The Nearly Car (Part One)

The Chrysler / Talbot Alpine was undone by the weakness of its maker.

Image: Chrysler Europe

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.

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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.

Image: Lancaster Insurance

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.

Image: telegraph.co.uk

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

Christos Tzoannopoulos

1948-2022

R.I.P.

 

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

38 thoughts on “The Nearly Car (Part One)”

  1. The then-friend-and-now-husband of my sister was a big Simca fan.
    Starting with an Aronde, progressing via 1300/1500 to a succession of 1100s (owning half a dozen of them in short time is no big achievement, regarding the record speed of their corrosion) to a 1307 GLS first and a 1308 GT later (over here, we got a small engine 1307 GL with 60 PS, 1307 GLS with 75 PS and larger engine 1308 GT with 85 PS).
    The brand new 1307 was used to transport my motorcycle in the boot when the bike spilled its gearbox oil into the folded rear seat foam rubber which didn’t win me any new friends. The 1308 was a special edition in two tone paint (silver over mocca) and very plush interior including electric everything and tinted windows.
    These cars were quite roomy, very comfortable and reasonably fast. The biggest impression was made by the extraordinarily heavy steering that really needed Arnie muscles to turn the wheel at low speed.

    1. Here’s a picture of the paint scheme I mentioned (alloy wheels weren’t standard equipment)

    2. The Alpine had centre-point steering – no offset -hence the weight. It was fine when the car was new, or if you fitted new front tyres to the car at some point….

  2. Good morning, Daniel. A brown metallic Simca 1308 GLS was my dad’s first new car. I was only three at the time, but I remember it vividly. In very nearly got totalled when it was just over one year old. As far as I can remember my parents liked it a lot, but it was traded in for a 504 GR instead of a 1510.

    My dad kept the sales brochure of the 1308 and I keep it in my modest collection. Here’s a photo of it I got from the web:

  3. These were well pitched cars – a good size, modern and clean styling that was perhaps a little bland, roomy and comfortable inside. The engines were among the most ‘tappety’ I can remember and the steering heavy, leading to an impression that the handling was rather stodgy. I seem to recall it won the ECotY award in ’75 or ’76 and, when it entered the market, the competition was rather not exactly impressive. I know we will read more about its fate in the following episode, but it always seemed to me that it was never developed to its full potential.

  4. Around 1983/84 I had a 1307 GLS from second or third hand in the same colour as the first picture in the article. Visually and technically in decent condition. But it took several cans of synthetic resin and a few layers of glass fibre to make the boot watertight, the rust had long since begun its work. Not even a year later I took the car to the scrapyard, the brown plague had won the battle.
    Too bad, I liked the car. The interior was spacious and homely, the performance was adequate. Actually, the 1307/Alpine had everything to become a serious competitor to the Passat. But…

  5. In 1992 a close friend of mine was given an Alpine as a gift from his uncle. The car was resprayed and mechanically reconditioned. It really made an impression..except for the ride which was adequate at best.
    The car was supposed to be used for the rest of our military service,almost two years. We served as officers and had to do a lot of miles between various camps in urban and distant rural military positions.
    We had a lot of fun at the beginning. Young, restless, proud officers in the city, the car served as good.
    Unfortunately it didn’t last the service. It just didn’t make it! Gearbox, engine, paint…nothing left.
    I remember my friend in the early days keep saying what a bargain his uncle had found with this splendid car…

    P.S. Sillipitiria Konstantinos

    1. First of all, thank you for your kind words. I find it odd that the ride of the car in question was merely adequate. Perhaps it was fitted with stiffer springs and shocks at some point in its life? Anyway, the Simca 130x was indeed fragile. Its build quality wasn’t the best, its paintwork was nothing to write home about, its rust protection was about on par with that of an early Lancia Beta, and the engine could never be accused of being bulletproof. Still, it was a decent car for its time, which could have been better, had it not been for its maker’s weaknesses.

    2. I doubt that someone fitted stiffer springs to a 130x because it had torsion bars at the front.
      The Simcas in my family (see first post) were regularly driven over unmade roads and used for many trips to Morocco and deep into the desert, so they should have been robust and reliable. The paint quality indeed was awful (the silver car was resprayed under warranty) and the bumpers became brittle after very short time and then cracked at the slightest touch.

  6. My overriding impression of the Alpine is that it has always looked flimsy, and maybe that contributed to its relative lack of success. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s the flatness of the panels or the sharpness of the creases. I’m sure the more visually literate among you can enlighten me.

  7. I’m sure the conclusion will be the one teased in the subtitle: a decent enough car let down by the infirmity of its maker. Much like some late BL models, really. Maybe it’s the knowledge of its fate, but even though I usually really like designs you can duplicate by folding paper, the Alpine/13ox leaves me relatively cold. It seems to lack a certain tension in the design. As Jonathan says, the more design literate might enlighten us (or contradict us, as I said, the knowledge of the car’s fate may well influence one’s appreciation of it).

    My sympathies to the Tzoannopoulos family and anyone else affected.

    1. Hi Jonathan and Tom. I think you have correctly identified the reason for what appears to be a certain visual frailty in the Alpine / 1307: it is the flatness of the bodysides and, in particular, those sharp creases along the flanks.

      An interesting counterpoint may be seen in the Russian Aleko, allegedly a near-copy of the Chrysler, both in style and mechanical layout:

      The Alkeo’s plainer and more curved bodysides make it look somehow more substantial than the Chrysler, I think

    2. Even though it was amongst the advance guard of the hatchback battle I suspect it looked a little generic even at the time. Maybe that explains it’s slightly old school radiator grill angle and the impractical pale grey bumpers (They are actually rather lovely, yes?). They injected
      a bit of quirkiness into an otherwise dull design. Spoiler alert; part 2 might mention a facelift that- shock horror- changed the angle if the nose!

    3. I would be incurring the wrath of DTW’s esteemed editor to say other than “No comment.” in response to your spoiler, Richard. And, of course, we’d have to kill you.

      Incidentally, I’ve just noticed that the Aleko’s wheel design is just a straight copy of the Alpine’s.

    4. The Aleko wheel was copied from the French models, my Coventry-built Alpine had slightly nicer wheels.
      Such a pity Chrysler messed-up the styling by “face-lifting” the front end….

    5. Interesting: usually such a lack of features would result in the design feeling ‘slab sided’ but in this case I think you’re right: it gives the Akeko a bit more heft. It might also just be the more detailed and darker bumpers, or simply the fact that you expect less from a Russian car. The Alpine’s front end somehow fits a bit unhappily into the design as well, I think. Perhaps making it a little lower and a tad more sophisticated would have helped.

      I will steer clear of any DTW death squads by not mentioning the angle of the Aleko’s grille 😁.

    6. Too late, Tom – you’re a marked man, now. This film shows what to expect (especially if you suddenly decide to buy a Chrysler 180). Actually, if one were a surveillance target, wouldn’t it be better not to choose a relatively unusual car as transport? (See also James Bond).

      I’m afraid I have to admit that although I find it hard to identify what’s wrong with the Alpine’s design, there’s something very ‘unsatisfying’ about it. I think the Aleko looks much better. I’m sure the bumpers and front, etc, help, as Daniel says.

    7. Oh dear… well I’ll certainly keep an eye out for 1970’s mid-sized cars following me, bellowing out pleasing soft jazz (love that music for an internal training video – though I do worry that means that the intelligence services took their James Bond-esque image a little too seriously). Also, since I don’t live in the UK or Ireland, they’d be driving on the wrong side of the road…

      Strange how the unsatisfying nature of the Alpine’s design is so hard to pinpoint (or maybe that just says something about us…)

    8. Thank you for your kind words, Tom. As for the car itself, it was very much of its time. I do think it could use a bigger, more powerful engine (perhaps an 1.8-liter one), although it would most likely be lost on us Greeks – our car tax system was an order of magnitude worse than France’s, and we paid a very heavy price for it in lives lost on head-on collisions on the E75 and other “motorways”.

  8. Another thing that stands out in making the C6 / Alpine a nearly car would have to be the fact that one of the original plans was for the Simca version to be equipped with the Type 180 engines, while the British version was to feature the Avenger engines for the C6 to cover the 1.6-2.0-litre range.

    However Simca engineers were reluctant to re-engineer the engine mountings to accept both British and French engines, claiming that to do so would put the launch date back by a further six months. In the end, Chrysler said that the French arrangement was the better (cheaper) solution, so it was this scheme that was adopted for the C6. Only for that plan to be undermined by further Chrysler cost-cutting resulting in the UK engines being dropped from the programme, along with the new five-speed gearbox. That meant that the new car lost the capability of being able to run the larger Simca engines as well.

    Have also heard talk within the context of an unlikely merger between BL and Chrysler UK/Europe (pre-PSA takeover) of a proposal for the Alpine to be equipped with the 1750cc E-Series (or 1.7-2.0-litre O-Series) engine, yet such an idea is too ridiculous to consider.

    What would be worth touching upon regarding the Alpine / Solara is the fact that in better circumstances it could have been succeeded by a smaller European adapted version of the Chrysler K platform that played a role in Chrysler’s resurgence (in the same way the Horizon/Omni made use of the smaller L platform despite there reputedly being significant differences between the European and North American models).

  9. A friend of mine was a distributor for Chrysler in the UK. He said that the engines were a nightmare as after 10,000 miles they sounded like a bag of nails. Reckoned the best defence when customers complained was for the service dept. to say “yeah they’re all like that sir, turn the radio up”

    1. Hi Alfred, and thanks for sharing your memories of the Alpine. ‘Turning up the radio’ was a popular ‘fix’ for all manner of mechanical maladies back in the day!

  10. My school was reached via a mile long driveway with quite a steep gradient. Over one very snowy winter holiday the school was actually cut off for about ten days. There was only one car that made it up the drive, you’ve guessed it, an Alpine. No idea if the car had hidden depths or whether the driver was just unusually gifted.

    1. Hi Simon. An engine sited over the driven wheels was, I imagine, a big help. Best vehicle to drive in heavy snow? An old-fashioned milk-float: all those heavy lead-acid batteries and skinny tyres. Maximum torque at zero revs might be a bit tricky, though!

  11. Despite the fragility of the build it aged reasonably well and the run-out Rapier (the Minx being her more modestly styled sister) with two-tone paintwork made for a mildly aspirational vehicle at a distance. Power steering, side cladding – more dado rail, actually – and that shameful Solara nose. I believe headlight wash-wipers were standard. The Rapier had a 89bhp engine which was reasonably peppy. Nicely styled alloys and double helpings of crushed velour inside – polyester heaven. Imagine the luxury awaiting you. Especially if you were trading up from a mid-spec Horizon.

    1. For some reason, time has been relatively kind to the 1307’s design. I’ve seen other shapes that aged far less gracefully. Now, headlight wipers weren’t standard equipment; they were reserved for the higher-spec versions (such as the 1309SX). That aside, it’s a car that could really do with a more powerful engine (say, a 1.8-liter one) or with more modern, SOHC engines. Unfortunately, it was saddled with the OHVs and 4-speed ‘boxes.

  12. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful gesture, Richard. Of the seven cars my father owned during his life, the Simca 1307S that served us from 1979 to 1986, when it was replaced by a 1st-generation “System Porsche” SEAT Ibiza 1.2 GL (don’t ask), was one of the two (the other was a 1990 Citroën BX 1.4 kat) that I’ve connected with him the most. Perhaps it was the seven years it spent with us, or the fact that it was the car featured in my earliest road trip memories.

    Ours was metallic green, with white steel wheels and white bumpers, a full instrument cluster but only manual windows. As for the upholstery, it was brown vinyl throughout. I remember dad taking us on day trips along what’s now called the Athens Riviera, all the way to Sounio. And then to holidays in the Peloponnese, as well as journeys via Domokos to my two grandmothers in Thessaly. I remember it as a cool-looking, roomy, and comfortable car. Dad loved its handling and packaging, but not its reliability issues or its minimal rust protection. Mom liked its ride, but not its vinyl seats that were a nightmare in the summer heat. Still, despite its shortcomings, I associate it with a more carefree and more optimistic era during which you could actually find a beach where you didn’t have to reserve an umbrella and two chairs.

    Thank you for the feature, the dedication, and the memories your post brought back, Richard.

  13. “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.”

    Just to make things a bit more complicated, it was built in Spain in the Villaverde factory (still running, now they build the Citroen C4 there; before that, Barreiros trucks, Dodge Darts, Simca 1000s, Talbot Horizons, Solaras and Sambas, Peugeot 205, 207 and 306…) and named “Chrysler 150” for our market. The example in the first picture is a spanish car, complete with fake Cádiz plates.

    After General Franco´s death, we had a rise of crimes and felonies, and dont´know why but the 150 was one of the thieves´ (“chorizos”) favourite cars. The following Talbot Horizon inherited that questionable honour, being nicknamed “Chorizon”.

    1. Interesting to read a Spanish angle. Coincidentally, I’ve been struggling through Hugh Thomas’ Eduardo Barrieros biography. He should have been given some sort of award for making a very interesting subject into a ballsachingly boring book. Some howling inaccuracies too.

      Is it possible that Spain was the last refuge of the Poissy engine? They were used in Peugeot 205s until 1991, accommodated using a bonnet with a conspicuous bulge – elsewhere only used for the 205 Automatic to accommodate a carburetted XU 1.6 engine.

  14. I ran my Alpine until well over 100K miles, and the only unreliability ( apart from the bits that didn’t work when it was brand new) was the failure of the ballast resistor for the ignition coil, and the need to replace the distributor cap after a few years.
    The ‘plastic’ bumpers were made in three section, and after some ‘parking’ damage I deconstructed one of mine so that I could re-build it with part of a scrap bumper. Never had any other problem with them, except that naturally I had to spray them black to look like they belonged.

    1. Ducellier? My Renault 5 had one of their distributors, and caps were practically a service item. They were the same part as the Citroën CX2000/2200. I eventually devised a very effective bodge using Black and Decker drill brushes.

    2. The Simca ballast resistor often was a source for trouble. I remember it as a (at least on the 1100) astonishingly large piece of white ceramics bolted to the right side inner wing.
      Our local Simca/Citroen dealer’s solution was to add a cable to ‘shortcut’ both connectors on the resistor and replace the ignition coil with a red Bosch high power item that worked without resistor.

  15. After re-looking at the Alpine I still see a design that is too close to the engineering mininum to be desirable. I´d agree it look no worse now than it did when launched. With so little character it is like a brick – not much too go wrong but not a lot to latch on to. It is interesting as an example of the almost complete elimination of style which is rather hard to do. Compare it with Audis of the same period and you realise how much subtle styling Audi deployed. Perhaps only some of Chrysler´s late 70s and early 80s work in the US approach this level of sub-banal form-giving.

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