The Nearly Car (Part Two)

Concluding our recollection of the Chrysler / Talbot Alpine and its saloon sibling, the Solara.

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Renowned automotive writer Leonard (LJK) Setright took his monocle to the newly launched Simca 1307/8 in the December 1975 issue of Car Magazine. Setright observed that the engineering teams in both Whitley and Poissy seemed keen to take the lion’s share of credit for the new car. This was understandable, as the Alpine was “really rather a good machine, restoring Chrysler to a competitive place in what has been described as the ‘upper middle-class market’ in Europe.”

One could, however, sense a ‘but’ coming, and it duly arrived with regard to the engine, which Setright identified as the car’s “only major shortcoming”. This was mainly due to the volume of engine noise that permeated the cabin. The problem was exacerbated by unusually low levels of wind and road noise, thanks to the aerodynamic body design and the car’s separate front and rear rubber-mounted subframes. The latter helped achieve “fundamentally a very comfortable and absorbent ride.”

Following its UK launch in January 1976, and fresh from its success in being voted European Car of the Year, the Chrysler Alpine was subjected to a  group road test against two of its most obvious rivals by Car Magazine, which published the test in its March 1976 issue. The competitors were the venerable Renault 16, already eleven years old, and the Volkswagen Passat, a youngster at just three.

The cars were closely competitive in price, although the 16 test car was the upmarket ‘TS’ version at £2,510, whereas the Passat was the rather dowdy entry-level ‘N’ version at £2,362. The higher-specification (of two) Alpine S weighed in at £2,375. The Alpine and Passat were commended for their clean and unfussy contemporary look. The 16’s styling was as polarising as ever, but at least it was distinctive.

The reviewers were surprised by the all-round competence and competitiveness of the 16. After more than a decade on the market, it was comfortable, versatile and “still a marvellous long-range tourer.” Only a tendency to torque-steer and a messy dashboard counted against it. The Passat offered a more sporting drive but suffered from “a ride that needs more work (especially in damping)”, noise in general and, surprisingly, quite variable build quality with “a number of rattles.” Overall, it was still described as “a thoroughly satisfactory car.”

The Alpine was “something of a cross between the Passat and the Renault” being more comfortable than the former and a more engaging drive than the latter. Its only real fault was a lack of rear headroom for anyone over 5’9” (175cms), the absence of an adjustable steering wheel and intrusive engine noise. The reviewers were “especially impressed with the quality of the build” and the car’s “impressive solidity…as it rode over bumps.” While the reviewers were disappointed that, as a COTY winner, it did not offer a significant step forward, but “merely does its job very well”, that was still enough to make it the winner of the group test.

Despite its overall competence, the Alpine struggled to make a big impact in the UK market. Its hatchback configuration and limited engine range, especially the lack of 1.6 or 2.0-litre versions for status-conscious drivers, coupled with the perceived complexity of FWD, made both private and fleet buyers wary. The recently launched Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 and Ford Cortina Mk4 offered them much more familiar RWD three-box saloons instead. In mainland Europe, however, the 1307/8 sold strongly from the get-go.

Chrysler, however, had been suffering severe losses in its US home market since the mid-1970s and its European outpost was increasingly viewed as an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction from attending to the problems in its core business. In 1978, the US corporation agreed to sell its European operations to Peugeot-Citroën. The enlarged French group would be renamed PSA and Chrysler Europe was rebranded Talbot(1) from January 1979.

Image: solara.vraiforum.com

Apart from the introduction of an enlarged 1,592cc engine in 1979, the Alpine continued largely unchanged for five years until 1980, when it was joined by a three-box saloon variant called the Solara. The new saloon was identical to the Alpine between its A and C-pillars but featured a smaller triangular rear quarter-window and an extended tail with a near-horizontal boot lid, increasing the overall length by 75mm (3”). New, larger tail lights, now smooth rather than ribbed and standing proud of the surrounding bodywork, sat either side of the number plate, which was now recessed rather that sitting flush on the rear panel.

The front end of the car was also modified: the Alpine’s reverse-rake grille and headlamps were replaced by a more contemporary sloping front end, with a new grille and headlamps bookended by larger triangular indicators. The bumpers were made smoother, and their colour changed to a more serviceable dark grey. At the same time, the Alpine was given the Solara’s new front and rear end treatments. The 1307/8 European model designations were replaced by 1510(2) and the Simca marque name was finally retired a year later in 1981.

Car Magazine introduced the new Solara in rather low-key fashion, featuring it on page 58 of the June 1980 issue. It began by explaining the rationale for the new model, quoting the (gloriously named) Filmer Paradise, Talbot’s assistant managing director, who said that “Fleets don’t buy five-door cars very much.” Sales reps liked the security of a separate lockable boot. Moreover, for a certain type of private buyer, only a three-box saloon was considered a ‘proper’ car, whereas a hatchback was seen as a more utilitarian concept.

Image: amklassiek.nl

The reviewer thought that Talbot had done a good job on transforming the Alpine into the Solara, given the time and cash constraints under which it was developed. The Solara “lacks character…but does not lack visual appeal.” The test car was a GLS model fitted with a twin-carburettor version of the 1.6-litre engine, mated to a five-speed PSA(3) gearbox. It was a “lively performer which feels more like a 2.0-litre than a 1,600.” The gearbox was “precise without being notably smooth.” 0 to 60mph (97km/h) was achieved in under 12 seconds and the top speed was just over 100mph (161km/h). The car “rides very well on its all-independent suspension.” Moreover, “the handling is crisp and insulation from poor surfaces has not been achieved at the expense of excessive roll on corners.”

The test car was well equipped and featured Talbot’s “gimmicky-but-fascinating trip computer, cruise control, a combined radio and cassette player, tinted glass, electrically-operated front windows and centralised door locking.” Rear-seat headroom was still tight, an issue inherited from the Alpine, despite having 15mm (1/2″) increased legroom over its hatchback sibling. In summary, the reviewer concluded that the Solara was good enough to “chip away at the Big C [Cortina] monolith. If the chips are big enough, Talbot will be on the road to recovery.”

Image: onlycarz.com

That conclusion, however, alluded to Talbot’s biggest problem: it was a new and largely unknown brand and, in truth, one that PSA really didn’t need. The Peugeot range covered the mass-market for conventional cars well, while Citroën offered an alternative for those looking for something a little different or idiosyncratic. Despite ultimately having a range of broadly class-competitive cars in the Samba(4), Horizon, Alpine / Solara and Tagora, Talbot would struggle to make significant inroads into the market.

In an effort to stimulate sales of the Alpine and Solara, numerous better equipped special editions were launched, including two bearing the historic Rootes Group names of Rapier and Minx as suffixes. Sales continued to fall and production of both models at Ryton ended in the autumn of 1985. Production in Poissy ended the following summer and the Talbot marque no longer appeared on any passenger cars(5).

Image: carsot.com

The Alpine and Solara had much to recommend them. Perhaps they might have done better with a wider range of more modern and competitive engines? The lack of an estate car derivative was also a curious omission. That said, the cars’ major problem was one of ownership: Chrysler was always a weak brand in Europe, and Talbot never really became firmly established, not least because it was entirely surplus to its owner’s requirements.

 

(1) The defunct Anglo-French’ Talbot’ marque name was resurrected because it was perceived as British in the UK and French in continental Europe.

(2) At this point it might have seemed sensible for the European version to adopt the Alpine name alongside Solara, but Renault, which owned the eponymous French sports car maker, would undoubtedly have raised objections.

(3) As used in the XU and XUD-engined Citroën BX and Peugeot 205 and 305.

(4) Launched in 1981.

(5) Strangely, PSA continued to use the marque name on one commercial vehicle, the Talbot Express panel van, until 1994.

 

Dedicated to the memory of

Christos Tzoannopoulos

1948-2022

R.I.P.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

47 thoughts on “The Nearly Car (Part Two)”

  1. Once again thanks for the recent articles.
    As a youth, I thought the styling of the Alpine was rather smart and, with so much space and plush seats, would have been a nice upgrade to our rather cramped Datsun Sunny.
    I still have my copy of that CAR with the Giant test, I thought it was curious that they were comparing the base 3 door Passat with rather upmarket 5 door competitors, especially given the £300 price difference to the R16.
    My only experience with this model was with a colleagues bright red Solara, his first car, bought without my input! As with many early FWD it suffered from a poor baulky, rubbery gearchange, no doubt the many attempts to force the thing into gear had weakened the mechanism so much that it would disappear through the floor every now and again.
    Its crowning glory was when four of us went from Sheffield to Edinburgh for a Folk Dance Festival in 1988, a 250mile / 400km bash up the M1. Whilst in Edinburgh I borrowed the car to go and take a quick look at the Forth bridges nearby, a magnificent site indeed. On the way back through heavy city traffic the gearlever fell out again, and, cursing, I opened the door without really looking which was promptly hit from behind by a Ford Escort. Fortunately, the door stayed on the car so after swapping details and crawling under the car to fix the gearlever I was back on my way. Late, covered in oil and rather distracted I completed our show dance and confessed my sins to my pal. He was rather good about it and we made it home the next day without further incident.
    Not long afterwards the MOT discovered terminal rust so we drove it to the scrappers. The battery was so flat that every time we put the indicators on the engine would die, electronic ignition presumably. Happy memories indeed!
    Keep up the good work DTW!
    Andrew

    1. I’m put in mind of the words of the ‘sympathetic Scot’, as quoted by Sir Arnold Bax.

  2. Goos morning Daniel

    Thank you for this ode to an age of innocence when the assessment of a car might include its character – or lack thereof. Not to mention a trip computer being considered ‘gimmicky-but-fascinating’. How naïve we all were….

  3. I hadn’t realised that Filmer Paradise had been instrumental in promoting the Solara idea on grounds of suitability as a fleet car – or was he simply justifying the idea?

    He hardly needed to – numerous manufacturers at the time went down the same route, re-working hatchbacks into conventional saloons on the entirely rational grounds that it would spread the customer net wider with relatively little investment.

    Paradise probably had some good and profitable ideas in his time, but his British Leyland years were inglorious. His worst act was the discontinuation of the franchises of hundreds of small town and suburban dealers, and thereby creating instant and revenge-hungry channels for Renault, Peugeot, Datsun, Toyota, Mazda, and new-to-the UK Opel.

  4. Good morning all and thanks for your comments. The Alpine’s allegedly bland styling actually facilitated its easy conversion to a saloon that looked like it was part of the model range from the start. Other more ‘characterful’ hatchback designs really suffered in the conversion. A typical example of this is the VW Vento saloon version of the Golf Mk2:

    1. This picture actually shows a booted Golf Mk3, the hump backed Mk2 looked like this (it isn’t any better)

    2. Oops, you’re right Freerk, a ‘senior moment’ on my part. You’re also right in saying that they’re each as bad as the other.

    3. The booted Mk2 & Mk3 Golfs were infinitely better resolved than the booted Mk1….

    4. Ford did the same thing with this (previously discussed) piece of work.

      Only to do the same thing to the same car, again (also previously discussed).

    5. I’m probably swimming against the tide here, but I think the Mk1 Jetta, apart from the fact that it’s a bit narrow for its overall, length, is a better conversion than either of its successors:

      The upright trailing edge of the rear door on the Mk2 and Mk3 caused the C-pillars to be strangely triangular-shaped, whereas the Mk1 looked more ‘natural’.

      When the Mk4 golf became the Bora, VW finally gave the saloon a unique rear door, which gave it a much better profile than any of its predecessors:

    6. The Vento GLX managed to seem way more brougham than the corresponding Passat which at that point in time suggested no trim levels above L were ever made available. I like the Passat from this period because it´s so practical. The Vento looks to be the top of the VW range though. I bet a GLX Vento cost as much as a mid-spec Passåt.

    7. I like the Jetta Mk1 and the Bora. Examples of both are still around my neighbourhood: a Bora in mint condition and a 2-door Jetta that’s been lowered. The only thing about that Jetta is that the styling theme suggests rear wheel drive when, of course, it isn’t. For the Mk1 Jetta, they really tried for a coherent design with the hatch’s doors. The Bora was conceived during Piech’s upward mobility obsession. If memory serves, it was meant to evoke some BMW-ness.

    8. One thought: look how the upper end of the trailing edge of the Bora’s doors smoothly blends in with the roof as well as the C post. Then look at pictures of BMW E36 saloon which at the same part has panel gaps at least three times as wide as the Bora’s (panel gulfs, rather) and how this part invariably stands proud of the surrounding surfaces by a couple of millimetres, something BMW never managed to put right during the E36’s production run

    9. Good morning Dave. Ah yes, the poor old E36. It wasn’t a patch on the E30 for design or build quality, and always looked cheap because it was, to manufacture if not to buy. The E46 successor marked a return to decent standards for BMW and the E36 is best forgotten.

  5. As I mentioned in my reply to the first part of this article, a 1308 GLS was my dad’s first new car. I remember how it nearly got totaled, how it took us to France on a holiday and how my dad had a can of spray paint to touch up some rust that had developed on the roof close to the B-pillar on the driver side.

    Memory is a funny thing. It’s been decades since I last saw one and these cars are largely forgotten. Thank you Daniel for keeping my childhood memories alive.

  6. On the subject of cheap facelifts; I can not bet on it but it looks like they kept the front fender intact for the ’80 facelift? From a reverse rake to a forward rake, but the new headlamps is just moved forwards in front of the fender?

    1. That’s a pretty safe bet, Ingvar. They also deleted the bright trim that ran up the sides of the indicators and across the leading edge of the bonnet, which helped make the revised front end look shallower than before.

  7. Excellent pieces Daniel, thanks.
    Why Peugeot rebranded the Chrysler marques Talbot is beyond my understanding. You understand why Chrysler stamped its name on the companies it bought: it’s the arrogance of the big guy who won on the smaller ones and therefore thinks it owns everything. It’s just hubris, not marketing.
    Simca was a very popular marque in France in the 1960’s with a faithful client base. Renaming it Chrysler blurred the image of the brand. Only middle-aged guys like me (I was born in 1944) remembered Talbot as a high end, sportscar brand. In the 1950’s I had matchbox models of its racing cars (as most other kids I had poured lead into them to make them heavier to improve their performances in the school courtyard). Why the heck this brand should be stamped on middle-class and entry-level saloons? Even though the cars were quite good the marque lost its brand recognition. IMHO the only right move would have been to use the Simca brand again.
    After killing Citroën, Peugeot killed Simca and the other Chrysler brands.

    1. Agreed. However I know the Talbot brand and you are 30 years my senior 🙂 Here’s a photo of a Talbot Lago T150 with a Figoni & Falaschi body I took about 10 years ago.

    2. In the Sixties Simca was France’s largest car manufacturer. When you look at the 1000 and 1100 you can see why they sold thousands of them.
      Peugeot did not need Talbot but their own products weren’t necessarily better with the exception of the 205 which rescued the entire PSA conglomerate. The 305 and 130x were both based on antediluvian underpinnings and suffered from their old and too small engines, the 505 was fine but not necessarily better than the Tagora and the 604 was – don’t know. The 305 was given some kind of new life with the Series 2 and its XU engines which would also have fitted in the 130x – remember the Horizon got the XUD to make a very sensible and attractive for the time car.

      If I remember correctly Matra used the pre-facelift 130x’s headlamps for their Espace concept. Renault liked the design so much that they kept these old headlamps in production when the Espace became a Renault.

    3. As much as I appreciate the sound of the Talbot name, I agree that it was probably a mistake to think that a long forgotten name could be revived.
      Since PSA got all the former naming rights, it would have made more sense, in terms of name recognition, to use a former Rootes label in the UK and Simca in France (and other countries).
      Especially as not only was there no name recognition for the new name Talbot, there was also no halo model that could have radiated across the whole range of small and mid-size cars.

      As a car nerd, I was of course already familiar with Talbot from the Simca story. Almost everyone I knew at the time was not familiar with Talbot. To explain Talbot’s nimbus, I always used the T26 from 1950: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5a/1950_Talbot_Lago_T26.JPG

  8. Good afternoon, the Talbot brand never stood a chance, why Peugeot didn’t resurrect the a Rootes brand name and keep Simca is a mystery.
    My Dads last ‘firms car’ replacing an unreliable and rusty Renault 14 was an Alpine, ordered as a Chrysler and delivered as a Talbot. Not every firm bought Cortinas and Cavaliers. He kept the Alpine as part of the redundancy settlement, I think it was traded in for a Fiesta van which was more suitable for his new self employment.
    Dad had been a convert to fwd in the 1960s, his own cars prior to the work supplied R14 had been an Austin 1800, two Maxis [yes one after another] and a Saab 99. Therefore the Alpines steering and gearchange didn’t appear heavy and vague, we thought cars drove like that. The Alpine wasn’t as comfortable as it looked, the plush looking brown seats seemed to take up a lot of interior space, the front ones were mounted too low for our short of stature family. The boot was shallow as well.
    I don’t know why the contemporary VW Passat having poor build quality is a surprise. The Golf and Passat mk 1 were light weight cars with a minimum of trim and equipment and VW didn’t have a culture of introducing new models, they had been refining making Beetle based cars for 30+ years. I’m currently on my fourth consecutive VW but I don’t think the build quality or design live up to the reputation.

    1. Audi 80/Passat B1 surely were no paragons of build quality and they corroded in world record time. At Audi as well as at VW quality only became significantly better or even exemplary in the respective Piech eras. Now they have come full circle with awful quality in Golf Mk8 (which will get a new interior to fix the quality problems) and an A4 B8/B9 whose build quality is simply horrible. An hour ago I was sitting in a traffic jam for fifteen minutes and started to knock against interior trim in my B9 and the stuff on the B post, at the seat bottom or at the rear half of the centre console surely can’t be any worse in a Dacia.

    2. The first-generation FWD Volkswagens of the 1970s certainly rusted as enthusiastically as any contemporary Italian car and were put to shame by the ancient but robust Beetle. It was only in the 1980s that the second generation models were properly built and protected against corrosion.

  9. I should have said that not only the middle-aged who had a Talbot model car when they were kids remembered Talbot but also the car nerds. 😉 The average citizen had no clue.
    Actually the French government pressured Peugeot into buying Citroën for fear a foreign company would. It guaranteed the bank loan to make the instalments cheaper. The acquisition was well above Peugeot’s means considering that Citroën needed huge investments to be back afloat. Hence Peugeot did very little investments.
    The acquisition of Chrysler operations was one more idiotic move from an unhealthy company and all the initiatives they took were wrong. Chrysler’s range of cars were quite good even though they deserved some improvement and Peugeot sent it down the drain.
    What a pity.
    Nick

  10. The changes to the nose were to make it look a mite longer I assume, as from some angles the Solara (Isn’t that also an ice lolly?) looks like the tail is longer than the bonnet. Without the rhinoplasty the effect might have been even more pronounced??

    They are a coherent pair aren’t they, the slightly underwelming visiual impression from the Alpine cuts across nicely to the Solara, which is like a smaller half finished Opel Senator A.

  11. In retrospect, I wonder if using the Hillman brand would have been a better bet for the Alpine. It always surprises me when companies buy other firms and then throw away a load of brand equity (it’s hubris, as has been said).

    I think that the Solara (reminds me of ice lollies, too) verges on good-looking. However, it seemed utterly ancient and a desperate last throw of the dice to me, at the time. For some reason, 1976 to 1980 seemed a very long time, perhaps reflecting my stage of life (a lot happens in one’s teenage years), as well as real changes in the wider world.

    Here’s Chris Goffey – an Alpine driver, apparently – reviewing the Solara. I guess it was only a short time before the mk2 Cavalier arrived.

    1. What is the car behind Goffey at 5′ 00″? The location is mostly Switzerland, probably late winter. The white stuff is snow. It looks lovely. I must go back to 1980 as soon as I can.

    2. Are those factory export taillights on that Mustang or an owner hack?

  12. The Alpine was a big car with a small engine, making it ideally suited to European countries like Ireland where you were taxed on cubic capacity. It was also a big car for a Simca 1100 gearbox…..
    On the subject of fragility, I remember the rear lights ( first car with rear foglight as standard ?) They were all plastic, and the lens was screwed to the lamp housing. but the lamp clipped into the bodyshell with flexible tabs – no screwdriver required.

    1. That 1100 gearbox was certainly on its limits, hence the 1.6 litre Poissy engine being available only with the Chrysler Torqueflite A415 3-speed automatic until around 1985, when PSA allowed use of their suitably-sized BE1 manual transmission. That gearbox also allowed the much-needed option of a fifth speed, just 16 years after the Maxi provided it as standard.

  13. It is perplexing the Alpine / Solara never received either an estate or the 1.9 PSA XUD diesel like on the smaller Horizon.

    1. The Alpine did get the XUD, but only for Finland, where the cars were assembled locally by Valmet. It wasn’t even an option for the Solaras built in Uusikaupunki, as Peugeot didn’t want it to compete with the 305.

    2. Was not aware the Alpine received the XUD albeit only in Finland.

      Despite Chrysler US’s intention to build the Horizon/Omni and upscaled K-Car models in North America, in despite of their desperate position it seems to have been an oversight for them to have overlooked the possibility of Americanizing the Alpine / Solara as something to slot above the Horizon/Omni yet below the later Dodge Aries / Plymouth Reliant (K-Car).

    3. It would probably have been a niche too far to try to slot something in between the Horizon and the (very successful) K-car; then there’s the issue of the engines being small, plus ‘not invented here’ syndrome, etc. Overall, Chrysler had their hands full at that time and I think it would have been seen as too risky.

      Incidentally, it seems that Valmet only took the Alpine because they wanted the Horizon and Chrysler made it a condition that they took the larger car, as well.

      On the subject of estates, Heuliez proposed one (and one for the 180) but Chrysler weren’t keen. I guess the justification for estates lessens with a hatchback – it’s clearer to see a need for estates with booted saloons.

    4. The Alpine was said to have been considered as being worthy of sale in the United States, however the idea was dismissed by then Chrysler boss Lynn Townsend shortly before he retired.

      In theory a US Alpine would have likely featured a similar range of engines as the US Horizon/Omni and despite being shorter in width and length to the later Dodge Aries (K-Car), was actually slightly longer in wheelbase. It could have been directly replaced later on by a K-Car based successor from the mid-to-late 1980s.

      https://www.allpar.com/threads/the-chrysler-alpine-simca-1307-1308-talbot-1510-and-talbot-solara.228225/

    5. Interesting – thanks, Bob. I guess Townsend had something more traditional and cheaper in mind. It’s funny – there’s a parallel with the Renault 5 story here, with various managers saying that it (and the Fiat 127) wouldn’t sell. I guess some market testing would have indicated otherwise.

    6. It is strange though doubt market testing would have persuaded those with influence within companies like Renault or Fiat to have dropped their intransigence to 2/3-door models in the case of the former or their dislike for the hatchback layout in the case of Fiat.

      What is funny about the example of Fiat would be the fact that while there was opposition to the hatchback layout (with some dubbing it a glorified estate IIRC), Innocenti with their A40 Combinata experienced a situation where the Combinata hatchback went on to significantly out-sell the existing 2-door saloon (something that BMC should have taken note of for both the Mini and 1100/1300).

      One question that does not appear to have been answered with the Alpine is if the Type 180 engines mooted for it were capable of being certified to meet US emissions standards? Otherwise it seems the 1.3-1.6 Avenger engine particularly in Brazilian 1.8-litre form (with potential to reach 2-litres) that was also mooted for the Alpine during development, would have been suitable for both the US Horizon/Omni and Alpine in retrospect thereby negating the need for both the 1.6 Simca Poissy or the need to buy a 1.7 VW engine.

    7. Yes – that’s an interesting scenario. I checked what engine the Dodge Alpine (Colombia) had – it was a 1,442 Poissy unit producing 92 hp. I thought it might have had something a bit more ‘exotic’.

  14. I found this on Youtube, where they compare a 1307 and a Passat. In Dutch, but with English subtitles

    1. Good video – for those who want to watch it on YouTube, the title is: Volkswagen Passat vs. Simca 1307 – Classics Dubbeltest – English subtitles

      Nice to see that the Alpine has a button you can press to see if the brakes have pressure. If it lights up when you press it, you’ve got brakes – Hooray!

  15. In March 1976, Motor published an article showing the evolution of cars from studio originals to production models; one of those the magazine covered was the Alpine:

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