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