As the future of Chrysler is revealed in Italy, we look back to our 2015 piece on its last big retrenchment from the UK market…
So, Chrysler is withdrawing from the UK. Not that there’s a lot of withdrawing to be done, the American brand’s armoury having already shrivelled to three models following the Delta’s unnoticed deletion.
That leaves the little Ypsilon supermini, the Grand Voyager and the 300C, which not so long ago was the car that galvanised Chrysler’s UK appeal, many considering its handsome, square-edged look worthy of a ‘mini-Bentley’ epithet. Some even fitted glittery radiator grilles to heighten the illusion.
But the heavily facelifted 300C has failed to rekindle the appeal of the original, leaving its ageing mechanicals exposed to acid comparison. And while plenty of Voyagers, Grand or otherwise, have found berths outside British homes over the years, including one Tony Blair’s, the appeal of the big MPV has long since faded, not least against products of the kind sold by Chrysler’s sister brand Jeep.
And the Ypsilon? This imaginatively styled hatch pioneered the premium supermini over three decades ago with the flat-tailed Lancia Y10, but there are plenty of other tailgated babies that do plush a lot more effectively than this rough-riding Fiat Panda reskin.
Its prospects over here were not helped by the fact that neither it nor the Delta were Chryslers at all, both being rebadged Lancias launched here well after their less-than-rapturous Italian debuts. Cynical rebrandings don’t often work in car world, and that’s why you rarely see them today.
That said, the market-positioning ambitions of both Chrysler and Lancia do vaguely coincide in that both aim to play the premium game. Until Lancia disappeared from Britain in the early ‘90s that’s where it just about sat, while Chrysler has been attempting to reclaim the moderately upscale territory it occupied 60 years ago.
Which will not be the work of a moment in its homeland, and has no resonance in Europe because the brand was barely here back then. Instead, what Chrysler has been most consistent about during its half century or so of troubled European manoeuvres has been the annexing, hijacking, repurposing and general buggering about with other company’s hardware, of which the lazily relabelled Delta and Ypsilon are only the latest example.
Chrysler: classic badge engineering
If you’re old enough, you may remember the now-abandoned Chrysler pentastar adorning the front wings of machines as disparate as the Hillman Imp, Humber Sceptre, Sunbeam-Lotus and various long-forgotten vans. And if you’re French and of similar age you’ll recall that same badge appearing on the front wings of Simcas, a long extinct brand that in the early ‘70s made the best-selling car in Europe in the slightly ungainly shape of the Simca 1100, a car that successfully did the Golf’s job seven years before the VW arrived.
The reason for the pentastar’s occupation of front wing real estate was that Chrysler bought into and eventually owned the British Rootes Group that made Hillmans, Singers, Sunbeams and Humbers, and did the same with France’s Simca. Ambitions to emulate Ford of Europe and GM’s success with Vauxhall and Opel was its mission. Eventually it rebranded the Simcas and Rootes model as Chryslers, the French cars gradually supplanting the British ones because they were better.
That much better, in fact, that the Simca 1307/1308 won the Car of the Year award in 1976, this now-forgotten model known to us as the Chrysler Alpine. That victory was followed by another for 1978, with the Simca/Chrysler Horizon that replaced the Simca 1100.
A version of the Horizon was also sold in the US (and as the Dodge Omni, too) these ranges scoring an impressive three million sales in 10 years on both sides of the Atlantic. Less impressive was the fact that though ostensibly identical, the European and American Horizons shared no more than about two parts, Chrysler completely failing to capitalise on the cost-savings that such scale-economies ought to have generated.
‘Amateur corporate bungling’
It was the kind of amateur corporate bungling that would get Chrysler into plenty more trouble in the decades to come. But it did manage to offload its ramshackle European operations on Peugeot in 1978, which bought them for reasons that it was hard to fathom, despite the acquisition costing a nominal dollar. All Chryslers were renamed Talbots, and within a decade Peugeot had steered Talbot to its death.
But the Chrysler name returned to the UK in the 1990s, this time on 100 percent American cars, a UK importer shrewdly reckoning that it could usefully add a few choice Chryslers to supplement its Jeep line-up. These were selected from a range revitalised after another of this long-lived US brand’s near-death moments.
The Voyager MPV wasn’t a bad alternative to a Ford Galaxy or Renault Espace, and despite being a saloon in a hatch-dominated market, America’s much-trumpeted Neon was engineered for right hand drive and shipped our way too. The trumpetings were mainly about the fact that Chrysler had finally managed to spit out an all-new car, and at a temptingly low price, the Neon making a certain low-rent sense in the US. Its super-low sticker price, surprisingly potent motor and cheeky face were some sort of compensation for the cacophonously chafing cabin plastics and the grim noises emerging from beyond the front bulkhead.
But travel to the UK inflated the Neon’s price towards the preposterous, the British importers cleverly (or cruelly…) speccing the car up with automatic transmission, plastic-look leather and moulded walnut that snagged a surprising number of geriatrics who thought they were getting a rattling good deal.
And excitement was added to the range via the familiar rebadging tactic, the victim this time the spectacular AC Cobra reinterpretation that was the V10 Dodge Viper. Not many were sold – it was a bit unsubtle for Britain, its roof possessed with the weatherproofing qualities of a broken window – but it certainly added excitement.
And then in 1998 Daimler bought Chrysler, a calamity for most concerned, although this unlikely liaison did yield a few interesting offspring, among the best of them the Chrysler 300C. This was a big car that should have bombed in Britain’s premium-obsessed executive market, but such was the brilliance of its confident, square-shouldered styling that it became gotta-have-it wheels for those of lightly blingish persuasion.
Less convincing was the PT Cruiser, an American hot-rod-alike-turned mini-MPV that actually sold pretty here despite the minimal relevance of its hot-rod referencing and a cabin that did not reward close inspection.
It was followed by the Crossfire coupe, whose Mercedes SLK innards dulled an interesting design to numbing effect, and the Sebring, a style-free zone that had none of the 300C’s design panache, and when propelled by an obsolete VW diesel was as miserable as life with a pneumatic drill. There was an even more dismal Dodge version, but that’s another sorry story.
Did I mention the Sebring convertible? Chrysler UK didn’t, its publicists concluding that the best way to off-load these machines was to avoid subjecting its numerous shortfalls to the scrutiny of the press.
Squandered momentum; enter Fiat
The momentum gathered by the 300C’s success was about to be squandered during the ructions of Daimler’s departure from its self-made North American mess, Chrysler’s acquisition by clueless money-shufflers Cerberus, the 2008 recession and the company’s lifesaving takeover by Fiat. On the other side of the Atlantic that critic-defying, life-saving manoeuvre by Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne has ended up saving Fiat itself, Chrysler and Jeep in particular enjoying prosperous new times at home.
But Marchionne’s often cavalier approach to product development is how Chrysler’s UK range has ended up half-filled with ageing Lancias, this terminally wounded, once famous brand retreating to Italy with a Chrysler in its line-up called Voyager. There was a Thema-badged 300C in the range too, but that has already died.
Though Chrysler isn’t doing badly in the US with its all-new 200 (pictured above), Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has concluded that rebadging Chryslers as Lancias isn’t going to work in Europe, making the case for selling right-hand drive Chryslers here a slender one at best.
Instead the future is Jeep-shaped, and Chrysler will once again die a UK death. Given the brand’s pinball trajectory over the decades, I wouldn’t bet against it returning again one day.