The Chrysler / Talbot Alpine was undone by the weakness of its maker.
There is a caricature concerning the behaviour of US corporations following their takeover of foreign companies that goes something like this:
Wealthy and expansionist BigCorp Inc. mounts a successful takeover of LittleCo PLC, paying a handsome premium over the net asset value for LittleCo’s intangible assets. These include its local market knowledge and experience about what sells and how to sell it. BigCorp then trashes that treasure by directing LittleCo to do things the American way, sweeping aside all resistance to change.
I’m sure there are instances where this has happened, but at least one US corporation seemed strangely reticent to impose its will on its newly acquired European subsidiaries. That corporation was Chrysler and the subsidiaries concerned were Rootes Group in the UK and Simca in France. Chrysler finally took full control of the former in 1967 and the latter in 1970. Not only was Chrysler apparently slow to impose its corporate will on either subsidiary, but it also allowed them to continue to operate as independent fiefdoms, competing directly against each other. In truth, Chrysler’s restraint might have had more to do with a lack of the financial and management resources to manage the integration than any great respect or admiration for either company as it stood.
Both companies had model ranges that were mainly aged and increasingly uncompetitive by the early 1970s. In the small-car segment, the Hillman Imp and Simca 1000 dated from 1963 and 1961 respectively. Both were rear-engined, a format that was widely regarded as obsolete by the end of the 1960s. In the medium-sized saloon / estate segment, the 1966 Rootes ‘Arrow’ models(1) competed against the 1963 Simca 1300 / 1500. Both were pleasant enough conventionally engineered cars, but they looked overly familiar and tired by the 1970s.
Only in the small family car market were both companies represented by models that might be described as truly contemporary, albeit in different ways. The Hillman Avenger, introduced in 1970, was a conventional RWD two(2) and four-door saloon and five-door estate. It was pitched directly against British competitors such as the Ford Escort and Vauxhall Viva, all aimed at customers who shied away from the perceived complexities of FWD.
Simca’s challenger was the 1967 1100. Although it pre-dated the Avenger by three years, it was a transverse-engined FWD three and five-door hatchback and five-door estate. Its format would gradually come to dominate the market segment, but that eventuality was still some years away.
Chrysler’s first attempt to rationalise the two companies’ model ranges was with the 180 / 2 Litre large saloon, launched in 1970. This model was heavily compromised by Chrysler’s well-intentioned but misguided attempt to keep the design and engineering teams on both sides of the English Channel happy and give them a sense of ownership in the project. In the event, the compromise pleased nobody and the car was a sales flop.
Chrysler’s next project was a replacement for the vital medium-sized models(3). Taking its cue from the Simca 1100, the new model, codenamed C6, would be a FWD five-door hatchback. This was quite a brave decision as RWD three-box saloons still dominated the segment. Only the 1965 Renault 16 and 1973 Volkswagen Passat would be direct competitors, and the former was regarded by many as somewhat idiosyncratic, as indeed was the BMC challenger, the 1969 Austin Maxi.
The decision to adopt FWD for the new model was not without controversy within the UK Chrysler operation. There was a counter-proposal from Whitley to build an RWD UK version of the new model on an extended Avenger floorpan. Sensibly, this proposal made little headway, but that decision probably cost Chrysler sales amongst conservative UK buyers. In any event, the new model was launched at the Paris Salon in October 1975.
While the new car was largely engineered by Simca in Poissy, on the outskirts of Paris, using existing engines from the 1300 / 1500 model, the styling was the work of Roy Axe and his team based at Chrysler’s UK design centre in Whitely, near Coventry in the English West Midlands. The new model would be built at both Poissy and Ryton, Chrysler’s largest UK factory, also in the West Midlands. While the Chrysler name was replacing the Rootes Group legacy marques in the UK, the name still enjoyed little resonance in France, so the decision was taken to call the new model Chrysler Alpine in the UK and Simca 1307 / 1308(4) in continental Europe.
The design that Axe and his team presented was an entirely contemporary linear and glassy five-door hatchback with slim pillars(5) and no more than the requisite amount of brightwork to define the DLO. The bumpers were semi-integrated and made from a polyester material that gave them some resistance to parking knocks. Only the reverse-rake front end might have been regarded as perhaps slightly dated, and the beige coloured bumpers looked rather utilitarian; fine on a Renault 5, not so much on a larger, more prestigious car.
Inside, the dashboard was thoroughly modern. It featured a large, single-piece colour-keyed plastic moulding with the instruments grouped together under a cowl in front of the driver, a full-width ventilation grille and integral centre console. The steering wheel was unusual, with two near-parallel spokes extending downwards to the bottom of the rim. The seats were plushly upholstered in cloth, in a range of mainly warm earth tones. The interior was a very pleasant place to be, and roomy too, with a long wheelbase of 2,604mm (102½”) within an overall length of 4,242mm (167”).
If the Alpine’s exterior and interior styling were bang up to date, its mechanical package was rather less so. The engine in particular, in 1,294cc and 1,442cc capacities, was the venerable ‘Poissy’ design that dated back to 1961. It had been progressively increased in capacity from the original 944cc application in the Simca 1000. In the Alpine, the engine was fitted with electronic ignition and mated to a four-speed transaxle gearbox from the Simca 1100, which also supplied the front suspension. The braking set-up was servo-assisted disks up front and drums at the rear, the latter with a load-sensor valve to prevent lock-ups.
The pushrod-operated overhead-valve engine was re-engineered with a newly designed aluminium crossflow head and a new carburation system. In its smaller capacity form, it produced a claimed maximum 68bhp (51kW) and 79 lb ft (107Nm) of torque. In its larger capacity form, the numbers were 85bhp (63kW) and 93 lb ft (126Nm). Chrysler claimed a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 13 seconds and a top speed of 103mph (166km/h) for this version.
The new Alpine appeared to have everything necessary to give Chrysler Europe a serious competitor in the key mid-market segment. In the second part of this series, we will see how the Alpine fared on its own account and against its competitors, and also how it was developed over its production life.
(1) The Arrow might have been a relative youngster, but its conservative RWD engineering was hardly cutting edge even at its introduction.
(2) The two-door Avenger was not launched until March 1973.
(3) Their remained a market for medium-sized conventionally engineered three-box saloon cars, so the Hillman Hunter continued in production alongside the Alpine until 1979 when it was replaced by the Solara, a three-volume saloon version of the Alpine.
(4) The rather cryptic Simca model designation was a combination of the approximate engine capacity of the smaller-engined model together with the French CV (horsepower) rating, ‘7’ for the smaller engined version, ‘8’ for the larger. For convenience, I will hereafter refer to the car as the Alpine, with apologies to our continental European readers.
(5) At launch, Chrysler claimed an impressive 303° of uninterrupted all-round vision from the driver’s seat.
Legendary auto-journalist, Archie Vicar was one of the first of the UK press corps to get hold of an Alpine. You can read his exclusive comparison with its continental equivalent here.
Dedicated to the memory of