The transverse-engined, hatchback 1100 is undeservedly overshadowed by other trailblazers. But not only did it get there very early, its influence travelled surprisingly far.
Introduced in 1967 and available as 3 and 5 door hatchbacks, a neat estate as well as van and pickup versions, the Simca 1100 had a sizeable niche of the French market available to itself for years. Renault didn’t fill the hatchback gap between the 4/5/6 and the 16 until the 14 of 1976, the same year that conservative Peugeot put a fifth door into the 104.
Structurally zealous or just snobbish, Citroen previously allowed a hatchback only on the Dyane until the Visa of 1978 and the GSA of 1979. Despite this, and its 18 year life, the Simca is another of those cars, like the Autobianchi Primula with which it shares conceptual roots, that seems to have been excluded from the condensed history of the evolution of the motor car.
The 1100 had a 5 year gestation so, although Simca was controlled by major shareholder Fiat when the project began, Chrysler bought controlling interest from Fiat in 1963. Nevertheless, Fiat still held a minority shareholding until 1971 and it’s apparent that the 1100 benefited from the work that Dante Giacosa was doing to the 1964 Primula.
Whilst the Renault 16 of 1965 had its engine mounted longitudinally behind the gearbox and the Peugeot 204 of the same year had a transverse engine but with an in-sump gearbox in the Issigonis style, the Simca had the transverse engine, in-line gearbox and unequal length driveshafts that Fiat was to make the industry norm. But we might also see Chrysler’s influence in the use of torsion bars for the suspension.
An early proposal by Robert Opron, before he left Simca in 1960, already seems to have set the bustle-back style and it may be assumed that Renault’s success with the tailgated 4 suggested that a hatchback was the way to go.
The engine for the 1100 was the alloy head, OHV ‘Poissy’ unit, attributed to Georges Martin who went on to design the much loved Matra V12 racing engine – loved by enthusiasts for its unearthly scream. First seen on the Simca 1000 in 1961, Martin’s earlier effort was less loved for its valve clatter but, like the big fours of the Citroen DS and the later Douvrin four, it was in the spirit of workmanlike French engines that just did the job. It was good for a TI version of the 1100, complete with black grille, sports wheels and driving lights, released before Volkswagen had even launched the Golf, let alone its GTI, and it ended its thirty year life in the Peugeot 309.
By the early 70s, Chrysler was in trouble as the US industry adjusted to the constrictions of emissions legislation and the fuel crisis, and Chrysler’s offerings in particular suffered from poor planning and development. Over in Europe however, Chrysler’s engineers and designers were working similar wonders to those of British Leyland, creating pragmatic solutions in the face of modest budgets, always using as much of what was to hand as possible.
In 1975, the Simca 1307 or Chrysler Alpine appeared. Developed in just three years, engineered in France but styled by Roy Axe in Ryton, it was a clever rebodying of the Simca 1100 on a 374mm longer wheelbase. Suddenly Chrysler was able to replace the creaking Hillman Hunter and Simca 1501 with what, until you considered the engines, seemed to be a totally modern transverse-engined hatchback.
In 1977, Matra produced the Antonis Volanis designed Rancho. Though hardly doing justice to Matra’s aerospace and motorsport technology, the Rancho was a clever and prescient piece of packaging, essentially a faux 4WD lifestyle vehicle, but using the straightforward underpinnings of the 1100.
In 1978, having earlier considered a Hillman derived from the 1000, Chrysler based its Horizon directly on the 10 year old Simca, keeping its 2520mm wheelbase. But this car wasn’t just for the French and UK markets. Chrysler had big plans for it as a World Car, making and selling it in the US as the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon. Thus, in the manner of these things, the 1100’s modest underpinnings now grandly morphed into the ‘Chrysler L Platform’. Whilst sharing the same 2520 mm wheelbase inherited from the 1100, US versions differed beneath their near identical skins, with coils at the front replacing torsion bars, now apparently out of favour at Chrysler in the USA. Also, a series of different and larger engines ended up taking the place of the notoriously clattery Poissy units. In 1979, the L Platform entertained a shortened 3 door fastback, the Dodge 024 or Plymouth TC3.
Back in Europe, by 1980 Chrysler had divested itself of its European holdings to PSA and both Simcas and Chryslers were now known as Talbots, a name conveniently already owned by both English and French companies. Despite the Horizon, the 1100 still carried on in places, whilst the Alpine hatchback was supplemented by a booted saloon version, the Solara. These two lasted until 1986 in the UK badged, in a sorry nod at the history of already dead brands, as the Rapier (hatch) and Minx (boot).
Stateside, with no more commercial connection to its European cousins, in 1982 the rather inappropriately named Dodge Rampage appeared on the L Platform, a ‘coupe / utility’, in other words a poseur’s pickup in the style of the Ford Ranchero and Chevrolet El Camino, but smaller and with front-wheel drive. Unsurprisingly this wasn’t a big seller. In 1983, Dodge revamped the 024 as the Charger. Like many US cars of that difficult period, it was a sadly diminished thing compared with its rather glorious namesake of 15 years before. The Charger ran until 1987, a bit longer if you count the 1000 that Carroll Shelby bought to modify when Dodge ceased production, so we might see Shelby’s 175 hp intercooled special as the final direct descendant of the unassuming 1100, though in fact it only just outlived its grandmother, since the last unadulterated 1100 (now 1200), a Spanish built van, was made in 1985.
And then we have the K Cars, introduced in 1981 and lasting for 14 years, these were The Cars That Saved Chrysler (for the first time). Without the successful ‘L Platform’ cars, the hugely successful K Platform cars would not have existed. For good or for bad, look hard beneath the skin and you can see the spirit of the Simca 1100.
But it doesn’t exactly stop there. In Russia, Moskvitch’s engineers were planning a replacement for their old rear driven saloon. In an impenetrable bit of late Soviet bureaucracy, Moskvitch dumped its own design and commissioned a near exact copy of the Simca 1307. Introduced in 1986, the Aleko continued in modified form until the company’s bankruptcy in 2002. In practice hardly any parts are interchangeable, and the need to use Moskvitch’s existing OHC engine as well as other units, meant that it had to be mounted longitudinally, Audi-style, well ahead of the front axle line and pushed hard up against the radiator to try and retain an acceptably short bonnet line. But it’s still reasonable to imagine a little piece of the honest little Simca 1100 lurking there.
The 1100 was a pretty good car, unrefined engine and typically Sixties lack of rust protection notwithstanding. It sold well in its own right at nearly 2.2 million. You could, of course, suggest that it ended up spawning a plethora of mediocrity, but it still deserves far more credit than it gets.