Two European automakers entered the small car market for the first time in the early 1960s. Both cars featured a similar rear-engined layout, but only one can be judged a success.
The 1950s was a decade of recovery for the economies of European countries that had been devastated in the Second World War. Increasing affluence put car ownership within the reach of families for whom this was never previously feasible. Much of Europe’s road network, however, remained primitive and relatively unsuited to large and unwieldy cars. The 1956 Suez Crisis(1), although a relatively brief event, also heightened the importance of fuel economy to potential buyers.
West Germany had its distinctive bubble cars, but these were regarded with some distaste elsewhere in Europe, being seen as unacceptably small and crude. It was the somewhat larger 1955 Fiat 600 that achieved an optimal mix of comfort and economy in a small car and provided a template for other makers to use for their designs.
In the UK, BMC responded to the aftermath of the Suez Crisis and changing market demands by re-ordering the rollout of its ADO range of cars and launching the Mini first in 1959. Across the channel, Simca(2), which had no previous experience designing small cars, turned to Fiat for help. Simca had been founded in 1934 by the Italian automaker. Henri-Theodore Pigozzi, an Italian who was then Fiat’s agent in France, was appointed President of the new company.
Pigozzi was a good friend of Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of Fiat. Agnelli arranged for Pigozzi to have access to Fiat’s design department, where successors to the 1955 Fiat 600 were in the early stages of development. Project 119 was a two-door model, while Project 122 was a larger four-door proposal. Pigozzi was allowed to appropriate one of the Project 122 designs under development as the basis for a new Simca small car. Agnelli was not, of course, behaving altruistically; Fiat still held a controlling majority shareholding in the French automaker and had a major financial interest in its prosperity.
The design Pigozzi had chosen was a boxy rear-engined four-door saloon. Simca’s Head of Styling, Mario Revelli de Beaumont, made only detail changes to the design. The new model, somewhat optimistically named Mille or 1000, was officially launched in October 1961 at the Paris Salon.
The new model stood on a wheelbase of 2,220mm (87½”) and had an overall length of 3,785mm (149”). It was powered by a 944cc in-line four-cylinder OHV engine(3), named Poissy after the plant where the 1000 would be manufactured. The engine in launch specification produced 35bhp (26kW). One unusual feature was that it rotated counter-clockwise, the engineers believing that it developed more torque and ran more smoothly in this direction. It was also mounted on a combination of coil springs and rubber blocks, to minimise vibrations transmitted to the bodyshell.
Transmission was via a four-speed all-synchromesh transaxle gearbox. Suspension was fully independent, with a transverse leaf spring at the front and semi-trailing arms and coil springs at the rear. Despite its modest exterior dimensions, the interior was adequately roomy for four adults, although the boot-space, also containing the spare wheel, was less generous.
Autocar magazine road-tested the Simca 1000 in June 1962, shortly after exports to the UK commenced. At that time, the price was £758 including tax, making it slightly more expensive than the slightly larger Renault Dauphine. The reviewer remarked that the five-bearing engine seemed commendably smooth, if lacking in torque at lower revs. At low speeds, the exhaust note was rather intrusive, but became less so at higher speeds. The 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time was measured at 26.6 seconds, while the top speed was 72 mph (116 km/h). Overall fuel consumption on test was a credible 36.5 mpg (7.7 L/100km) but the reviewer thought that owners should be able to achieve between 40 and 45 mpg (7.1 to 6.3 L/100km) in normal use.
The gearchange was smooth and precise, with an unbeatable synchromesh, while the clutch was light and progressive. The steering was light, but seemed rather low-geared, particularly given the 36:64 rearward bias of the weight distribution. This exacerbated the car’s tendency to need continual correction when subjected to crosswinds. This was the magazine’s only serious reservation although, in mitigation, the turning circle was commendably tight, less than 30’ (9.1m) between kerbs.
The ride quality was exceptionally good for a small car. Given the weight distribution, a tendency to oversteer was unsurprising, but it was progressive and easily controlled. The 9” hydraulic drum brakes were well up to their task. The foot pedals were offset a little to the centre by the intrusion of the front wheel arch, but the driving position was otherwise comfortable and visibility excellent. Overall, the car was highly rated by the magazine, being well equipped and finished and appearing sturdily built.
Production of the new model began slowly, with a total of just 9,670 manufactured before the end of 1961. Full-scale production saw 154,282 cars manufactured in 1962 as demand and sales accelerated.
In 1963, Simca launched a de-contented version called the 900. This had the same engine capacity and state of tune as the original 1000, but the latter was upgraded to produce 38bhp (28kW). In 1968, a smaller capacity 777cc 31bhp (23kW) engined model called simply Simca 4CV was added, the model designation directly referencing the French horsepower-based taxation system. At the other end of the range, larger engines from the Simca 1100 and 1300, in 1,118cc and 1,294cc capacities, would later be added. Other mechanical changes to the car were remarkably limited over its lifetime, although it did receive rack and pinion steering in 1969 in an effort to tame its tendency to wander.
The ready availability of larger and more powerful engines allowed Simca to introduce a series of sporting versions, starting with the 1,118cc 52bhp (39kW) Rallye in 1970 and concluding with the potent 1,294cc 102bhp (76kW) Rallye 3 in 1978. Most were distinguished by black stripes across the tail of the car, black painted wheels and extra driving lamps.
One almost completely forgotten variant of the 1000 was a very pretty coupé, styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone. It was offered from 1962 to 1971, during which time a total of around 25,000 were produced. The bodies were manufactured at Bertone’s factory in Turin before being transported by train to Poissy for assembly. DTW’s Robertas Parazitas featured the brochure for the coupé in an interesting piece which may be found here.
The 1000 received a minor facelift for the 1969 model year, with more angular bumpers, larger circular headlamps, a revised front panel, and square tail lights in place of the circular originals. In 1977, in a misbegotten attempt to modernise the 1000, it was given large rectangular headlamps and a (fake) black plastic front grille, and renamed 1005/6 to align with Simca’s new model number policy(4).
Over seventeen years in production, a total of over 1.9 million were sold. Its best year was 1966, when 174,000 cars found buyers. Even in the twilight of its career it remained popular: almost 50,000 were sold in 1977, its last full year in production(5). The 1000’s most significant achievement was in attracting a new owner to the Simca company. In 1963, Chrysler Corporation, keen to expand its presence in Europe, acquired shares from Fiat which gave the US automaker a 64% shareholding and full control of Simca.
Part Two, featuring the Hillman Imp, follows shortly.
(1) A brief explanation of the events that led to the Suez Crisis and its aftermath may be found here.
(2) Although not routinely capitalised, Simca is actually an acronym for ‘Société Industrielle de Mécanique et Carrosserie Automobile’.
(3) The versatile Poissy engine would remain in service for three full decades and be offered in various capacities between 777cc and 1,592cc. The last model to feature it was the 1985 Peugeot 309.
(4) The last digit in the model number now represented its French official horsepower (CV) rating.
(5) The Simca 1000 was not selling on bargain prices for a run-out model either, at least not in the UK: in March 1977 the 1000LS was listed at £1,750. In comparison, a Mini 1000 was £1,735, a Fiesta 957 was £1,856 and a Honda Civic 1200 was £1,809.
(1) My thanks to fellow DTW contributor, Robertas Parazitas, for his insights and contributions to this piece.
(2) Intrepid British auto journalist Archie Vicar appears to have been somewhat obsessed with the Simca 1000, road-testing it no fewer than three times. His reports may be found here, here and here.