I’m not sure this really still exists, but there used to be a time when a car could be typically French – or indeed, typically British, American or Japanese. It’s not easy to define, but it is a recognizable trait. And in the Simca 1501, we have something that manages to be about as un-French as a French car could be.
So how did the good people at Simca, who were based on the outskirts of Paris since the late ‘20s, manage to pull a trick like that? It helps that the Simca of the ‘60s that created and produced this 1501 saloon was formed of an impossible collection of bits of Fiat, Ford, various small French marques like Talbot, all of which was now owned by Chrysler.
But it goes deeper than that. And Simca were also capable of producing very French cars, such as the 1100, launched in 1967. What made it French? It was Simca’s first FWD car, it was a hatchback, was softly-sprung, had a noisy 4-cyl. engine, dodgy build quality… it was, you know, French. The 1501, on the other hand, was RWD, had a trunk, did not have a particularly soft ride, wasn’t too noisy and had dodgy build quality.
Well, actually, the build quality was pretty decent for a ‘60s car. Starting in 1967, Simca’s entire range was sold with a two-year warranty (or 60,000km) – pretty damn good at a time when the rival carmakers were usually able to guarantee their wares for six months only. Perhaps that’s why the 1501 was a decent seller abroad, and particularly in Germany, where it was Simca’s surprise hit of the period.
Let’s recap the model’s history, as these cars are not necessarily familiar to all. The 1300/1301 and 1500/1501 family of cars were originally launched in March 1963 to replace the car that really made Simca, the Aronde, as well as the Ariane. The idea was to start with a clean sheet body-wise, but reuse the Aronde’s well-proven underpinnings and aim at a slightly bigger car. It ended up being the last Simca launched by H-T. Pigozzi, the founder of the company, as he was deposed mere weeks after unveiling the 1300 in Geneva.
As the base model using its esteemed predecessor’s engine, the 1300 debuted first. The 1500, officially launched as a ’64 model at the October 1963 Paris Motor Show, had a new 1.5 litre engine (similar but unrelated to the old Aronde block) that could propel the new Simca to new heights – after all, this was to be the firm’s top of the range. Both the 1300 and the 1500 were available as a four-door saloon or as a very fine-looking wagon, which, in fancy GLS trim, were genuinely luxuriously appointed.
In October 1966, the 1301 and 1501 appeared. The saloon gained over 20cm in length, almost all of it behind the rear wheels. The nose and dashboard were updated, but the biggest change was the rear end, which was markedly elongated and traded its cute round taillights for a more complex horizontal design. The wagon, for its part, stuck with its vertical lights until the end.
For after this major refresh three years into its production run, the 1301/1501 changed very little and just kept going for another eight model years. Chrysler, for it was they who were calling the shots, wrung 15 seasons out of that platform. A decent performance, though by contemporary French standards, not out of the ordinary. After all, the Citroën DS persisted 19 years; the Renault 16 went on for 15 years; the Panhard Dyna / PL17 saloon also did 12 years and the Simca Aronde went to 13 years. But the all-time champion was Peugeot. The 404, the 504, the 204/304 and the 104 all blew through 15 years at least.
Speaking of which, and because it’s been a while since I’ve done this, let’s take a gander at a few other family cars of the era and see how our Simca compares. First, here’s the Simca range for 1967. The 1301 was worth a few hundred francs less than the 1501 at the same trim level. Our car says it’s a GLS on the grille, and though I have my doubts, I’ll use that trim level for the comparison table.
That Ford looks like a lot of car for the money – and certainly one can see why Panhard were going out of business (they closed at the end of that model year). Citroën didn’t really have a horse in the 1.5 litre class race, but their most basic 2-litre cost just a bit more than the fanciest Simca. However, the ID’s bigger engine meant much higher yearly tax. The Simca’s real competitors were the Renault 16 and the 404. The 404’s brilliant engine went along with a dated look, but also excellent build quality. The Renault was as modern as they come, but not that well put together. All in all, there were now many FWD options on the table, so the Simca’s classic layout, while not a total outlier, wasn’t exactly fresh.
I left out the transmission from the table, because it would have been identical for all cars, though I’m not 100% sure about the Ford – those initially made do with a 3-speed, but by 1967, I think that was no longer the case. Like nearly all European cars of this category, the Simca came standard with a 4-speed manual. There was a Borg-Warner 3-speed automatique available as an option (an increasingly common option in this category by the mid-‘60s), but very few ever ordered it.
The 1301/1501 of this era came with a column change as standard, but a floor change such as the one found in out feature car was no-cost option. This is a reflection of the times, as column shifters started looking passé by the mid-’60s in Continental Europe. Let’s take a closer peek inside…
The dash design, compared to the 1500, is much more modern – if a tad austere. This car marks the start of Simca’s long-lasting infatuation with plastic wood, which moved from the dash to conquer steering wheels, consoles and pretty much anything that wasn’t upholstered by 1969 or so. I’ll take austere over that, personally. This 1501’s dash looks pretty similar to a late ‘60s Renault or Peugeot, so in this instance, it’s pretty much as French as it could be.
There isn’t too much legroom back there. That’s another un-French trait: back seat passengers in the Renault 16 or the Citroën ID 19 were provided with far more living space – and a flat floor. This looks much more like the back of a Fiat 124 or a BMW 1600-2.
I’m not sure about this grille badge. If this were a 1501 GLS – i.e. the highest trim level until the Spéciale replaced it in 1969, the rear seat should have a central armrest, which this one did not have. It would also have different hubcaps and a much wider piece of chrome trim on the door sills. Maybe the owner of this Simca needed a new grille and only found this one. These cars are not exactly common any longer – especially earlier models – so I imagine one must take what one finds.
Here’s one you won’t find: the 1969 Spéciale hatchback coupé. Coachbuilder Heuliez, who was involved in the manufacture of the 1301/1501’s body panels, proposed this three-door 1501 at the 1968 Paris Motor Show, along with a 1100 drop-top. Nobody bit on either car, least of all Simca, but they still exist. At least, it compelled Simca to intensify their working relationship with Heuliez, so this dead end proved fruitful.
Not that the car is void of chrome trim. It’s plenty generous on that score, as it should be given the era and segment. French cars were not especially renowned for their brightwork though. That was more of an American thing. It just so happens that a pentastar was discreetly added to the big Simcas from the ’67 model year – quite appropriate, as Detroit’s control of the company was, by that year, complete. The old Simca logo, a stylized swallow, though still present on the steering wheel hub, would not make it to the ‘70s.
Yes, that was highly symbolic. But that’s what matters, especially when defining fuzzy notions of national automotive identity / tropes. And don’t worry if your notion of what constitutes a “French car” differs from someone else’s – this all depends on where the comparison is made from. British folks view French cars in one way, but Scandinavians, Italians, Canadians or Indonesians have their own views on the matter. Comfort, quirky / weird designs and hit-and-miss reliability are generally part of the mix, but your mileage may vary considerably.
As regards the Simca 1501, the French themselves were pretty keen to own one, even after a new top-of-the range proposition was made available. In 1971, the 1501 was deleted from the French range so that the Chrysler 160/180 could take over as top dog. Unfortunately, the canine nature of the beast was noticed and sales were dismal, particularly in France.
For model year 1974, Chrysler France decided to swallow its pride and reintroduce the 1501 (which was produced only for export in 1972-73) in its natural environment, where it held the fort alongside the 1301 until the Simca 1307/1308 (known in the UK as the Chrysler Alpine) took over. The last 1501s came out of Poissy in the summer of 1976, by then looking quite ready for retirement.
So where does this leave us? The 1301 / 1501 range, despite or thanks to its conservative technical specs and styling, was one of Simca’s greatest hits. It was also a transitional model, marking the change between the Fiat-influenced and Ford-tinged all-conquering Simca of the past and the Titanic that was Chrysler Europe.
As far as I know every 1301 / 1501 was put together in that country, but Italian designers and American money made it more of a world car, though it mostly sold in Western Europe. The end result is competent and handsome, if a tad on the bland side. Tending more toward Opel, rather than Lancia. But whatever it is, it’s not a typically French car. Is that a good thing or bad thing? I think we can only answer this appropriately by a shrug.