During the 1960s, Chrysler invested heavily in Australia, France (by buying SIMCA), and England (by buying Rootes Group). The first step towards unifying the European holdings was creating Chrysler Europe's new executive (luxury) car, to replace the Humber Hawk and bring Simca back into the market. The top-of-the-range Simca was the aging 1301/1501. In Britain, the big Humbers, dropped in 1967, were semi-replaced by imported Australian Chrysler Valiants.
Both companies had already started their own large-car projects. In 1966, Rootes had started to scale up of the Avenger concept, while SIMCA had started on Projet 929. Neither was finished.
To create the new car, Simca and Rootes were brought together for the first time. In early 1969, the competing design teams made their proposals to senior men in Chrysler Europe; the British showed a fully costed car, with all the specifics, while the French simply said that “ours is cheaper and better.” Senior management thus cancelled the French project in favor of the UK’s proposal.
As a Rootes product, it was to have become three cars in the UK alone – a basic Hillman, a sporting Sunbeam 2000, and a top of the line 2.5 liter Humber Hawk. Humber was well established as a luxury brand thanks to the Super Snipe and Hawk. There was also a proposal to stretch the floor pan to form a D (large) car, replacing the Super Snipe, which was dropped in 1970.
A new 60° 2.0/2.5 liter V6 engine was created by the British for the car, but because France taxed cars by engine size and power, Simca created four-cylinder versions. Four 2.5 liter prototype Humber Hawks were built to evaluate the project; the V6 engine was also tested in Avenger bodies, which were extremely rapid but prone to understeer.
British thoughts of fitting a de Dion rear suspension system á la Rover 2000 were abandoned in favour of a coil sprung live rear axle, but MacPherson strut front suspension and four wheel disc brakes did make it to the final production car. The five speed gearbox was also dropped.
Chrysler progressively moved all research and development from Humber Road into a new plant in Whitley, on the outskirts of Coventry, purchased in 1969. The Research Centre’s first major project was the styling and development of this series of cars.
First thoughts included four headlamps and a full width rear lighting assembly. Like the Avenger, the shape was almost pure Detroit. Designer Roy Axe wrote, “I was Director Design Chrysler UK then, and the boss was Gilbert Hunt. The project designer was Curt Gwinn, who I had hired in. He was a Chrysler USA designer but not at the time I hired him, so he was a genuine UK employee, not a transferee. Curt never went back to the USA. He worked for me for quite a time and eventually became the designer in charge of advanced projects for Peugeot in France.”
In early 1970, Chrysler Europe decided to have just one version, built in France, for both markets. It retained most of its UK styling, but was given a Simca-styled front end and interior.
Laurence Roe wrote: [In 1970, I worked] at Chrysler's factory in Linwood.
I was shown a large collection of dies with red rings painted around many of the screw holes to indicate non-metric screws. They said they kept running out of them, and that the dies were for a new model of car that was to have been produced in France and the UK, but since the British were about to join the EU, the tarrif barriers would disappear, so the French factory had gotten all the production.
The Rootes flavour was watered down; real wood trim, leather seats, and air conditioning were dropped, a pattern that would be followed with the C6 (Alpine) and C2 (Horizon), although the UK continued to have considerable engineering input.
The biggest shock was the decision to drop the British V6 engine. According to Graham Robson's book, The Cars of the Rootes Group, “Design was complete and development well on the way, with dozens of prototypes running when, suddenly, at the beginning of 1970, the British end of the project was cancelled. Tooling already being installed at Humber Road for production of the V6 engine was ripped out. The Simca engined car was launched later in 1970.”
Of the £38 million set aside to develop the V6 engine, £31m had been spent when the engines were cancelled; tooling was scrapped or converted. The decision was a blow to morale in the UK, and made the car less distinctive.
When the Chrysler 180 range was initially launched in France it met with apathy from most elements of the press. That is not to say that it was a bad car. Technically it may not have been exciting, but it was up-to-date.
The Chrysler 160, Chrysler 160GT and Chrysler 180 were introduced at the Paris Salon in October 1970. They were promoted as being ‘an American from Paris’! They had been known inside Chrysler France as the Simca 1800 project, and replaced the Simca 1501, taking the company back into the luxury sector for the first time in a decade.
All had four cylinder engines with electronic ignition and an overhead camshaft. Performance didn’t set any records but they were comfortable and robust. The 160 (in France’s 9CV taxation band) came with a 1639cc, 80 bhp motor and had a top speed of 155km/h. The 160GT and the 180 shared an 1812cc 97 bhp motor and a top speed of 170km/h. The former was effectively a larger engined version of the slightly less well trimmed 160.
Both 1812cc cars were in the 10CV class and had four wheel disc brakes; the others had discs up front, drums out back. Transmission was to the back wheels with a choice of four speed manual or three speed automatic gearboxes.
The British launch of the Chrysler 180 followed in early 1971. Chrysler’s public pull-out of the British end did not endear it to commentators, who were still capable of treating British and “foreign” cars in a totally different way.
In Motor, Jerry Sloniger came away guarded: “...the finest feature of this new engine, [was] its very real ability to wind high and sing...It is elastic from 1500 to 6000, an advantage with a sticky gearshift; second proved particularly difficult to locate in a hurry. ... Not even radial tyres could properly control strong understeer into the bends and read-wheel breakaway despite an eggshell treading throttle foot. Steering is fortunately precise enough to catch the incipient spin...”
French journalists confirmed that the new car was not a car for keen drivers although for the long distance motorist, cruising along the autoroutes of Europe, it was a comfortable and relaxing way to travel.
Even in France, the new Chrysler-Simca did not sell well at all. The Simca 1501 had remained in production for export markets to use up the stocks of parts but was eventually re-introduced into France in 1974 due to poor Chrysler 160/180 sales! In Britain, the sales story was even worse - it sank without a trace.
At the end of 1972, Chrysler added chrome; a new type of snap-in metal trim surrounded the windshield and rear window. The power of the Chrysler 180 was increased slightly to 100 bhp.
Launched in 1972 (for the 1973 model year), the Chrysler 2 Litre was a luxurious car, available only with Chrysler’s Torque-Flite automatic transmission, with a standard full length vinyl roof and spot lights. It had a 1981cc, 110hp engine and could hit 107 mph. The wheel size was 14 inches, one inch bigger than the 180. A small “2L” logo on the rear quarter panel showed that the car was the top line European Chrysler; the same wheels and hubcaps were now used on the 160 and 180, and the vinyl roof became an option for the other cars.
The 2.0 litre motor was an overhead cam, alloy-head crossflow engine with a two barrel Weber carburetor having a water controlled choke and a thermatic fan.
The series was finally given a six cylinder engine, albeit an Australian straight-six, when it was sent to Australia as the Chrysler Centura. There, it had a low end with the two liter, and a high end with the 245 or 265 straight-six.
In 1975, production of the entire line was moved to Spain, with few mechanical changes.
In 1977, the Chrysler 180 and the Chrysler 2 Litre became the Chrysler-Simca 1610 and the Chrysler-Simca 2 Litre and, for the first time, the Simca badge appeared on the boot lid. However, the pentastar of Chrysler replaced the model logos on the grille. The Chrysler 160 became the 1609, with a twin barrel carburettor to increase power to 90 bhp.
With the new model numbers, which did not affect the 2 Litre, the first two digits were the engine size of the smallest car in the range, and the second two numbers were the French taxation class. The 1610, which replaced the 180, inherited the 2 Litre’s vinyl roof and long range driving lamps. In the UK, the 1610 remained the 180. All had Chrysler’s points-free electronic ignition system.
In 1978, Chrysler sold all its European operations — profitable on the strength of SIMCA — to raise cash back home; its Australian operations went to Mitsubishi. On January 1st, 1979, possession of Ryton and Poissy changed. A few months later, the European Chrysler cars became Talbots.
In France, the 1610 moved to a 1981cc motor with the manual transmission, but it was not renamed. In Britain, a manual was added to the 2 Litre options and the 180 was quietly dropped. During 1979 and 1980, there was some extremely limited ‘restyling’ of the Chrysler: the chrome side trims became thicker and got rubber inserts, the grill had only two chrome strips, and the hub caps were replaced by a simplified style. Some of this may have been in the works before.
In 1980, a Talbot badge appeared on the bonnet of the French “Talbot-Simca” cars, but the Chrysler pentastar remained in the centre of the grille. For the 1981 model year, the name Simca was dropped in favour of Talbot. In Britain, the car remained a Chrysler until it was dropped from the price lists in the spring of 1981.
Throughout the ten-year life of the 180 series, there seemed to be no policy to develop or support the car. No effort was made to update its equipment to keep pace with the market. The Chrysler Alpine/Simca 1307 gained electric windows, central locking, and an indicator lamp for the hand brake, the upmarket 180 got none of this.
The French thought it wasn’t French enough. The British, with no taxation based on engine size, opted for cars with larger engines. Only the Spanish seemed to have any time for the car, and even then it was mainly taxi drivers who bought the car, appreciating its comfortable ride and low price.
A fair number were sold to Eastern Europe.
My father bought a new 1971 Chrysler 180 (the new series without the ventilation openings in the C-pillar) in the new brown-red metallic colour (Sable).
My brother had two used 180s and I drove two used 2-Litres.
These 2-Litres always have been a marketing mystery to me. I cannot think of a good reason why somebody in the seventies would buy a new 2 Liter instead of a 180. Yes, it had standard automatic gear, vinyl roof, and two front fog lamps. But it had slower accelleration than the 180 (handshifted), fuel consumption at best was 1 liters to 8 km, compared to the easily achieved 1:10 of the 180, and understeer was even worse due to its heavier engine.
Still, I loved my 2 litres (and the 180). It was a good highway traveller, stable, spacious and comfortable. Stable as they were, they hated cornering due to the weight ratio. The steering was direct but quite heavy. The small steering wheel added to this and one cannot understand these Chryslers were not equiped with power steering.
The cars were simple, almost too simple, in construction and equipment. The engines were modern, reliable, and could stand prolonged high speed travels very well (from our experience at least). The engine type survived the carline and found its way into the Peugeot 505. But all French Chryslers suffered from rust problems (like the fatal rot of the front chassis booms that the suspension is mounted on) and troublesome brakes that would see disc pads worn at one side only as the “free moving” saddle wouldn’t move back properly.
I also recall the minimalistic headlamp fixation which. The unit had to be taken out when replacing the bulb, then you had to snap the unit into three tiny plastic holders (two for adjusting screws, one fixed point) which might be worn out or cracked.
These holders were placed in such a thin metal rim that with an older car because of corrosion it could easily happen that there was nothing left for the unit to be fixed back to!
Browsing through brochures from different years, one sees all kind of alterations and oddities. On the first pictures of the new French Chryslers, one can see that cars where to be named 1600 and 1800 but the last zero had been blackened. On the 1970 picture of the 160, the black grill logo clearly shows “1600.” The same goes for the introduction poster of the 180.
With the first (silver-grey) catalogue of the French Chrysler, one may notice none of the models had a midconsole. There may have been a small 1 or 2 cm deep coin collector in front of the gear lever, but whatever it was, it has been retouched away from the photos.
The first series had a simple but very pleasant American style interior with color matched window handles, door handles, ceiling, and other details. Then, the man with the red pencil must have come along, looking for simplifications to cut cost. Gone were many of these color keyed parts. The 180 also lost the two pretty red bars in its grille. However, in the last production years the French Chryslers had very attractive velours interiors in gold brown and beige.
In the 1972 Chrysler 180 catalogue I found a picture of a 180 the has one black (old model) headlamp rim and one (new model) aluminium-color headlamp rim (see the concerning detail of that picture below). Incredible! One wonders how critically the PR department looked at the pictures they were to use..... Once I noticed in a catalogue of a different brand big fat fingerprints on the chrome work!
Chrysler could have done so much better with these models. It is unbelievable that the 6-cylinder version never appeared. It would have been such a boost for sales and might have made this carline the succes it deserved to be.
For me: happy memories.
Chrysler 180 styling: prototypes (at Rootes-Chrysler)
• Chrysler Centura (at allpar)
Making the Chrysler 180 and SIMCA in Spain
All Mopar Car and Truck News