Third variation on a theme

The story of the Talbot Samba, sadly, is one of history repeating itself... However, it is not such a grim one that there are not some happy elements to it, and it is certainly one worth repeating even if, ultimately it has an unhappy ending. The instance of deja vu is in connection with the Chrysler Sunbeam, and the reaon for this comparison is simple: like its predeccessor, the Samba was created in a rush, and was conceived to live a short life...

The one that got away...

However, it could have been different: back in 1975, Chrysler product planners identified that the 1-litre supermini class was a major European growth area, and to not devise a car to fight in this class would be to ignore a 30 per cent chunk of the entire car market. At the time, it was a market that Fiat, Renault and British Leyland dominated, but more importantly, it was an open secret that Ford were gearing up to join the party with its Spanish built Fiesta (due to be launched in 1976).

Thanks to emergency product planning and an emergency injection of cash from the British government, Chrysler were able to produce a car for the sector - the R429 Sunbeam - but this was a stop-gap, and a more permanent solution was needed in order to replace this car, and effectively fight the competition (both existing and upcoming).

With that in mind, Chrysler Europe product planners devised a front wheel drive supermini, which was conceived to fight at the very heart of the supermini sector. Given that in 1975/76 Chrysler was already feeling the financial squeeze, the new car would need to use as many existing components as possible, and that meant basing it on the upcoming C2 Horizon model.

The Chrysler C2-Short was an obvious and expedient project to produce a car to fight in the supermini class... (Picture: www.allpar.com)

With that in mind, the stylists devised a scheme called the "C2-short", and as can be seen from the accompanying photograph, this car was not only mechanically based on the Horizon, but it was also stylistically very close indeed; a classic example of that family style that would successfully come to fruition by the turn of the decade (and after Chrysler withdrew). The car's fate was put in stark terms by Burton Bouwkamp, Chrysler Europe's Executive Director of Product Development at the time: "The "C-2 short" would have replaced the RWD R429 (Sunbeam) when and if we could have afforded it. The "C2 Short" never was in the approved product plan but all the product people knew that we had to be in this one-litre car market segment which was 30% of the European market at that time - so we kept working on the concept in the Product Planning and Styling Offices."

As Bouwkamp explained, the C2 Short never got the green light from the board of a financially strapped company, and as a result, it never progressed further than the full-sized model pictured here. By early 1978, the writing was on the wall for Chrysler Europe anyway, and the C2-Short was dropped, leaving the issue of producing a supermini down to whoever buys Chrysler Europe...

Different owner, different supermini

Peugeot came onto the scene and decided that what Chrysler desperately needed was a replacement for the rear wheel drive Sunbeam model. The Peugeot 104 "shortcut" was chosen by management as the car to base the new Talbot badged supermini on. On the first of January 1979, all of the remaining Chrysler executive posted at Poissy left, to return to the USA. Peugeot was effectively left with a successful manufacturing facility and Chrysler's European range of cars. Of the cars in development, only the C9 was close to production, whereas in the current range, the recently launched Horizon and Alpine ranges could be relied upon to look after the company's interests in the medium sector... for the medium term. This left a yawning gap at the bottom of the range that would need to be filled quickly in order to cash-in on the demand for superminis.

Chrysler did have an entry in the market, in the shape of the rear wheel drive Sunbeam, but by 1979, it was beginning to be left behind by its rivals. Although it had been devised as a stop-gap until the C2-Short could be put into production, financial problems left that car in the "might-have-been" category, and therefore, the Sunbeam was left without a replacement. Being a stop-gap, the Sunbeam could not be relied upon to perform in the market much after 1980, and that meant that the matter of its replacement needed to be treated as something of a priority in order to get it onto the market as soon as possible.

And that meant relying heavily on PSA's parts-bin...

At the turn of 1979, PSA's established supermini offerings took the form of a pair of cars, based upon the same platform. Peugeot sold the successful 104 model, which rather unusually, was available in two wheelbases (the 4/5-door was the longer of two. obviously). It was the shorter of the two 104 models (nicknamed the "shortcut" in the UK) that had been re-badged to become the Citroen LN/LNA model. In late 1978, Citroen also announced the Visa, which had a more idiosyncratic style, but was pure 104 underneath (bar the option of a 652cc 2-cylinder engine).

The 104, LN/LNA and Visa were all competent cars, and shared the same Gallic traits of offering loping ride quality, soft seats and rattly engines. It would be from this base that the first Talbot supermini would be engineered; a world away from the Avenger-based rear wheel drive Sunbeam.

The new supermini took shape in the early months of 1979, under the project name C15, and quickly a product plan was drawn-up for the car. Because the Horizon was established, and had an entry level of 1118cc, it was decided that the C15 should be based upon the shorter of the two 104s, so as not to encroach on its bigger brother. The 104 "shortcut" also fit more comfortably into the classic supermini envelope, fitting neatly beneath the Ford Fiesta (and slightly above the soon-to-be-launched Austin miniMetro). A further matter for consideration was Peugeot's own replacement for the 104, which had been conceived as a slightly bigger car...

This product juggling would eventually leave PSA with a Talbot-badged supermini at the lower end of the supermini sector, and a Peugeot at the top of it. This did not take Citroen into consideration, as it was considered that they traditionally appealed to very different customers. Without doubt, the post-merger situation at PSA was a product planner's nightmare!

With a plan settled, the matter of how much 104 would need to be retains needed to be settled. Given that PSA earmarked the Linwood plant for closure soon after it took on Chrysler Europe, the C15 (renamed T15 soon after the "Talbot" marque name was chosen) would need to enter production by late-1981. And that meant, a short gestation. Just like the Sunbeam before it, the T15 would, therefore, need to retain as much under-the-skin engineering as possible.

Given that brief, the Whitley design centre produced a smart update of the 104. It certainly looked more modern, thanks to the 1980s-generic front end styling and moulded bumpers, but because much of the 104Z's body-in-white engineering was retained, as well as its side doors, the T15 would emerge looking little more than a facelift of an existing car. In fact, according to French sources, the Whitley involvement on the T15 project amounted to a tidy-up of an existing proposal to facelift the Peugeot 104. Although the T15 would emerge as very obviously Peugeot 104 based, it shared very few body panels and only the hatchback and bonnet are the same. The doors are shared with the 104, but with different outer skins.

Samba arriva

"A 104 with its faults ironed out", is how WHAT CAR? magazine described the Samba. Certainly, its style was very much of that school of thought.

Like the Sunbeam before it, the T15 went through a remarkably quick gestation period, and even if it relied on much existing Peugeot hardware, it was proof of Whitley and Poissey's determination to make the best of the situation. Despite not having been anything more than a twinkle in the product planners' eyes in 1978, the T15 became a production reality in October 1981, and the following month, the new car - called the Talbot Samba - was launched to the press. It was significant at the time for being the first Poissy car to be designed and produced under the stewardship of Peugeot, and at the time of its launch, there was no reason to believe that it was not to be the first in a line of many...

At launch, the Samba range was offered in three levels of trim: LS, GL and GLS, and these trim levels were tied in with three engines - 954cc, 1124cc and 1360cc. At the time of its launch, the Pininfarina styled cabriolet was also touted, but it followed some months after. Unlike the Alpine, the Samba was purely French built, which must have come as something of a blow to the beleagured British workforce.

Still, the Samba was greeted by a positive press at its launch in France, and WHAT CAR? magazine was most favourable after its first drive: "First driving impressions are of the refined, clean revving engine and excellent quality of the gearchange adding to a drivetrain which for its smoothness is unique in the present range of Talbot cars." Obviously, the use of Peugeot instead of SIMCA engines (with their rattly tappets) had the desired effect on WHAT CAR?'s staffers... The magazine went on: "The gearing feels very high as the ratios were chosen with economy in mind, and one feels that the limit of economy gearing in relation to the power of the engine is not far off, but as it is the compromise is reasonable."

The fact that the magazine picked up on the gearing is significant, as one of Talbot's stated aims for the Samba was to produce the most economical car in Europe... Conditionally, of course. In 1981, much play was made of the EEC "government" fuel consumption figures, and the most flattering of all these figures, was what was achieved at a constant 56mph (90km/h). The nature of the test (performed on a rolling road) produced some stunning headline figures, and the manufacturers were keen to produce the most economical car. In France, this was certainly the case, as the country's best selling car, the Renault 5 was available in ultra-economical GTL form, and the company were not shy in advertising that it could achieve 58.3mpg...

When the Samba was launched, it was soon touted as "Europe's most economical car", after the 1124cc GL version delivered 61.4mpg. As a historical footnote, that was soon bettered by a higher-geared version of the 5GTL (62.8mpg), which then was trounced bythe Austin Metro 1.3HLE (64.1mpg). It is hard to imagine that kind of thing happening now, but at the time, it was a most serious matter, indeed. How times have changed...

The magazine was left unimpressed by the Samba's chassis though: "...it is satisfactory by the standards of the 5GTL, but is uninspiring compared to the Metro and Polo. In using Peugeot 104 suspension components, it necessarily has soft springing but fortunatly not quite as uncontrolled as the Renault. Damping is good and the amount of body roll on corners is modest so that the effect is what the Renault tries to be but isn't. Roadholding is good, verging on the enjoyable at times, but the Samba's handling is to a large extent spoiled by heavy and lifeless steering..."

The specials

Open-air motoring on a budget: The Samba Cabriolet proved something of a hit in France...

During the development of the Samba, it was forseen by PSA management that a high glamour model would need to be devised in order to make the car stand out from the crowd. The answer to that question came swiftly, in the form of a cabriolet version. Given Peugeot's long association with Pininfarina, it seemed fitting to give the job of developing the decapotable version to the Italian coachbuilder, Pininfarina. The fact that Pininfarina had also been responsible for all of Peugeot's drop-top models since the early 1960s, and were massively experienced in this field anyway made the decision something of a no-brainer. The fact that it emerged as such a pretty car, was more by design than accident, thanks to the Italians!

The cabriolet was offered for sale in 1982, and soon became something of a cult car in France, where it was seen as a stylish homegrown (and cheaper) alternative to the Volkswagen Golf cabriolet. Soon, the 1360cc runabout was to be seen in some numbers around Paris; all manner of public celebrities at the wheel... Two versions of the cabriolet were offered between 1982 and 1984 (in 72 and 80bhp form), but this was cut back to the single lower power version after 1984. In its four year production run, 13,062 versions were produced; a respectable figure for such a niche product - and rather better than the in-house competition in the shape of the Citroen Visa decapotable.

Spiritual successor to the SIMCA 1000 Rallye, and precursor to some cracking Peugeot hot hatches (205, 106, 306 Rallye), the Samba Rallye was a fun package that had been created so that young men could go rallying.

The Samba Rallye, on the other hand, was a replacement for the SIMCA 1000 Rallye (and some would say, Talbot Sunbeam ti); produced to meet the same set of criteria as its rear-engined progenitor: a stripped out special with minimal equipment and a "tweakable" engine, purpose built for motor sport. First shown in 1983, the Rallye was instantly recognizable because of its bonnet mounted air extractor, availability in two colours only (white or red), and garish side stripes... The 80bhp 1219cc engine resulted in the 780kg Rallye having a fair turn of speed (110mph), and the club rally drivers took it to their muddy hearts...

In 1985, a rather special 90bhp 1360cc version was launched, and surprisingly, this did without the side stripes, as can be seen in the above picture of a Poissy development car.

Samba Special Editions

Model Notes
Auto-ecole As with other Peugeot models including the 106, 205 and 309, the Samba was offered in “auto-ecole” specification, this is likely to have been a GL 1124cc as this was the best selling model in the range offering a good compromise between fuel efficiency and performance. The specific learner driver items such as dual controls and the sign on top could be removed and the model would then be sold as a GL.
Bahia (1985) this was a better specified version of the Sympa with an 1124cc 50bhp engine. The appealing specification included denim seats, an opening sunroof and metallic blue paint as standard. The major significance of the model is that it is definitely a market test for later Peugeot models. After the success of the model, the following year the formula was applied to the basis of a three door Peugeot 205 XE and sold as the Junior; it carried on the success spawning the Cj cabrio along similar lines and then the Peugeot 106 Kid. Even the name was repeated on the 1996 Peugeot 106 Bahia!
Sympa (1984-85), this was a toned down production version of the Copacabana concept seen at motor shows. The concept was simple, it was a car to appeal to young people with a degree of personalisation, the first series came as a silver metallic car which was decorated with yellow, red or blue highlights and then a choice between radio or sunroof which echoed the very first special edition ever the simca 1000 EXTRA which beat the 2cv spot to sale by a matter of weeks. The following year the sunroof was standard and only yellow was available. The sympa in a way brought the concept of the ‘young person’s car’ up to date from the Simca 1100 Elix of the 70s. popular colours and specification at a low price added up to an appealing package. Within a few years the market was flooded with replicas, Peugeot 205 junior, Renault 5 FIVE, Seat Ibiza Disco and Citroen AX TEN all had the same ‘Sympa’ formula.
Style This was a UK only model for running out Samba stocks in 1986. It was based on the Sympa but lacked its originality despite coming with a radio and sunroof as standard. Resembled a Sympa without its colourful details.
Trio This was a 1985 edition of the Samba Bahia in the UK. Unlike the Sympa/ Style they were identical. This name was re-used by Peugeot many times afterwards.
Pullman This was a styling exercise for a top of the range Samba with two tone paint work, aluminium wheels and other luxurious touches as seen on the most cosseting Solara. Although never produced it could be seen as a foretaste for the luxurious yet small Rolland Garros Peugeots, the 205 Gentry and even to an extent the Renault 5/Clio Baccara.
Peugeot Talbot Sport Samba Rallye group B This hot baby filled the gap before the fabulous T16 Peugeot came into production. A 1258cc 130bhp engine (equal in power to the later 205 1.9 GTI) allowed the baby car to storm around the performance track against exotic competition Porches and Ford RS2000s.
Table prepared by Asopče Jodocius-Lecoeur

End of Samba, end of Talbot

Shortly after the launch of the cabriolet in 1982, Talbot started work on the Samba's replacement. Because Talbot had lost its autonomy within PSA the previous year, the new car would be entirely managed by Peugeot, which meant that all styling and engineering work would take place back in France. That meant that the Anglo-French Talbot was no more, and that there was no longer any need for Whitley. What it meant for the future of Talbot was plain and simple: Samba, Horizon, Alpine and Tagora needed to sell in order for Talbot to continue...

...and outside of France, and through PSA's neglect of the range, none of Talbot's cars sold in large enough numbers for the company to consider Talbot a going concern. The decision did not happen until 1984, which meant that the Samba replacement did get off the drawing board. Sadly, that meant that the development of the Samba (as well as Alpine and Horizon) was limited to a marketing one, and so, the Samba was released in a number of special editions in order to maintain sales. The Samba continued until 1986, when run-out Samba Style (in the UK) and Sympa (in France) models were launched...

What sealed the Samba's fate was not only the failure of Talbot to sell in meaningful numbers across Europe, but also the massive and instant success of the Peugeot 205 following its launch in 1983. Whereas the older 104 had never set the world on fire, the achingly cute 205 was welcomed by everyone that saw it. The 205's range started with a 954cc entry level model and ended with the 1360cc GT version - all of a sudden, there was no longer any need for the Samba. So, the replacement was shelved, and with it, the Talbot marque shuffled off into obscurity...

Samba Production

Year
1981
1982
1983
1984
1985
1986
Produced
18,769
103,681
81,166
41,287
18,945
6,707

Total: 270,555 (figures courtesy of: The SIMCA Club)

The Samba was not replaced by another Talbot, but by the Peugeot 205. The same people that brought this twentieth century icon to you were also responsible for much of the engineering in the Samba... remember that!

Thanks to Asopee Jodocius-Lecoeur for her contributions.

Copyright © 2001-2004 Keith Adams; Copyright © 2005 Allpar, LLC

 

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