Curbside Classic: 1971 Simca 1200 S – Dress To Impress

What mental picture do you get from the name “Simca”? Assuming it rings a bell, you might think of the Aronde, the 1000 or the 1100 – Fiat-influenced four door saloons, not really designed to win races or beauty contests. But there was a pretty long line of sweet little coupés, penned by famous coachbuilders, that gave Poissy’s pedestrian product line a dash of glamour. Let us end French Coupé Week by taking a closer look at the final high-class Simca, the Bertone-designed 1200 S.

I cannot tell you how elated I was to see this sweet blue Simca on my usual Sunday CC romp. These are rare even in France now, but having talked with the owner for a bit, it appears that there is a grand total of two roadworthy examples in the whole of Japan. Simcas in general are pretty thin on the ground over here – even the aforementioned family saloons. Sure, the Zagato-bodied Alfa parked in front also warranted my full attention (and will get its day on CC, you can be sure of that), but a Simca coupé hits different.

You might think that Simca just followed the Karmann-Ghia recipe with this car: take your rear-engined people’s car down to Italy, come back with a sexy new two-door body, build back in your home country, sell at a hefty premium and laugh all the way to the bank. But it’s not a case of Poissy aping Wolfsburg, it’s the other way around.

In 1948, Simca launched their “Sport” model. Based on the Simca 8 (itself a licensed variant of the Fiat 1100), this cabriolet was clad according to the latest transalpine trends, courtesy of Stabilimenti Farina. Virtually identical styling was applied by the Turin carrozzeria to contemporary Fiats and Ferraris.

In 1950, a coupé version was added; subsequently, the chassis switched to the Aronde and the styling was refreshed – more modern, but with a tad less character. Simca in a nutshell, really.

Simca by Facel: above, 1953-56 Coupé de Ville; below: 1957-62 Plein Ciel

In 1953, the Simca Sport got a completely new body, courtesy of Facel – yes, those folks who did the Vega (not that Vega, the original Vega). In 1957, the coupé became known as the Plein Ciel and got yet another body, now with trendy wraparound windshield and pointy rear end. The Facel coupés and cabriolets were built until late 1961, by which time the Aronde itself was on the decline.

The new Simca for 1961 was the 1000, a boxy little four-door with a tail-mounted engine. Simca wasted no time in getting the range a new touch of pizzazz by commissioning Bertone’s Giorgetto Giugiaro to fashion a fine-looking coupé. It was ready for the 1962 Geneva Motor Show.

But pretty though it was, its modest 52hp 944cc engine meant it was less punchy than the coupés of yore. It soon developed a reputation as a relatively expensive and underpowered “lady’s car,” i.e. sales poison, especially in that time and place.

Sluggish sales (10,000 coupés sold in six years) did not deter Simca. The Bertone coupé was too slow? We’ll just stick a brand-new twin-carb 80hp 1.2 litre variant of the “Poissy” 4-cyl. in there and give it some much-needed vitamins. Too effete? Let’s send it back to Bertone and see what the new chief designer could do on that score.

Marcello Gandini had just finished putting the finishing touched on the Miura when he was tasked with retouching his predecessor’s work on the Simca. This might explain those grilles on the hood, which have a bit of a Lamborghini aftertaste. The bigger engine called for a front-mounted radiator, which meant the entire front end had to be opened up. Add a pair of in-board lamps to the face and some back-up lights in the back, and you’re turning this franchise around.

Simca couldn’t wait for the slow-selling 1000 Coupé to be overtaken by its more substantial successor and opted for a June 1967 launch, as opposed to saving the car for one of the autumn motor shows. Maybe those austere product planners at the Société Industrielle de Mécanique et Carrosserie Automobile had an inkling that the summer of ’67 was going to be a hot one, which would benefit their sexy new sports coupé.

Woah! As we can see from this 1970 ad, they certainly put a lot of effort in changing the car’s image. Yes, there is a car in this advert.

Even with the breast of intentions, the Simca would have to have some steak to go with all that sizzle. And it did: the 1204cc engine made a world of difference, finally justifying the four disc brakes Simca had seen fit to put on their coupé. In 1969, it gained an extra 5hp, pushing the top speed dangerously close to 180kph. This particular engine has had a few mods, including a Rallye head and an Abarth exhaust, so north of 180kph for our blue beauty.

All this came at a price – and quite a hefty one, all things being relative. The Simca was quite a bit dearer than, say, the Peugeot 204-304 Coupé or whatever Renault had going on in that field (the Caravelle in 1967-68, the Renault 15 from late ’71 on), but also a lot quicker. Let’s see what the state of play was like by the end of the 1200 S’s career – and when our feature car was new – back in the second half of 1971…

OK, the Mazda is a de facto 2-plus-litre car (and taxed as such in France), but if we’re looking at things in a vacuum, it does sort of fit the table. The CG was a plastic-bodied two-seater based on the Simca’s own platform, showing what a lighter and slipperier body could wring out of that 1.2 litre four.

In 1970, Simca officially ceased to exist as a company, being re-christened Chrysler France. Small pentastars started to appear on the cars, including on the 1200 S, just below the Bertone crest. The Campagnolo alloys were not on the options list, but are certainly period-correct, especially for a car with Italian connections…

Good on Bertone for designing a front-hinged trunk lid. But what is gained in terms of safety is lost from an accessibility standpoint. Not that there’s all that much space in there. You can’t do everything.

What is pleasing in every way, however, is that interior. This is the type of steering wheel that demands to be used with driving gloves. Oh look-ey there!…

Simca did not shy away from fielding the 1200 S in a few races, early in the model’s career. This culminated in the 1969 Simca 1800 XS, basically a 1200 S with the upcoming Chrysler 180’s 132hp 1.8 litre 4-cyl. engine. But by 1970, Simca had new partners in the sports arena: Chappe & Gessalin (CG), who were past masters at aerodynamic GRP-bodied prototypes, and Matra, who were into Formula 1 and Le Mans prototypes.

This meant that the checkered flag had come for the Simca sports coupé. The 1200 S was a decent seller, but the basic body was starting to show its age by this point. CG were trying to develop a clientele for their street cars (which never really took off), and there was the matter of Matra: the upstart aerospace company’s automobile branch had had a meteoric rise thanks to their performance on the track, but needed a road car to keep their business on an even keel.

Said road car, in 1970, was the M530 – an oddly-styled mid-engined machine that failed to really convince the enthusiast crowd. Simca and Matra worked together to develop a new sports coupé that would not feature a Ford V4 as its main attraction, but a tried and trusted Simca motor.

Now finished with a trendy vinyl top and assembled in Chrysler’s Rotterdam factory, the 1200 S Coupé sailed through 1971, but production was halted by the summer. Stocks were then sold until early 1972. Almost 15,000 units were made from 1967 to 1971, which goes to show that a “manly” facelift and a much better engine do go a long way. Duh.

On that bombshell, it’s time to bring the second French Coupé Week to a close. I wouldn’t hold my breath for a third edition, except if I happen upon a cache containing a Simca Sport, a Peugeot 404 or 504 C and a Fuego. It’s a tall order, but I’ve learned to expect the unexpected in this city.