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Only skin deep: the European and American versions of the Omnirizon have little in common but looks

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo by Pfoy.

That, up there, is a 1979 Talbot Horizon, sold in Europe by Peugeot. Though it looks like an American L-body Dodge Omni or Plymouth Horizon and resulted from the same design process, it bafflingly shares so little with its American cousins that it might as well be an entirely different car. Like much of Chrysler’s European venture, the whole story makes little sense in retrospect.

During the Seventies, each of the U.S.’s Big Three had latched onto the idea of the “world car:” GM with its Chevette, Ford with its Escort, and Chrysler with its C2. While Chrysler had exported cars since its formation, it wasn’t until the Fifties that the company started to buy up shares of existing European carmakers, eventually gaining enough controlling interest in those companies to merge Spain’s Barreiros, Britain’s Rootes and France’s Simca into Chrysler Europe in 1967.

As Chrysler was developing its product plan for its European cars that would streamline and modernize the component companies’ nine existing platforms down to three, designer Roy Axe penned a short-wheelbase version of the C6 front-wheel-drive platform that would eventually become known as the C2 platform and that would eventually become Chrysler’s world car, according to accounts on the C2’s development over at Allpar. Reportedly, it took only a viewing of the C2’s clay model for then-Chrysler president Gene Cafiero and vice president of sales R.K. Brown to greenlight the C2 for the American market. A team from the European operations, including Axe, was sent over to Highland Park the following year.

That’s, apparently, where the trouble began. According to Marc Honore, a part of that team, the goal was to refine the C2’s design to meet American regulatory, manufacturing, and marketing standards. However, “significant problems arose from differing organisations, paperwork procedures, metric vs English measurements and day to day coordination because of the relative immediacy of the program in the USA compared to Europe.”

To begin with, the American product planners wanted the car to have a MacPherson strut front suspension, but their European counterparts – citing the development costs already sunk into the C6’s torsion-bar front suspension while engineering the C6’s predecessor (the Simca 1500, also badged as the Chrysler Alpine) – demanded the European version of the C2 to run the latter suspension design. Doing so would require an entirely different front substructure and front floor pans. Similarly, while both the American and European versions used coil-sprung rear suspensions, they used two different designs “due to differing marketing requirements.”

Then there were the body differences. According to designer and team member Curt Gwin, the C2 started out with flat fenders above the wheel openings, but the American designers involved in the process wanted flared wheel openings to clear tire chains; the flares made their way to both European and American designs. Another member of that European team, chief body engineer Dave Logan, noted that the European and American versions used different window lifts as well as different sheetmetal.

Chrysler France manufacturing management insisted that the cowl outer windshield aperture and roof outer panel be stamped in one piece from one blank of steel. They insisted on this construction for better dimensional control of the windshield opening. The Chrysler USA manufacturing management considered the one-piece design proposal to be unfeasible from a manufacturing standpoint and insisted that the cowl and “A” pillar stamping be stamped separately from the roof panel. Consequently, although the vehicles looked the same in the windshield area, the American Horizon/Omni had a welded and metal finished joint at the top of the “A” pillars and the C2 did not.

As for drivetrains, the L-bodies are renowned for being the first Chrysler front-wheel-drive vehicles and the first four-cylinder Chryslers built in decades. However, that meant Chrysler had yet to tool up to produce emissions-compliant four-cylinder drivetrains in sufficient numbers, so while the C2 ended up using Simca-designed “Poissy” overhead-valve four-cylinder engines ranging from 1.1 to 1.5 liters, Chrysler had to purchase single-overhead camshaft 1.7-liter four-cylinder engines from Volkswagen (modified with a Chrysler-designed cylinder head) for a couple years before the company replaced the 1.7-liter with a Peugeot-built, Simca-designed 1.6-liter four-cylinder (and later, Chrysler’s own 2.2-liter four-cylinders).

Photo by Mic.

U.S. regulations mandated the Omnirizons use sealed-beam headlamps and 5 MPH bumpers while the C2s kept their flush-mount bumpers and composite headlamps. Marketing decisions forced each version to get different light switches, dash controls, steering wheels, seats, and interior panels. As Honore put it, “The European and American cars looked similar but by the time we were through, I doubt if we had many common parts!”

Both the American and European versions received significant praise. Motor Trend gave the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon twins its Car of the Year award in 1978 while the Simca Horizon (as sold in France, Chrysler Horizon throughout the rest of Europe) won the 1978 European Car of the Year Award.

Then, to confuse the matter just a little bit more, Chrysler sold off its European operations to Peugeot not long after it introduced the Simca/Chrysler Horizon. The Omnirizons remained on the American market through 1990, selling steadily all the while. Meanwhile, Peugeot decided to rebadge the Simca/Chrysler Horizon as the Talbot Horizon, resurrecting an old marque name it inherited in the purchase of Chrysler Europe; that version of the car sold through 1987.

So while Chrysler’s world car effort did at least follow some of the same conventions of the time – it produced one car sold in multiple global markets under local brand names and with market-specific modifications – the company’s global aspirations ironically collapsed just as that world car came to fruition.