(first posted 1/30/2015) The Chrysler 180 and 2-Litre saloons: Where do you start, and where did they go? After all, they could claim French and British ancestry and development, American influence, Spanish manufacture and an Australian connection. But most people will simply ask what it is. After all, these cars probably had the lowest profile of any car in its market segment at the time. Which is obviously not a good thing to be remembered for.
Place yourself in the shoes of Chrysler’s top product planners in 1967. You have purchased SIMCA of France, and the British Rootes group. SIMCA was very strong in France and southern Europe. There was an uncomplicated, coherent range, with the best-selling FWD Simca 1100 at the centre, the small, rear- engined 1000 doing well and the larger Simca 1300 and 1500 saloons selling strongly. Chrysler seemed to have made a sound investment.
Rootes, however, was almost exactly the opposite. There was a small, rear-engine car, the Hillman Imp, which although quite good to drive was not good to own. It sold at about one third of the rate of Simca 1000, and then there was a gap in the range between it and the Hillman Hunter (Sunbeam Arrow) and derivatives, the Humber Sceptre and Sunbeam Rapier. These were selling well enough, with perhaps 7% of the UK market in the late 1960s (this was a much less fragmented market of course) but were beginning to look like yesterday’s answer. There were also a range of larger Humber saloons, such as the Hawk and Super Snipe, which harked back to the 1950s and would be duly euthanized in 1967.
Waiting in the wings was the Hillman Avenger (Plymouth Cricket), due in 1969 – another conventional but fashionably styled Rootes saloon, in this case with a brand new engine and coil sprung rear suspension. But it would be so close to the Hunter in the market, the guys in Highland Park must have wondered was happening.
Chrysler, logically enough, wanted to bring the two model ranges into one, and at the same time compete with GM, Ford and other European manufacturers over a wider range. The mid-size was clear enough: A clear starting point was the Simca 1100, which was probably still valid as an entry-level car for a few years. It would later form the basis for a new mid-size Anglo-French product, later known as the Simca 1307, 1308 and Chrysler Alpine. The other immediate issue was the largest car in the new range, which would be above the Hunter but capable of replacing it, allowing the Avenger to take the entry-level Hunter’s business until the Alpine was ready, and also to extend Simca’s range upward.
Simca had not had a car larger than the 1501 since the Vedette (above) was retired in 1961, and now Rootes had lost its big car as well. Meanwhile, the Opel Rekord, Ford Zephyr, Peugeot 404 (and later 504), Volvo 144 and Triumph 2000 were all doing strong business across Europe. Whilst Rootes may have had a big car in the old Humber Hawk, a car that size (wheelbase 110”) was going to be competing in a small and now-declining market; in France, such a car would have been severely challenged by the taxation on cars with engines over two litres. The size of the new car can therefore be seen to have been relatively easy to define, with a wheelbase of around 105″ – a size bigger than the Hunter (just), and clearly a size larger than the Avenger or Simca 1501, but not too big to compete with its obvious competitors.
As it happened, both Rootes and Simca had cars in development that could have fitted the bill. The Simca proposal, known as Projet 929, was a rear-drive four door saloon with styling options from Chrysler US, Bertone and in-house in France, all of which looked 1960s rather than 1970s. Simca also planned a new four-cylinder OHC engine for the car. Rootes’ proposal, known as the C car, was styled by Roy Axe in Coventry, was capable of taking a V6 or V8 engine, and was expected to replace the Humber Hawk.
Stylewise, the C car was fully contemporary, with similarities to the Avenger and several other designs from that period. That is also a way of saying that it was not distinctive, of course. Technically, it too was a conventional rear-wheel drive design based on a four-door saloon, although a coupe version was also considered. In terms of market position, Rootes expected to offer a basic Hillman, a sporting Sunbeam 2000, and an upmarket Humber 2500, all using a range of V6 engines from 2000cc to 2500cc, which were being planned and for which tooling was being prepared.
Clearly, Chrysler was not going to go ahead with both. In early 1968-69, Chrysler looked at both proposals and selected a hybrid compromise. The Rootes-designed body was to be engineered to accept the new Simca engine; Simca would complete the interior and build the car in Poissy, in Paris. The Rootes V6 was cancelled, after £31m had been spent on design and tooling. Prototype engines had been installed in some Humber Hawks; the biggest issue had been understeer, but it was otherwise a smooth and powerful unit that promised reasonable economy as well.
In hindsight, this action could be seen as Chrysler realizing the true condition of the Rootes empire – a small car selling well below expectations, an all new mid-size car (the Avenger) selling OK, and a dated larger range. A second all new car might well not have been exactly what the company needed in 1970. Investing more money in an organisation like that often does not make business sense, especially if there is an option to integrate it into something much stronger. The final development phase was completed smoothly enough – the front of the car was restyled by Simca and the interior lost its Rootes “English” wood and leather flavour in favour of a more generic design. Some of the trim combinations were a bit strong visually, though.
Chrysler not only crossed off the V6 engine but also limited the car to 1.6, 1.8 and, later, 2.0 litre engines, with either a four-speed manual or three-speed Torqueflite automatic. Rootes had originally planned to offer a deDion rear suspension and a five-speed gearbox, but the French and the Americans trimmed these features out, opting for a coil sprung live axle and MacPherson struts at the front. The rear disc brakes (except on the 1.6 version) were unusual in this class in Europe at the time, but still made the cut.
The car finally launched in October, at the 1970 Paris Motor Show, as the Chrysler 160 and 180, for their 1.6 and 1.8-litre variants with 80 bhp and 97 bhp, respectively. The cars were expected to replace the Simca 1501, which initially was withdrawn from the French market only, but returned in 1974. Initial impressions were mixed. The engine got some good reviews, with its willingness to rev being praised, along with the cruising ability and comfort. However, the handling was severely panned, with excessive understeer and low-geared and heavy (unassisted) steering.
The car came to Britain, its other home market, in 1971, as the Chrysler 180 (the 160 was limited to mainland Europe, as it would have clashed more with the Hunter and Sceptre than it did with the Simca 1501). It was sold through the full network of Rootes, now Chrysler UK dealers, but in hindsight the unfamiliar Chrysler name was probably a mistake, as the car sank almost immediately, and without much trace.
Its contemporary but anonymous looks, unfamiliar name, rather brougham interior, and maybe even the French connection and the recollection of the cancellation of the C car all counted against it. More than anything, it offered little if anything established competitors didn’t. Few if any will transfer from an established respected brand to an unknown brand with little kudos or recognition. Advertising it as the “American from Paris” was probably not an award-winning campaign, either. This probably only emphasized the unfamiliar heritage of the car, and Chrysler had only clear American car connotations, which in Europe at that time meant “large”, “gas guzzler” and “style over substance”.
The feature car is a 1973 Chrysler 180, registered in the Czech Republic with an appropriate number, which was shown last July at the Simca-Talbot Club gathering in Beaulieu, England. Yes, there are so few of these cars in the UK now that the only example I have seen for many, many years is Czech-registered at a car show. Looks great in orange, too.
Chrysler dressed the car up a little, added a 2.0-litre version of the same engine, now with 107bhp, a three-speed Torquefilte automatic gearbox and a pair of auxiliary driving lamps in the grille, to create the Chrysler 2.0 litre with a vinyl roof as a finishing touch. In 1972, a range-topping car needed one, obviously. This debuted at the 1972 Amsterdam Motor Show, and was Chrysler’s largest car in Europe. Frankly, few noticed. Certainly, those counting visitors to dealerships were not troubled unduly.
In 1975, assembly was moved to Spain to free up Poissy for the Chrysler Alpine, and, from 1977, the Horizon. The Spanish plant actually came into Chrysler from the takeover of Barreiros, a manufacturer of diesel engines and local assembler of various Chrysler products. Spain was then, of course, only just beginning to emerge from dictatorship and preparing to join the European Common Market (now European Union), and the 180 was the largest car assembled there. Given that the labour costs were then relatively low, at least Chrysler could keep the costs low. Sales didn’t improve.
Barreiros also produced the diesel engine used in a version of the 180, which became the most successful variant. It was a typical diesel, with four cylinders, 2007cc and indirect fuel injection, developing 65 bhp and linked to a four-speed manual. This version became a popular taxi choice in Spain. The car was used also as the basis for many ambulance and hearse conversions in Spain. In 1977, the diesel engine was reduced in capacity to 1917cc to get under a Spanish taxation threshold.
In 1978, Chrysler sold the entire European operation to Peugeot and retreated to lick its wounds. This left the 180 an orphan – it had no role in the Peugeot lineup, there was no raw material in it that Peugeot wanted, and it had no sales base (outside the Spanish taxis). European sales continued until 1980 and, in Spain only, to 1982, as a diesel for the taxi market. UK sales were around 2000 a year in the mid 1970s and, over 12 years, around 280,000 were built. In 1982, it was superseded by the Talbot Tagora, which fared no better in the market–in fact, even worse.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that the first car that moved fully under my control was my Dad’s 1975 beige with black-vinyl roof and red (I mean RED) interior 2-litre Automatic (the badge said Automatique and there was a window sticker marking Matra’s victory at Le Mans in 1974, so committed were Chrysler to us thinking it was a British car) in and out of the garage. Like many owners, he had issues with the rear brakes, as the pads never really released the discs and consequently the pads wore excessively and heated up the hubs. The rear axle, complete with the suspension and then rare disc brakes, led to many cars being cannibalized for hot rods and the like, further depleting the ranks.
In 1974, Chrysler adapted the 180 for the Australian market. The car was locally assembled using French pressed body shells shipped to Tonsley Park. This variant, in true Australian derivative form and known as the Chrysler Centura, was fitted with either the 2.0-litre Simca engine (the Centura 4) or a 140 bhp, 215 CID (3.5-litre) Australian “Hemi” inline six (the Centura 6), which outsold the lower powered car by 4 to 1. Later, the 245 CID (4.0-litre) version of the six was fitted to some cars.
The Centura 6 had a reputation for a good acceleration and reasonable handling, even with the heavier six cylinder engine up front and no power steering.
Stylewise, Chrysler added a lengthened bonnet to take the six, as well as a twin headlamp set up. Rumour has it that this was based on a proposal for the Sunbeam 2000 version – we’ll never know, and I suggest we shouldn’t accept it as a fact, even if it does look quite Rootes, which had used twin headlamps and grilles like this on the Arrow and larger Humbers for many years. At the rear, there were new rear lights and trim strip.
The Chrysler 180 can be seen in various ways – an ill-fated attempt to build a competitive car in a multinational environment; an example of what happens if incomplete outside guidance, even when seen remotely as logical, is applied to something as subjective as consumer car choices; a fundamentally decent contemporary car let down by bland styling and lack of identity; or even as a mobile metaphor for Chrysler’s European adventure.
Mostly, though it is not seen as anything – it is forgotten. And I consider that a shame.