AMC’s new section for mature, open-minded readers only. This edition we reveal the stillborn Valiant replacement that the Frogs tried to flog to Chrysler Australia. Theme song: ‘French Kissing in the USA’ by Blondie.
You’re excused if you’ve never heard of the Talbot Tagora – a forgettable boxy sedan that the French tried to flog to their Chrysler colleagues in Australia in the late 1970s. Here’s how... From the resumption of automobile manufacture in 1946 after World War II, Chrysler in America was envious of their cross-town rivals GM and Ford’s international presence. GM owned Opel in Germany and Vauxhall in England and was just about to launch the Holden car in Australia. Meanwhile, Ford built Fords in Germany, the UK, Australia and France.
Ford of France was a perpetual thorn in the side of its Dearborn masters and in 1955 it was sold to Simca, a rising star of the French automobile industry through its Aronde compact sedan, wagon and coupe plus the Vedette V8 after the buy-out. In 1957 Chrysler bought a controlling interest in Simca and as a result Chrysler Australia soon began assembling Arondes locally.
In 1966, Chrysler bought out England’s Rootes Group and over the next five years gradually renamed the companies at Chrysler UK and Chrysler France and dropped the long famous names of Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam and Simca – a major marketing blunder in the opinion of many historians because nobody knew the Chrysler name and what it apparently stood for…
Into this mix in 1978 came Peugeot, one of the original companies to manufacture cars from the 1890s and a company with an impeccable international reputation.
By 1977 the Chrysler Valiant had almost run out of steam in the local marketplace. It was still a solid, rugged and reliable piece of transportation, but it had become somewhat passé as far as buyers were concerned. This was mostly because of the car’s bulky styling that might have been fashionable in 1971 but it was way past its use-by date in 1977.
Chrysler Corporation in America was in financial turmoil and therefore its subsidiary Chrysler Australia Limited was also in trouble. The manifestation of this was that the planned re-bodying of the Valiant for the 1976 model year never took place. Instead, design chief Brian Smyth and his small local team had to content themselves with merely “tickling the tin” as Brian would say.
Chrysler Australia had rejected Australianising the 1976 Plymouth Volare with its re-engineered front suspension (now using transverse torsion bars) on the grounds of cost – a familiar story with the Chrysler Corporation throughout the 1970s unfortunately.
However, potential salvation for the Australians was available but from a most unlikely source – Simca, or as it had been renamed Chrysler France. The Australians were not unfamiliar with the people at Simca having worked with them to produce the Centura (nee Chrysler 180 in Europe). That car’s successor, known internally at Project C9, was possibly available.
Graeme Longbottom, an engineer with Chrysler Australia, was tasked with previewing the prototypes for the local market and was highly impressed. “It drove very well and the suspension gave it a superb ride with not too much lean in the corners, and it was very quiet,” he remembered.
Because Chrysler owned Simca and the Rootes Group, the C9’s styling was carried out under Art Blakeslee at the Whitley centre near Coventry as was the body engineering; all the mechanical work was carried out at Carrieres on the outskirts of Paris. And then you had a sprinkling of American people sent in by Chrysler to ‘manage’ the project!
Talk about oil on water… The C9 was to continue the 180’s floorpan with its 105-inch wheelbase, MacPherson strut front suspension and live axle with coil springs at the rear and the OHC 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine plus a 2.2-litre version.
Then, in desperation, Chrysler sold their whole European operations to Peugeot in August 1978. Included was the C9 which had progressed way past the point of no return. Peugeot toned down the styling – they made it very bland in the opinion of Longbottom – and re-engineered the floorpan to accept the Peugeot 505 independent rear suspension and the 604’s V6 engine.
During early 1979 Longbottom, Ian Webber, chief engineer Walt McPherson and managing director Andy Anderson all travelled to Paris where senior Peugeot executives wined and dined them at one of the most expensive and fashionable restaurants in the city.
The basic proposal presented meant that Chrysler Australia could have the whole C9 project, all the tooling and intellectual property for a modest sum although firm pricing was not on the immediate agenda as bigger issues still had to be resolved.
The Adelaide team immediately began planning how the C9 could be Australianised. Foremost in these calculations was fitting the locally-made Hemi in-line six-cylinder engine under the bonnet. Their principal consideration was to ensure the final product could reach a satisfactory level of local content. This was not that difficult as they had been there before with the Centura – C5 in Chrysler-speak. But they had also learnt that bastardising an overseas product for local consumption had its limitations! Locally they had already dropped the heavy 318-cid V8 as an option so that avenue was not an option even though Holden and Ford continued to market V8-engined cars.
Chrysler was looking at going a more sophisticated route with C9 – taking the technical ‘high ground’ as a former manager said. Its styling was quite different from Holden and Ford’s being quite conservative but with massive glass area – a major improvement over Valiant in that respect – along with a roomy interior that would easily seat five people; reclining bucket seats were all that came with C9, no bench was offered in Europe. And at the rear was a huge and unobstructed luggage compartment.
Had this project gone ahead, what would Chrysler have been building and marketing? A fourdoor family sedan that would have matched the Holden Commodore for size and ‘European-ness’ in style and dynamics. Compared with the Centura the Tagora as the C9 had become known was longer in the wheelbase at 2808mm (compared with 2660mm), longer overall at 4628mm (4580mm) slightly wider at 1810mm (1730mm) and fractionally taller at 1444mm (1430mm). As fitted with the alloy Peugeot V6 it weighed 1345kg so would presumably have weighed at least another 100kgs with the 245ci or 265ci D engines under the bonnet; with the 2.2-litre Simca SOHC alloy engine it would have weighed 1245kg. Lessons learned with the C5 resulted in the C9 having a far more rigid and stronger (and therefore heavier) body.
A Centura fitted with the 245ci OHV six-cylinder engine and four-speed Borg Warner manual gearbox weighed 1216kg and with a 2.92 rear axle ratio would easily run to 180km/h at the top end, reel off 0-110km/h sprints in 12.4 seconds any time of the day and 17.0 seconds for the 400 metres. Mind you, traction was always a problem…
With the 265ci engine and, say, the 3.23 rear axle ratio from the Valiant those acceleration times would have been even quicker.
As a five-seater family sedan with its refined ex-Peugeot suspension system, four-wheel disc braking system, power-assisted rack and pinion steering, and with the 265 bolted to the Borg Warner 35 automatic, the Tagora would have been something of the ultimate locally built car – stylish in a European way, quiet, comfortable and quick.
The burning question was whether Chrysler’s marketing people would have had the resources and sophistication to successfully sell the Tagora – it would undoubtedly have had a better name locally – to the Australian buying public?
With the CM coming along in 1978, the timing was almost perfect for the Tagora as it would have taken at least a year to transport and re-equip the Tonsley Park factory for a release in 1980 or ’81.
That question was superfluous as it eventuated, because the bean counters hit the idea of an Aussie-built French-flavoured model on the head.
In fairness, other events too were clouding the issue. The Talbot Tagora bombed in Europe for a variety of reasons and Mitsubishi was taking an ever-growing part in running Chrysler Australia and they had scant interest in a technically sophisticated large family sedan that was not invented here or in Japan.
Above: Would the Tagora have taken sales away from the XD Falcon and VC Commodore? Here is an example at Chrysler Australia’s Adelaide HQ in the early 1980s. Where is this car today? Below: Jean-Pierre Beltoise raced a Tagora in French saloon car racing in 1982.