Theme: Simca – The Vibrations That Lived On

As this month’s theme draws to a close, we give you something to ponder…

1963 124 prototype. Note the Simca 1300 grille. Image: Automobilia

In 1963, Oscar Montabone was recalled from Chrysler-controlled Simca to manage Fiat’s Automobile Technical Office. His primary task was to develop Project 124, a putative 1100 replacement in direct competition with Dante Giacosa’s Project 123, which was not so much a defined car as a series of studies with various front engine/front wheel drive and rear engine/rear drive configurations based around a 1157cc three cylinder opposed-valve ohc engine.

Montabone’s brief was to design a conventional car which was light and cheap to build, for production in early 1966. He was allowed a clean sheet, with Aurelio Lampredi on engine duties. Only the (Fiat) 1300/1500 gearbox was carried over.

And my point is…

While Giacosa was caught up in the whirlpool of late ‘50s and early ‘60s free thinking, Montabone was reiterating his Simca work, with the encouragement of the Agnellis, who recognised the sales success of the Mille and Simca 1300/1500.

The boxy Simca Mille was “the one that got away”, the car which could have fitted usefully between Seicento and Millecento. The Simca 1300/1500 could have served as the template for the 124. The hand of Revelli is everywhere.

Mario Revelli de Beaumont’s Simca Mille proposal, chosen by Pigozzi. Image: Automobilia

The theory is not entirely clean. The 124 almost got rear leaf springs, but for what Giacosa describes as the “Solomonic wisdom” of Guadenzio Bono. Quite how the four disc brakes got past the value engineering process remains a mystery.

Judge for yourselves. If my notions are in any way correct, two Simcas served as precursors to the world’s third best-selling car.

Reference source:  Dante Giacosa “Forty years of Design with Fiat” Automobilia 1979.

12 thoughts on “Theme: Simca – The Vibrations That Lived On”

  1. Was it really the case that during Dante Giacosa’s 123 project he designed two versions of the 1157cc 3-cylinder OHC engine used in 123, one a vertical / inline-3 and the other a horizontal / Flat-3 design?

    Kind of wonder about the potential benefits and downsides of a Flat-3 engine had it been produced.

    Given the 16 year long production run of the Fiat 1100 (103), there must of been other replacement projects over that period aside from what became the Fiat 124 as well as Project 123 (which eventually grew larger to become the Autobianchi A111).

    If the Simca Mille really was considered the one that got away by Fiat then it is curious why Fiat never followed the example of SEAT’s version of the Fiat 850 in producing a 4-door variant, nor produced an earlier enlarged 1000cc version of the Fiat 100 Series engine that would later appear in the Autobianchi A112 from during the 1970s.

    1. The 123 E2 engine is a very strange thing indeed. It’s horizontal in-line, rather than horizontally opposed. Fiat had some previous on this with the 1960 500 Giardiniera which had a substantially re-worked 110 engine laid on its side under the luggage compartment floor.

      The cross section of the (almost) horizontal 123 prompts more questions than it answers:

      It’s described as oil-cooled, although the vertical version has oil-cooled barrels and an air cooled cylinder head. Is it dry sumped? And is that an air cleaner on top? The component at the bottom right is an oil cooler. It all looks very self contained – a proper “suitcase” engine.

      The big selling point of three cylinders rather than four was not just compactness – it was smaller than the 600’s ‘100’ engine – but also reduced road tax, which was calculated on cylinder area. Giacosa had previously advocated a flat-twin for the same reason but experiments with this and flat fours had not given the desired results. Perhaps the Agnellis were too close to the seat of political power to want to rock the fiscal boat.

      Regarding the 4 door Seat 850, it is a neat little thing:

      Its predecessor, the Seat 800 was rather less elegant:

      We all make the mistake of imagining that large car manufacturers behave in a logical manner. Fiat probably thought that a four door 850 would compromise sales of the 124. Strangeness abounds here; why did only the Yugoslavs make the 128 with a hatchback, and were able to sell them in western markets in direct competition with the Italian 128, which they undercut on price?

      Far earlier, a proper four-seat version of the 1957 Nuova 500 was proposed as early as 1954, but the idea was abandoned lest customers should favour it over the 600.

    2. I see, know that the Fiat higher-ups kept pushing for Dante Giacosa to have the Fiat 500 powered by a Flat-Twin engine even after it was established that the 500’s air-cooled 2-cylinder was the best option.

      While understanding the advantages of 3-cylinder engines, am curious to what benefits and drawbacks a production Flat-3 car engine would have over an existing Flat-Twin and Flat-4?

      The only other unusual post-war engine configurations that powered production cars / microcars were the V-Twin in the Mazda R360 and Split-Single / Twingle in the original Iso Isetta.

  2. This idea has been at the back of my mind since I saw these Simcas.
    Isn’t it pretty plain that Simca didn’t need to vanish? Or at least not so soon? Some dead marques seem in hindsight destined to fail. Wolseley. Packard? But Simca seemed in good enough health. Thanks, Chrysler and thanks, PSA.

  3. Under Pigozzi Simca was an opportunistic brand in the best sense, seeing gaps and filling them with attractive products. Because Pigozzi had a good personal relationship with Agnelli it worked. Simca was given autonomy when they needed it, yet there was a lot of technical input when they needed it too. To the French, Simca was seen as a French brand, not an Italian interloper.

    In fairness to Chrysler most of the 1100’s development was done under their watch, and the re-engineering of the 1100 to become the 1307 / Alpine was very nimble. Back in the 70s markets were still very parochial so combining Rootes and Simca under the Chrysler umbrella was understandable, but maybe ill advised. Doubtless there was a lot of resentment and in-fighting.

    As for PSA, they just wanted the factories. By then Simca was beyond saving and, anyway, PSA and Renault had plugged all those opportunistic gaps. So maybe Simca was always going to have a limited life. But its history is interesting.

  4. There’s something of the BMW 600 in the Seat 800.

    Seat were clever in doing things more simply than Fiat. They were never in the first division, so didn’t have to prove anything. The 800 was probably seen as their Multipla. They also made a nice little box-van.

    Seat steered clear of the 500, Giacosa claims the engine cost more to make than the 600’s water-cooled four. Instead of the 126, the 850 mutated into the 133. The pushrod 124 engine went into the 1200/1430 Sport, the 128 3P, and some of the final 127s, before being reworked into the System Porsche units for the brief interregnum before VAG took over.

    Even the 1200/1430 Sport was purloined, an Aldo Sessano design for NSU which was theirs for the asking after the Neckarsulm firm’s Untergang. They got Günter Óistrach Strabenau as part of the deal.

    A lucky company, unlike so many others we have lost. But they often made their own luck.

    1. It would have been interesting to see what the Spanish and Yugoslavs would have done with the Autobianchi A112 or in Seat’s case with the 850-based Seat 133, even follow the example of the Polish in the late-1970s who developed the front-engined FWD Polski Fiat 126p NP prototype 3-door hatchback (though other prototypes featured a Mini-style rear-opening boot).

      Knew Seat’s System Porsche engines were based on Fiat engines though it never occurred to me that they were derived from the Fiat 124 Series engines.

      Was the Fiat 500’s air-cooled 2-cylinder related to the larger water-cooled 4-cylinder Fiat 600’s 100 Series engine or was it essentially a clean sheet design? Would like to think it was capable of being further bored out to 750-800cc.

      Remember reading of a Fiat 500 that was fitted with a 848cc Flat-Twin “Tigre” spec engine from either the Panhard PL17 or 24.

  5. Bob – here’s a picture from Giacosa’s book to show just how compact the vertical 123 engine was compared with the 600’s ‘100’ powertrain.

    The 123 has the bold line around it. The transmission is an epicyclic geartrain with an automatic centrifugal clutch, but manual gear selection.

    1. Assuming any power output figures exist it would be interesting to see how this engine would have fared in other cars that used the Fiat 100 Series engines, is there any way to determine how the 1157cc 3-cylinder 123 E4 unit compares to the Fiat 500’s air-cooled 2-cylinder engine?

  6. The target figure for the ‘110’ Fiat 500 engine was 14bhp, by 1970 it was still only managing 18bhp.

    Giacosa doesn’t mention a power output for the 123 triple, but I’d guess 60-70bhp to match or better the conventional 1200cc four in the 124. The section drawing shows it’s much more advanced than the other two, with a hemi or pent-roof combustion chamber and opposed valves operated by finger rockers from a centrally mounted overhead camshaft.

    The ‘110’ engine was designed above all for cheapness of manufacture – the 500 was intended to bridge the gap between the Vespa scooter and the 600. Side valves were considered, but the final version had pushrod operated in-line overhead valves in a wedge shaped combustion chamber, and downdraught inlet ports. The 360 degree crankshaft had only two main bearings.

    Setright claimed that the 500’s engine was influenced more by aircraft engine design than by motorcycle practice, as is often claimed. Be that as it may, it’s very much built down to a price. Citroën did much better, as did Lloyd with their 1955 600c four stroke parallel twin which could easily have come from a 1970s Japanese motorcycle.

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