Following previous DTW incursions into Peugeot’s 104 series, we take a look at the T15 (or Samba, as it became better known).
I was sorting through a pile of old motoring magazines I found on a shelf in our box room the other day, when I came across an article in the w/e 24th October 1981 issue of Autocar which was the launch piece for “Talbot’s new T15 small car, called Samba in Europe”. I had purchased that magazine (and the others in the pile) on ebay over eight years ago while researching a series on the Triumph Acclaim which appeared on this site some time ago.
The article holds a particular interest for me because a Samba was the first car I ever bought (I was 19). I’ll come back to that later, but both car and article are so very redolent of their times. The title is lifted from Car’s GBU sum-up of the Samba as per its October 1983 issue. Amusingly, the Samba appeared in the Interesting section of the GBU, alongside the only other Talbot deemed worthy – our old friend the Tagora. I have no doubt that Car’s opinion would have influenced my decision …
One of the first things that struck me is that at launch, the name Samba was far from confirmed for the UK market: “Called Samba in France and other European markets, the new car will have another name for Britain as part of current policy to provide the Talbot UK operation with its own identity.” Well, that obviously didn’t count for much or last long, as Samba it was when launched onto the UK market.
The Samba was obviously based on the Peugeot 104, far more so than the Visa it couldn’t beat, according to the sages at Car. Apparently, only the bonnet and rear hatch were externally shared with the 104.(1) Suspension layout and components, drivetrains, and, the mainstay of the dashboard structure were all 104 too. The Samba’s length and wheelbase sat between the 3 and 5 door 104s, and were similarly larger than the Metro but smaller than the Fiesta (albeit the latter had a two-inch shorter wheelbase).
The styling, such as it was given the constraints of the donor 104’s hard points, was completed by Talbot’s UK design team in Coventry. Their work seems to have centred on the typically modern-but-anonymous grille and headlight combination which tied the small car in with its Horizon, Alpine, Solara and Tagora brethren. That’s a bit unfair, given that most of the exterior panels were bespoke to the Samba, but the overall impression was of a modern facelift to the 104 (with which it was a direct competitor) rather than anything more individualistic.
A cabriolet was conceived and designed from the outset, not an afterthought, and was launched shortly after the hatch (which Autocar keeps referring to as the saloon). It looked great; fun and funky, albeit with a roll-over hoop for safety and rigidity. To my eyes, the styling worked better because it no longer featured the slightly awkward and abrupt manner in which the lower edge of the DLO kicked up aft of the B-pillar, and the canvas roof softened the rear profile too. The cabriolet came only in top-level, 1,360cc specification.(2)
Inside, the best feature were the squidgy front seats, followed by the separate HVAC controls for passenger and driver. Otherwise, the dash was simple to a fault, although the push-push buttons for ancillary controls were nicely positioned within fingertip reach around both sides of the instrument binnacle. Upper-spec models were well equipped for the time, but the LS was sparse, with no headrests, no brake servo and, in the UK, came only with the 954cc version of the all-alloy engine without electronic ignition.(3)
The Samba was built at Poissy in France, which, Autocar tells us, incorporated a high degree of robot assembly and gave much attention to providing anti-corrosion measures such as zinc and galvanised coatings, with hollow section components getting high pressure wax injections, AND a bituminous underseal to protect against chipping and salt attack!
Those were the days when manufacturers had to make a thing about preventing their cars from rusting. It did not prevent mine from developing a patch on the side panel just above the sill, and the grey paint on the steel wheels bubbling up and flaking (actually they were like that when I bought it – a kindly neighbour helped me to respray them early in my tenure).
At launch in the UK, the 1,124cc GL version was claimed to be the most economical in its class, stealing the crown (temporarily, as I recall) from the Metro HLE ‘at a steady 56 MPH’. That (and the cabriolet version) apart, it was a wholly unremarkable car. Oh, I could add that the spare was under the bonnet thanks to the engine being canted backwards to a significant number of degrees, another legacy of its 104 basis.
To drive, as I recall, the car was pleasant and easy, with a bit of a ponderous (four-speed) but easy gearbox and rather low-geared steering. I must stress that my main point of reference was my step-father’s 1973, 1.5L Austin Maxi, to which I had been given access prior to this point, and so the Samba felt like a revelation mechanically, with a much smoother, quieter engine and relatively easy gearchange.
The suspension was soft and the car rolled a lot in corners – nothing like anything of its ilk on today’s market. As such, once you reached an acceptable cruising speed it was comfortable, if not quiet. Acceleration was tortoise-like, but still quicker than the snail of a Maxi, and so felt quite acceptable.
Mine was a 1984 model in silver with a red and orange decal strip down the flanks. The seats were covered in quite a nice, soft-weave, light grey material which showed the dirt quite easily as I recall. It was my first car, bought for £2,000 privately, in order to get me to my new job 10 miles away. I was proud as punch with it and even had a sunroof fitted with my hard-earned after a few months.
Alas, it did not really go, nor end, well.
First, the rear hatch leaked water from the it’s top edge onto the rear seats and into the boot. It was a case of a rubber seal which didn’t and after a number of attempts by a franchised dealer to fix it, I suggested and they executed a Heath Robinson arrangement of adding another matching seal onto the opposing panel at the top of the hatch opening to sort it.
Worse came when the fuse for the electric cooling fan failed on a hot day whilst crawling around the A406. Fortunately, I noted that the temperature gauge was rising and that the fan had not triggered as it normally did. Immediate disaster was avoided by turning-on the car heater full blast to relieve the worst of the heat from the engine until we hit the M1, when momentum was able to create enough airflow to cool the engine. However, it became clear later that damage had been done when the car started to belch more white vapour-like smoke than the Mallard on a cold January day, signalling a blown head-gasket.
This was ‘fixed’, but the car was never the same – somehow always a sod to start in the wet, or if stopped and restarted when not fully warmed through. After 15 months, I took it with me to university in Bangor, North Wales, and it played up all the time in the damp weather, eventually refusing to start at all. It only just about started in order to get me home for Christmas after several attempts at bump-starts down a number of hills in that fair city: I drove non-stop the whole 245 miles of the journey for fear of being stranded. Safe to say, it did not return, replaced by a very much loved AX.
The Samba remained on the market until 1986, having received a revised and rather modern dashboard and gear knob a couple of years earlier. Sales were nudged along by a few special editions, and, indeed, the only model remaining in the UK by the end was the Style (known as Sympa in France and Europe). Over 270,000 were built. When launched, it was only meant to be a sort term stop-gap(4) and a replacement based on the AX (ironically), was looked at, but abandoned, as PSA decided that Talbot was a waste of its corporate breath.
Just to add that the yellow car featured above is an LS just like the one I owned. This car has been a regular at the NEC Classic Car Show over recent years, and is absolutely, wonderfully, immaculate. Seeing it there, quite incongruous among the other exhibits, was quite strikingly evocative for me. I haven’t met the person who has so lovingly restored it, but they deserve every award going for keeping such a humble and, by default, historic car in such fine fettle. Chapeau!
(1) Although door frames and innards were shared with the 104, the panelwork was bespoke.
(2)This engine, which I think was always referred to as the XU unit, but isn’t in the Autocar article.
(3)Electronic ignition, would be dearly missed in terms of more reliable starting.
(4) Introduced to replace the Sunbeam, itself originally meant to be short-lived.