Simca & Hillman Manufacturer Profile & Rally History

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Simca & Hillman Home Country: Europe Europe

The real rallying issues and successes of Simca and Hillman came under the Talbot name, after Peugeot take over. So let’s use this chapter to explain who Simca and Hillman are and how they became Talbot and for the rallying successes we refer you to the Talbot chapter.

Even without the rallying aspects, the Simca and Hillman story seems long but interesting. It is an example of many histories how European makes cooperate. And how the UK market is very different and companies merged because one was not selling outside the UK, the other selling anywhere but the UK. Even Ford of Europe used for UK only different details and different names to the rest of Europe for several models until recently. I personally feel UK has such an enthusiasm for cars, more so than the Germans, strange then that Vauxhall are Opel copies and BMC-MG-Rover failed to survive. Actually why not read the Vauxhall story for comparison.

Simca and Hillman are a French and a UK based car manufacturer that (after a flirt between Simca and Fiat) over the years started to cooperate to help their financial situations, the models became ever more similar only for different markets – a situation very much comparable to that of Opel and Vauxhall. In 1970 they fell under Chrysler ownership, who didn’t understand the European market and only added to disaster. They eventually became part of Peugeot, who renamed both brands into Talbot to have alongside basically identical cars identical names as well. Peugeot’s take over in 1977-78 seemed to improve things initially, but the rescue attempt unfortunately came too late. Talbot lives on in the heart of Peugeot and Peugeot keeps the factories running with enthusiasm.

These are the main Simca-Hillman-Talbot factories nowadays: The former Imp factory in Linwood, Scotland has been pulled down already when Talbot was still alive. The former Rootes headquarter and Hillman and Humber factory in Coventry-Stoke, where as well Talbot Sport was and Peugeot Sport UK is based, today homes offices of Peugeot and Peugeot UK. The former Hillman factory in Coventry-Ryton was very busy in following years, recently there was a huge part of the 206 production, the famous, sporty estate 206 SW and the performance 206 RC were even exclusively produced in Ryton. There was long talk of a site rebuilt, so it came as a sad surprise to me personally that now production in Ryton appears to have stopped for good, while Peugeot is building several new factories. The former Simca factory in Villaverde, Spain, now produces the twins Peugeot Partner and Citroën Berlingo as well as the C4 Picasso versions. The huge ex-Simca factory and headquarter in Poissy near Paris is now producing most of the well selling 207 and also is the only production facility to assemble the 1007.

(Of course here you see why we have to update these stories from time to time. Meanwhile 207 and 1007 are stopped and Poissy is the main factory for the 208. And when I write above that Talbot lives on and Peugeot keeps the factories running with enthusiasm, well it seems sadly something has changed inside Peugeot or PSA. It is even only one of several stories where Peugeot is kicking tradition and legends with their feet in recent years. Is no room any more for traditions? Well, I think here is a perfect example that there is. Talbot was a big favourite with the British and it showed in excellent sales for Peugeot on the British market. So we close down both the historic Talbot factories, meanwhile they are even completely pulled down even though Land Rover is desperately searching for a UK factory, and they did not do that for overcapacities. No, the trick was: we open two completely new factories in Eastern Europe, that cost a lot to built and somehow managed to deliver very questionable quality and then we act surprised when in Britain, and not only there, Peugeot sales are in free fall! How utterly stupid, I mean it is not all Peugeot’s fault, the scrappage scheme of many governments predictably contributed to today’s crisis of car companies serving the mass production small car market like Peugeot. But on swapping factories they spent many millions that now are missing, the quality of their cars and parts somehow seems to have gone down severely at the same time in public experience, and for traditionalist car fans like the British this was a crime. With the Talbot link at times Peugeot was number 2 on the British market, now they are outside the top10! Clearly for many British car enthusiasts Talbot was a major British brand that lived on in the heart of Peugeot, and this now is killed. Strangely out of all of them the supercar brand Lotus seems to value good old Talbot the most these days, even though Lotus owns no rights to the Talbot name. Read the Lotus chapter for this.)

Talbot: Talbot was actually founded by a Frenchman, Adolphe Clément, who decided to base himself in London. Clément was a close friend to the Earl of Shrewsbury&Talbot, who supported and financed his ideas. In acknowledgement the company was not only based in Britain, but first called Clément-Talbot, later shortened to just Talbot. With Talbot being a traditional name and a French-British cooperation at that, it becomes obvious why Peugeot decided to revive this name when it came to have all these cars under one name. It was like reviving history, once again Talbot was British based but French influenced. Talbot's cars were sporty and unique cars. As they expanded, Talbot bought the brand Sunbeam in Wolverhampton long before they became part of the Rootes Group. Sunbeam superbly underlined the character of Talbot cars.

One of the things Talbot and Sunbeam were into in their days was to go record hunting, resulting in the name appearing on many previous land-speed-records. This lead to a car that was never intended for the road but probably best shows what this brand was all about: The Silver Bullet. Indeed, Silver Bullet appeared as a nick name from fans for the Peugeot 206 WRC for a while. Coincidentally the name stayed in house, but originally stood for something rather different. The original Silver Bullet was one of Sunbeam-Talbot’s record cars, built in 1930. Silver Bullet had 2(!) supercharged 24litre V12 engines producing 2000BHP(!) each. Imagine, combined this makes a 48litre V24 cylinder and with two V12s lined up behind each other in front of the driver the resulting car indeed looked like an oversized silver bullet!

Coincidentally, Adolphe Clément being French, he also founded a French arm to his company, which he also named Talbot. However Talbot France was much smaller, the products of Talbot France were different to the products of Talbot UK and his main activities were absolutely in UK, not France. In fact Talbot France was of such low priority to the founder, that he let the independent firm Darracq produce in the same factory and help controlling part of Talbot France. It seems a bit of a confusing consortium, however is worth mentioning as often in history the abbreviation STD appears. STD stood for Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq and was used for some international, combined appearances, even though Darracq was basically independent (and later turned into Alfa) and the UK Sunbeam-Talbot and the French Talbot-Darracq cars had nothing in common. But there is an interesting, and as history went on important reason why we should not ignore Talbot France: After a while Adolphe Clément had sold Talbot France to his friend Tony Lago, who brought out a fantastic range of sports cars under the name Talbot-Lago. However these cars were hugely exclusive and expensive supercars in a market comparable to maybe Lamborghini or Aston Martin today. Such of course sales were low and eventually Talbot-Lago was sold to Simca and ceased to exist. So it is interesting to note that Simca also had Talbot blood in their veines, which may as well have contributed to Simca and Hillman/Rootes to end up cooperating. However, once more, Talbot was first and foremost a British company.

Simca: Their rally story may be short, but unusual. Around 1970 Simca created a car called the CG, which was a mid-engined spider, and a spider in its true sense as it had no roof and in fact no windscreen, yet it still was rallied. In fact on the 1972 Tour de Corse with many night stages this open car came 2nd! Simca as well was the owner of sports car manufacturer Matra (actually primarily a space technology manufacturer), whose famous (Ford V4 engined!) MS530 was entered in rallies. But Matra's rally adventures ended with the launch of the Bagheera – which you guessed correctly was named after the "Disney’s Jungle Book" character. Maybe as an interesting side note, Matra created an interesting engine, a U8, which was a twinned 4-cylinder, but unlike a V8 the U8 had 2 crankshafts! The most famous Simca rally car came in the shape of a car called the Rallye. This was more a car for amateur drivers, but a well loved and successful one at that. And a long living one, Cedric Robert started his career in a Simca Rallye, never mind his car likely being older than Cedric himself!

For completion it should be said that Simca was created by Henri Pigozzi, who however lost control of the company completely with the Chrysler take over. (Chrysler seemed to run a philosophy of leaving the companies carry on as they were, so between the entire Rootes Group and Simca directory boards, Henri Pigozzi was the only top line director who had to leave.) There were many rumours about the Simca name, since unusually for French car makers it did not carry the name of the founder family. Simca is nice, short and easy to memorise, but how do people create such fantasy names? Well, it was not so much a fantasy name as an abbreviation for "Société Industrielle de Mechanique et Carosserie Automobile".

Hillman: For a start to call them Hillman is politically wrong! Sirs William & Reginald Rootes were a successful, Coventry based car dealer. There were hundreds of car manufacturers in Britain in the 1920s-1930s and as they struggled to survive alongside each other, in a situation comparable to BMC, Rootes appeared to buy all the local ones to govern them all under one roof as Rootes Group. Rootes’ purchases included Commer, Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam and Talbot.

Talbot we already have given an extra chapter above. Some of the other makes had a nice history as well:
Sunbeam, meaning exactly what we all love, sun beam. Nobody who had seen it would forget the Sunbeam Alpine & Sunbeam Alpine Tiger V8 sports cabrio (One such Sunbeam Alpine Tiger V8 is storming from victory to victory in British historic rallies in the hands of Paul Kynaston - also most people think with James Bond cars of Aston Martin and Lotus, but indeed the very first and therefore original Bond car was a Sunbeam Alpine in Dr. No in 1962!), so no wonder the Sunbeam name appeared again for sporty cars and last as a model name for Talbot’s hot hatch.
Commer shortened from Commercial Car Company and accorcingly concentrated on vans, busses and lorries.
Singer, founded by George Singer, stood for budget cars and
Humber, founded by Thomas Humber, was the luxory car brand.
The biggest however was Hillman, founded by William Hillman and Frenchman Louis Coatalen, latter is actually more known as a star engineer for Talbot throughout his career and was i.e. involved in the Silver Bullet and other race cars!
So of all these makes governed under the Rootes Group, Hillman can be regarded as the main brand. It is for sure totally wrong to ignore all the others, however if I introduce this story as Rootes Group, most people won’t remember the name Rootes as it never actually served as a brand name on a specific car. Interestingly Hillman and Humber were next door neighbours in Coventry-Stoke and therefore already helped each other before they fell into the hands of Rootes, as next door neighbours do, only it wasn’t exactly milk and suggar they helped each other out with. And as they were all bought as independent companies that struggled, Rootes was brave but not healthy, which eventually lead to the links to Simca.

This is somehow the British dilemma. Car enthusiastic GB had over 100 car manufacturers at once - could you name so many makes today world wide? For 100 manufacturers obviously a market like GB was way too small. Hence they merge. I myself am a great, big fan of histories and traditions, there are emotions, it is sad to let legendary names die. This is what the British felt, the legends were tried to be kept alife. Just what is the point of merger when you keep 100 brand names alife - in the case of BMC (MG Rover, read according makes chapters on the same aspect) even keeping independant dealerships for their brands. It just can't work. Britain had brilliant cars, the best enthusiasts but this surely is part of why the British car industry went under. Apart from things getting confusing in comparisons:

In this context it may help you for reference in general and in some of the Talbot story parts to compare Simca & Rootes models.

1000 & Imp: The most famous one in rallying terms at least for Simca is the Simca Rallye in versions (with face lifts and engine upgrades) 1000, Rallye1, Rallye2, 1005, 1006 & Rallye3. This was a small, rear engined saloon on the lines of the Renault R8. The UK version was the Hillman Imp or the Singer Chamoix, which had many similarities to the Simca Rallye with the exception of cosmetic details and the French cars having 4 doors and the UK ones only 2. Actually it was quite a character mark for the UK versions that the side windows looked completely out of proportion, the rear side window seemed huge and the front window and door way too small, which seems to show that the design was linked to a 4-door somewhere down the line. Especially in first drawings and prototypes you see a very strong relation between these two cars, and interestingly, while Simca liked using names starting with A, in the development period the cars were named Simca Arielle and Hillman Ajax. On the other hand only the UK had a coupé shaped version of that theme, exclusively known as the Hillman Imp California. Actually, we should not ignore another "Imp Coupé", the however very rare Sunbeam Stiletto as some kind of an "Imp GTI" with twin headlights. But already here you see the British problem, Singer Chamoix, Hillman Imp, Sunbeam Stiletto, all the same car, the sales of one model, the production, marketing and dealership costs of three, and all that only for the British market. It was a brilliant car, just it can’t work, not at Talbot, not at BMC MG Rover.

1100 & Avenger: In contrast to most other examples here, Simca 1100 & Hillman Avenger were not related, they were however for the same market segment. But there is a very strong relation of the Hillman Avenger to a very different Simca model. The Hillman Avenger, suffering from big financial trouble and Chrysler take over this was the last pure Hillman creation. The Avenger was a surprising rally car, you should read the according chapter of this car (in group 1)! Another important note is that there were no Singer or Humber variations of the Avenger, which showed that Hillman (Rootes) had to rationalise and irrespectable of Chrysler take over the Singer and Humber brands were about to be killed off anyway. However the sporty versions were called Hillman Avenger GT, Sunbeam Avenger & Sunbeam Avenger Tiger. The Avenger showed design features of the much bigger Simca/Chrysler Aronde (180/2L, later 1610) in Europe, but for its size it has to be compared to the Simca 1100. Like a Simca 1100 RWD saloon. Or for your reference to the really surprisingly similar looking Simca 180/2L like shrinking a 504 to 204/304 size. Actually it was the other way round, as the Avenger was first and the big Simca, although in the end never officially sold in the UK, was designed by the very Hillman Avenger design team! The Simca 1100 in turn was a FWD hatchback and one of the most important cars in car history. The Simca 1100 was the World’s first hatchback with big tailgate and fold down rear seats, plus FWD it was the template for most modern cars. And not kidding, i.e. the first VW Golf was launched in 1974, the Simca 1100 in 1967!!!!

Old Aronde & Minx: Rootes’ big car meanwhile was the Hillman Minx and showed (vague) similarities to Simca’s older Aronde(P) and Ariane models rather than their replacement, the new, big Simca Aronde(180/2L). However with Rootes' choice of brand names, the Hillman Minx was also available in budget or upmarket variations with the according cosmetical and detail changes. These variations were called Singer Gazelle or Humber Super Snipe. The Humber version should probably be compared to the Simca Vedette as these were upmarket versions of the "Minx family" comparable to the upmarket attempts Ford did with Zodiac to Zephyr or Granada to Consul and Opel with Commodore to Rekord. Indeed the Simca Vedette was nothing else but a V8 engined Simca Ariane and similar was Rootes' use of the Humber brand name. But once more, while the Simca Aronde(P) was replaced by the ironically Hillman designed Simca Aronde(180/2L), the Hillman Minx family disappeared without a direct replacement.

1501 & Hunter/Rapier: In the mid range, between Avenger and Minx, Rootes had the London-Sydney winning Hillman Hunter. Here again the Rootes brand names game. The budget versions of the Hillman Hunter were known as Singer Vogue and the upmarket version was the Humber Sceptre, all with the according cosmetical details. So was i.e. a Humber Sceptre a Hillman Hunter with velours and wood interior and twin headlights - and the Humber version was a very rare example that twin headlights do not always improve the design. The Hunter family was a very straight, boxy, no-nonsense design, very much like the Simca 1301 & 1501. The Simca versions looked a bit bulkier and fatter, but on closer comparison you see that the ideas behind Hillman Hunter and Simca 1301/1501 were very similar indeed. But once more only the UK had a coupé version of that theme, the Sunbeam Rapier (H120). (However Simca also had their exclusive and famous coupé, the 1200S, which was an about Simca 1100 sized car however with rear engine RWD and from the front it looked very much like a Fiat 124 Spider.)

Under the short Chrysler ownership things seemed to get even worse. The most noteworthy development being the Simca 1100 replacing Chrysler Horizon, later Talbot Horizon, that in the USA was available as a Dodge Omni (and here a real funny note, the sporty version of the US Omni was not called GTI, but GLH, meaning indeed "Goes Like Hell"!). This Horizon/Omni was a car that to my mind lacked badly in character, which cannot be said about any of the other Simca, Hillman and Talbot creations. Funny enough, stating that the Horizon lacked in character, it somehow reminded strongly of the as well rather unimaginative design of the early Volkswagen Golf, only the Horizon looked a bit more modern with a more functional boot. A rather functional creation under Chrysler, but already with Peugeot help, was to replace Hillman Hunter and Simca 1301/1501. It was called the 1307/1308, later 1510, in France/Europe and the Alpine in the UK and other than the badge there were no differences at all. The first creation that was finished after Peugeot take over (even though early versions still displayed the Chrysler name as the new name was not decided yet) was the RWD hot hatch Talbot Sunbeam, which was in another immediate change of strategies produced only in the UK for the whole of the European market. From now all their cars were badged Talbot and produced in either UK or France for the whole of Europe.

Actually, as the Alpine/1510 and Sunbeam examples show, these take overs like Chrysler to Peugeot do not happen over night. So don't be confused to find i.e. Avengers badged not only Hillman and Sunbeam but also Chrysler and then Talbot. Although the Peugeot take over happened earlier, the Talbot name was only used again from January 1979 and even then these Talbot cars still displayed Chrysler's penta-star logo in the grill until August 1979. Indeed if you look out, you can identify Peugeot-Talbot models of this short 7 month production period by the cars displaying two different brand identities at once: the Talbot letters in the front-left corner of the bonnet and the Chrysler penta-star in the grill!

The Talbot Sunbeam was an extraordinary car and showed some of the unusual, adventurous spirit of the old Hillman/Simca living on in the new Talbot brand: The RWD Avenger was sold in the UK in place of the Simca 1100, but the Simca 1100 replacing Horizon was near 200mm shorter than the Avenger. Yet the Avenger was meant to be below the Hunter, the Hunter’s clear Simca pendant 1301/1501 and both their replacement 1307/1308/Alpine - which in itself was unusual as a very big, functional, 5-door hatchback. As the Horizon was so different and smaller, the Avenger didn't appear to have a replacement at all, but the Avenger contributed strongly in platform and rear axle to the Sunbeam. The Sunbeam however was even smaller than the Horizon, like two sizes down on the Avenger. More even, FWD gained in fame, even Ford was working on a FWD Escort at that time, the older and bigger Horizon and Alpine models as even already the Simca 1100 were FWD, yet the little Sunbeam was RWD! As an about Peugeot 206 sized RWD the Talbot Sunbeam was bound to be fun and it was "good fun" - it won the WRC 1981!

Just for completion, under Talbot were created the Samba that borrowed heavily from the Peugeot 104, the Solara was a late saloon version of the 1510/Alpine and the Tagora was a big, 604 sized car on the 505 platform. Niche models were the sporty mid-engined Murena with 3 seats in the front and the Rancho, that was more an alibi off-roader but very unusual and functional in its layout, actually not too dissimilar to the modern day Peugeot Partner & Citroen Berlingo, but with a design that seemed to reflect adventure. Today many motor journalists describe the Talbot Rancho as the world's first SUV!

Actually the Tagora is a nice example how disturbing the Chrysler time and how tricky the Peugeot take over was. The creation of the upmarket Tagora was started by the Hillman designers under Chrysler, to replace the unsuccessful, big Simca Aronde(180/2L). Then, for the financial struggle, the Tagora project was frozen, but not before Chrysler interfered: On the original C9 (Tagora) design we found features like:
- the head lights and number plate in Citroen SM style under an aerodynamic, single, huge glas cover along the entire front,
- the fog lights were flaps in the lower front bumper, like Lotus Esprit or Talbot Murena headlights turned upside down and
- the boot would open down to the bumper between rectangular, upright rear lights.
But the conservative US-mother Chrysler wasn't having any of this, they considered the design way too daring and too hard to accept for the big saloon customers were usually conservative and told the Hillman designers to get rid of this all - only to then freeze the C9 project anyway! Later Peugeot then turned this upmarket car into reality and discovered it was the lack of exactly these little daring and unique details that gave the Tagora the image of being not imaginative and outstanding enough for the market it was aimed at! Argh!!!! Murphy's law, while without Peugeot this car would have never turned into reality, it was Chrysler's interference to blame for the car's failure. But Peugeot also made their share of mistakes: Believing such design wouldn't sell, they dismissed a Talbot/Matra designed MPV (Backed by the experience Peugeot had with the 802 - you think such number didn't exist? Well, that only underlines how little successful the World's first MPV was!). However this very car was later very much to the annoyment of the Peugeot bosses hugely successful under the branding Renault Espace! Yes, the Renault Espace originally was a Talbot and it created such a big, new market, it might have been enough to let Talbot survive!

Otherwise it however was a case of the Talbot brand still being in such a big mess after the Chrysler time, the models Samba and Sunbeam were the only really successful models in the showrooms and on the stages and that just wasn't enough. Plus the Samba was just a rebadged 104, sitting at dealers trying to sell the Peugeot 104 too, and the Sunbeam was nearing the end of its production life. For some reason no replacement for the Sunbeam was planned (to be honest, if a Sunbeam replacement would have been FWD I would not have wanted it anyway), but the Talbot Samba Mk2 was to be based on the Citroën AX rather than a Peugeot model, good idea, but something else happened first: In 1985 Ryton started the production of a Talbot Arizona. This Arizona, that borrowed heavily from the Peugeot 205, was a most desperate replacement to the Horizon. But it became clear it was too late, the production was stopped after only a few days and the Talbot Arizona was rebadged into Peugeot 309 – which was the end for Talbot, one of the most exciting brands in European Automobile history, and explains why this Peugeot model doesn’t fit into Peugeot’s generation game.

Who knows, Peugeot themselves were in big financial trouble at the time, the Talbot story was good will but in the end it was a question of survival for Peugeot themselves. Talbot is not forgotten, least not by Peugeot. In the early 1990s Peugeot opened the cage, let the Talbot designers go wild again, and out came the Peugeot 306, while some of Talbot’s former designers had a hand in creating 806, 807 & 1007 as well. In fact one funny story is when Peugeot launched their double-0 niche model range with the Peugeot 1007, the Talbot Poissy designers are said to have had a word in this. Having formerly created the Simca 1005 & 1006, the 1007 fits the line. The enthusiasm is still there and since a while there are rumours that one day Peugeot may revive the Talbot brand. In fact, what further fuels these rumours (but it’s nothing but rumours for now) and also in line with our comment above “Talbot lives on in the heart of Peugeot”: Open the bonnet of a modern day Peugeot and check for water bottles, power steering and radiator lids, small, common parts used across the PSA range and alongside Peugeot and Citroën symbols you will still find the Talbot one! (Well, this sadly is not true any more either! The last Peugeot we bought in our family as brand new was a 106 in the year 2002 and I swear it had the Talbot symbols everywhere. Today the only company that seems to have Talbot in their heart is Lotus, surprisingly.)

Simca & Hillman Rally Cars

Model Class

Rally Honour Roll

Year Class Place Manufacturer Events
1977 WRC Open 11th. Simca & Hillman (24pts) 11

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