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Manufacturers / France / Chrysler Europe


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Chrysler Europe vehicles


1960


European Chrysler was effectively formed around 1964 by the purchase of the English Rootes Group and the French Simca concern. The Rootes group was made up of Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam and Singer. It was similar to Chrysler; basic platforms spanned each range, with Hillman selling the basic car, Sunbeam adding a bit more sportiness, Singer a bit more luxury, and Humber making big luxury sedans. American readers might remember the Sunbeam Tiger, one of the last products to be made before the Chrysler takeover (said to have been discontinued because of its Ford V-8 engine). Simca made small family sedans to compete with Renault, Citroen and Peugeot.

At the time Simca made two distinct ranges - the 1000 series, a small four-door sedan with rear engine, which had some competition success, and the 1300/1500 series, a larger sedan and wagon with conventional engine location.

Rootes were in over their head with the Hillman Imp - a very advanced small car with aluminum rear ohc engine, independent suspension, styling that aped the Chevy Corvair...a much more advanced car than the Mini and one which deserved to succeed. Alas, problems with development (overheating engines, body rust etc.) meant that it was never the success it should have been.

The large Humbers were beginning to be out of date, so the main business was concentrated on the "Arrow" cars - square four-door sedans and wagons with conventional live rear axle and ohv engine, which became the Hillman Hunter and Minx. These cars ran from 1966 until 1979 then went to Iran as the Peykan, where they were still popular and in production in 2001.

In 1968 a swoopy coupe was run off the chassis (looking like the Barracuda) for the Sunbeam line - these were known as the Alpine, Rapier and (with hot Holbay engine) H120. They ran until 1976.

Once Chrysler took over their main aim was to try and centralise the two companies and market a decent European that would challenge Ford of Europe and GM Vauxhall/Opel for sales. The first fruit of this union was the Simca/Chrysler 180 which became the Chrylser Centura for Australia.

Before this happened Rootes were allowed to release their latest project for the small-medium British family car sector, the Hillman Avenger. This was smaller than the Arrow range and more advanced, but still totally conventional by the standards of the time. This car was released in late 1969, and became the basis of the US Plymouth Cricket, a "captive import" which seemed like a good fighter for the home-grown subcompacts like the Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto.


1970


160
Chrysler Europe 160 ,180,2litres  (1970)

Though probably a far better car than these two, with advanced features like all-round disc brakes, four door sedan and wagon bodies and 1.5-liter OHV engines, once again poor workmanship (Chrysler Europe was getting a reputation for this...) and falling sales drove them from the US after the 1973 model year. In its home country the Avenger survived until the closing of it's Scottish factory (originally home of the Imp - when the Alpine was moved to Coventry the Avenger went North and had a facelift too) in late 1981, when it was still selling steadily.

In 1977 (a mere two years after the UK Government aid had given it new life, so the project was given the green light) a small hatchback called the Sunbeam (this time a model rather than a range) using a shortened Avenger floorpan was released. This spawned the 1980 World Rally Championship-winning Sunbeam Lotus (with Esprit 2.2 engine).

In 1967 Simca released a revolutionary car, the 1100. It was totally unlike anything else it had done before. Front wheel drive, independent suspension, a hatchback with four doors, it was a sensation. This was to sow the seed of the second alliance, the Chrysler Alpine/Simca 1308 of 1975. Simca wanted to move the 1100 upmarket, to a larger size class (as the 1300/1500 series was dying), so using the same factory assembly line (which determined factors like scuttle height) they designed on the same floorpan a larger (102-in wheelbase) five-door hatchback, using the same suspension and stretched (1294cc and 1442cc) versions of the 1100 engine. The Alpine's sheet metal was designed at the Coventry factory. Alpine production in Simca's Poissy, France factory in early 1975; in early 1976 the first UK-built Alpines arrived from the Coventry plant. Modifying the Avenger engines pushed domestic content up above 50%.

Dodge
Chrysler Europe Dodge 3700  concept (1971)

In 1970 Chrysler sold both the 5-door and a 3-door version of the 1100 called the 1204. The car listed for approximately $1750 US - about $100 US less than the Volkswagen Beetle of the period. The car was a screamer - slightly underpowered thanks to US emissions controls - but extremely willing. High body lean in turns, but very sticky on the road if you had the nerve to push it. Unfortunately Chrysler had parts problems supporting the car - a taillight could take 6 weeks (I know - twice). Shortly thereafter Chrysler US gave up and brought out the ... Horizon. So much for fun, inexpensive motoring at Chrysler US!

Chrysler UK (as it was now renamed - in 1976 the Hillman name, which was the only one left, was replaced with Chrysler so the cars became the Chrysler Hunter, Avenger etc.) called this new car the Alpine and added it to the existing range rather than replace anything. They imported it from France at first then, when Hunter and Avenger production were shifted to Linwood, Scotland (and, later, to Ireland), they built it at the Coventry plant. The car sold well but not spectacularly - the UK in particular just wasn't ready for the hatchback yet.

In 1975, with the recession hitting, British Leyland was bought in the majority by the UK government. Sensing an opportunity, Chrysler said "give us aid or we close our UK operations". Not wanting the loss of jobs to affect re-election chances, the government agreed. This enabled the development of the Sunbeam as detailed above.

Alpine
Chrysler Europe Alpine  concept (1975)

1976 and afterwards

In its first full month of sales in the UK (March 1976 I think), 1690 Alpines were sold, comparing against 2400 Avengers and 2000 Hunters (for which demand had just increased). Compare that with 2882 Austin Maxis sold the same month, and 1.2 million Ford Cortinas were sold between 1977 and 1982, 99% of them in the UK (some went to Australia). This is in a total market of about 1.5 million cars sold annually at the time.

As the Hunter was to be left to die of old age and neglect (plus it would be sold off to the Iranians), as would the 1000 (it would also die in 1979, and would partly be replaced by the Avenger-derived Sunbeam), Chrysler Europe turned to a replacement for the old 1100. Although this car had been a success, it was now looking old in a number of areas - internal design, rust resistance (most cars celebrated their 7th or 8th birthdays with a trip to the crusher) and external styling.

1609
Chrysler Europe 1609 ,1610 concept (1976)

The Horizon appears

Again Chrysler Europe used the car as the basis for its replacement, as they had with the Alpine. The new car was launched at the end of 1977 as the Chrysler Horizon. Horizon? Yep, it was one and the same as the Plymouth product and its Dodge Omni brethren. Except for some minor details - head and tail lights were changed as per Federal requirement, as were the bumpers, and the engine was replaced by first a VW, then a Peugeot, then a Chrysler engine (in North America). The cars were technically good (Alpine was European Car of the Year in 1976, Horizon in 1978), but they were poorly built and had low-geared steering, poorly-finished plastic dashboards, rattly engines, and early rust.

The European version of the Horizon/Omni was born out of a need to replace the aged Simca 1100 range. However, the 1100 lived on some 4 years after the Horizon was launched in late 1977, simply because some versions (like the wagon, panel van and pick-up) weren't replaced. It could in fact be said that the 1100 was replaced by two cars - the Sunbeam for the low-spec 2-doors, and the Horizon for the high-spec 4-doors. The Horizon was not built in England until the 1980s.

Avenger
Chrysler Europe Avenger  concept (1977)

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 1294 and 1442cc versions from the Alpine. A 4-speed manual transmission was initially standard. The car was to be wider and of longer wheelbase than the 1100, allowing more interior room. To this end similar seating to the Alpine, being large and soft in the French style, was fitted. The Horizon was marketed like Alpine as a brand-new car but was more like a facelifted 1100 than a cut-down Alpine.

Again Chrysler Europe won Car Of The Year in 1978 with the Horizon (the Porsche 928 won the award in 1977, the year between the Alpine and Horizon winning). It was not in fact until 1993 that a Japanese car won the award (Nissan Micra), although it is open to any car sold in the European countries.

In 1978 the U.S. versions were of course launched, using a 70hp 1700cc VW engine. Why had the 1442cc Simca engine (which produced 82hp) not been used? I guess that emissions work would have been too costly. Also the engine could be very unrefined and rough at times. The visual differences on the Europe car were small. (For more on the Horizon, click here.)

Sunbeam
Chrysler Europe Sunbeam  concept (1977)

Again the critics applauded the ride but not the steering, which was ridiculously low-geared (giving an exceptionally large turning circle). The Horizon sold better than the Alpine, probably because hatchbacks were more "acceptable" in the smaller size segment, with cars such as the Renault 14 and VW Golf competing. However, it was the only "British" (although early examples were built in France) hatchback - the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Viva and Austin Allegro were all sedans.


1980


For the 1980 model year the luxury SX model, featuring the 1442cc engine and three-speed auto, with trip computer, electric windows and headlamp washers. The range at this time comprised of 1.1 LS, 1.3 LS and GL, 1.5 GL and 1.5 SX auto. Unlike the U.S. range, no sporty European Horizons were ever developed. This was left to the Sunbeam range, although other sports models had been dropped and no new ones were developed under the Peugeot takeover of late 1978. However, the Horizon featured significantly for one reason in Peugeot's plans - in 1982 it was the first model to receive the new XUD 1.9-liter 65hp diesel engine (subsequently to be developed as 71hp non-turbo and 92hp turbo versions in other Peugeot models). Since that time over 7.5 million of these engines, credited with converting many countries to diesel, have been produced.

For the 1983 model year, a shakeup of the range took place to combat falling sales of the Talbot marque in general. All cars were re-designated "Series 2". 5-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. A couple of special editions arrived, the Pullman (two-tone brown and gold with gold alloy wheels) and later the Ultra LX and GLX (with power steering and wheel covers). Alas, it was again too late and the Horizon died in 1985, although the U.S. model continued until 1990. I guess the priorities were different - in Europe it was seen as a family car, where the market is most hotly contested. In the U.S. it was seen either as a cult sports model (i.e. GLH) or as basic transportation, and in both areas it excelled. If it had only been seen in such a light here, but the former was firmly the Sunbeam's domain, and it was never cheap enough to be the latter - in this country that title belongs to Eastern European cars.

Selling to Peugeot

One of the ways in which Chrysler tried to bail itself out of hot water was, in 1978, to sell the entire Chrysler Europe operation to Peugeot. The immediate effect of this was relatively minor; the product stayed the same, but of course the Chrysler name could no longer be used - Peugeot dug up an old name with significance both in the UK and France - Talbot. Legend has it that many cars were rebadged in dealer's showrooms, much like the early publicity K-cars were rebadged for Dodge and Plymouth shots. Sometime later a general shakeup occurred, and this is where the 180/2-Litre, Hunter, 1000 and 1100 met their ends. The range was slimmed to just Avenger, Sunbeam (both only big sellers in their UK homeland), Alpine and Horizon.

Thereafter no development was done on the existing range (except fitment of the new Peugeot/Citroen 1.9 diesel engine to Horizon in 1982), and only 2 products of the "new era" occurred. In 1981 the Linwood, Scotland factory closed for good, and shortly after demolished, which meant the death of the Avenger and Sunbeam. However, the Avenger tooling was subsequently bought by VW of Argentina and cars were manufactured for the S.America countries throughout the 80's. The remaining Coventry, England and French factories continued to pump out Alpines, Solaras and Horizons.

The first new product, in 1982, was the Talbot Samba, a small (smaller than Sunbeam, about the size of the competing Ford Fiesta) front-drive hatchback coupe which was effectively a rebadged Peugeot 104. However, Talbot did get, in 1984, two unique versions. The first was a convertible model which sold quite well to young affluent people - Peugeot would learn this lesson well with the later 205 convertible. The second was the Rallye, a 600-off homologated (for Group A World Rally Championship) rocket with a hot 80bhp 1360cc motor. The Avenger (in both production-model Tiger and rally-only BRM versions) and Sunbeam (with the Lotus-engined model) were both successful rally cars, and the British take their rallying very seriously - for a long time after the death of Talbot the rally division of Peugeot was still called "Peugeot-Talbot Motorsport".

The final flourish under the Peugeot ownership was the large (and ill-fated) Tagora. While still under Chrysler's ownership there had been a planned replacement for the 180/2-Litre, codenamed C9. This was to have used a 2.2-liter stretch of the old motor and some carryover components which allowed a very sleek, futuristic bodystyle. (This 2.2 was completely unrelated to the US corporate 2.2 as far as we can tell).

Unfortunately, Peugeot stipulated that the new car must be based on their existing 604, although the 2.2 engine was to be Chrysler's rather than the identical-displacement Peugeot/Citroen motor of the time. Other engines were the 2.7 Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6 and the 2.3-liter turbodiesel. As such the eventual styling was very lumpy and not particularly attractive at all. The market for large cars, upon which the Ford Granada had a considerable stranglehold, was much smaller than when C9 was conceived so the Tagora sold in only tiny quantities until its death in 1984.

Not long after the Alpine and Horizon met their maker, and once the last Samba had been sold in 1986 the Talbot name, the cars, and the last legacy of Chrysler Europe was no more. But the Talbot name lived on as late as 1991 on a rebadged Peugeot/Citroen/Fiat-design van, and the Peugeot 309 of 1985-93 was in fact the intended Horizon replacement. Critics of the time said that this was evident in the cars external styling - whereas the 205 and 405 were elegant, the 309 was dull and dumpy. Still, it was the first Peugeot built in Britian (at the Coventry plant), and production of the 306 and 406 continues there to this day.

638,000 Avengers were sold of all types. 150,000 Alpines were built in the UK from 1975 to 1985. A similar number of Horizons were built in the UK from 1980 to 1985. 10135 Sunbeam Ti's were built between 1979 and 1981.



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