the mid-‘50s. This, coupled with modern transatlantic looks and a well-appointed interior, explains why Simca were selling so many more V8s than Ford ever did.
Export sales, though modest outside of continental Europe (partially due to Simca’s low name recognition and limited dealer network), were rising. Even accounting for tariffs, the Vedette was still the cheapest V8 – and the post-war economic boom was felt in many corners of the world.
Domestic competition had thinned out by the mid-‘50s for a 13 CV (fiscal horsepower) car like the Simca Versailles (mid-1956 list price: FF 899,000). Two cars were in the Versailles’ price and power range: Renault’s newly updated 12 CV Frégate Amiral, a 1951 design that had never enjoyed much success (price: FF 862,000) and Citroën’s new 11 CV spaceship, the DS-19 (price: FF 940,000).
The Peugeot 403 was markedly smaller (8 CV / 1.5 litre) and cheaper (FF 740,000), though it more than matched the Simca (and the Renault) in acceleration and top speed – one reason for its success.
Simca launched a station wagon version of the V8, the Marly, in 1956. It was a new kind of car for the Europeans of the ‘50s: a luxury wagon (25% more expensive than the Versailles) that was factory-made, as opposed to a coachbuilder’s special. Renault soon added a similar car to their Frégate range, as would Citroën.
The Simca V8s did not enjoy as many coachbuilt variants as the previous generation of Vedettes. One reason was the Simca’s unibody, which tends to make coachbuilt jobs more difficult. Another was that many French carrossiers had vanished by the mid-‘50s. Of those that were left, only Henri Chapron attempted a single two-door hardtop coupé (called “Orsay”) in 1956.
The Small V8’s Final Lap (in France)
Big car sales in France took a major plunge after the Suez Crisis: Simca V8s hit an all-time high with 44,836 units sold in 1956 and sank to 17,875 for 1957.
Fortunately, Simca had launched Ariane 4 in 1957, combining the Trianon’s body with the Aronde’s 1.3 litre (7 CV) engine. It was an immediate success and would be built until 1963.
The V8 range was given a make-over for 1958: new monikers, facelifted bodies and dashboards courtesy of Fiat styling director Luigi Rapi, better brakes and larger wheels (the Versailles’ 13-in. wheels and tiny pads were criticized for being too undersized).
The Versailles gave way to the Beaulieu, the Régence became the Chambord and the Trianon briefly survived with the old-style body as the Ariane 8. The wagon’s only change was the new front clip and dash. The Aquilon’s compression ratio was upped yet again, resulting in an extra 4hp to try to offset the new body’s extra 100kg.
A new model, the Présidence, was announced in 1958. This “Broughamized” exclusive saloon, only available in black (a few French bishops ordered theirs with a white roof), came with leather seats and could be ordered with a separation. Its continental kit made its rear 25cm longer and more oddly-proportioned. It cost over 50% more than the Chambord.
The Simca Présidence was selected by the Elysée palace for the creation of a new state parade car, as Citroën refused to attempt a four-door convertible DS. Two of these cars were built by Simca’s prototype workshop in Nanterre in 1959 – without the continental kit and faux wire wheels; the leather interior was made by Chapron.
Meanwhile, something was happening in Detroit in 1958: a recession. The Big Three suddenly craved captive imports to fight off the compacts (Rambler, Volkswagen, Renault and the like). GM had Opel and Vauxhall; Ford had Dagenham and Cologne. Chrysler had nothing, so it acquired Ford’s 15% stake in Simca, plus an additional 10%. By late 1958, Simcas were sold in the US by Chrysler – mostly Arondes, but the Vedette also made for a decent compact. So the V8-60 went back on a farewell tour of the US for a season or two, courtesy of Mopar. It is unclear how many were sold (guesstimate: low hundreds).
Simca bought the long-suffering Talbot-Lago company in December 1958, mostly for its real estate. There were still a few unfinished Talbot America chassis, which were waiting for BMW V8s that never came, along with spare body panels. Simca just stuck a twin-carb (95hp) version of their V8 in the Talbots and put a higher roofline so the windows could be wound down. About five Aquilon-powered Talbots were assembled in 1959 to universal consternation, ending the prestigious marque on a sour and flat note.
By now, the Aquilon was showing signs of exhaustion, at least in terms of sales. The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 – soon, tariff barriers erected in the ‘30s would be gradually eroded. The small V8 cars still sold 28,142 units in 1958, thanks to their rejuvenated looks, but Simca was not going to invest in a new V8.
Sales slid inexorably from then on: 15,966 in 1959, 13,914 in 1960 and just 3813 in 1961. Simca pulled the plug at that point and re-focused on its bread-and-butter smaller cars. Time to wave old flattie au revoir – in Europe, at least…
Pequeno V8, Versõe Tropical
Like most automakers, Simca sought to conquer new markets in emerging countries. In the ‘50s, that meant South America. The US Big Three were there to varying degrees, as was Kaiser, which had resurrected in Argentina, and Willys in Brazil. European makers large and small were coming too: Auto-Union, Volkswagen, Renault, Peugeot, Fiat and others were busy setting up joint ventures with local partners to assemble CKD cars or manufacture the whole thing.
Simca was interested in Brazil, whose new government wanted to attract foreign investment and develop the country’s infrastructure. After careful consideration and market research, the V8 cars seemed suited to Brazil’s burgeoning bourgeoisie. With the help of Fiat, Simca drew up plans for building an entire operation from the ground up: erecting a plant, training the workforce, sourcing suppliers, securing financing, building a dealer network… Simca engineer Jacques Pasteur was sent to São Bernardo do Campo (São Paulo) to oversee the project’s technical side in 1958.
The Kubitschek government insisted on a very tight schedule. After an initial batch of CKDs improted from Poissy in 1959, the Simca V8 would become 90% locally-made within two years. This was going to be a challenge, especially since most of the local suppliers never met their deadlines.
Eventually, the Simca Chambord, a very exact replica of the French car, was in dealerships in 1960. By the end of 1961, the cars were almost totally (90%) locally-made and the range now included the Présidence, naff continental kit included.
Jacques Pasteur upped the horsepower to 92hp, soon improved to 95hp on the Chambord and 105hp on the twin-carb Présidence and Rallye Especial, a new model for 1962 featuring peculiar “air scoops” on the hood.
The 1963 range included the Jangada, an updating of the Marly, as well as an all-sychromesh gearbox. But the Aquilon was now pushed to its limits. The only way to squeeze more power would be to increase capacity.
This is exactly what Simca do Brasil did in 1964, launching the V8 Tufão (“hurricane”). The greenhouse was modernized to increase headroom; the car’s rear lights were also redesigned.
Pasteur enlarged the V8 to 2414cc (147.3 cu. in.) and 100hp in the Chambord; the Rallye Especial and Présidence received the twin carb Tufão Super, which was bored to 2505cc (153 cu. in.) and developed 112hp @ 5000 rpm through a compression ratio of 8.5:1. A French transistorized ignition and improved cooling were also part of the V8’s makeover.
The Grand Finale
Let’s wind back the clock from 1965 to 1947 for a minute, as one key aspect of the flathead V8 was (intentionally) omitted from the previous installments of this epic saga: Ardun. The brothers Yura and Zora Arkus-Duntov (of later Covette fame) were subcontracted by Ford to create and manufacture a special OHV hemi head kit for the V8. The idea was to install these in trucks, as their flatheads were the ones suffering most from the chronic overheating issues caused by Ford’s weird “exhaust-through-the-block” design.
Arkus-Duntov (Ar-Dun) conversions also addressed another of the Ford V8’s issues by significantly increasing its horsepower. In the end, few if any trucks received them: they were expensive and allegedly required a bit of expert tinkering to work properly. Most Arduns ended up on hot rods and racers with Ford 3.6 litre V8s. Ardun also designed and made a few kits for the V8-60, some of which were exported to France for the Ford Vedette.
Jacques Pasteur found some Ardun kits in Paris and carefully studied them in the early ‘60s. The plan for Simca do Brasil had been to develop an OHV design (code-named “moteur 326”) for the Aquilon in Poissy, but the costs were deemed too great and Pigozzi killed the project in 1959. It was far cheaper to reverse-engineer the Arduns, creating the ultimate V8-60: the Emi-Sul.
It was worth the effort. The 2.4 litre V8’s power output jumped to 130hp (140hp for the 2.5 litre version), more than twice as powerful as it was at birth. Simca unleashed this beast on the roads of Brazil in May 1966.
The Chambord was starting to look positively passé, with its finned rear and gothic headlights. It had been around for five years in its country of adoption. Simca were not about to do a major redesign – a quickie facelift would have to do.
Mopar Hums The V8’s Swansong
Simca was about to change owners. Chrysler’s 25% stake in Simca was increased to 63% when Fiat agreed to sell most of its shares in 1963. By 1967, Simca was 77% owned by Chrysler.
This meant that Simca do Brazil was now a Mopar subsidiary. Coincidentally, Simca launched its restyled “Esplanada” range at the São Paulo Motor Show in November 1966. Chrysler did an evaluation of the new Simca Esplanada mid-1967 and implemented over 50 changes before slapping a two-year warranty on the car.
The Esplanada was marketed (but not branded) as a Chrysler product in 1968, along with a base trim version, the Regente. A mooted station wagon version never reached production; the 2.5 litre option was deleted, leaving the 2.4 V8 130hp as the last in production.
The Esplanada was then granted quad headlights, giving it a pseudo-AMC appearance. A sporty Esplanada GTX with go-faster stripes and a new floor-mounted four-speed gearbox was launched to complete the range.
The Brasilian Simca V8s were produced until the end of 1969, almost 35 years after it was born in faraway England, of American parents. Chrysler do Brasil would now focus on Dodge Darts.
R.I.P. V8-60 (1935-1969)
The V8-60 was American, French, German, British and Brazilian over the course of its long life. It was de-bored and re-stroked several times, modified and tinkered with in all sorts of ways, culminating in a head transplant.
It was put under the hoods of Fords, Matfords, Simcas, and a few Talbots, Jensens and Crosleys, as well as a number of trucks, racers, specials, motorbikes and tractors. It survived a world war and conquered three continents. It ferried everyone from middle-class Brits to American farmers and French Presidents.
Few 8-cyl. engines have been as versatile as the Ford flathead V8. The V8-60, unloved in the US, was adopted and, fortified by a heady cocktail of gin, armagnac and cachaça, grew to surpass its older, bigger 221 cu. in. brother in both horsepower and in longevity. Old Henry would have been proud.
Related CC topics:
For a more Brazilian take on Simca, read From Flathead To Hemihead, by Rubens.
Read the first part of the V8-60 history (the pre-war years) here.
Read the second part of the V8-60 history (the post-war European Fords) here.