Tuesday March 13, 2018
Texan chocolate bars, youths in shopping precincts desperately trying to look like Johnny Rotten or Captain Sensible, How on Southern Television - and the Chrysler Alpine. These are all everyday sights and experiences from the late 1970s that now seem impossibly remote in time, especially the Car of the Year 1976. The Alpine was in production for ten years but according to https://www.howmanyleft.co.uk/, there are fewer than 50 still on the road.
The Alpine’s development dates to 1972 when Chrysler Europe initiated Project C6, a replacement for the Simca 1301/1501 that would also rival the Renault 16, and eventually succeed the Hillman Hunter in the UK. The engine choices were 1,294cc or 1,442 units and to save resources, the floorplan was derived from the Simca 1100 hatchback and the styling was the responsibility of Whitley’s Roy Axe, who created a low-key but smart body with the then very unusual feature of integral plastic bumpers.
The C6 was launched in France as the Simca 1307/1308 in October 1975 while on the other side of the Atlantic it starred at the Earls Court Motor Show as the Chrysler Alpine; it would also be manufactured in Ryton. ‘New Style. And a new way of thinking’ claimed the advertisements as it was also only the second British-built five-door FWD hatchback, the first being the Austin Maxi. At that time fleet and private buyers in this sector of the market still preferred rear wheel drive and the ‘World’s First Seven Day A Week Car’ had the additional challenge of making its debut alongside the Vauxhall Cavalier. Still, What Car thought that the Chrysler was ‘a very good car and its comfort and smartness give it lots of instant showroom appeal’. The dealers’ training film (which really looks as though it was directed by Alan Partridge) boasted that ‘On looks alone, the Chrysler Alpine will knock the opposition for six’.
Chrysler sold its UK and French operations to Peugeot in late 1978 and in the summer of 1979, they re-introduced the “Talbot” brand. The beginning of the following year saw a facelift and a new flagship in the form of the 1600SX which at £6,700 was more expensive than a Ford Cortina 2.0 Litre Ghia or even an Audi 80 GLS. However, the array of equipment – automatic transmission, electric front windows, tinted windows, alloy wheels, central door locking, headlamp wipers and washers, cruise control, a radio-cassette player, power assisted steering and even a “trip computer” was almost unheard of in its class.
Three months later, Talbot unveiled the Solara saloon version of the Alpine which was intended to appeal to Britain’s fleet buyers. It also featured in a range of television commercials that ranged from the wonderfully naff - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1toXRcQexBM – to the ‘this makes Crossroads look polished’ - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaJl9xKXXfA although the Solara in the French campaign appeared to be radioactive - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mjyw9UwOJo. But sales remained limited, and Alpine/Solara production ceased in 1986 after a plethora of limited edition versions; the “1600 Arrow” remains a favourite car of mine, largely because of its thrilling stripes inside and out.
So, why did the Alpine range not achieve its full potential? The limited range of power options did not help its British sales prospects – the Cortina, Cavalier and Morris Marina were all available with larger engines – and the Solara was arguably launched four years too late. Then there was a reputation for corrosion and general unreliability which further blighted its image, yet to see an early brochure is to be a reminder of its appeal. And it is hard to resist any car that was advertised like this - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hL4YJ6CvQy0