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Chrysler Europe, 1964-1985 (or so)

Hans Ensing wrote: “While Chrysler ultimately bought Simca and Rootes, they also made unsuccesful attempts to buy NSU (Audi) and Borgward. Had they had acquired one of these two, European history might have been different.”

Chrysler Europe was effectively formed around 1964 by the purchase of Rootes Group and Simca. Rootes Group was made up of Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam and Singer; platforms spanned each range, with Hillman selling the basic car, Sunbeam adding a bit more sportiness, Singer a bit more luxury, and Humber making big luxury sedans.

American readers might remember the Sunbeam Tiger, one of the last products to be made before the Chrysler takeover and the car driven by Maxwell Smart. Simca made small family sedans to compete with Renault, Citroen and Peugeot.

Bill Watson noted that Simca, which was originally created to build Fiats in France, bought Ford of France in 1955; on acquisition was the Ford Vedette, which used a Ford V8. By 1971, the outdated Simca Vedette had been replaced by models based on the Plymouth Valiant.

In 1958, Chrysler took over the marketing of the Simca in the U.S. (it had been handled by a subsidiary of Simca) and introduced the Simca to Canada. From 1960 to 1962, marketing of the Simca was handled by Simca of Canada, Ltd., a subsidiary of Chrysler Corporation of Canada Limited. Chrysler Canada resumed direct marketing control of Simca in Canada when the Simca 1000 was launched.

Simca acquired Talbot-Lago in 1959 (bringing the French half of the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq combine into the Mopar picture, to join the British half that was now part of Rootes Group). Chrysler announced that Simcas would be assembling the Aronde in Australia. The Vedette was shipped to Brazil in 1963, while to Aronde was laid to rest in 1966.

sir reginald rootesThe rear-engine Simca 1000 (87" wheelbase) was introduced in 1962, with torsion bars front and rear. A year later came the front engine/rear wheel drive Simca 1301/1501 (100" wheelbase), which was to replace the Aronde line. This car and had coil springs on all four wheels and was last produced in 1976.

Meanwhile, Rootes was in over their head with the Hillman Imp - an advanced small car with rear-mounted aluminum overhead cam engine, and an independent suspension; a more advanced car than the Mini and one which deserved to succeed. Problems with development (overheating engines, body rust etc.) meant that it was never the success it should have been.

The large Humbers were going out of date, so the main focus was on the "Arrow" cars, four-door sedans and wagons with conventional live rear axle and overhead valve engines, which became the Hillman Hunter and Minx. These cars ran from 1966 until 1979 then went to Iran as the Peykan, where they were still popular and in production in 2001.

In 1968 a swoopy Barracuda-style coupe was run off the chassis for the Sunbeam line, the Alpine, Rapier and (with hot Holbay engine) H120. They ran until 1976.

In 1967, Simca released a revolutionary car, the 1100. It was unlike anything else it had done before. With front wheel drive and an independent suspension, including torsion bars up front, the four-door hatchback form was a sensation. This was to sow the seed of the second alliance, the Chrysler Alpine/Simca 1308 of 1975. Simca wanted to move the 1100 upmarket, to a larger size class (as the 1300/1500 series was dying); using the same assembly line (which determined factors like scuttle height), they designed a larger (102-in wheelbase) hatchback, using the same floorpan and suspension, and stroked (1294cc and 1442cc) versions of the 1100 engine. 

The Alpine's sheet metal was designed at the Coventry factory.  Alpine production started in Simca's Poissy, France factory in early 1975; in early 1976 the first UK-built Alpines arrived from the Coventry plant. Modifying the Avenger engines pushed domestic content up above 50%.

Bob Reynolds wrote: In 1970, Chrysler sold both the 5-door and a 3-door version of the 1100 called the Simca 1204. The car listed for approximately $1750 US - about $100 US less than the Volkswagen Beetle. The car was slightly underpowered, but extremely willing. High body lean in turns, but very sticky on the road if you had the nerve to push it. Chrysler had parts problems supporting the car - a taillight could take 6 weeks (I know - twice).

Chrysler steps in

Once Chrysler took over, their main aim was to try and centralise the two companies and market a decent European car that would challenge Ford and Opel-Vauxhall for sales. The first fruit of this union was the Simca/Chrysler 180, which became the Chrysler Centura for Australia.

Bill Watson wrote: "For 1970 came the Chrysler 160/180 (105" wheelbase) which brought Simca back into the medium-price bracket again. This car was originally meant to be a Humber, but it was felt the French medium-priced market was stonger. That is why the 160/180 looks like an overgrown Avenger. A 2-litre version was added for 1972. This car also formed the basis for the Australian Centura, which was offered in 2-litre 4-cylinder and 245-cid inline six versions. The 160/180/2-litre was dropped in 1978."

Rootes’ small-medium British family car, the Hillman Avenger, was smaller than the Arrow and more advanced, but still conventional. This car was released in late 1969, and became the basis of the US Plymouth Cricket, a "captive import" which seemed like a good fighter for the home-grown subcompacts like the Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto.

Though probably a far better car than these two, with advanced features like all-round disc brakes, four door sedan and wagon bodies and 1.5-liter OHV engines, poor workmanship and falling sales drove them from the US after the 1973 model year. In its home country the Avenger survived until the closing of its Scottish factory (originally home of the Imp - when the Alpine was moved to Coventry the Avenger went North and had a facelift too) in late 1981, when it was still selling steadily.

In 1977 (two years after the UK Government aid had given it new life, so the project was given the green light), a small hatchback called the Sunbeam (this time a model rather than a brand) using a shortened Avenger floorpan was released. This spawned the 1980 World Rally Championship-winning Sunbeam Lotus (with Esprit 2.2 engine).

Chrysler UK (as it was now named) called this new car the Alpine and added it to the existing range. They imported it from France at first; then, when Hunter and Avenger production were shifted to Linwood, Scotland (and, later, to Ireland), they built it at the Coventry plant. The car sold well but not spectacularly - the UK in particular just wasn't ready for the hatchback yet.

Andy Wilson, who worked at the Linwood plant, wrote: “The Hunter was also produced at Linwood in CKD (car knocked down) form for export to, of all places-Iran!-there was also a short production run of Sunbeam Vogues exported to USA and Canada, along with, slightly later, a short run of Avengers, badged as Plymouth Crickets, again for the USA/Canada market.”

1976 and afterwards

In its first full month of sales in the UK, 1690 Alpines were sold, compared with 2400 Avengers and 2000 Hunters (for which demand had just increased). This is in a total market of about 1.5 million cars sold annually at the time.

The Simca 1510 and its British cousin, the Chrysler Alpine, both on a 102" wheelbase, arrived for 1976. The 1510 can be considered the replacement for the 1301/1501 series, which came to an end in 1976.

My name is Shady Janzeir and I live in Irbid and Amman, Jordan. I own a Talbot Alpine that my father bought new in 1983. I believe it was one of the best cars ever made. It has a strong frame and a rugged suspension, and those engines can take all the push-it-to-the-metal you can give. Performance is super considering the 1460 kgs these engines have to haul around.

With the Alpine launched (and a sedan spin-off, the Solara in the pipeline for a 1980 intro), the Chrysler Europe range looked like this:

  • Simca/Chrysler 180/2-litre large sedan (launched 1970)
  • Simca 1000 mini sedan (launched 1960s)
  • Simca 1308/Chrysler Alpine mid-size hatchback (launched 1975)
  • Chrysler Avenger mid-size sedan (launched 1970)
  • Chrysler Hunter mid-size sedan (launched 1966)
  • Simca 1100 small/medium hatchback (launched 1967)

The Hunter was to be left to die of old age and neglect (it would be sold off to the Iranians), as would the 1000 (it would also die in 1979, and would partly be replaced by the Avenger-derived Sunbeam). Chrysler Europe turned to a replacement for the old 1100. Although this car had been a success, it was now looking old in a number of areas — internal design, rust resistance (most cars celebrated their 7th or 8th birthdays with a trip to the crusher), external styling.

The Horizon appears

Chrysler Europe used the Simca 1100 as the basis for its replacement, as they had with the Alpine. The new car was launched at the end of 1977 as the Chrysler Horizon. It was largely the same as the Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni. The cars were well engineered (Alpine was European Car of the Year in 1976, Horizon in 1978), but the European versions were poorly built and had poorly-finished plastic dashboards, rattly engines, and early rust.

Bill Watson noted: "Not many people realize it, but the European Horizon used torsion bars up front, as did its predecessor, the 1100. When Chrysler took the Horizon over to Detroit, the torsion bars were replaced by a MacPherson strut front suspension." Ironic since Chrysler had pioneered the use of torsion bar suspensions.

The Simca 1100 lived on some four years after the Horizon was launched in late 1977, simply because some versions (like the wagon, panel van and pick-up) weren't replaced. The Horizon was not built in England until the 1980s.

The Horizon incorporated many of the refinements in the Alpine. The original 1118cc 1100 engine was used, along with the 1294 and 1442cc versions from the Alpine. A 4-speed manual transmission was initially standard. The car was to be wider and of longer wheelbase than the 1100, allowing more interior room. To this end similar seating to the Alpine, being large and soft in the French style, was fitted. The Horizon was marketed, like Alpine, as a brand-new car.

Chrysler Europe won Car Of The Year in 1978 with the Horizon (the Porsche 928 won the award in 1977, the year between the Alpine and Horizon winning). It was not in fact until 1993 that a Japanese car won the award (Nissan Micra), although it is open to any car sold in the European countries.

In 1978 the U.S. Omni and Horizon were launched, using a 70hp 1700cc VW engine. A Simca engine was used after the first year, but the 1.4 liter Simca engine was not seen as powerful enough; the Volkswagen engine used was enlarged for this use. Eventually the Omni and Horizon would use a 2.2 liter Chrysler four-cylinder engine.

Critics applauded the ride but not the steering, which was very low-geared (giving an exceptionally large turning circle). The Horizon sold better than the Alpine; it was the only "British" hatchback - the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Viva and Austin Allegro were all sedans.

For the 1980 model year the luxury SX model debuted, featuring the 1442cc engine and three-speed auto, with trip computer, electric windows and headlamp washers. The range at this time comprised of 1.1 LS, 1.3 LS and GL, 1.5 GL and 1.5 SX auto. Unlike the U.S. range, no sporty European Horizons (e.g. Omni GLHS) were developed; this was left to the Sunbeam. The Horizon was, though, the first model to receive the new XUD 1.9-liter 65hp diesel engine (subsequently to be developed as 71hp non-turbo and 92hp turbo versions in other Peugeot models). Since that time over 7.5 million of these engines, credited with converting many countries to diesel, have been produced.

For the 1983 model year, a shakeup took place to combat falling sales of the Talbot marque. All cars were re-designated "Series 2." Five-speed manual gearboxes and headrests were fitted on all models except the base 1.1 LE. Specification levels rose and special editions arrived, the Pullman (two-tone brown and gold with gold alloy wheels) and later the Ultra LX and GLX (with power steering and wheel covers).

The Horizon died in 1985, although the U.S. model continued until 1990.

Selling to Peugeot

One of the ways in which Chrysler survived in 1978 was by selling the entire Chrysler Europe operation to Peugeot — both the profitable Simca and the money-losing Rootes. The Chrysler name could no longer be used, so Peugeot dug up an old name with significance both in the UK and France, Talbot. Legend has it that many cars were rebadged in dealer's showrooms. The range was later slimmed to just Avenger, Sunbeam (both only big sellers in their UK homeland), Alpine, and Horizon.

No development was done on the existing cars (except using the new Peugeot/Citroen 1.9 diesel engine to Horizon in 1982), and only two new products were made. In 1981 the Linwood, Scotland factory closed for good, which meant the death of the Avenger and Sunbeam. The Avenger tooling was purchased by Volkswagen of Argentina, and cars were manufactured for South America throughout the 1980s. The remaining factories in Coventry and France continued to pump out Alpines, Solaras and Horizons.

Bill Watson wrote: After Peugeot took over, a new notchback 6-window sedan was introduced for 1980, the Solara. It was actually the 1510, torsion bars and all, with a redesigned rear end. The Solara project was begun under Chrysler ownership.

Early 1980 Talbots still had the Chrysler pentastar in the centre of the grille! During the 1980 model year, the pentastar was replased by Talbot's T-in-a-circle.

The first new product, in 1982, was the Talbot Samba, a small front-drive hatchback coupe which was effectively a rebadged Peugeot 104. Talbot did get, in 1984, two unique versions: a convertible model which sold quite well to young affluent people, and the Rallye, a 600-off homologated (for Group A World Rally Championship) rocket with a hot 80bhp 1360cc motor. The Avenger and Sunbeam were both successful rally cars; for a long time after the death of Talbot the rally division of Peugeot was still called "Peugeot-Talbot Motorsport."

The final flourish under the Peugeot ownership was the large (and ill-fated) Tagora. While still under Chrysler's ownership there had been a planned replacement for the 180/2-Litre, codenamed C9. This was to have used a 2.2-liter stretch of the old motor and some carryover components which allowed a sleek, futuristic body style.  (This 2.2 was completely unrelated to the US corporate 2.2).

Unfortunately, Peugeot stipulated that the new car must be based on their existing 604, although the 2.2 engine was to be Chrysler's rather than the identical-displacement Peugeot/Citroen motor of the time. As such the eventual styling was lumpy and not particularly attractive. The market for large cars was much smaller than when C9 was conceived, so the Tagora sold in only tiny quantities until its death in 1984.

Not long afterwards, the Alpine and Horizon met their maker, and the last Chrysler Europe car other than American Horizons and Omnis was the Samba, ending in 1986. The Talbot name lived on as late as 1991 on a rebadged Peugeot/Citroen/Fiat-design van, and the Peugeot 309 of 1985-93 was the intended Horizon replacement. It was the first Peugeot built in Britian (at the Coventry plant), and production of the 306 and 406 continues there to this day. The Omni/Horizon would last until 1990 in the United States, benefitting from their 2.2 liter engines and low prices.

638,000 Avengers were sold. 150,000 Alpines were built in  the UK from 1975 to 1985. A similar number of Horizons were built in the UK from 1980 to 1985. 10135 Sunbeam Ti's were built between 1979 and 1981.

Why Chrysler Europe failed 

The 1970s were one of the toughest decades that the automotive industry has ever faced, and even the mightiest makers were not immune. Rootes was perhaps more complex than Chrysler had first thought, and trying to combine it with Simca, with the conflicting interests and ideas this brought, was never going to be easy.

I would ask, why federalise the Horizon and not the Alpine? The Alpine was larger, more roomy and more comfortable (with its soft French-design seating and torsion bar suspension), so would have fitted in much better with American tastes. Maybe it was much easier to fit an alternative engine to the Horizon. [Editor's note: perhaps the Alpine would have conflicted with the upcoming K-cars.]

Another interesting "what if" concerns the 180/2-Litre; just as Chrysler Australia made it into the Centura by adding a straight-six engine and plush fittings, it could have been brought to the US as a new small Chrysler (significantly smaller than Cordoba), and stolen the march on Cadillac's Seville. Maybe Chrysler were scared of getting their fingers burnt, as they had been with the Cricket/Avenger. If only the workmanship had been decent.

Although it met an undignified end, Chrysler's spell in Europe was a good lesson learned - witness here, in 1993, the incredible sales performance of the Jeep Cherokee, with the following Wrangler, Neon, Grand Cherokee and Voyager doing decent "niche market" sales. The parent company's innovations set the standard in many areas for the whole of the European car market; the transistorised ignition that was applied to the whole US range in 1973 was fitted to all new Chrysler Europe products, and Sunbeam advertising played heavily on the fact. Typically though, and as a final point, the small print of that same advert states that "owing to a factory dispute, some early Sunbeams will not have been fitted with transistorised ignition." It was a hard time to be new to the game. Perhaps had it been any other period Chrysler Europe would still be with us in its native form.

Webmaster note: in 1997, Chrysler made 105,000 1997 European sales, and said that it has not lost money on European operations since it re-entered the market in 1988. SIMCA was profitable throughout Chrysler’s ownership.

The museum

The Peugeot Museum in Poissy has a complete range of everything that was built or studied in Poissy, including a Dodge Omni that was sent to perform the first tests with the Peugeot diesel engine. The museum can be visited every Saturday at CAAPY, 45 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 78 Poissy.

Other relevant pages 


Links to Simca clubs and organizations.


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