The Chrysler Alpine or Simca 1307/1308, as it was known in Europe, was a genuine step forward for its maker. In a nutshell, the Anglo-French Alpine was styled in the UK and powered by Simca running gear.
It was conceived to take on the might of Ford and Vauxhall in the company car market in the UK, while remaining a progressive alternative to the CitroÃ«n GS/Renault 16 in France. It could be argued that it failed to meet both challenges during a long production run.
Chrysler Alpine: Hatching a new approach
The Alpine was born through the desperate need for Chrysler to replace the aging Simca 1500/1501 in France. As late as 1972, when the project was instigated, there was still no clear pan-European model strategy at Chrysler: the British range consisted of the Imp, Avenger and Hunter, while the French operation boasted the 1000, 1100 and 1500.
Considering that Chrysler had complete control of the Rootes Group and Simca since the mid-1960s, it seems odd that very little managerial effort had gone into model rationalisation. What was needed was a blanket Chrysler-badged range. However, the Alpine did signal a change in direction, even if this policy revision was rather late in the day.
Although what was known as the Project C6 was developed as a Simca 1500 replacement, and the technical development of the car took place at Poissy in France, the styling was led by Roy Axe’s team at Whitley. However, the way in which the project arrived there was not that straightforward.
How the styling and engineering were chosen
According to site contributor, and industry executive, Graham Ariss, the design process was an interesting one. He said, ‘Chrysler requested for submissions from Simca and Whitley. The UK proposed a re-skin of the Avenger estate, which would be developed into a five-door fastback.’
The proposed range from Chrysler UK would look like this:
- Hillman-badged mid-range models would be offered with the Rootes high-cam engines in 1.6-, 1.8- and 2.0-litre forms. The larger capacity versions would be developed using the Brazilian engine block. This would make use of the power unit originally conceived (and not eventually used in) the Chrysler 180.
- Sunbeam/Humber-badged top-end versions using a volume version of BRM twin-cam engine that had been developed for the Avenger rally and race cars. Both cars would use the existing (and very good) alloy-cased gearbox from the Avenger with five-speed internals.
The French proposal was based on, and would utilise the drivetrain from, the 160/180/2-litre. There was no question that the five-door fastback styling was the best all-round solution, and was rapidly accepted as the way forward. The UK management liked this solution because it saved the costs of developing separate saloon and estate models, while Simca liked it because of internal nervousness about rival fastback saloons that were on their way in the marketplace.
Graham added: ‘However, Simca was adamant that the car had to be front-wheel drive in order to be acceptable to the European market, but the UK was adamant that Project C6 needed to be rear-wheel drive so as to be acceptable to the UK fleet market.’
How the Chrysler Alpine design evolved
The new car would become the first in a range of neatly styled European cars, a subject close to Roy Axe‘s heart. It was a development policy that also paved the way for the Horizon, Tagora and Samba. The one anomaly was the Sunbeam, but that car was only created to stop the Linwood factory from closing while, as a bonus, establishing Chrysler’s presence in the rapidly emerging supermini market.
Three schemes for evaluationâ€¦
A classic case of an unhappy compromise reached
At the beginning of the C6’s development, there were plans to produce a rear-wheel-drive version for the British and north European markets, with France and southern Europe getting front-wheel drive. According to Ariss, the decisions about which way Project C6 was going to go weren’t always based on logic. He said: ‘This is where the politics of Chrysler Europe kicked in. It was headed up by US executives on the career ladder, transiting through the UK and France on short-term two-to-three-year placements.
‘Looking at their careers, they did not like risk and certainly did not like expensive decisions that might come back to haunt them. So, expensive new product developments were always doomed against quick-win cost savings they could put on their CV.’
‘This is where the politics of Chrysler Europe kicked in. It was headed up by US executives on the career ladder, transiting through the UK and France on short-term two-to-three-year placements.’ – Graham Ariss
Initially, the plan was for the French C6 to sit on a development of the Simca 1100 platform that was powered by the Chrysler 160/180/2-Litre engines mated with a new five-speed Simca gearbox. A separate UK C6 would be produced, based on the updated Avenger estate platform. This strategy was soon shelved on cost grounds, and both UK and French models would need to share the same platform.
There was still competition between the divisions, as the UK proposed one solution, and the French another. The British said that the Avenger estate platform could be made front-wheel drive, with McPherson strut front and a dead beam rear axle suspension setup. The Simca gearboxes could be mated to all engine options in order to ensure local market buy-in.
On the other hand, the French proposed that the C6 should be underpinned by their platform and powered by a mix of engines. 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.
Chrysler Alpine: not really a brand-new approach
Further Chrysler cost-cutting resulted 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.
So, in effect, the Chrysler Alpine ended up being an upward extension of the Simca 1100 concept – which, for the French, was good news, as technically, it was still very much a contemporary design. The French loved hatchbacks unlike in the UK, where there seemed to be a buyer aversion to the format. The rival Austin Maxi had proved to be a bit of a non-starter, although its packaging probably was not to blame. A larger five-door to match the Renault 16 seemed to be just the thing Simca were looking for.
That left the C6 designed to use the 1294 and 1442cc versions of the Simca 1100 engine, while gearboxes and many suspension components were carried over pretty much unchanged. Technically, the C6 owed almost nothing to the ex-Rootes range, even though the plan had been to produce the car in both Britain and France.
Was the Alpine designed to fail in the UK?
However, in choosing the cost-constrained French solution, Chrysler Europe probably compromised the C6’s chances in the UK. British buyers at the time were a conservative bunch, and the best-selling cars in the C6’s anticipated sector were the Ford Cortina, Morris Marina and Chrysler’s own Hillman Avenger.
Deciding on developing a range that encompassed a single five-door car, effectively shut Chrysler out of this market. The C6 project was still a long way away from being the pan-European motoring ideal. Manufacturing-wise, though, it was very much a step in the right direction. Production would take place at Poissy and, later, at Ryton as well. That would mean the Avenger could move to Linwood at last, bringing the production of the bodies under the same roof as main assembly.
The Hunter would be displaced from Linwood and shunted off to Ireland to see out its remaining days. Why the decision was made not to replace the Avenger at the time of the C6’s launch (thereby eliminating one almighty model overlap) could be put down to Chrysler UK wanting to keep the Linwood facility while maintaining sales with a tried, tested and relatively young car.
Simca 1307/1308 launched: French enthusiasm
The Chrysler-Simca 1307 and 1308 were introduced at the Paris Salon in October 1975 with the new ‘Bienvenue Ã bord’ slogan. They were the first of the Chrysler-SIMCA cars, with the Chrysler badge on the bonnet and the Simca badge at the rear. The Chrysler-Simca 1307 GLS, 1307 S and 1308 GT range appeared with transistorised ignition. Top speed for the 1307GLS was 94mph.
The new models were initially offered alongside the Simca 1301, by then quite an old design, but a justifiable decision bearing in mind that there was no saloon or estate version of the 1307/1308. The 1308GT was refined and rapid, offered with electric windows and had a top speed of 102mph. It was equipped with a 1442cc motor which developed 85bhp at 5600rpm, while the 1307 GLS had the same 1294cc engine as the 1100 Special, with 68bhp.
In between the two, the 1307 S used the 1294cc engine of the Simca 1100TI, with two carburettors and produced 82bhp at 6000 rpm. The 1442cc engine was an enlarged version of the venerable Simca engine used in the 1100. The stroke was increased from the 70mm of the 1294cc to 78mm, while the bore of both engines remained the same, at 76.7mm. A total of 32,836 Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308s were produced in France during 1975 – not bad bearing in mind that production only started in September.
The 1307/1308 range marked the start of the rapid Chryslerisation process of the Simca range. The original three car range made quite an impact and, although its ex-Simca 1100 front-wheel-drive platform was seen as quite long-in-the-tooth by some, its layout in that sector of the middle market was still seen as something of a novelty. The slightly more upmarket Renault 16 now had something to fear…
Chrysler Alpine launched: cautious optimism in the UK
In the UK, reaction at that year’s London Motor Show was also very positive. The UK moniker chosen was Chrysler Alpine, a name that obviously drew on the heritage of the Rootes Group. There were management concerns that the plan to kill the Hillman marque in 1976 would affect sales.
However, there was some confusion as to where the Chrysler Alpine was going to fit in the range, and how it would affect Avenger sales… The official line, though, was simple: these cars were complementary, and the older car would remain in production for the foreseeable future. It was a curious situation and, yet again, demonstrated that the lack of a clear model policy would cause buyer confusion.
The Alpine was put on sale in Britain in January 1976. Two versions were offered – a 68bhp 1294cc GL and an 85bhp 1442S. In March 1976, 1690 Alpines were sold, compared with 2400 Avengers, 2000 Hunters and 2882 Austin Maxis
How the Simca and Chrysler fared at home
Following the launch flurry, the Alpine went on to endure contrasting fates in the UK and France. On this side of the channel, sales started slowly and remained that way, possibly because the engine and trim options were limited compared with the all-conquering Ford Cortina.
For a car that was aimed at a market so fixated on these details, the lack of 1.6- and 2-litre engines was seen as a major handicap. Advertising in the UK played very much to the Alpine’s practicality, using the strapline, ‘The seven-days-a-week car’.
In national advertising, William Woollard was drafted in to explain why the hatchback was just what we all needed and that, even though its engines were dimensionally challenged, they were equally as capable as its larger-engined rivals. It was not an inspired advertising campaign…
In France, however, the Chrysler-Simca 1308 met a far warmer reception, and immediately started selling in large numbers. In the first twenty days that the car was on the market, 20,000 were ordered by eager French motorists.
The new car was pitched at the very heart of the 7/8CV market, where the majority of sales lay, and where there was a dearth of contemporary five-door cars to choose from. The top-of-the-range 1308GT was particularly well received in France, where the combination of lively performance (thanks to 85bhp from 1442cc), practicality and capable chassis were seen as something genuinely new in its class.
Chrysler Alpine: Car of The Year 1976
The Car of The Year panel agreed, and the 49 strong team of judges from 15 countries duly awarded the Alpine/Simca 1308 the coveted Car of the Year award for 1976. Although the Simca 1307/1308 was commercially very significant in France, it did not enjoy international appeal. Some cynics said that it won by default, thanks to there being little competition that year. One only has to look at the previous (Citroen CX) and next winner (Rover SD1) to see where they were coming from!
Even the Car of The Year website is lukewarm in its description: ‘Produced under Chrysler control, the top of Simca range told the story of scarce investments by the mother company in its French subsidiary. Looks were appealing, hatchback layout very practical, room and load area generous. The car also offered driving pleasure, with a safe road behaviour. But push-rod engines neared obsolescence, limiting performance and fuel efficiency. Double denomination corresponds to 1.3 and 1.4 versions of the veteran OHV engines.’
Other awards included Scandinavian Car of the Car, courtesy of Norway, Finland and Sweden. Denmark and Belgium also gave it their Car of the Year awards.
Early days: demand exceeds supply
At the start of 1976, production at the Poissy plant was running at 900 units a day – still not enough to satisfy demand. On 2 April 1976, the 100,000th Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308 rolled off the French production line. Production increased from May to 1050 a day and on 16 November the 250,000th example was built. In 1976, the Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308 accounted for 7% of total French car sales – more than the Renault 12, Citroen GS, Simca 1100 and Peugeot 304 together!
In France, in 1976, the Chrysler-Simca 1307 GLS sold for ff22,920, the 1307 S sold for ff25,120, and the 1308GT sold for ff26,920. By comparison, Simca 1000 prices ranged from ff13,860 to 20,060, whilst the Simca 1100 ranged from ff18,080 to 24,200. The veteran Simca 1301 Special sedan could still be bought for ff20,560, while the unloved Chrysler 160 range tried to sell for ff24,610 to 28,740. A total of 218,126 Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308s were produced during 1976; it was the marque’s most popular model.
Success in France continued into 1977 even with price increases across the board. The 1307 GLS sold for ff25,570, the 1307 S for ff28,290 and the 1308GT for ff30,300. However, a total of 258,195 1307/1308s were produced in 1977.
New arrivals in the range for 1978
The Chrysler-Simca 1308S was introduced in January 1978. It had the finish and features of the 1307 S, but with the drivetrain of the 1308 GT. For 1978, the 1307 GLS sold for ff26,980, the 1307 S for ff29,950, the 1308 GT for ff32,100 and the new 1308 S for ff30,350. However, the car’s popularity was starting to wane – just 156,875 1307/1308s were produced in 1978, although to a certain extent the new Horizon had stolen sales from its older and bigger sister. Indeed, Horizon production in its first full year exceeded that of the 1307/1308!
By 1979, Chrysler-France held an 11% share of the French market. The range-topping Chrysler-Simca 1309SX Automatique (above) debuted for 1979. Although the 9 at the end of the name was meant to indicate that it was a 9CV vehicle, new French tax laws took effect at the same time and this car was actually considered 8CV. It had a new 1592cc engine created by stretching even further the original Simca 1118cc engine.
The new engine produced 88bhp at 5400 rpm and it could hit 102mph. In March 1979, the limited edition 1308 Jubilee appeared. It featured a two-tone paint job and body coloured bumpers. The glass was tinted, the front windows electric, the upholstery velour and the wheels light alloy. The inflation-riddled 1970s showed in the steadily rising cost of motoring. In 1979, the 1307GLS sold for ff29,600, the 1307S for 32,900, the 1308GT for ff35,200 and the 1309SX for ff41,650. The limited edition Jubilee sold for ff39,950. A total of 112,966 1307/1308/1309s were produced in 1979, continuing the slide that had started in the previous year.
Howeverâ€¦ trouble in England…
During this time, the British end of the Chrysler Europe operation went through extremely hard times. The British plants survived thanks only to a major injection of Government cash, a condition of which was that production of the Alpine should start at the Ryton factory near Coventry. The original plan to build the car in both countries had been abandoned as a result of Chrysler UK’s shrinking market share and the American management were sick to death of the endless strikes and stoppages that plagued the British factories.
In August 1976, the first Coventry-assembled Alpines had rolled off the line and, allied with local production of its engines, UK content of the Alpine was about 50%. In many ways, the Alpine was more of a domestic choice than the Ford Cortina or the Vauxhall Cavalier (many were imported from Europe at this time to compensate for strike-bound UK plants) and yet it continued to fail to capture the public’s imagination. The launch of a luxurious Alpine GLS in September 1976 failed to awaken the market’s interest. In September 1977, the option of the 1442cc engine was added to the GL option list and in December 1978 LS 1300 and 1442 models joined the price list. The S model was dropped at this time.
The range was extended, like its French counterpart, over the next couple of years to embrace the 1592cc version of the Alpine’s aging pushrod engine, but it was Chrysler’s own problems in the USA that affected the Alpine/1308s destiny from this point onwards.
Enter Peugeot, exit Chrysler
Chrysler in the USA was in deep trouble, and had been since 1976. Falling sales and mounting losses forced Chrysler into a policy of consolidation. The European operation was outside of its core business and, thanks to the failure to arrest a falling market share in the UK, Detroit made the decision to shed Chrysler Europe.
Even though the Simca 1307/1308 range had been expanded to encompass the new 1592cc 1309SX derivative, production rapidly began to slide. The introduction of the Renault 20, Renault 18 and Peugeot 305, had adversely affected sales of the Chrysler-Simca range in France, while the Ford-BL-Vauxhall stranglehold of the fleet market did not allow Chrysler to capitalise on the qualities of the Alpine in the UK. Public perception was not helped by Chrysler’s well-publicised financial problems, which put further downward pressure on sales.
Following considerable pressure from the French Government, at the end of 1978, Peugeot agreed to take Chrysler’s European burden away, creating for itself a huge logistical nightmare. Following the re-branding of Chrysler’s existing model range (PSA made the announcement in July 1979 that ‘Chrysler Europe shall become the Talbot Groupe and that all Chrysler-Simca models would become Talbot-Simcas’), Peugeot began work on untangling its product-planning dilemma.
After Peugeot: the changes come quickly
In the case of the Alpine/1308 range, the 1979 cars were renamed the Talbot-Simca 1510 in France and Talbot Alpine in the UK. Both proudly wore the Talbot ‘T’ badge prominently on its radiator grille and in France the Simca badge on the rear hatch.
At the end of 1979, the Alpine received its first facelift. This incorporated new trim/colour combinations and a stylish lean back nose which gave the range a much more modern appearance, and it was hoped that sales would take an upward turn. Certainly, Talbot’s range was finally beginning to look like an Anglo-French family, thanks to the shared faces of the Sunbeam, Horizon and Alpine/1510. This facelift would also pave the way for the first new body variation, one that it was hoped would finally allow the range to make a proper impact in the UK.
The 1980 Alpine range for Britain was launched in January 1980, complete with the new grille. Choice was extended to encompass a 66bhp 1300 LS, 1500 LS, GL and GLS models, all producing 85bhp. There was also a top of the line 1600SX with a standard three-speed automatic gearbox.
Hello to the Talbot Solara
In April 1980, Talbot unveiled the Chrysler-planned Solara, a handsome four-door, three-box version of the Alpine/1510, which had been conceived originally to replace the Chrysler 180. At 170-inches in length, it was three inches longer than the Alpine with a floorpan modified aft of the rear seats to accommodate a huge boot and a whole half inch more rear legroom than the hatchback.
Sporting the new, sleeker, front end and available in some appealing colours, the new car was not short of showroom appeal. Without doubt, the Roy Axe design translated very well, and managed to look modern some five years after the launch of the original car. Available in 1.3- and 1.6-litre form in the UK and (1.4- and 1.6-litre form in France), the Solara was pitched right at the heart of the company car sector, thanks to its competitive pricing.
However, the road testers were less than convinced by the overall competence of the Solara making some very unflattering remarks about its pushrod engine. Despite its good looks, it did not score too well when lined up against the Cortina and Cavalier.
The end of the line for Simca
The Talbot Groupe did not last long – formed in 1980, it was disbanded only a few months later. With its demise, went any real hope of the marque continuing as an independent entity under Peugeot, given the profusion of overlapping model ranges.
In July 1980, the Simca name was abandoned completely in favour of the Talbot name. At the end of 1980 Jean-Paul Pareyre, President of Direction for Groupe PSA announced that the commercial resources of Talbot and Peugeot would be brought together. In France, this translated into a decision to abandon 75% of the country’s 488 Talbot showrooms between 1981 and 1983.
In 1980, a total of 47,304 1510s and 69,226 Solaras were produced in France. It seemed as if the Solara, instead of increasing net Talbot sales, simply poached hatchback customers. The Talbot-Simca 1510LS (1294cc) sold for ff33,950, the 1510GL (1442cc) for ff37,200, the 1510GLS (1442cc) for ff40,600 and the 1510SX Automatique (1592cc) for ff46,200.
The Talbot-Simca Solara LS (1442cc) sold for ff36,600, the Solara GL (1442cc) for ff39,600, the Solara GLS (1592cc) for ff43,600, the Solara SX (with Citroen five-speed gearbox – the same one used in the Citroen BX) (1592cc) for ff46,750 and the Solara SX Automatique for ff48,750.
A quiet end – and many missed opportunities
The Simca name was finally dropped from all models in 1981 and only the Talbot name remained on the Talbot 1510 and the Talbot Solara. The factory at Poissy was restructured with the loss of 4000 employees. The result was a loss of French public faith and confidence in the Talbot marque replicating the situation that had dogged the brand in Britain following the closure of the Linwood plant in 1981.
The limited series 1510 Executive was introduced to France in March 1981 with the SX motor and five-speed transmission. It featured a bronze metallic paint job with matching light alloy wheels. A similar car was introduced in Britain at the same time – a manual transmission version of the existing 1600SX. A total of 18,122 1510s and 42,387 Solaras were produced in 1981. French production fell further in 1982 to 10,327 1510s and 33,281 Solaras.
In Britain, a half-hearted attempt was made in September 1981 to ginger up sales. The 1500LS gained extra kit and two 89bhp 1600 models – the GL and GLS – were introduced. The GLS gained a five-speed gearbox as standard. In March 1982, an old Rootes model name was revived with the limited edition 1600 Arrow version of the Alpine with matt black trim and very little else.
Special editions fail to revive past glories
Series Two models were launched in Britain in October 1982 – the new range was made up of LE, LS, GL and GLS trim levels and a choice of 1300 and 1600 89bhp engines. Across the Channel, the last of the French Talbot 1510s was produced in the spring of 1983.
The limited edition Solara Pullman and Solara Executive were introduced in 1983. They featured tinted glass, velour upholstery, light alloy wheels and metallic paint (two-tone on the Pullman). France produced a total of 26,892 Solaras in 1983; this fell dramatically to 7704 in 1984.
In conclusion: was the Alpine/Solara that bad?
Of course not… It was handsome, quite advanced in its specification (if not execution – that engine really did put off many buyers, and the lack of anti-rust protection was truly shocking) and predicted the popularity of the hatchback in the upper-middle market by about a decade. However, it was developed on a budget, which harmed refinement, and then became overshadowed by the politics surrounding the company that built it.
This atmosphere of turmoil was reflected in the generally poor build quality and unreliability of the range. Motor magazine’s experiences after running one of the first Alpines for 20,000 miles did not auger well. The car’s first keeper, journalist Rex Greenslade: ‘was glad to see the back of it.’
The car was also hampered in an increasingly aspirational market place by its limited engine choice. The biggest engine offered was 1592cc, whereas all its rivals could stretch to at least a 2.0-litre variant. The 1600SX top of the range models really suffered from this, as their price pitched them right in the heart of a market dominated by much bigger rivals.
Motor magazine’s road test of the Alpine 1600SX noted that all the standard kit of the SX was not enough when its price put it up against such cars as the Princess 2200HLS, Ford Granada 2300GL and the Cortina 2300 Ghia – all of which had six-cylinder engines. The Solara and Alpine had the potential to clean up in the UK, but sadly did not. A lack of product development exacerbated the impact of a cut-price design, based on a sound but ageing car.
With thanks to Andy Thompson, Roy Axe and Graham Ariss for their significant input into this story.