Chrysler’s great white hope in the executive sector was the C9 project. However, events overtook its development, and Peugeot ended up finishing the job by launching the Talbot Tagora.
And like all the best stories, it ended up in abject failure…
Talbot Tagora: wrong car, wrong time
To fully understand why Chrysler Europe decided to replace the slow-selling Chrysler 180/2-Litre models just as the effects of its domestic crisis were really starting to bite, one needs to look at the company’s long-term goals for Europe.
After more than a decade of involvement with Rootes in the UK and SIMCA in France, Chrysler instigated a programme of model rationalisation, which would end the days of there being a completely separate Rootes and SIMCA range of cars, more often than not competing on the same markets.
The Chrysler 160, 180 and 2-Litre model range was a step in that direction (although it did not replace any specific SIMCA model) because it was the first pan-European model to be offered in the UK, France and other export markets. Of course, for the French market, it was still marketed as a SIMCA, but that was a decision taken by the French, who felt that it should wear the SIMCA badge, given the company’s status as the producer of the country’s best-selling car of the time.
The Chrysler 180 was not a hit
In France, the 180 range (called the Chrysler-SIMCA 1609/1610/2L there) was not the success that Chrysler would have hoped, whilst in the UK, it also sank without a trace. However, it did prove to be a learning experience for Chrysler and, even though that model might have been a commercial failure, it did not necessarily follow that its successor would be one.
Be that as it may, Chrysler wanted its European arm to move further into the rapidly expanding executive car sector, and decided to press ahead with a replacement for the C180 – a factor in this decision was that, by 1976, the effects of the First Oil Crisis of 1973/74 were becoming a rapidly diminishing memory.
All of the major European players were all moving into this market, so Chrysler had little choice but to give the new big car project its full backing. The plan made much sense given that the market was providing such rich pickings for Audi (the 100), Ford (the Granada), Rover (the SD1) and so on; Chrysler wanted a slice of the action, and wanted to bury the current car as quickly as possible.
The Chrysler C9 project is go…
The new project was christened the C9 and, as with the Horizon and Alpine before it, the technical development took place in France, whilst the styling was created in the UK. Keen to put the Chrysler 180 behind it, the company soon devised a modern, glassy three-box saloon, which sat atop a generous 109-inch wheelbase.
Engines would be something of an issue, because rivals were moving towards larger six-cylinder models (and even a V8 in the case of Rover SD1) for their range toppers, backed up with entry-level models pitched in the 2-litre class. In the C9’s case, it was a certainty that it would receive its predecessor’s inline fours, but as the group offered nothing larger, an alternative had to be found.
Initially, Chrysler considered buying-in a Mitsubishi straight-six, but it soon became apparent after testing, that it delivered neither the power, torque nor refinement sufficient to compete in the class; and so, the plan was soon shelved. Searching around for other alternatives, the PRV V6 Douvrin engine (at the time in use in the Peugeot 604, Renault 30 and Volvo 264/265) looked to be the best solution, as it was compact, light and reasonably powerful.
However, it seemed doubtful that Chrysler would gain access to it, as Peugeot raised concerns about it being used in a direct – French produced – competitor. That being the case, it was a subject that led to much controversy, and only ended in a satisfactory conclusion after the PSA takeover of Chrysler Europe in 1978.
Defining the executive style
Styling-wise, the C9 story was a British one… initially. As can be seen from the early prototypes, the C9’s style was defined early on, and remained reasonably unchanged throughout development. The early concepts produced at Whitley, under the direction of Art Blakeslee, possessed an interesting frontal treatment (lights and number plate housed behind a glass cover).
‘In my presentation to top management I forecast that with the C9 our annual sales in the European luxury car market would increase from 30,000 Chrysler 2-Litre cars to 60,000 C9s.’ – Burt Bouwkamp, Chrysler Executive Director of Product Development
Aside from that, the shape did not change radically between 1977 and 1980. However, Chrysler’s management in the USA did get involved more than they had done so in the past (presumably, as they saw C9 as the company’s last gasp), and watered down the more interesting details in order to produce what they saw was a more mainstream car.
Despite the C180’s non-performance in the executive sector, Chrysler Europe planned for a 60,000-70,000 per annum production run, and production was set for Poissy only.
How the C9 would stack up, cost-wise
According to Burton Bouwkamp, Chrysler Europe’s Executive Director of Product Development at the time, ‘The C9 programme approval by Chrysler Corporation management was for more than $60 million for special tools. This did not include product development costs which were expensed – rather than capitalised,’ he said.
Bouwkamp added: ‘Product development costs were covered in our annual budget and so were not part of the C9 programme submission. In my presentation to top management, I forecast that with the C9 our annual sales in the European luxury car market would increase from 30,000 Chrysler 2-Litre cars to 60,000 C9s.
‘This was only 5 per cent penetration of that market segment but, on this basis, the C9 program was profitable and was approved. (Chrysler Europe’s overall passenger car penetration was 7 per cent, so 5 per cent of this segment seemed like a reasonable forecast).’
Sadly, by the time C9 would appear on the market, Europe would be suffering badly from the effects of the Second Oil Crisis of 1979, which affected all large car sales…
Peugeot’s executive conundrum
On 1 January 1979, all Chrysler management left Poissy for good – never to return. This left Peugeot with the unsavoury task of unravelling the Peugeot-Citroen-Talbot product plan; and it was in the executive sector, that this problem was most pressing.
Despite this, PSA management felt that C9 was far too advanced to be canned, and decided to continue its development towards production.
The matter of which engines to use now looked somewhat less complex; as the PRV V6 version could go ahead, even though it would push the C9 range towards the Peugeot 604 (perhaps to bridge the miniscule gap between this and the smaller Citroën CX).
PSA’s limited scope for change
With this in mind, plans to use this engine could be set in stone, and PSA set about the task of overseeing C9 development through to its conclusion. In those closing months, the policy of using as many PSA parts as possible was executed…
Bouwkamp explains the changes that took place after Peugeot took over the C9: ‘Peugeot delayed the production date of the C9 to make changes to install its V6 engine and to increase the feature and appointment level – and the price. I think they moved the front wheels forward about two inches to accommodate the engine,’ he said.
‘I think the addition of the V6 and the wheel movement actually helped the C9. I think it failed in the marketplace because PSA did not need the car. They already had two cars (Citroën CX and Peugeot 604) in this 1,200,000 to 1,500,000 market segment. It seemed to me that the C9 – which we named Tagora – should have been a new model of the 604,’ he added.
|PSA executive model overlap|
|Citroën CX||1995cc Douvrin in-line four|
|2347cc Citroën in-line four|
|2500cc Citroën in-line four diesel|
|Peugeot 604||2664cc Douvrin V6|
|2304cc Peugeot in-line four turbodiesel (in development, launched 1980)|
|C9||2165cc SIMCA in-line four|
|2664cc Douvrin V6|
|2304cc Peugeot turbodiesel|
Internal rivalries with PSA
As can be seen, the engine range was heavily influenced by Peugeot but, because of anticipated production volumes, the entry-level C9 would continue with an enlarged version of the SIMCA conceived engine, found in the 180 range.
This engine had exactly the same engine capacity as the 2.2-litre version of the all-aluminium Douvrin engine, as found in the later Renault 25 and Citroën CX Phase 2, but there was no relationship between the two. Beyond this, the Peugeot turbodiesel as found in the 505 and 604 went straight into the C9, and because of the lateness of its incorporation into the development programme, it appeared some time after the original press launch.
Despite the ownership change, the launch date of the C9 only slipped a matter of months and, although it was not quite production ready by the time, it was showcased at the Paris Salon in 1980. The appearance of the Talbot Tagora in Paris should be noted as an impressive achievement, when one considers the trials and tribulations it had endured since 1976. Even more so, when the triple-carburettor V6 version became France’s most powerful saloon…
Not the impact PSA would have liked
Despite the interesting politics behind the Tagora, it failed to make much of an impact on Paris showgoers, who felt that, although it was quite an imposing car, it lacked any real charisma. There was also the issue of how it would fare in relation with the Peugeot 604 in the PSA line-up given their closeness in size and price.
In the UK, the story was a different one, and the Tagora was seen very much as a rival to the all-conquering Ford Granada, which could help Talbot to become established in the UK as a solid number four behind Ford, BL and Vauxhall; a position familiar to the company – from the Rootes days.
When journalists got their hands on the Tagora for the first time at the Morocco launch in March 1981, the story was one of chassis and engine competence, overshadowed by a lack of visual charisma. Many commentators suggested the Tagora was little more than an upscaled Solara; a car which, in the minds of the press, also lacked real flair. It has to be said that these initial reservations were not unfounded: the Tagora was a pleasant enough design in the whole, but it was seriously let down by the detailing.
The rear wheels were set far too inboard of the flanks, which completely destroyed the Tagora’s stance on the road; it may not have been designed this way, but this is what emerged when the narrower-tracked Peugeot 505 rear axle was used. There were other issues, of course, but again, it was all in the detailing – small design errors that ended up damaging this make-or-break car.
Talbot Tagora: out for a duck…
When launched in the UK, the Tagora came in three trim variations: GL, GLS and SX – and prices were competitive with Talbot’s stated number one rival, the Ford Granada.
The road testers had mixed things to say about the Tagora. CAR Magazine’s LJK Setright drove the Tagora at the Morocco launch and spent most of the time waxing lyrical about the SX version’s Michelin TRX tyres. He liked the way the V6 performed though: ‘With admirable traction, even on mountain roads filmed with freshly falling snow, the SX seems more to profit than to suffer by the high ratios of its transmission, and it climbs up the speedometer with an eagerness that must put all of its class rivals in the shade.’
When What Car? magazine tested the V6 SX the following year, it posted an impressive set of performance figures (0-30mph, 2.9secs, 0-60mph, 7.9secs, maximum speed, 122mph), which explained Setright’s set-of-the-pants impressions.
Impressive handling on offer
Setright liked the way it handled too: ‘In many ways the SX is a better car than the 604, with which it might appear to be most earnestly in overall competition. I am not sure that I would not choose the 604, because I liked the alacrity of its response and the sureness of its grip on TRX tyres, whereas the Tagora SX is, if to a lesser extent than the GL/GLS because of its superior tyres, a softer and more slowly-responding machine, admirably stable but as it were heavily damped to ensure that the driver is never taken by surprise.
‘The Tagora was always safe and secure, always competent, never at a loss for the right gear or the necessary grip.’ – LJK Setright
‘That does not mean it cannot be hustled: it can, and I took enormous pleasure in leaving the entire press-test convoy behind after a late start. On road surfaces that were sometimes superb and sometimes non-existent, amounting in the latter case to loose stones and sand that had merely been levelled by a grader, the Tagora was always safe and secure, always competent, never at a loss for the right gear or the necessary grip.’
If after reading that glowing prose, one was under the impression that Talbot had produced a world-beating machine, then think again. Setright summed-up the car in the same way that many buyers did: it was okay, but not outstanding enough to rise to the top of anyone’s list.
The Talbot Tagora had its place…
‘After driving it, I can see that it has its place, even though there may be very little in the way of individual details to pick out for praise or even mere analysis: if one accepts the kind of cars that it represents, it is a car that is very difficult to fault – and there must be plenty of call for cars like that,’ Setright added.
What Car? magazine went further: ‘The Tagora is a car of the strangest contradictions, not least of which is its very existence on the market. The SX presented is spacious, comfortable and, thanks to its abundant power (163bhp at 6000rpm, thanks to its triple-carb set-up) and speed, quite fun to drive at times. But in some ways it is too rapid for its own good, the power highlighting wet-weather handling vices, which make any BMW seem well-mannered.
‘The Tagora is also inexcusably badly ventilated, its interior is hardly even in the cheap hatchback class and perhaps most importantly, it has such a complete blandness of style as to disqualify it instantly in a market where character and status count for so much.’
The end comes too quickly…
And that was the crux of the Tagora’s failure: it offered nothing over and above its more established rivals and, as a result, it was not good enough to entice buyers away from their Audis, Fords and Rovers.
That is not to say that the Tagora was without its charms; its bluff styling may not have been an unqualified success, but it did possess a certain presence. And that large body should be credited with having given the Tagora an absolutely huge interior.
It was also fast and handled nicely… but that was not enough, and as a result, the Tagora sold in tiny numbers.
And really, that was a sad end to the 1970s Chrysler corporate plan. In 1975, it looked so different: the rag-bag of SIMCA and Rootes cars would be replaced by a Chrysler range of cars that took the best from France and the UK, and offered a logical family of cars for the buyer to choose from. Alas, it was not to be… and C9 died after a mere three years in production and run of less than 20,000 cars.
PSA’s poisoned chalice
Given that Peugeot had inherited the C9, and brought it into production with a fair amount of its own hardware, it seemed a shame that the car should go to waste. And in fact, in 1980, it did develop its own version of the car to replace the elegantly ageing 604. As it was, the restyled Tagora (below) lost much of its personality and, given the declining executive market of the time, it was considered a gamble too far… and so, it was canned. And that really was the end.
There’s a further twist to the story. According to Nick Kounelis, the Tagora could have gone on to form the basis of the Australian Chrysler line-up, had events not got in the way. ‘They imported a Talbot Talgora clay/fibreglass full-sized replica to be contemporary with the first of the Holden Commodores, and the lighter and more roomier XD Falcon range.’
He added: ‘With the local hemi-six fitted to the Centura replacement, I think the Talbot version would have sold well against these cars – especially if it was fitted with the Peugeot four-cylinder engine as well as the 4.0- and 4.3-litre hemi-six engines.’
The Tagora was not replaced in the real sense of the word, therefore, and it was not until 1989 that PSA introduced new blood into the executive market, with the Peugeot 605 and Citroën XM.
A sad end to the grand plan…
How many Talbot Tagoras were built?
(figures courtesy of: The SIMCA Club)