The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Simca’s underappreciated mid-liner under the spotlight. 


Editor’s note: This piece first appeared on DTW in March 2017 as part of the Simca Theme.

The Simca 1300/1500 stepped elegantly into the Aronde’s shoes yet, despite good looks and strong sales, it never really escaped the rather ‘grey’ reputation bestowed by its casting as the universal anonymous saloon in Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime. The casual seeker after knowledge might therefore too easily conclude that the mid-size Simca’s sole contribution to the advancement of the automotive art was the availability, in the estate cars only, of a Formica-faced boot floor which could double as a picnic table.

The reality is that it was a well-balanced product, both in engineering and style, for which Simca adopted ‘best’ practice, rather than joining the technological revolution which was sweeping through the car industry in the late fifties and early sixties, one which saw even conservative businesses like BMC, GM, and Rootes trying to rewrite the engineering rule-book.

Image: Simca

The Simca 1300 arrived in May 1963, a replacement for the big-selling Aronde series, which had been its manufacturer’s prime crop through the previous decade. In the same year, Chrysler took control of Simca, buying Fiat shares to increase their holding to 65%. The 1300/1500 and 1301/1501 are therefore Fiat-era designs which lasted almost to the end of Chrysler’s period in control.

Image : Simca

Some Fiat big-hitters were behind the design of the 1300/1500. Oscar Montabone was director of Simca Engineering centre in Argenteuil during the car’s development period, and Rudolf Hruska, the father of the Alfasud was at Simca, then Fiat from 1960 to 1967 and is credited with involvement on the design of the 1300/1500.

Unlike the Mille, which had been on sale for a year and a half, the 1300/1500 was not a completely ‘clean-sheet’ design. The slightly undersquare (74×75) 1.3 litre ‘Rush’ engine was carried over from the Aronde, but the 1475cc engine, which arrived in December 1963 was sufficiently different to merit its own ‘Type 342’ designation.

Henri Théodore Pigozzi launches the 1300. Image: Simca

The 1300/1500’s styling is characterised by a lightness and rightness of proportion which could have come from the studios of Frua or Michelotti, but is widely credited to Piedmontese aristocrat Mario Revelli de Beaumont. The style both inside and out, is more Italian-international than French, resembling a Glas or BMW more than its wilfully idiosyncratic domestic contemporaries.

Image: Allpar

The engine story began with the 1290cc pushrod ‘Rush’ engine from the 1960 Aronde. Based on a pre-WW2 Fiat ohv unit, it had gone through several upgrades. The Rush took over from the ‘Flash’, the main distinction being a five main bearing crankshaft. Despite its ancient origins, the engine was more advanced in its specification than rivals from Opel, Ford UK and BMC, with an alloy head and sump, and an electromagnetically controlled thermostatic cooling fan.

Image: Chrysler Imports Ltd.

The bigger 342 engine has a longer stroke (75.2 x 83) but does not vary significantly in design from the ‘Rush’ also known as Type 312. In 1969 the smaller engine was quietly laid to rest, replaced by ‘Type 345’ a reduced capacity 342 with a 70.3mm bore and 83mm stroke giving 1290cc.

The chassis design was distinguished by a coil sprung live axle at the rear, with four trailing links and a Panhard rod. The front suspension was by double wishbones attached to a transverse subframe with an anti-roll bar, and spring/shock absorber units acting on the upper wishbones. The early 1300s had drum brakes and cross ply tyres, front discs arrived with the 1500, and were fitted across the range to the -01 cars. Radial tyres were not a standard fitment until the late sixties.

Image: Honestjohn

The estate car arrived in 1964, initially as a 1500. As well as the Formica picnic table, it featured a horizontally split tailgate. A seven seat Familiale version was available with a huge roof-rack to accommodate the luggage displaced by the necessarily small occupants of the rearward facing third row of seats.

The 1300/1500 had a relatively short three and a half year  production life, replaced for the 1967 model year by the 1301/1501, a nose-and-tail facelift, which extended the nose by 70mm and the boot by 135mm. The effect was to elongate the saloon to the extent that it occupied the same road space as the Peugeot 404. The wagon retained the rear bodywork of its predecessor, a missed opportunity as these rearward-facing children would have grown a bit in the preceding three years, and many customers would have appreciated a really big picnic table.

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A 1300L with the shorter body was offered for a few months, as a low priced loss leader. The 712,239 production figure is impressive, but it was helped by having no domestic competitors in the 7CV / 8CV sector other than a 1290cc tax-break special version of the fine but ageing Peugeot 403. Until the Renault 16 arrived in mid-1965, there was an ‘open goal’ between the 6CV Renault 8 and the 9CV Peugeot 404.

630,650 of the 1301/1501 were produced. It never matched its predecessor’s success, but had something of a charmed life. The Project 929 (Chrysler 160/180) cars were intended to replace the 1501 and the 1475cc Type 342 engine was dropped from production in 1970, then revived in 1973 in the face of a customer revolt against the bloated and mediocre 160-180.

Like its British Arrow series stablemate, the 1301/1501 remained in production too long, owing to the parlous state of the parent company.  Both were replaced in July 1975 by the Simca 1307/ Chrysler Alpine, a worthy successor ingeniously contrived from the Simca 1100 component set, in the most difficult of circumstances.

The Fiat-era relic did not give up without a fight, just making it into its teenage years. The last 1501 left the assembly line in September 1975. 1301 Wagon production ended in January 1976, and the last of the series, a 1301 saloon was built in June of that year.

The 1963-1976 ‘big Simcas’ were once a ubiquitous part of the automotive landscape of northern Europe. In Britain they sold well, helped by the ex-Rootes dealer network and sporadic supply of domestic products from the strike-prone British Chrysler factories. Now they are all but forgotten, and near-extinct, a sorry fate for such an elegant car. Motorsport success and a high performance edition — Simca-Abarth? — might have made the series more memorable, as would a glamorous convertible or coupe.

The last nearly happened. This hatchback 1501 coupe was displayed by coachbuilder Heuliez at the 1968 Paris Motor Show.

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Simca’s management were not tempted, preferring to update the Bertone designed and built Mille coupe, and build on their relationship with Matra. Above all, the idea came too late. In the planned order of things, the 1501 would be gone in two years.

Never underestimate the stamina of a grey man…

18 thoughts on “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”

  1. I wonder how many of those Formica picnic tables are still in use, their owners blissfully unaware that they’re dining off the boot floor of a Simca wagon?
    The rear three-quarter view of the Heuliez coupe puts me in mind of the first-generation Subaru Leone coupe. Something doesn’t quite gel there.

  2. Good morning, Robertas, and thank you for an interesting read over breakfast this morning. The original 1300/1500 was a quietly handsome and understated looking car, and the facelifted 1301/1501 was a nice update, giving it a little more presence. Is this an unusual case of a good facelift on an already good design?

    In any event, this is one of those cars that never got beyond my peripheral vision before this week, so thanks to both you and Bruno for raising its profile with me.

  3. I drove one once some time after its release. I must say I don’t remember my impressions. Perhaps I had none. It’s like its design: it’s not bad but you don’t remember it. It’s just bland.

  4. Dante Giacosa was said to have been impressed with how Simca were able to stretch the 1100 Type 103 engine into the 1500 Type 342 through some ingenious developments for the Simca 1300/1500 (plus later 1300 Type 345).

    Whereas the Fiat 1300/1500 Type 116 (later produced in Poland and stretched to 1600cc in the Polonez) though derived from the 1800/2100/2300 Type 112, was still said to have been quite similar in scheme to that of the Fiat 1100.

    Would Simca and Fiat agreeing to Giacosa’s idea to standardize the chassis of the Simca 1300/1500 and Fiat 1300/1500, differentiating the two models only through their engines and coachwork under the assumption it would lead to immense savings in investments, servicing organization and the distribution of spare parts have been a good thing?

    Because it would have also allowed Simca a possible way to replace the aging Vedette, provided of course the Type 342/345 could be made into a six (likely 2-litres or under in France).

  5. Inspired by the lead picture, I’ve posed some of the Tri-ang Minix Simca 1300s and various 00 scale figures (men in trilbys) with a 1960s ‘modern’ kit building. Desaturated a bit for the ‘grey’ look. One day I’ll have a proper go at detailing up some of these neat little models.

    1. You have quite a collection of those Simcas, Bernard. Nice building, too; very much period. And the figures; figure painting is not my forte. Hmm… when did I last see someone in a brown suit? We used to wear colours. 🙂
      My son works in HO scale, and I’ve made some buildings for him; he’s more into the engines and rolling stock. Most of my work is in 1/24; alas, no Simcas though.

    2. Thanks Peter. All bar one figure (in the brown suit, from 1979) are contemporary 1960s models and are in their original finishes, so my input was purely in the arrangement. The model Simca is pretty good for its age; I’ve got quite a few of them…

  6. Thanks Robertas, I suppose in the French context the 1300/1500 was indeed ordinary – which would explain its role in Playtime – when in a more international context it comes across as much more refined and elegant than average. An international car from a decidedly un-international country. Given the similarities to something from Bavaria, one wonders what could have become of Simca if they’d had the resources to follow up more convincingly, but that’s true of many marques that have fallen by the wayside.

    The E9 BMW that Dave mentioned under Bruno’s stretching article would also be my gold standard for “successful facelift”, but the 1301/1501 comes rather close. The polar opposite to the Fiat Charter, which is ironic given Simca’s ties with Fiat. Then again, Seat similarly has shown better judgement than the parent company, so maybe it’s to do with being on the periphery, instead of within the operatic centre.

  7. I think the thought of a car for the bourgeoisie is a very interesting concept in itself, and perhaps worthy of a separate article? Because no other (French?) car evokes that feeling but the mentioned Simca. Perhaps the Peugeot 403 and the (German) Mercedes? But what is that makes them borgeoise par préferénce?

    The French intellectuals would surely drive a Citroen DS? But only if they are actually employed in academia and after having written a at least a couple of books on philosophy, while the yet unemployed communist students would drive a Renault 4?

    But I find it funny how the French are famous for making inherently quirky cars, yet the cars that actually sold in numbers were the more discreet Simca and Peugeot models with the Simca 1100 and Peugeot 204 switching between them for first and second place for almost a decade.

  8. My mother had two 1501 estates, one silver one red. They were indeed rather boring but had a certain quality to them. She smashed up the red one in the middle of Berkhamstead high street trying to out do a bus. I learnt to drive in the red one. I think it had some kind of Porsche derived gearbox. Anyway I used to put it away for the parents at night, charging at high speed into a single width double length garage. It and I somehow survived. She followed them up with a Renault 14. Most of her friends were unimpressed except her boss from whom she bought it.

  9. I remember the 1301/1501. There were quite a few of them around here throughout the 1980s; none of my friends’ parents owned one, though. For some reason, they gave me an impression of a relatively low-slung car. Perhaps this is because of the way the trunk was shaped, combined with the narrow and long tail-lights.

  10. I think it’s a shame we never got these Simcas in Australia. The earlier Aronde was well-regarded. It wasn’t just a city car, but stood up to the rigours of country roads and bush tracks. Simca seemed to get yanked from our market about the time Chrysler bought Rootes; I’d guess the Empire product was preferred.

    1. Though, oddly, they didn’t rename the new combine, ‘Chrysler Rootes Australia’. For much the same reason there was never a VD Valiant.

    2. But there was a kind of poetic justice, maybe, when Mitsubishi bought out Chrysler Australia. Some of my US friends still can’t get their heads around that….

  11. The Simcas do look quite Fiat-like from that angle, in that first photo which is from the film. Other cars featured prominently in the film also have square designs (e.g. Renault 8) but I think M. Tati missed the mark somewhat in his automotive casting.

    The Simca’s design has quite a Mercedes-like stance to me – a bit like a four-door ‘60s SL, without wishing to overstate things.

    The Simca 1300 also reminded me of the Opel Rekord A- I think it was the grille.

    It’s amazing to think that the Simca was launched in the same year as the Rover P6 and that the MK1 Cortina had gone in to production the previous autumn. The Simca seems a lot more modern, better-balanced and, yes, discreet.

    1. Simca missed a trick to produce a 4-door saloon that is to the 1100 what the Fiat 123 aka A111 was to the Primula, extrapolating the latter two with the 1100 would mean the resultant 1100-based 4-door saloon is actually much shorter than the 1300/1500 yet a shade wider and with a slightly longer wheelbase.

  12. Thanks Robertas for this interesting post, but now I want a 1300/1500 or 1301/1501 and to watch Tati’s “Playtime” film! I’ve already found the film on Youtube 😀

    As for the 1300/1500/1301/1501, for some reason I thought they were FWD. I guess because of their light, airy design and resemblance of their front ends with that of the early 1100.

    One final thought: I wonder which 1300/1500 would be the better drive, the Simca or the Fiat.

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