Auction Site Classics: Won Over By The French?

I recently gave CC a potted history of the first phase of my Dad’s car ownership history, as a way of adding context to a contemporary Chrysler UK advertisement which covered the range of cars offered in 1972. But by the end of the decade, the cars offered had changed substantially – only the Hillman Avenger remained from the old Rootes cars, albeit now heavily facelifted as the Chrysler Avenger. But what would Dad choose to replace his 1974 Chrysler 2 Litre saloon?

In the previous episode, we met Ken. Ken was the general manager and salesman of the garage Dad had bought all but one car from for many years – the only one that didn’t was a Triumph Toledo privately purchased from a colleague after three years of gentle use.

But in 1979, the Chrysler 2 Litre was considered due for replacement, and Ken had a very different set of cars to offer than he had the last time. Ken was no longer an agent for the American owned Chrysler Europe but for a new Peugeot owned company. The cars may not have changed branding yet, but the change was definitely in the air. Margaret Thatcher had just been elected, the 1980s were almost upon us, and the cars now came from the strong, secure and conservative house of Peugeot, not the British government bailed out Chrysler owned former Rootes Group.

In August 1979, the cars were all re-branded as Talbot (or Simca-Talbot in some Francophone markets), a name that had a French and a British history, and which could be traced through either the Peugeot or Rootes family tree. A new logo, unsubtle maybe, in red, white and blue which works in Britain and France, came with it.

A lot of effort and money was put in securing recognition and a future for the brand. The Talbot Sunbeam was sent rallying in the World Rally Championship, and did well, winning the flagship British RAC Rally in 1980 and the World Rally Championship in 1981, and the Talbot name was seen in Formula 1, as the title sponsor for the French Ligier team in 1981 and 1982.

Dad wanted an answer to the same question as before – a practical family car to carry up to five people, carry the stuff for holidays and student deliveries, and golf clubs. (He never had a formal handicap lower than 22 but got two holes in one over the years.)

In 1979, the Chrysler Europe range in the UK was still complex – there was the very compact Chrysler Sunbeam, a cut down Hillman Avenger derivative that matched the Vauxhall Chevette hatch very closely, though with a wider range of engines. Then you had a choice – the Avenger, now updated with bigger headlights and less distinctive rear lights under the Chrysler nameplate but also fighting a losing battle against the Vauxhall Cavalier, lower end Ford Cortinas and several Japanese models. If this was too conservative, there was the new Chrysler Horizon, the European take on the North American Omnirizon, the successor to the Simca 1100.

Above this, there was the Chrysler Alpine (sold in Europe as the Simca 1307 and 1308) – a five door hatchback developed from the Simca 1100 and using the same engine family. And if you really pressed your dealer, you could probably still get a Chrysler Hunter (Hillman Hunter, Sunbeam Arrow), but few would have bothered. The Sunbeam Rapier and Humber Sceptre had gone and not been replaced, after the Government bailout, and while the Chrysler 180 was still officially available, I can’t imagine many Chrysler dealers had one, let alone a smaller one like Ken.

Dad chose the Alpine, specifically a 1.4LS. 1.4 meant an 85bhp 1442cc Simca engine, the larger of the two available engines and LS the less opulent specification. By current standards, this was a fairly sparse specification, but it had most of the features he wanted, adding only a radio. It’s worth noting that by late 1970s standards, 85bhp from 1.4 litres was competitive with many 1.6 litre cars, like the Ford Cortina and Vauxhall Cavalier, and even a 1.8 litre Morris Marina. Allied to the low weight of the Alpine, it was a competitively lively car.

After the 2 Litre, it was another step change, not least to move from a semi-luxury automatic saloon to a smaller engined and more spacious manual transmission hatchback but also because of the very different nature of the driving experience – a much more engaging experience and definitely more modern and contemporary. This was a car that was conceptually not trying to match a contemporary Ford Cortina or Vauxhall Cavalier, or even an Austin Maxi, but was clearly part of moving the game on. It was closer to being a mid 1970s take on the Renault 16 than it was a Cortina competitor. A value for money VW Passat B1, if you like. With Lancia Beta like styling.

Dad’s car was navy blue, and right vs left hand drive aside, was pretty much exactly the same as this French registered example. The Alpine was sold in Europe as the Simca 1307 (1.3 litre) or 1308 (1.4 litre) initially, though various Pentastar badges appeared on it as well. Technically, it was derived from the Simca 1100, but with a three inch longer wheelbase and coil spring rather than torsion bar rear suspension. The engineering was French, the style was British, from the same studio in Coventry led by Roy Axe that had produced the Avenger and Chrysler 180, and to me at least, it remains a pretty good looking car – at least the original 1975 to 1980 cars.

There are perhaps 50 left on the roads of Britain, and maybe another 50 still registered, so to find one for sale is quite a challenge. So, in line with car’s French origins and greater success, I went to a French site to find this 1977 Simca 1307GLS, so, a 1.3 litre smarter trim version, in a distinctive and not unattractive green that was one of the launch colours. This car is advertised with 120,000km and “quelques points de corrosion” (you can probably guess, and it was weakness on them all). Still, brings back the memories.

Deep in the files I have an Alpine and Solara CC, partly waiting for a kerbside example, partly waiting for me to do it around a couple of car show examples (and stunning examples they were too). To some, it was fragile car with an awkward driving position forced by the relatively low roof and steering column with a noisy, if relatively powerful, engine. You could get used to one, but the other was always there. It was also comfortable, pretty spacious and whilst, not great, not a bad car to drive, and in our experience dependable.

It was clearly a very different car, but felt much more in tune with the times and actual needs we had, after the Chrysler 2 Litre.

In 1980, the Triumph Toledo, a 1972 model, was due for trading in. It had had a mixed life – 3 years of gentle use with Dad’s colleague, and then teaching three learner drivers, alongside the other usual uses of a second family car. It had served with distinction, failing only on corrosion, to the extent that we actually had it resprayed (from chocolate brown to bright orange – it was 1977). And, yes, Ken arranged that too. But change was in the air, and whilst no one realised it at the time, Ken made a mistake.

As Ken was the “go to guy”, Dad went to him. Ken was now a Talbot dealer, not a Chrysler dealer, and had a wider variety of cars available. There was an expectation that perhaps Mum would end up with a Talbot (nee Chrysler) Sunbeam, but Ken had something else on the forecourt. To someone who had never owned (and probably not driven) a car built outside the UK, Ken sold a 1978 Peugeot 104S. The 104 was in many ways a fairly typical European supermini, with a design dating back to 1972. The 104S was actually a semi-sports model, with alloy wheels, sports interior trim, a rev counter and some stripes, alongside a 1124cc engine. The car came with a documented history and a lowish mileage, and was size and shape correct for the needs. Unfortunately, that was to prove to be not enough.

Within two years, the cylinder head gasket went twice. The first repair was, I think, covered by the warranty Ken had included but the second wasn’t. It also built on a number of other smaller issues, as well some practical ones.

The interior had some odd ergonomics –  the dash layout itself had clearly been done in the dark after the Christmas party, the easiest way to operate the heater fan was to put your hand through the steering wheel to the switch, and the windscreen wipers, still nominally set for left hand drive,  cleaned only a pitiful area of the screen.  When it worked, it was nice to drive, though it did roll, and had cheerful seat trim. This 1979 example is for sale in France, with just 100,000km on the clock, and is the same colour as our car.

So, the 104 went in for the second head gasket repair with the comment that a change was needed. “Change” was code for “not Peugeot, but something more familiar”.

This proved to be a pre-owned 1981 Talbot Horizon 1.1LS – just about the slowest, least glamorous vehicle you could imagine, saved only by the Cherry Red paint. Very slow would be a kind way to describe it, with record breakingly low geared (and still heavy) steering and some very odd cockpit and interior features. The heater controls were on the dash, but to the righthand side of the steering wheel, so the passenger couldn’t adjust them and the rest of the dash looked bare to say the least, and there was a narrow binnacle holding just one large instrument, the speedometer.

So, smarter versions that had rev counters actually had a line of coloured LEDs across the top of the steering column shroud. And, if you used the windscreen washer, then the rear washer squirted as well, whether you wanted it or not.

The barren dash could be enlivened by a trip computer, one of the first in Europe. A novelty in this market, but also seen later in larger Talbots.

Space wise, this car was pretty good, with a sense sometimes that it had designed to be smaller inside than the Alpine. The tracks were similar, but the large wheelarch flares on the Horizon effectively made the cabin narrower.

These large flares were part of one the most memorable events of this car – the day it was stuck in the garage. The family garage then was a double, but bit a of squeeze for the Horizon and the Alpine, so when driving in, once through the door, you jinxed the Horizon left, towards the corner. When you went to get dinner out of the freezer, you had to push the Horizon back a couple of feet to get comfortable access. One day this resulted in the car being stuck between the freezer at the front and the doorjamb/post at the back. It took several hours of manhandling to get it out.

The silver car is being advertised in France – the Horizon is sufficiently scarce in the UK to make a search pretty fruitless, unless examples like the green car come up – it’s a 1984 1.5 litre automatic with 115,000km. Yours for €2200.

Dad liked the Alpine, once he got used to the driving position. In spring 1982, another was chosen, from Ken. By now, the car was a Talbot and had been facelifted, some say reducing its visual appeal and purity. I certainly don’t think it was an improvement to add bigger bumpers and rear lights, and reverse the distinctive reverse slope of the front grille and lights. But corporate design themes must rule, so it was done.

There was also now a saloon version of the Alpine, sold as the Talbot Solara, which arrived a mere five years after the hatch in March 1980. Was Dad tempted? It was more expensive, model for model, and less practical. In Yorkshire, that’s not a good look.

It’s a Solara in this advertisement, again form France, chosen because it seems to match the specification of that second Alpine.

So, it was a second Alpine, a 1600GL, now with a 1592cc version of the Simca engine, power steering, with just 2.5 turns lock to lock, and tinted glass. Power steering in this class was unusual in Europe at this time, and it was probably a response to the slightly cramped driving position of the car as much as anything. The interior had been gently rejigged, with slightly larger and softer seats, adding to the French image. And there was a rear wiper. Arguably, the car was now getting dated, and against the 1982 Ford Sierra and 1981 Vauxhall Cavalier, for example, it was now seen like a warm up act that had impressed at the time, but was just a warm up act.

This car performed well, as had the first Alpine. Comfortable, spacious and practical enough, a bit noisy and undemanding to drive, although the gearchange was still based on a long lever with a very long travel.

Bigger change was coming though, for the Alpine. It was becoming an orphan, as the Peugeot brand was clearly in the ascendancy within the Peugeot Group. There was not room, really, for three brands – Peugeot, Citroen and Talbot – and the first two had clear precedence over the Talbot name, with its somewhat artificial origins. It was not succeeding in its second home market of the UK, and the Simca badged version in France was fading fast. French production ended in 1983, with just right hand cars now being built in the UK and left hand drive production in Spain.

But Dad had more Rootes/Chrysler car to go – in early 1984, possibly because Ken had one of these offers on, he bought, no not a Tagora, but another Alpine, a 1600LS Series II. Series II denoted cars with a Citroen five speed gearbox, gently revised (so you’d barely notice it) interior and new sticky tape badges.  There were new steering column stalks too, though they still worked in the unusual style of the Simca ones that dated back to the late 1960s. For reason of availability, it was even the same metallic blue-grey as the previous car.

The last Alpines and Solaras in the UK were sold in two trim levels – Minx for the more basic and a fully trimmed Rapier, using old Rootes model names for one last hurrah. These versions were very much run out specials, lasting only a matter of months, before the cars finally retired in 1986.

Around this time, the garage business was sold, and Ken moved on to pastures new. That the new owners stopped offering credit for servicing, wanting paying on collection, was bad enough but there was worse.

The Talbot brand was dropped entirely (except for a van) and the dealer became a Peugeot agent. As far as Dad was concerned, after the 104 experience, Peugeots were a non-starter, even one such as the 405 that was new and considered probably best in class.

After 23 years and 9 cars, his link with Rootes and Chrysler ended and 1987 saw the start of the VW years. Three Jetta Mk2 and a Vento (Jetta Mk3 in the US) followed.

But I remember the Hillmans, Chryslers and Talbots best.