Curbside Classic: 1985 Talbot Samba Cabriolet – Gone To Live On A Farm Upstate

I don’t want to end “French Oddball Coupé (ok, Cabriolet, in this particular instance) Week(s)” on a downer, but hey, it’s a Talbot. So down into the valley of tears, we plunge, dear friends. And it’s a particularly sad occasion, as this particular car sure looks like it’s on its last legs – just as its maker was when this Samba rolled off the production line, in fact.

I found this embodiment of a swansong in a field in Provence last summer. It’s registered as hailing from the Yvelines, though – that’s a département just west of Paris, where Versailles is. And coincidentally where Talbot’s Poissy factory (formerly Simca, and Ford before that) happens to be as well. At least, this sad little Samba is spending its last days in the sun…

When Talbot was resurrected by Peugeot in the summer of 1979, there were a few oven-ready projects in the pipeline at Poissy, courtesy of Chrysler Europe. One was the Solara, a notchback version of the Simca 1307/1308 (a.k.a Chrysler Alpine in the UK), which came out in early 1980. Another was the ill-fated Tagora, a large RWD saloon that was launched at the Paris Motor Show later that year. Legacy Simca-era cars that can be seen in the 1981 French range photo above also included the Horizon and two Matras – the Rancho and the new Murena. But for smaller cars, the cupboards were bare, and the Simca 1100 was well past retirement age.

To address this situation expeditiously, Peugeot finagled the Samba. It was a sort of lengthened 104 Coupé with a Talbot face – nothing too exciting or novel, but at least it was cheap and quick to put in production and sold throughout hatchback-hungry Europe. Yet when the Samba premiered in late 1981, little did anybody know that it would be the final new Talbot model.

Peugeot had a long-running connection with Pininfarina, and Talbot needed a dash of glamour for their new econobox, so the Italian firm was roped in to devise the Samba Cabriolet. The first cars were seen in Talbot dealerships in April 1982, about six months after the hatchback’s launch.

The Samba hatchback came in three basic trim levels (LS, GL and GLS); the Cabriolet was naturally based on the GLS, i.e. the deluxe version. This meant a bigger engine in the shape of the Peugeot-sourced 1360cc OHC 4-cyl., providing 72hp (DIN) via a 5-speed manual. Our feature car though, being a later model, has the upgraded 80hp engine thanks to a twin carb setup. Not too bad for an 850kg four-seater, but it’s no GTI.

Not many options could be added to the Samba Cabriolet, but one of the more popular ones was alloy wheels. None of that luxury here, though – the FF 60,000-plus price tag of the car, already kind of steep, was obviously enough of an expense for the person who ordered this cabrio back in the day.

Despite the high price, the Samba Cabriolet did pretty well in the European market. The simple reason for this was how unique it was in this category: one of the only comparable cars was the VW Golf Cabriolet, which was even more expensive.

I wasn’t going to do a full-fledged comparative table for this post, as they’re a lot of work and, as stated above, the choice of convertibles in this market segment was minuscule. But then I happened upon this excellent excerpt from the British magazine Autocar’s November 1982 test of the Samba Cabriolet. Isn’t the web great? I personally would have replaced the Citroën Visa with the Fiat Ritmo/Strada, which incidentally was available as a drop-top under the Bertone brand at the time (but not in the UK).

Despite its relatively high price, the Samba Cabriolet did offer four real seats in the open air, which had a lot of novelty value. Besides, there was a nice PF script on the B-pillar/rollbar to justify said expense. But unlike the 504 Coupé or the Alfa Romeo Spider, Pininfarina’s involvement in the Samba Cabriolet was strictly to do with design, not production.

Early model Sambas had a more Talbot feel to their dash, but a revamped all-black and all-square interior was introduced for MY 1984. A bit anonymous, but for the steering wheel that survived the revamp. These Cabriolets were decently appointed, for the times, including a radio, digital watch and power windows as standard. But boy, does that seat fabric look drab.

The extra 11cm in wheelbase, compared to the Peugeot 104 coupé, does make this a (tight) four-seater. Oh look, there’s the missing headlamp. And the local Poissy newspaper on the floor. We got light and light reading back here.

As a (relatively) cheap and cheerful halo car, the Samba Cabriolet fulfilled its purpose very competently. It helped making the Samba the most popular Talbot model ever by quite a margin: for MY 1982, the marque still managed to build over 225k cars, including over 120k Sambas. But this success failed to reassure Peugeot, who also saw that every other Talbot model was in virtual freefall compared to an already lacklustre 1981 model year.

Every year from that point forward, the Samba witnessed the demise of another member of the Talbot family. In 1983, the Tagora disappeared. In ’84, the Matras went away. The next year, it was the VF van and pickup – the last Simca 1100 derivative. Finally, in the summer of 1986, all remaining Talbot production was stopped at Poissy, including the Samba.

In this unmitigated industrial disaster, Peugeot did salvage one or two positives – and the Samba Cabriolet was definitely among them. This was an extremely niche car with a lousy brand image, but they still managed to shift 13,000 units in four years. It’s a very minor score in absolute terms (and especially compared to the 270k Samba hatchbacks), but it proved that there was clearly an appetite for drop-tops at the lower end of the market. Both Peugeot and Pininfarina made sure to bear this in mind with the 205.

Almost 40 years on, there aren’t too many Sambas (no matter the body style) to be seen about their native land. Most economy cars take longer than fancier or sportier models to escape banger status, and I don’t think we’re quite there yet with Talbot’s final automotive avatar.

Nevertheless, were any Samba to be deemed worth rescuing, this one would be a pretty good candidate. Wouldn’t bet on it, though. Old dogs don’t usually return from the farm upstate.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1984 Talbot Samba Sympa – Danse Macabre, by T87

Automotive History: French Deadly Sins (M.C. Escher Edition, Part 2) – Talbot, Almost Invincible, by T87