Chrysler Alpine and Solara (1975 – 1985) Review
Chrysler Alpine and Solara (1975 – 1985) At A Glance
Roomy and soft-riding
Rattly, rusty, poorly made, and absolutely no image
The Chrysler Alpine should have been so good. It was an early adopter of the hatchback format in the family sector, was front wheel drive, and drove pretty well. It was also economical - which in an era of rocketing fuel prices was more than good news. And yet - today, it's unmourned and almost forgotten about.
It was a product of a multi-national that had huge ambition for its European division. Chrysler developed the Alpine during the early 1970s – as part of a plan to create a modern-looking range of FWD hatchbacks using the diverse Rootes and Simca ranges as a starting point. The Alpine was the first of this new wave, arriving in 1975, and it was good enough to win the European Car of The Year award.
It looked smart and of the moment, but the politics of its maker took over, and when the Americans pulled out in 1978, the Chryslers became Talbots. Should have been more successful, but the rusty, tappety Alpine's legacy is not a happy one, despite having so much unfulfilled potential.
- November 1972: Plan devised to replace Hillman Avenger, Hunter and Simca 1500/1501
- January 1973: Project C6 underway, and goes with French engines
- October 1975: Chrysler launches Alpine (and Simca 1308)
- January 1976: Chrysler Alpine awarded Car of The Year 1976
- August 1976: Production begins in the UK
- January 1979: Chrysler Alpine becomes Talbot Alpine
- October 1979: Alpine facelifted
- April 1980: Alpine grows a boot, becomes the Talbot Solara
- July 1980: Simca name dropped
- September 1981: New models added
- October 1982: Alpine and Solara Series 2 launched
- October 1985: Production of Alpine and Solara ceased
Plan devised to replace Hillman Avenger, Hunter and Simca 1500/1501
The Alpine was born through the desperate need for Chrysler to replace the ageing 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. Very little managerial effort seemed to have been expended in taking the logical decision to take the best of both ranges, integrate them and produce a blanket Chrysler-badged range. Shockingly, when the Alpine range’s development got underway, Chrysler had been in full control of SIMCA and Rootes for over five years. 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 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. 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, whilst as a bonus establishing Chrysler’s presence in the rapidly emerging “Supermini” market. Even then, it still sported the distinctive Roy Axe “family” look.
Project C6 underway, and goes with French engines
The Simca 1500 may have been an utterly conventional saloon, but the French decided that the best way to replace it would be to evolve an upward expansion of the Simca 1100 concept. Technically, it was still contemporary, despite its 1967 launch date. The C6 would, therefore, be front wheel drive, and would sport a hatchback. The reasoning behind this decision was simple. The French loved hatchbacks unlike in the UK, where there seemed to be a buyer aversion to the format. The 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.
Raiding the Simca corporate parts-bin, the Poissy designers effectively produced a scaled-up Simca 1100. The C6 was designed around the 1294 and 1442cc versions of the Simca 1100, whilst gearboxes and many suspension components were also shared. Technically, the C6 owed nothing to the ex-Rootes range, even though the original plan had been to produce the car in both Britain and France.
In 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. However, Simca engineers were not happy with this idea and eventually won over their British colleagues to the front wheel drive concept. Further differences of opinion came about the choice of engines. The 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 six months.
In developing the car from a French perspective, however, 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, it was however 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 whilst maintaining sales with a tried, tested and relatively young car. It was probably an example of insular decision making, too…
Chrysler launches Alpine (and Simca 1308)
The Chrysler-Simca 1307 and 1308 were introduced at the Paris Salon in October 1975 with the new “Bienvenue a 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 1307GLS, 1307S and 1308GT range appeared with transistorized ignition (a first in France). Front disc and rear drum brakes, front wheel drive, rack & pinion steering and 155SRx13 radial-ply tyres were all sound contemporary features. 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 1442 cc (8CV) motor which developed 85hp (DIN) at 5,600 rpm while the 1307 GLS had the same 1294 cc (7CV) engine as the 1100 Special, with 68hp (DIN). In between the two, the 1307 S used the 1294cc engine of the Simca 1100TI, with two carburettors and produced 82hp (DIN) at 6,000 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 “Chrysler-isation” 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…
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, however, 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.
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…
Chrysler Alpine awarded 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 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.
At the start of 1976, production at the Poissy plant was running at 900 units a day – still not enough to satisfy demand. On April 2nd, 1976, the 100,000th Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308 rolled off the French production line. Production increased from May to 1,050 a day and on November 16th the 250,000th example was built. In 1976, the Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308 accounted for 7 per cent of total French car sales – more than the Renault 12, Citroen GS, Simca 1100 and Peugeot 304 together!
Production begins in the UK
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-built Alpines had rolled off the line at Coventry; and allied with local production of its engines, UK content of the Alpine was about 50 per cent. 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 ageing pushrod engine, but it was Chrysler’s own problems in the USA that affected the Alpine/1308′s destiny from this point onwards.
Chrysler Alpine becomes Talbot Alpine
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 1309 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, whilst 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. 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.
Alpine grows a boot, becomes the Talbot Solara
In April 1980, Talbot unveiled the Chrysler-planned Solara, a four door, three box version of the Alpine/1510, which had been conceived originally to replace the Chrysler 180. At 170-inches it was 3-inches longer than the Alpine with a floor pan 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.
Simca name dropped
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 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 between 1981 and 1983 75 per cent of the country’s 488 Talbot showrooms.
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 (Citroen 5 Speed Gearbox– the same as used in the Citroen BX) (1592cc) for ff46,750 and the Solara SX Automatique for ff48,750.
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.
New models added
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!
Alpine and Solara Series 2 launched
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.
Production of Alpine and Solara ceased
The car was also hampered in an increasingly aspirant market place by its limited engine choice. The biggest engine offered was 1592cc, whereas all its rivals could stretch to at least a two 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.
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.
Chrysler Alpine 1.3LS
|79 lb ft