A title chosen more for a cheap laugh than accuracy, the big Simcas actually did OK for a while and, as usual, their manufacturers ensured they wrung the most from them.
I have three particular memories of the big Simcas. First was in France in 1961, driving across the Camargue with my parents. On a long stretch the bonnet of a light blue Ariane coming in the other direction flipped fully open, completely blinding the driver who swerved into the side of the road, thankfully without injury to anything except his pride. Seeing that at a tender age has always made me careful about securing my bonnet and, at the time, it also made me wonder unfairly if Simcas were that well made. The second memory is from twenty years ago when I spent Christmas in Alsace at a place called the Hotel Beaulieu. When I arrived at night, parked in front sitting in the entrance floodlights surrounded by snow was a Santa red and white Simca Vedette Beaulieu.
Simca took over Ford France at the point it was about to introduce a second series Ford Vedette. That car instead became the 1954 Simca Vedette, a large US influenced car powered by a small capacity version of Ford’s pre-war V8. Another French manufacturer might have sought to de-americanise the Vedette a bit, with a bit less chrome to offend the bourgeoisie. But Henri Pigozzi knew better. After a 3 year, US style run, the Vedette was heavily revised, lengthened with more chrome and bigger fins. Although Chrysler were a minority shareholder at this time, this was doubtless influenced by their desire to sell the car in the US and Canada.
At the same time Simca retained the previous body, suitably de-chromed to produce the 1957 Ariane. Oddly, although the two companies were then unconnected, there are hints of the Humber Hawk in the Ariane. Later on it was fitted with a 2.2 litre version of the Vedette’s V8, but it was first introduced powered by the intended big seller, the optimistically named ‘Flash’ 1.3 litre unit from the small Aronde. This Ariane was not a fast car but, in the wake of the Suez crisis and in a country devoid of motorways, it was initially well received. Incredibly it was also offered in the USA.
Back in a parochial home market, the Ariane’s only serious competitors would have been the Citroen ID19, the Renault Frégate and the Peugeot 403. The Renault was a bit of an also-ran and, even with some of the hydraulics removed, the Citroen was still viewed with suspicion by many. So that leaves the Peugeot. Although it appears more compact the 403 was only 3 cm shorter than the Ariane, but it was 8cm narrower giving the Simca more of that big barge feeling. But, although Peugeot seems to have noticed the Ariane’s good initial sales and responded by introducing a 1.3 litre 7CV tax class 403 in 1960, the Sochaux car remained by far the more successful, and better, car. However the Ariane, and even more its big brother Vedette, did have an appeal to that minority who, in the late 50s, dared to step out just a bit from the restrictions of French bourgeois convention.
The big Vedette lasted until 1961 and the Ariane, by then powered by the equally optimistically titled ‘Rush’ evolution of the ‘Flash’ lasted until 1963. But, as with so many Simcas, there was life beyond the grave. After a shaky start, Simca had been making the Vedette in Brazil since 1959, and continued to do so after French production stopped. Sales were comparable with Europe so, with the usual South American resourcefulness of extracting maximum benefit from their models, the 1966 Simca Esplanada featured a heavily facelifted US style front and rear to extend the old familiar underpinnings, though the side-valve Ford had already been uprated to an overhead-valve ‘Emi-Sul’ version. Its introduction coincided with Chrysler’s takeover of the Brazilian operation and it lasted until the end of the decade when the US designed Dodge Dart took its place.
My third memory of the big Simca is of a French work colleague and friend who told me of the Ariane he had owned in his youth. Ownership was not without problems but an advantage was that the wide bodyshell and the tiny motor meant that he was actually able to enter the engine bay, motorboat style, to work on it. Very sadly he died two weeks ago. Salut Daniel.