The Chrysler Horizon development story tells a difficult tale. It was Chrysler Europe’s first world car, and an effective Anglo-French interpretation of the Volkswagen Golf, and it should have gone on to rule the world…
So, what went wrong? Keith Adams tells the story of the 1979 European Car of The Year and its rapid descent from superstardom to also-ran.
Chrysler Horizon: less than the sum of its parts…
The Chrysler Horizon was simultaneously launched in Europe and the USA in December 1977. Chrysler had had ambitions that the Horizon would become its world car, loved by everyone from Italy to California. However, disappointing sales and Chrysler’s own troubles soon put paid to that idea.
The Horizon was developed to replace the aged Simca 1100 range. However, the 1100 lived on for four years after the Horizon was launched, simply because the Horizon estate car, panel van and pick-up derivatives were not developed.
The limited nature of the Horizon’s development was a pretty accurate reflection of the generally weak state of Chrysler’s European operations. It was built initially in France and America, but was not produced in England until the 1980s. And the European and American versions may have looked similar but under the skin they were very different pieces of machinery.
Building on success…
The British Chrysler Alpine and French Chrysler-Simca 1308 had been the first comparatively successful result of the Chrysler Europe policy of producing a single range of cars that would fit into the UK and snugly as it did France. The previous attempt – the British Chrysler 180 series and French Chrysler 1609/1610 – had been a total failure!
The process of ‘Europeanisation’ did not go as far as devising a single name for all markets. Despite having taken full control of the Rootes Group and Simca in 1967, both operations were left to pursue their own destinies, without any real pressure coming from Detroit to merge.
Although each company was renamed to reflect their new owners (ie, Chrysler UK, Chrysler France and Chrysler España), the British and French divisions continued to build and market cars under their existing marque and model names. The reasons for this are hard to fathom, but were probably down to the corporate policy of Chrysler’s US President Lynn Townsend, who believed that a European presence was required, not a European model policy.
Adopting the Pan-European strategy
By the beginning of 1975, the quaint notion that each country could be left alone to get on with its own thing was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The UK operation continued to lose huge amounts of money and sales had been sliding alarmingly.
Chrysler in France, on the other hand, had been going from strength to strength, thanks to the success of the 1100. It was decided that the Alpine/1308 story (British style, French engineering, pan-European assembly) should be repeated across the range. During the development of C6 the amalgamation of British and French design teams had worked rather well, and there was no reason to believe that this system would not work equally as well for the smaller car.
A model strategy for Chrysler’s European line-up was drawn-up, and a sound future policy was devised. Based around three cars, the policy would cover all of the market sectors that Simca and Rootes had been actively competing within.
- Chrysler C2
Front-wheel-drive Simca 1100 replacement, to fight in the Volkswagen Golf class. Emerged in late-1977 as the Horizon.
- Chrysler C6
Front-wheel -drive Simca 1500 replacement, to fight in the Ford Cortina/Taunus class. Emerged in late-1975 as the Alpine/1308.
- Chrysler C9
Rear-wheel-drive Chrysler 180 replacement. Emerged in late 1980 as the Talbot Tagora.
This plan was rational, but it did little to address the British situation and, because of this, none of these models were directly conceived to replace the Hillman Avenger and Hillman Hunter models. The other anomaly was the Chrysler Sunbeam, which Chrysler in the UK were cooking up at Whitley to keep alive the Linwood plant in Scotland. Although conceived to fight in the supermini sector, its rear-wheel-drive platform meant that it would have a very short shelf life. However, Chrysler could at least try and market the Chrysler Sunbeam as a replacement for the Hillman Imp and Simca 1000.
Project C2: Chrysler’s Golf
Saloon styling proposal
Chrysler Horizon development story: C2 kicks off
In 1974, just weeks after the launch of the Volkswagen Golf, and following the Simca 1100 replacement project being defined as the C2, Roy Axe‘s team at Whitley began working on the new car’s styling. Roy Axe had a clear idea in his mind of how the new car should look and was very aware of the importance of it looking like a smaller brother to the soon-to-be-launched C6 (Alpine/1308).
By mid-1974, four C2 proposals (above) had been prepared for management viewing, and from these four, a single one was chosen for further investigation. The final design that was chosen dropped the Simca 1100 theme in favour of a clean, crisp and very Golf-esque design. From early on in the design process, it was agreed that the C2 should be sold in the USA, becoming Chrysler’s first purpose-designed World Car.
With the co-operation of the European design teams in Britain and France with their counterparts in Detroit, Chrysler was hoping to have a modern sub-compact on the United States market before any of their American competitors. It would allow Chrysler to respond to the new American legislation reducing the fuel consumption of cars and to meet the ever-increasing onslaught of the Japanese.
Designing for America and Europe
This meant that the C2 would need to incorporate styling and design elements that would help with the Federalisation process. The Executive Designer on the C2 project, Curt Gwinn, explained why the Horizon sported what seemed to be such oversized wheelarch lips.
He said: ‘Many surface adjustments to our approved design were required but the most significant one was to increase front fender wheel lip flares to accommodate the tyre chain clearance requirements in the USA.’ The wheelarch flares were normally sized on the original design! Many owners of scuffed Horizons would no doubt rue that piece of transatlantic rationalisation in subsequent years.
By 1976, development of the C2 and its proposed variations C2-short and C2-saloon version was well under way and the package was looking good in both European and US specification. The style had evolved slightly from the final clay of November 1974, but only in minor detailing, which had been defined by Chrysler in the USA.
Carrying over the best of the Simca 1100
As anticipated at the start of the programme, much of the existing Simca 1100’s hardware was carried over, most notably, its engines, gearboxes and suspension. Effectively designed around the 1100 base, the Horizon nevertheless incorporated many of the refinements already utilised in the Alpine.
The original 1118cc 1100 engine was used, along with the 1294cc and later in the car’s life 1442cc versions from the Alpine. A four-speed manual transmission was lifted straight from the Simca 1100. However, the car was to be wider and have a longer wheelbase than the 1100 to allow for more interior room. Similar seating to the Alpine, being large and soft in the French style, was fitted.
During the gestation period of the C2, rival European producers were also working hard on their Volkswagen Golf clones. By the end of the 1970s, it became clear that Chrysler had been on the button with the Horizon packaging, judging by the size and style of the rivals that had appeared by that time…
Chrysler Horizon takes a bow…
To press home the ‘World Car’ message that Chrysler were trying to get across with the Horizon, the car was officially launched in Europe and the USA on 7 December 1977. In the UK, it was marketed as the Chrysler Horizon (since 1976, all UK cars were Chryslers), whereas in France and much of Europe (where Simca was much stronger), it was called the Chrysler-SIMCA Horizon.
In the USA, Chrysler presented the C2 in two forms: the Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni, and although these American variations looked similar to their French cousins, there were many differences under the skin! For example, the European Horizon used torsion bars for its front suspension, as did its predecessor, the 1100. On the Detroit Horizon the torsion bars were replaced by MacPherson strut front suspension. Ironic since Chrysler had pioneered the use of torsion bar suspensions…
Chrysler’s own financial problems might have overshadowed the launch to a degree, but the Horizon was given a warm reception in Europe. The Horizon was launched as the Simca 1100’s replacement, and the press (especially in Europe) were quick to proclaim the design, ‘an Anglo-French triumph’, even though, under the skin, there was little to differentiate it from the Simca 1100.
Chrysler Horizon: Car of The Year 1979
Although the Horizon was marketed like the Alpine as a brand-new car it was more a facelifted 1100 than a cut-down Alpine. However, the styling and packaging hit its intended market dead on, and it seemed that Chrysler Europe would have a bright future.
The European Car of the Year panel awarded the Horizon with its highest accolade – Car of the Year 1979. Remarkably, this would prove to be Chrysler’s second CoTY winning car in a period of three years, although the Horizon only narrowly beat the Fiat Ritmo/Strada into second place.
According to the Car of the Year website, the Horizon was a car of uneven ability, marred by its aging components: ‘Born as Chrysler-Simca Horizon and later known as Talbot Horizon, this was the last new model from the French manufacturer under Chrysler group’s control before PSA’s takeover.
‘Heir of remarkable Simca 1100, the five-door hatchback was a practical, unpretentious family car, appreciated for its sturdiness, ride comfort and a safe roadholding that was the trademark of previous Simca. Slow, stiff steering and a weight that marred somehow performance were concerns for some jurors.’
Lee Iacocca: proud of Chrysler’s new baby
That is not to downplay the Horizon’s achievement. Given Fiat’s track record of producing CoTY winning cars, to knock its car into second place was impressive. Lee Iacocca (right), boss of Chrysler, was certainly proud of the achievement, but ensured that the press knew that the Horizon was more than merely a European car.
He said: ‘The 50 leading auto writers of Europe… gave the [Car of the Year] award to the new Simca Horizon… because of the technological innovations on that car – like automatic transmission, and on-board computer, automatic speed control, electronic ignition, and electronic trip computer.’
‘European technology? No way. They were all developed by Chrysler engineers in this country and then made available to our French company for use on the Simca Horizon.’ – Lee Iacocca
While the C2 had perhaps been developed internationally, the final products that went to market were distinctly different. In America, the Plymouth Horizon and its twin, the Dodge Omni, looked different from their European counterparts, featuring a different dashboard, stronger bumpers and Federalised lighting.
A slow build-up to introduction
The Horizon went in production at the end of 1977, but did not get fully up to speed until May 1978, when production of the rear-engined Simca 1005/1006 ended. The introduction of the Horizon marked the end for the 1000. The 1118cc Horizon LS was introduced as the successor to the 1005/1006.
There was also in France a luxury version to substitute for the 1006GLS, complete with a plethora of equipment, including folding rear seat, long-distance lights, tinted glass, radio, bumper guards, side trim, metallic paint and, optionally, a sunshine roof.
The British range was not launched until October 1978. It was made up initially of 1118cc and 1294cc LS and GL models and a top line 1294cc GLS.
The press wasn’t entirely convinced
The press was less convinced than the CoTY jurors. When the Horizon was stacked up against rivals, it failed to impress enough to become a class leader. Critics applauded the ride but not the steering, which was ridiculously low-geared giving an exceptionally large turning circle.
In its first big group test against the Volvo 343, Renault 14, Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Golf in January 1979, What Car? magazine placed the Chrysler Horizon third. It was beaten by the Volvo 343 and Renault 14, and held back for a number of reasons. ‘Chrysler’s new Horizon finishes up in the middle of the pack, and that just about sums it up – average. It is anonymous but comfortable, well equipped and has a good ride. Our biggest worry is the attention to detail.’
Autocar’s first British test said: ‘the Chrysler design is… somewhat conservative, not an obvious step forward and particularly handicapped by its poor steering and fussiness at speed’.
The Horizon did sell better than the Alpine, probably because hatchbacks were more acceptable in the smaller size segment which included cars such as the Renault 14 and Volkswagen Golf. The main British competitors – the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Viva, Morris Marina and Austin Allegro were all saloons.
Where the USA and Europe start to diverge
Chrysler had had a hard time legalising the Simca engines, especially since none had been imported to the States since 1973. It would have cost too much to make it meet American emissions standards and was also a very unrefined and rough engine.
The initial engine used in the USA was the 70bhp, 1.7-litre unit from the Volkswagen Rabbit because it was already smog tested and because it was readily available. When Chrysler sold its European operations in 1978, part of the deal included a 1.6-litre engine to be supplied by Peugeot for the US Horizon.
The Volkswagen 1.7-litre engine with a Chrysler-made head was used from the 1978 model year through to 1983. In 1979, Chrysler’s own 2.2-litre engine was ready and at first augmented, and eventually replaced the smaller European engines, including the 1.6-litre Peugeot engine, introduced in 1983 and dropped in 1986.
New parents for a new car…
The Horizon’s early career was soon overshadowed by the political machinations of Chrysler. Sadly, Chrysler’s mounting problems in the USA were becoming intolerable and, in an effort to concentrate on its core businesses in the USA, the inevitable decision to offload Chrysler Europe was taken. After much negotiation and with a degree of encouragement from the French Government, it was PSA that ended up acquiring the Chrysler Europe range or cars and factories from the Americans.
This meant that the Horizon was now part of a larger range of cars that included such talented cars as the Peugeot 305 and Citroën GSA. Fortunately, the Horizon did not clash seriously with either of these cars and so there would be no immediate risk to the Poissy line. Following the change of ownership, the Chrysler name was dropped in 1979, so all new Horizons sold after 1 August 1979 would be known as Talbot Horizons.
The Chrysler bonnet mounted badge was replaced by Talbot (above), and there were tales of dealers retro-fitting these badges to older cars that might have been languishing in their showrooms… This was not dissimilar to the trick used in America when the early Chrysler K-cars were re-badged for Dodge and Plymouth publicity shots!
Model range updates
During 1979, the French were offered the Jubilee Horizon with a 1442cc engine. The Jubilee, introduced in March 1979 and sold for just one year was based on the GLS and had special two-tone paint. Sales of the Horizon remained steady throughout its early years and, to maintain sales, the range was extended to include increasingly plush versions. In September 1979, the UK received the Horizon SX, which sported a trip computer and standard automatic transmission. British production of the Horizon started in 1980.
For France in 1980, the name was changed to Talbot-Simca Horizon. The Horizon SX was also offered to the French complete with 1442cc engine and automatic transmission, trip computer, electric windows and headlight washers. The French range comprised the 1.1 LS, 1.3 LS and GL, 1.5 GL and 1.5SX Automatic. The Horizon SPL was introduced in France in March 1980. It was based on the GLS, but had its own distinctive paint job and the 1442cc engine from the Alpine.
In March 1981, a basic 1118cc LE and an 82bhp manual transmission GLS were added to the British range. Later that year, in May, came the economy tune 1500 GL. This model featured a 69bhp version of the 1442cc engine and a five-speed gearbox.
That innovative trip computer
It also had an econometer. This curiously named device was a set of flashing lights on the speedo that showed red when the car being driven uneconomically and green when the driver was using a light right foot! The GLS had a similarly strange additional instrument – a Jaegar horizontal electronic rev counter across the top of the steering column shroud that looked like the afterthought it obviously was!
At the same time an economy-minded GL was launched, the more powerful 82bhp 1442cc engine was made an optional extra on LS and GL models, but only with a three-speed automatic gearbox.
Unlike the US range, no genuinely sporty European Horizons were ever developed. This market was left to the rear-wheel-drive Sunbeam range as all the other sports models in the Talbot line up had been dropped. No new sports Talbots of any other type were developed under the Peugeot management who saw the Horizon as a bread-and-butter car, holding the fort in the prosaic but important compact family car sector.
From shining star to also-ran
Sadly, the arrival of the GM Astra/Kadett in 1979 and the Ford Escort Mk3 in 1980, helped push the Horizon into also-ran status very quickly, thanks to its elderly engine and low-geared steering. Not that it mattered too much though, as it was still the best-selling mid-sized hatchback within PSA, and therefore, vitally important to the group’s future model plans.
PSA’s influential XUD 65bhp 1905cc diesel engine made its first appearance in October 1982 under the bonnet of the Horizon, and met with critical acclaim. Without doubt, it was the car that launched PSA into the diesel big time, proving that the gap between compression ignition and petrol engines was closing rapidly. Despite its rapidly ageing body the diesel Horizon took on the all-conquering Volkswagen Golf diesel…
Subsequently developed as 71bhp non-turbo and 92bhp turbo versions in other Peugeot models, since that time over 7.5 million of these engines, credited with introducing diesel engine motoring to a huge number of previously sceptical motorists, have been built.
Talbot Horizon Series 2 is introduced
For the 1983 model year, a shake up of the British range took place to combat falling sales of the Talbot marque in general. All Horizons were re-designated Series 2. Five-speed manual gearboxes and head rests were fitted on all models except the base 1.1 LE. Specification levels rose, although the SX was dropped. The range was made up of the 58bhp 1100LE, 64bhp 1300LS, 82bhp 1500LS Automatic, 82bhp 1500 GL and 64bhp 1900 LD.
A couple of special editions arrived in 1984 – the Pullman (two-tone brown and gold with gold alloy wheels) and later the Ultra (with power steering and wheel covers). For France too, in 1983 all Horizon’s were re-designated Series 2 cars.
The final changes were made in spring 1985 when the range was slimmed down. In Britain there was an 1100 LE, a 1300 GLE, a 1300 LX and a 1300 GLX. It was all too late and the Horizon died in Britain in 1986 with the introduction of the Peugeot 309. A mere 150,000 Horizons were built in the UK from 1980 to 1985. The last French Horizon had been produced in the spring of 1985, but production continued in the United States until 1990. In Europe, the Horizon was viewed as a family car, and, as such, was in a very competitive class. In the US, it was seen as basic transportation, where it excelled.
Outside of Britain, France and America, Talbot Horizons were made in at Valmet Uusikaupunki in Finland from 1979 to 1987, replacing the Saab 96. There was a choice of 1294cc and 1442cc petrol engines and, after 1982, a 1900cc diesel engine. Talbot’s Finland plant used many Saab parts especially on the interior and also used the Saab painting method.
The end is on the horizon
By the time of the Horizon 1.9D’s launch in 1982, the Whitley design team was already hard at work on the Horizon’s replacement, Project C28. It was badly needed – the Horizon’s were slowing throughout 1983 and 1984 as a consequence of the car’s increasing lack of competitiveness again newer rivals such as the Vauxhall Astra, Ford Escort and Austin Maestro.
When the Talbot Horizon was phased out in the autumn of 1985, it marked the end of the Talbot marque as a carmaker. Although the name would live on until as late as 1991, as the Talbot Express, a re-badged Peugeot/Citroen/Fiat designed van.
The basic car would live on until 1991 over the Atlantic, where it was a success thanks to Chrysler’s continuous development and clever marketing of it. That seems a happier ending to the story than the European one.
With thanks to Andy Thompson for his input.