The Chrysler Alpine, SIMCA 1307 / 1308, Talbot 1510, and Talbot Solara
The Chrysler Alpine started in 1972 as the replacement for the Simca 1500. The Alpine’s project code was C6 (the later Horizon was the C2), with engineering handled by SIMCA in France, and styling by the U.K.’s Roy Axe.
Burton Bouwkamp wrote that, as early as 1974, the car was tagged as being worthy of sale in the United States:
The boss (President) in 1974 was Lynn Townsend. He sent George Butts (Vice President of Product Planning), Len Piconke (Director of Marketing), and I (Director of Product Planning) to Europe to find a small car for Chrysler USA. We worked Monday through Thursday at the Chrysler-Europe Technical Center at Whitley near Coventry, England and flew home on Friday. We worked Saturday and Sunday at Highland Park on the presentation for Monday AM.
We recommended that Chrysler build the Chrysler Europe C6 in the USA. After our presentation, Lynn said, “I sent a bunch of high priced executives to Europe to find a subcompact and they come back with a stupid blankety-blank recommendation like this!” He never explained why he felt that way — too expensive and not profitable enough I guess.
The C6 (Chrysler Alpine) was only a clay model in 1974, and it won Europe's Car of the Year award in 1976 — beating out BMW, Ford, VW, etc. It was the right product for Chrysler America!
In 1975 I was made head of the Whitley Technical Center and we did another European Car of the Year in 1978 — the Chrysler Horizon. Lynn Townsend had retired and Chrysler decided to build that design in the USA. The American version (Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon) was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1978. Between Europe and the USA we built more than 3,000,000 Horizon/Omnis over the next ten years. Chrysler USA could have had a winner two years earlier.
[As for Townsend’s rationale:] He was a “bean counter” who came from an accounting firm. I don't think he understood that our dealers needed a car at the bottom of the market to be successful. ... [Compared with Horizon,] It would have been successful but at a lower volume because, although better looking, it was slightly longer (not wider), heavier, and more expensive to build, so it would have to be priced slightly higher than the Horizon.
The Simca 1500 was a conventional sedan, but SIMCA decided that a more modern successor would work better, basing the architecture on the highly popular Simca 1100/1204. The C6 would, in short, be a front wheel drive hatchback. The C6 was designed around the 1294cc and 1442cc (1.3 and 1.4 liter) Simca 1100 variations, with gearboxes and many suspension components shared. The project name recorded on full-size styling clay models was even “Super 1100.”
There were originally plans to produce a rear wheel drive version for the British and North European markets, with France and southern Europe getting front wheel drive. However, Simca engineers eventually won over their colleagues on front wheel drive, and only French engines were used, because engineering the mounts for British engines would set back the launch date by six months. These decisions may have hurt the car’s sales in the UK: British buyers at the time were conservative, and the best-selling cars in the segment were the Ford Cortina, Morris Marina, and Hillman Avenger. Sticking to a single hatchback effectively shut Chrysler out of this market.
Production would take place at Poissy and, later, at Ryton as well. Avenger could then move to Linwood, where the bodies were already made. The Hunter would be shunted off to Ireland to see out its remaining days. Why the decision was made not to replace the Avenger at the time of the C6's launch (thereby eliminating a large model overlap) could be put down to Chrysler UK wanting to keep the Linwood facility whilst maintaining sales with a tried, tested and relatively young car (avoiding an Airflow situation).
Alpine launched as the Chrysler - Simca 1307 and Simca 1308GT
The Chrysler-Simca 1307 and 1308 were introduced at the Paris Salon in October 75 with the new “Bienvenue a bord” slogan. They were the first of the “Chrysler-SIMCA” cars, with the Chrysler badge on the bonnet and the Simca badge at the rear.
The Chrysler-Simca 1307GLS, 1307S and 1308GT range appeared with electronic ignition (a first in France, and due to Chrysler’s invention of the system in the early 1970s). Front disc and rear drum brakes, front wheel drive, rack and pinion steering, and 155SRx13 radial-ply tyres were all sound contemporary features. Top speed for the 1307GLS was 94mph.
The new models were initially offered alongside the Simca 1301, since there was no saloon or estate (sedan or wagon) version of the 1307/1308. The 1308GT was refined and rapid, offered with electric windows and had a top speed of 102mph. It was equipped with a 1442 cc (8CV) motor which developed 85hp (DIN) at 5,600 rpm while the 1307 GLS had the same 1294 cc (7CV) engine as the 1100 Special, with 68hp (DIN).
In between the two, the 1307 S used the 1294cc engine of the Simca 1100TI, with two carburettors and produced 82hp (DIN) at 6,000 rpm. The 1442cc engine was an enlarged version of the venerable Simca engine used in the 1100. The stroke was increased from the 70mm of the 1294cc to 78mm, while the bore of both engines remained the same, at 76.7mm. A total of 32,836 Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308s were produced in France during 1975 – not bad bearing in mind that production only started in September.
The original three car range made quite an impact, and although its ex-Simca 1100 front wheel drive platform was seen as long-in-the-tooth by some, its layout in that sector of the middle market was still something of a novelty. The slightly more upmarket Renault 16 now had something to fear.
Reaction to the Chrysler Alpine in the UK
Reaction at that year's London Motor Show was positive. The UK name, Chrysler Alpine, drew on the heritage of the Rootes Group.
The official line was that the Alpine and Avenger were complementary, though playing in the same market, and the older car would remain in production. It was a curious situation.
The Alpine was put on sale in Britain in January 1976. Two versions were offered – a 68bhp 1294cc GL and an 85bhp 1442 S. In March 1976, 1,690 Alpines were sold, compared with 2,400 Avengers, 2,000 Hunters and 2,882 Austin Maxis.
Following the launch flurry, sales were slow, possibly because the engine and trim options were limited. For a car that was aimed at a market so fixated on these details, the lack of 1.6- and 2-litre engines was seen as a major handicap.
Advertising in the UK played very much to the Alpine's practicality, using the strapline, "The seven-days-a-week car." In national advertising, William Woollard was drafted in to explain why the hatchback was just what we all needed, and that even though its engines were dimensionally challenged, they were equally as capable as its larger-engined rivals. It was not an inspired advertising campaign.
In France, the Chrysler-Simca 1308 sold in large numbers. In the first twenty days that the car was on the market, 20,000 were ordered by eager French motorists. The new car was pitched at the very heart of the 7/8CV market, where the majority of sales lay, and where there was a dearth of contemporary five-door cars to choose from. The top-of-the-range 1308GT was particularly well received in France, where the combination of lively performance (thanks to 85bhp from 1442cc), practicality, and capable chassis, was seen as genuinely new in its class. A team of 49 judges from 15 countries awarded the Alpine/Simca 1308 the coveted Car of the Year award for 1976. Other awards included Scandinavian Car of the Car, courtesy of Norway, Finland and Sweden. Denmark and Belgium also gave it their Car of the Year awards.
Although the Simca 1307/1308 was commercially significant in France, it did not enjoy international appeal, due largely to what were seen as limited and dated engines.
SIMCA 1308 sales boom
At the start of 1976, production at the Poissy plant was running at 900 units a day – not enough to satisfy demand. On April 2nd, 1976, the 100,000th Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308 rolled off the French production line. Production increased from May to 1,050 a day and on November 16th the 250,000th example was built.
In 1976, the Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308 accounted for 7% of total French car sales – more than the Renault 12, Citroen GS, Simca 1100 and Peugeot 304 together!
In France in 1976 the Chrysler-Simca 1307 GLS sold for ₣22,920, the 1307 S sold for ₣25,120, and the 1308GT sold for ₣26,920. By comparison, Simca 1000 prices ranged from ₣13,860 to 20,060, whilst the Simca 1100 ranged from ₣18,080 to 24,200. The veteran Simca 1301 Special sedan could still be bought for ₣20,560 while the slow-selling Chrysler 160 range was priced at ₣24,610 to 28,740.
A total of 218,126 Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308s were produced during 1976; it was SIMCA’s most popular model.
Success in France continued into 1977 even with price increases. The 1307 GLS sold for ₣25,570, the 1307 S for ₣28,290 and the 1308GT for ₣30,300. A total of 258,195 1307/1308s were produced in 1977.
The Chrysler Simca 1308S was introduced in January 1978. It had the finish and features of the 1307 S, but with the drivetrain of the 1308 GT. For 1978, the 1307 GLS sold for ₣26,980, the 1307 S for ₣29,950, the 1308 GT for ₣32,100 and the new 1308 S for ₣30,350. However, the car’s popularity was starting to wane – just 156,875 1307/1308s were produced in 1978, although to a certain extent the new Horizon had stolen sales from its older and bigger sister. Indeed, Horizon production in its first full year exceeded that of the 1307/1308!
By 1979, Chrysler-France held an 11% share of the French market. The Chrysler-Simca 1309SX Automatique debuted for 1979. Although the 9 at the end of the name was meant to indicate that it was a 9CV vehicle, new French tax laws took effect at the same time and this car was actually considered 8CV. It had a new 1592cc engine created by stretching even further the original Simca 1118cc engine! The new engine produced 88hp (DIN) at 5400 rpm and could hit 102 mph.
In March 1979, the limited edition 1308 Jubilee appeared. It featured a two-tone paint job and body coloured bumpers. The glass was tinted, the front windows electric, the upholstery velour and the wheels light alloy. The inflation ridden seventies showed in the steadily rising cost of motoring. In 1979, the 1307GLS sold for ₣29,600, the 1307S for 32,900, the 1308GT for ₣35,200 and the 1309SX for ₣41,650. The limited edition Jubilee sold for ₣39,950. A total of 112,966 1307/1308/1309s were produced in 1979, continuing the slide that had started in the previous year.
Trouble in England...
During this time, the British end of the Chrysler Europe operation went through hard times. The British plants survived thanks only to a major injection of government cash, conditioned on production of the Alpine at the Ryton factory near Coventry. The original plan to build the car in both countries had been abandoned as a result of Chrysler UK’s shrinking market share, and endless stoppages at the British factories.
In August 1976, the first Coventry-built Alpines had rolled off the line at Coventry; and allied with local production of its engines, UK content of the Alpine was about 50%. The Alpine was more of a domestic choice than the Ford Cortina or the Vauxhall Cavalier (many were imported from Europe at this time to compensate for strike-bound UK plants) but it continued to fail to capture the public's imagination. The launch of a luxurious Alpine GLS in September 1976 failed to awaken the market’s interest. In September 1977, the option of the 1442cc engine was added to the GL option list and in December 1978 LS 1300 and 1442 models joined the price list. The S model was dropped.
The range was extended, like its French counterpart, over the next couple of years to embrace the 1592cc version of the Alpine's engine, but Chrysler's problems in the USA affected the Alpine/1308's destiny from this point onwards.
Chrysler sells to Peugeot
Chrysler had mounting losses in the United States; Highland Park needed operating funds desperately to avoid bankruptcy. At the end of 1978, Peugeot bought Chrysler Europe, providing much-needed capital which gave Chrysler enough time to arrange for the notorious “loan guarantees,” and ended the Rootes Group money pit.
PSA announced in July 1979 that "Chrysler Europe shall become the Talbot Groupe and that all Chrysler-Simca models would become Talbot-Simcas." The Alpine/1308 range was renamed the Talbot-Simca 1510 in France and Talbot Alpine in the UK. Both wore the Talbot "T" badge on the grille, and, in France, the Simca badge on the rear hatch.
At the end of 1979, the Alpine received its first facelift, with new trim/colour combinations and a stylish “lean back” nose which gave the range a more modern appearance. Talbot's range was finally beginning to look like an Anglo-French family, thanks to the shared “faces” of the Sunbeam, Horizon and Alpine/1510.
The 1980 Alpine range for Britain was launched in January 1980, with the new grille. Options now included a 66bhp 1300 LS, 1500 LS, GL and GLS models, all producing 85 bhp. There was also a top of the line 1600SX with a standard three speed automatic gearbox.
In April 1980, Talbot unveiled the Solara, a four door, three box version of the Alpine/1510, which had been conceived originally (by Chrysler) to replace the Chrysler 180. At 170 inches, it was three inches longer than the Alpine, with a floor pan modified aft of the rear seats to accommodate a huge boot (trunk) and a half inch more rear legroom than the hatchback. Sporting the new, sleeker, front end and available in some appealing colours, the Roy Axe design looked modern some five years after the launch of the original car.
Available in 1.3- and 1.6-litre form in the UK and 1.4- and 1.6-litre form in France, the Solara was pitched right at the heart of the company car sector. However, the road testers were less than convinced by the overall competence of the Solara, making unflattering remarks about its pushrod engine. Solaras and Alpines were, along with Horizons, also built in Finland at the same factory which later made the Porsche Boxter.
The end of the line for Simca
The Talbot Groupe did not last long - formed in 1980, it was disbanded only a few months later. With its demise went any real hope of the marque continuing under Peugeot, given the profusion of overlapping model ranges.
In July 1980, the Simca name was replaced by Talbot. At the end of 1980, Jean-Paul Pareyre, President of Direction for Groupe PSA, announced that Talbot and Peugeot would be brought together. In France, this translated into a decision to abandon 75% of the country’s 488 Talbot showrooms between 1981 and 1983.
In 1980, 47,304 1510s and 69,226 Solaras were produced in France. The Solara, instead of increasing Talbot sales, poached hatchback. The Talbot-Simca 1510LS (1294cc) sold for ₣33,950, the 1510GL (1442cc) for ₣37,200, the 1510GLS (1442cc) for ₣40,600 and the 1510SX Automatique (1592cc) for ₣46,200. The Talbot-Simca Solara LS (1442cc) sold for ₣36,600, the Solara GL (1442cc) for ₣39,600, the Solara GLS (1592cc) for ₣43,600, the Solara SX (Citroen 5 Speed Gearbox– the same as used in the Citroen BX) (1592cc) for ₣46,750 and the Solara SX Automatique for ₣48,750.
The Simca name was dropped from all models in 1981. The factory at Poissy was restructured with the loss of 4,000 employees. The result was a loss of French public faith and confidence in the Talbot marque, replicating the situation that had dogged the brand in Britain following the closure of the Linwood plant in 1981.
The limited 1510 Executive was introduced to France in March 1981 with the SX motor and 5-speed transmission. It featured a bronze metallic paint job with matching light alloy wheels. A similar car was introduced in Britain at the same time – a manual transmission version of the existing 1600SX. 18,122 1510s and 42,387 Solaras were produced in 1981. French production fell further in 1982 to 10,327 1510s and 33,281 Solaras.
For 1982, the British 1500 LS gained extra kit and two 89 bhp 1600 models – the GL and GLS – were introduced. The GLS gained a standard five speed gearbox. In March 1982, an old Rootes model name was revived with the limited edition 1600 Arrow version of the Alpine, with matt black trim and little else.
Series Two models were launched in Britain in October 1982 – the new range was made up of LE, LS, GL and GLS trim levels and a choice of 1300 and 1600 89bhp engines. Across the Channel, the last of the French Talbot 1510s was produced in the spring of 1983. The limited edition Solara Pullman and Solara Executive were introduced in 1983. They featured tinted glass, velour upholstery, light alloy wheels, and metallic paint (two-tone on the Pullman). France produced 26,892 Solaras in 1983; this fell dramatically to 7,704 in 1984.
A missed opportunity
Where does that leave the Alpine/Solara in the annals of history? It was handsome, advanced (except for the engine and the lack of anti-rust protection), and predicted the popularity of the hatchback in the upper-middle market by about a decade. However, it suffered from generally poor build quality and unreliability. Motor’s experiences after running one of the first Alpines for 20,000 miles did not auger well. The car’s first keeper, Rex Greenslade, “was glad to see the back of it.”
The car was also hampered by its limited engine choice. The biggest engine offered was 1.6 liters, where its rivals had at least a two litre variant. The 1600SX’s market was dominated by much bigger rivals. Motor’s road test of the Alpine 1600SX noted that all the standard kit of the SX was not enough when its price put it up against such cars with six cylinder engines.
The Solara and Alpine had the potential to clean up in the UK, but sadly did not. A lack of product development exacerbated the impact of a cut-price design, based on a sound but aging car.
Allpar’s original Chrysler Alpine page
Development of the Alpine has been covered by my main Chrysler Europe story, so you'll know that it evolved out of the Simca 1100. It was launched in late 1975 in Europe and in early 1976 in the UK. The first cars were imported from the Poissy, France Simca factory and from the end of 1976 (after Avenger production was moved to Scotland) it was assembled in Coventry, England.
The Alpine was much unlike any other UK Chrysler car that had gone before; it was front-wheel drive, and a hatchback, similar to the Simcas of years before. Previous to this, Chrysler UK products (inhereted from the Rootes Group) had been rear-wheel drive conventional sedans. It was closest in size and price to the Hunter, but Chrysler UK did not worry about lost sales as the Hunter tooling was about to be sold off to the Iranians!
Early adverts trumped the Alpine as the "first 7-day-a-week car", explaining its hatchback versatility. The best-selling cars in the segment were sedans, and people were only beginning to warm to the “hatchback revolution” that has now taken over Europe. At the time, only the Austin Maxi and Renault 16, both old designs, were hatchbacks.
Things really picked up when the Alpine was awarded the Car Of The Year award in 1976.
The initial choices of engine and trim were 1294cc LS and 1442cc GL models. Both engines were stretched Simca 1100 motors, known for their roughness.
Both cars featured Chrysler’s electronic ignition, soft comfy seats in the French tradition, torsion bar suspensions, and four-speed manual gearboxes. The LS could reach 94mph and the GL 102, not bad considering the size of car they had to move around; other cars in the segment, such as Ford's Cortina, had engine sizes ranging from 1.3 to 2.3 liters. Each was also praised for its ride, but criticized for the heavy steering (no power assistance).
In late 1977 a luxury model, the 1442cc GLS, was launched. This featured headlamp wash-wipe, head rests, electric windows and radio. The price was the same as a 2.3 Cortina Ghia, which lacked electric windows but had a larger engine, vinyl roof, and sunroof. GLS models therefore made up only a small percentage of sales.
In 1978, the LS was launched with the larger 1442cc engine as a result of customer requests. By this stage sales in the UK were about 30,000 a year, respectable but well down on what Chrysler UK had expected. The car was, depending on which way you looked at it, under-engined or overpriced and oversized.
Peugeot and the Solara
At the end of 1978 Peugeot took over Chrysler Europe, but the Chrysler-planned update of the Alpine took place in early 1980.
A couple of months before, however, another Chrysler-planned model was unveiled, a sedan version of the Alpine named Solara. This was built partly to take over from the dying 180/2-Litre (whose Tagora replacement looked like an elongated, widened Solara) and to boost sales of the Alpine/Solara line, capitalising on the British preference for sedans. A new engine also added, a 1580cc version of the 1442cc, which had more torque, and was initially only available with the (legacy of Chrysler) TorqueFlite 3-speed in the top model, the SX. Again overpriced, the SX also had a trip computer, alloy wheels, electric windows and vinyl top. The models mirrored those in the new Alpine range: 1.3 and 1.5LS, 1.5GL, 1.6GLS and 1.6SX. After a while the 1.5 was dropped, as it was pointless with the 1.6 there.
The Solara did little to boost sales. After 1984, the range was thinned to just two 1.6 sedans and hatchbacks, named the Minx and Rapier. Both had power steering (at last!), stereo radio/cassette and 5-speed gearbox, with the Rapier having electric windows, two-tone metallic paint and alloy wheels. After 1985, these cars died out of neglect.