By on July 28, 2009

Curbside Classics is taking you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test.

I don’t have any shots of the Simca 1204. I haven’t seen one in over twenty-five years; have you? So I’m taking my lifeline (to Google images). The Simca 1100/1204 was such a remarkable and historically significant car, perhaps the most influential small car since WWII. Its DNA is in every transverse-engine FWD hatchback in the world. The VW Golf was a perfect crib of the Simca wearing a handsome Italian suit. Plus, j’aime les voitures françaises. And the Simca almost won the C/D test. It should have won. So forgive me, but we’re going to have show and tell without the show.

C/D gave the little tall hatchback quite the glowing (and accurate) write-up: “The Simca differs from all the other cars in two important ways: it was designed to be comfortable and efficient transportation rather than simply a car, and it is French. Except for the styling (subjective) and high-speed cruising ability, it is superior to the (winner) in almost every way.” So why didn’t it win? C/D sucking up to their biggest advertiser who cancelled their ads after the trashing of one of their cars?

Given how boring, cheap, predictable and ugly most small French cars have become in recent times, it’s hard to fully appreciate how innovative, influential and fun they once were. I’m going to avoid a full-on Francophile paean to their automotive glories, because it would become a book. And the well-known heroes like the Citroën Traction-Avant, DS and 2CV are common knowledge. But the French way of building cars extended to the lesser makes as well, even Chrysler’s subsidiary Simca.

It started from the bottom up with the suspension. OK, we all know the horrors of the complicated and leaking Citroën hydropneumatic bladders. But the plebian Simca had a long-travel torsion-bar suspension that worked superbly and didn’t leak. Yes, like all French cars back then, the Simca looked like it was going to fall over in the curves. But that didn’t really slow it down much, especially since it was the only car in this comparison riding on sticky radials. Combined with the superb deeply-sprung seats, the Simca, like most French cars of the era, created a feeling of well-being that was head and shoulders above the typical hard-riding penalty-box small cars of the time. This still applies today: what I would give for some of that suppleness in my harsh xBox.

But the real historical significance of the Simca 1100/1204 was its configuration. It was THE forerunner of all modern small FWD hatchbacks: transverse side-by-side engine and transmission, a relatively boxy and roomy but compact body, and a cavernous hatch to transform the rear into a virtual wagon. All the characteristics of every Golf-class and other small cars (built around the globe by the hundreds of millions) started right here.

Yes, other cars previously had parts of this recipe for success. The Autobianchi Primula of 1964 gets a supporting role award, but its engine-transmission layout followed the dead-end BMC formula, and its rear seat didn’t fold down (or did it?). Anyway, none combined all the elements like the Simca. And none were as directly copied like it. And despite the 1204 being a flop in the US, the Simca 1100 was a big success in Europe. Launched in 1967, sales grew strongly, and it became the best selling French car, with 300k units built in 1973.

Simca was already on its last legs in the US when it tossed the 1204 our way as its swan song. A dearth of dealers, suspect reputation, and indifference to innovation made the French proto-Golf a rare bird from day one. But in 1977, I met a fellow automotive Franco-phile in L.A. who had one and let me take it for a spin. The feeling of slipping into something very different was palpable. Comfortable, tall, narrow, weird instrument panel. Ergonomics were not as high on the list of priorities of French cars as comfort and all-round practicality.

A slightly enlarged version of the rear-engined Simca 1000 OHV four powered the 1100/1204. It was a willing if somewhat buzzy mill. And it developed a reputation for certain weaknesses in its upper regions. Nevertheless, despite being the smallest mill in this test, it was the third fastest with a 14.6 in the 0-60. But it just didn’t quite cut the mustard on American freeways. And that French reputation of questionable longevity hung over it like the smell of a freshly-cut Camembert cheese.

The 1204 was just a bit ahead of its time in the US. It needed a modern 1.5 and a 5-speed for serious freeway work. My cousin in Austria had an 1100, and we took some great trips together in it. It was right at home in the narrow streets and twisty Alpine roads of Tirol. My love for French cars would soon flower into a fleet of rugged and reliable Peugeot 404s, but I credit the Simca for that first French kiss.

C/D fell in love too: “we were not prepared for the high level of quality throughout. Its basic structure was so extremely solid that the car was totally without rattles or squeaks…it is a highly sophisticated machine that offers maximum comfort and utility in its class…it is a mystery that Chrysler Corporation keeps it a secret.” Good point. Chrysler should have sold them at Plymouth dealers to get the jump on the copycat Golf/Rabbit.

Instead, they imported the miserable Cricket from England. After that disaster, and the Golf/Rabbit’s success, Chrysler copied the Golf’s looks for the Horizon/Omni, which otherwise was heavily based on the 1100/1204. And the ubiquitous K-cars in turn were the fruit of Chrysler’s experience with the Americanized Horizon.

So who needs photos of the Simca? Every time you see a Reliant, LeBaron, Dodge 600, Caravan, Maserati TC or a host of other K-car derivatives, you’re looking at the Simca’s direct genetic offspring. But that’s another CC story (or two). And I already have the photos.

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40 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1971 Small Cars Comparison: Number 2 — Simca 1204...”

  • avatar

    “Camambert” is written camembert. Beside that, great review, thanks!

  • avatar

    I won the clue :)

  • avatar

    The Mini wasn’t a hatchback.

    I had a ’69 Reliant Scimitar GTE – one of the first cars with a hatchback and independently folding rear seats. Not front wheel drive of course.

  • avatar

    I think the distinction was that the Mini vertically stacked the engine and transmission so they shared the same sump while the Simca put them more side by side. Among other effects, it separated their oils.

  • avatar

    I haven’t seen one in over twenty-five years; have you?

    I’ve never seen one period. The interior reminds me of most dodge products of that vintage, right down to the gauge look and faux wood panels

  • avatar
    Kyle Schellenberg

    I have, although it’s been almost 25 years. My good friend’s dad had one. I remember being intrigued because I was into cars but the name wasn’t familiar. We sat inside it and I pondered the “semi-automatic” label on the gearbox. My dad always drove stick and I knew what an automatic was but I couldn’t understand how they could use the word automatic when it also had a clutch.

    Now years later, Wikipedia answers the burning question I forgot in mere days:

    “There was also a three-speed semi-automatic gearbox that required manual shifting but used an electronically activated clutch.”

    Finally, peace for my troubled soul.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    I drove a 1204 once and can confirm everything Paul says, except that even in 1970s terms, it was a loud car at highway speeds.

    Simca made some interesting cars in the 1970s. There was the solid and pretty 1301, the fantastically odd Bagheera, and the beautiful Murena — all memorable.

  • avatar

    That steering wheel looks like a hula hoop…

    I owned a Fiat 128, Wolfsburg Rabbit, and a Dodge Omni, (so I was all around the target), but Simcas did not exist in and around Pittsburgh PA at that time.

  • avatar

    I actually recall seeing one of these as a kid in northeast Indiana. Quite a rarity, since they probably sold about 9 of them in the central 2/3 of the US.

    It’s tough to be too hard on Chrysler for missing this boat. They had watched GM try to go out front with unique powertrain designs (Corvair and Tempest) with no notable success. And Chrysler had tried to become a style leader in the early 60s, which was pure disaster. Lynn Townsend (an accountant) took over decreed that Chrysler would no longer try to lead, it would stay in the broad stream of popularity, which explains why it was late to every new market segment after about 1960.

    The Simca would have just been too different over here, certainly for Chrysler. Even selling through Plymouth dealers, I have a hard time imagining that it would have done better than the Cricket (itself no success).

    4 years later, Volkswagen brought it here, but it was a whole different ball game. Gas prices had become volatile, small inexpensive cars were popular, and VW’s radical new design still carried VW’s reputation for quality and durability, something in short supply at Chrysler by 1971 and even moreso at Simca.

    So we are left with the Vega. Wow.

  • avatar

    My dad bought our first one in 1968 (also our first car). Reliable and versatile, it carried two families (4 adults and three kids) on outings.

    When it died after 8 years (more than a lifetime for car back then), we again got an 1100. This time, it was a complete and utter lemon. Many, many defects from new. Rotting exhaust, oil and coolant leaks. Simca didn’t cover anything under warranty.

    We were very happy to see Simca disappear a few years later.

  • avatar


    This was just one in a long (ok, not so long; remember the Canadian Lada) line of Euro cars that Canada allowed to be imported back when they could not decide whether to have European car regulations or to harmonize with the US.

    For the life of me, I don’t understand why a car good enough for the autobahn, autostrada, dual carriage way etc is not good enough for Hwy 401?

    I for one love Americans, I just hate your pickup trucks, and monster SUV’s – as commuter cars, that is.

  • avatar

    As a recovering French car enthusiast, I think on about step 11. I have now apologized to everyone that I talked into buying a French car, or a car with a lot of French content.

    One of the many seuctive qualities of French cars is the superb ride, and I well remember the ride and driving qualities of teh Simca.

    I also remember the burned out engines, worn camshafts, rusted bodies, including the structural rust in the front end, the broken seats, and so on.

    And so, let me say again, I am sorry.


  • avatar

    Well I’ll be damned. I love France, I love old Peugeots, and I’m fond of old Citroens and Panhards, and I did help drive a Simca 1300 wagon around Europe in ’71, which was a very nice car in my faint recollection. But I never thought of simcas as being anything other than ordinary until now. So thanks for enlightening me.

    some Simca Arondes did play an important part in australian legal history, which you can read about here:

  • avatar

    I had a 1962 Simca “5”. (I think that was the model designation.) It specialized in blowing head gaskets, once in the Holland Tunnel. Best thing about it was the red paint job. Second best thing was getting rid of it.

  • avatar

    bluecon “When I was a kid Chrysler was selling them and a guy down the road had one. That was the only one I saw in this Chrysler town. People when given a choice don’t want little crappola cars.”

    Who bought all those Pintos and Vegas were they replicants? People had a choice and some choose small and some choose medium and some choose large. Small cars are simply a different market segment that Detroit chose to view as “crappy little cars”.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern


    Given how boring, cheap, predictable and ugly most small French cars have become in recent times

    Nope, sorry, I will not give you that without a fight. On which “most” small French cars do you base this remark? Please be specific and prolific.

    I haven’t seen one in over twenty-five years

    This one I will definitely give you. I live in Canada, where these cars were allegedly backed, and I have never seen one. I do see Lada Nivas and Samaras from time to time here in salty Toronto, and in summer the 2CVs come out to play, but Simcas? Not a one.

  • avatar

    “Its DNA is in every transverse-engine FWD hatchback in the world.”

    Not only that, but it was a five-door hatchback. The history of cars is a very interesting history, what we now take for granted was very seldom so in the beginning. What strikes me most, is the effort of trying out new solutions, with a remarkable resitance in taking the necessary step to the obvious solutions. A five-door FWD transverse-engined hatchback seems like an obvious solution, but considering the small car segment in the 60’s and 70’s, very few makers made one.

    BMC opened the door with transverse-engined FWD cars. But the Mini was too small, and The BMC 1100 had 2 or 4-doors, but no hatchback. The Peugeot 204 was a FWD small sedan, no hatchback. But it successfully tried out the BMC solution with engine over gearbox. The Renault 4 was a FWD 5-door hatchback, but it had a longitudinally mounted engine behind the front wheels, the tried out Citroen Traction Avant-solution. The Renault 5 made use of the same platform, but with a successfull 3- and 5-door hatchback configuration. It wasn’t until 1976 that Renault made use of the BMC-solution in their Renault 14.

    The Autobianchi Primula was a low-volume seller, but paved the way for Fiats later efforts. It tried out a new configuration with gearbox end on engine, and unequal length driveshafts, an ubiquitous solution today. However, the later Fiat 128 was a small 2- and 4-door sedan, and three-door wagon, but no hatchback. Likewise, the Fiat 127 was a 2-door fastback, initially with no hatchback.

    The Peugeot 104 was launched as a 4-door fastback, no hatch. It didn’t recieve a hatchback until it’s first facelift after five years in 1976. The Citroen GS didn’t have a hatchback, until it was relauched as the GSA after almost ten years in 1979. The Citroen 2CV had the right size, but it was no hatchback, unless you count the roll-up canvas on the earlier ones. The Alfa Romeo Alfasud was a 4-door fastback, no hatch. It didn’t recieve a hatch until 1981, after ten years.

    The FWD DKW:s and later Audis had engine in front of the front wheels and FWD, but they were small sedans, no hatchbacks. The Saab 93-96 tried out the DKW formula, but they were no hatchbacks, and only 2-doors, with a 2-door wagon. The BMC 1100 successor the Austin Allegro was a 2- and 4-door fastback, no hatchback. And the Chrysler Sunbeam was RWD.

    It wasn’t until 1980 that GM and Ford’s european branches tried out front wheel drive, with their Opel Kadett and Ford Escort, unless you count the small Ford Fiesta in 1976. Toyota and Mazda didn’t switch to FWD until 1980 either. So, that leaves pretty much the Simca 1100 to rule supreme until the arrival of the Volkswagen Golf in 1974.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Daniel J. Stern,

    I know there are exceptions, but as a rule, they’re predictable formulaic cars that have lost the innovative quirky spirit that was the hallmark of French cars. I understand (mostly) why, but I miss the old French approach to car making.

  • avatar

    Whoa, I’m with Daniel J. Stern. There is nothing boring, cheap or hackneyed about a Peugeot 206, just for example – and while I might grant you a slight diminution of its strengths in the 207, these cars are delightful. Citroen has re-examined its strengths and turned out the C6 which has been very well reviewed.

    I admit there are lots of things wrong with French cars from the American perspective, but here in France a 207 easily keeps pace for hundreds of km at a whack, running at 130 kph – which few except peevish Swiss tourists and motorcyclists exceed for any length of time – and gets through roundabouts fluidly and with minimum fuss even four-up; then you can park it in 3/4 of a space in a cramped medieval town. The ride on tiny D-roads is resilent, and will not upset your digestion.

    If the 207 ever becomes available in the US my gf and I will each buy one.

  • avatar

    Mr. Niedermeyer:

    Aren’t you forgetting the Renault Twingo? It is considered very revolutionary and influential, a mini-mini minivan outlay and unbelievable space and creature conforts for such small cars. Not to mention the engines like the 1.2L, which will drive around all day at 150km/h. I don’t understand either how is that these little cars and engines, that can be driven for days on autobahns, auto stradas, carreteras can’t make a confortable highway cruiser in the US. Could some one elaborate on that?

    I have had extensive driving time in all manners of small euro cars, w/ engines ranging anywhere from 1,0 to 1,8L. Fiats tend to be fast, sporty and fun in the twisties, Renaults are similar, but more relaxed than the Fiats. Fords do very well in curves, though their engines tend to be less economical and a little slow. Peugeots are rather fragile (at least down here) and sorry, but the smaller VWs and GMs just do nothing for me. They leave me cold.

  • avatar

    Fun Fact, Mr. Niedermeyer: the xB can become a very comfortable ride through air suspension and relatively soft shocks (the Toyota Echo’s fit, though the front struts will lower the xB a little). Granted, you’d be dropping an easy $2k on your suspension, but it’s money well spent. I aspire to this plan myself, actually.

    If anyone asks, I explain that it rides like a skateboard.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    paul_y, Yes, I know the Echo parts will fit, but then I also like the handling in the twisties. I did put some larger aspect tires on 65 – 185, instead of 60-185, and that helped surprisingly well. The new Michelins probably also ride better than the Goodyears it came with.

  • avatar

    @Paul N.: I actually went a similar route, with 195-60s, since I could get good, inexpensive Kumhos (the same model had done favors for the Subaru I previously had) for the price of the godawful Walmart Goodyears the previous owner had put on my xB. As an aside, half-decent tires are a huge upgrade for any car that doesn’t already come with such. The xB certainly handles well enough to deserve as much — it’s probably the most competent-handling FWD econobox I’ll ever drive.

    Threadjacking rules.

    To keep this on topic, my dad had the Simca’s direct decendent: a 1985 Horizon, bought new, and scrapped in 1997 with 100k on it. It never failed to start in the morning, but the rest of the car would all-but-literally shed pieces if you looked at it cockeyed. It replaced a late-70s Kenworth K100 Aerodyne (tilt-cab), of all things.

  • avatar

    @Paul Niedermeyer et al, front-wheel-drive with transverse engine and gearbox beside it was commonplace on German cars long before the Simca 1100 and even the differently laid-out Mini came into being. DKW, Lloyd and Goliath (volume producers of the Borgward group), Zwickau P70 and its successor, the Trabant, and even the Swedish (but German-inspired) Saab 92 were all in production by the early to mid-1950s. Granted, none of them were hatchbacks, but most of them offered station wagon bodies, and a hatchback is nothing but a station wagon with a sloping back in the greater scheme of things, so that is but a minor point of digression.
    @Ingvar, Ford of Europe had front-wheel-drive cars in the 1960s, i.e. the Taunus 12M, introduced in 1963, I believe.

  • avatar

    I actually owned a used Simca 1204 GLS, which I, being impoverished and car-mad about a third of a century ago, bought from a friend. The 1204 did have Gallic practicality and comfort, but driving on the highway was excruciating. The little engine tried and tried and could cruise about 60 mph at 4000 rpm or so. A six-hour drive from Washington DC to JFK airport in New York City was fatiguing and deafening due to the horrific noise. Narrow 155-13 tires and FWD gave the 1204 superb traction on snowy roads, especially because the engine was so weak. Like so many French cars, the 1204 was well designed and poorly executed.

  • avatar

    Don’t know if there’s some sort of French design DNA involved here, but the Nissan Versa looks a bit like a direct descendant of the 1204.

  • avatar

    Ah, the Nissan Versa. I just spent a week in one and yeah, the French shape is there so I guess some of the Renault DNA survived the trip through Nissan’s assembly line in Mexico.

    I also test drove and seriously considered buying a Simca 1204 waaaay back in 1970 for my very first car. Loved the shape, loved the fact that you almost never saw them on the road in the US. Vive la difference!

    But back then Chrysler treated all of their imports as short timers (this was before Chrysler hopped into bed with Mitsubishi) and I didn’t want to own an orphan. And Chrysler/Plymouth dealers at the time didn’t have a much better reputation than Chrysler dealers have today. So I succumbed to senibility and bought a 1970 Beetle.

    I remember the Plymouth Cricket, a slapped together little bastard of a car that lasted as long on these shores as the Simca 1204.

  • avatar

    In the summer of 1970, when I was a 13-year-old car nut, I did see a Simca of this type (a 3-door, the first hatchback I ever saw) in a Chrysler-Plymouth showroom in San Francisco. It was quite a juxtaposition, though: I distinctly recall seeing a Barracuda with 440 Six-Pack decals within about 10 feet of the Simca.

  • avatar

    I recall as a child that my uncle in The Netherlands had a light blue Simca 1100/1204 hatch.

    Unfortunately my memories of the vehicle are pretty limited despite riding in it regularly over several summer visits. It was a ‘special’ model I think, with the yellow tinted driving lights in the grille, 3 doors, very plush (for the mid ’70s) interior. I remember liking the noise it made – quite rorty.

    When I came back in ’79 or ’80, it had been replaced with a brand new (fwd), bright orange, Opel Kadett 2 dr wagon.

  • avatar

    I live in France and you do not see many old Simcas running around here either.

    A funny story about Simca, the first thing Chrysler did when it bought the company in 1970 was fire it’s engineering staff. They got a good lay-off package and those who did not retire when straight to Peugeot or Renault and found jobs. When Chrysler discovered it actually needed all these ‘old’ employees no one came back whatever they offered.

    Could not help but have a since of déjà vu when I saw years later what Daimler did to Chrysler.

    By the way all French cars ride like the passengers have a permanent hemorrhoid condition.

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    I would probably argue that the Fiat 128 paved the way for most modern FWD cars mechanically, while the Reanult 16 showed the way in terms of packaging and variability (admittedly the engine was mounted longitudinally).

    But the Simca did combine elements of both, granted.
    At least in Yugoslavia, there was a 5 door hatchback version of the Fiat 128, first known as the Zastava 1100, later as the 101 from 1971 onwards – so while 4 years after the Simca, at least a similar timeframe :)

    Very nice article!

  • avatar

    Another Simca oddity is that in the late 50’s or early 60’s they were putting those little 60-hp Ford flathead engines into their fancier sedans, adding production life to an engine that never really caught on in the US.

  • avatar

    riko: “A funny story about Simca, the first thing Chrysler did when it bought the company in 1970 was fire it’s engineering staff. They got a good lay-off package and those who did not retire when straight to Peugeot or Renault and found jobs. When Chrysler discovered it actually needed all these ‘old’ employees no one came back whatever they offered.”It’s a shame that Chrysler management made the decision to emulate the GM model in this regard. It’s not hard to understand, though. GM overtook Henry Ford with the annual body style changeover while Henry tried to stick with engineering improvements. Likewise, while the body integrity might have been the worst of the Big 3, for most of the twentieth century, Chrysler’s engineering prowess was easily the highest.

    But then management decided to give that all up in the seventies by dumping most of their engineers, not only at Simca but in the US, as well, and it’s evidenced in no better way than the dismal Aspen/Volaré that was supposed to replace the rock-solid Valiant/Dart. Except for the rare flashes of brilliance that have been able to sustain the company (minivan), it’s been a downward trajectory from there.

    When Chrysler abandoned their ‘Extra Care in Engineering’ mission statement, well, the writing was on the wall for their eventual demise.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    @Paul Niedermeyer:
    I know there are exceptions, but as a rule, they’re predictable formulaic cars that have lost the innovative quirky spirit that was the hallmark of French cars.

    So…no examples, no real discussion, no nothin’ but a restatement of your initial assertion, eh?

    Okeh, I’ll start: What country other than France could the Renault Modus have come from? Or the Citroën C4 Picasso?

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    While I agree with your entiment Daniel, the more apt examples would be the first Twingo and the first Scenic, rather than the Modus and the C4, which were both copies of existing (if French) concepts :)

  • avatar

    “Given how boring, cheap, predictable and ugly most small French cars have become in recent times” ???

    You should Google:
    Citroen C5
    Citroen C6
    Peugeot 207
    Peugeot 308
    Peugeot 407
    Renault Megane III
    the new Renault Twingo
    Renault Clio III





  • avatar

    You should Google:
    Citroen C5
    Citroen C6
    Peugeot 207
    Peugeot 308
    Peugeot 407
    Renault Megane III
    the new Renault Twingo
    Renault Clio III

    And then you can find out just how ugly Peugeots have got since they stopped using those italian blokes.

  • avatar

    I was lucky enough to have one,the last year they were imported, ’71.I bought it new when they were dumping them,$1569 CDN. The larger motor,1204 was the reason for the name change from 1100 to 1204. My dad had a ’59 Simca and gave me his ’65 1000,so they weren’t a unknown. The 1204 was a great little car. It had CV joints that were better than anything you can buy now,I know as  I’ve had a couple of VW Rabbits . Problems I had with it,looking back ,were loose engine mounts,the rad and the exhaust broke. On this engine,a water leak was serious as it was lightweight thus fairly dry block. Yes, if it had  a 5sp and 1.5 engine, a better looking rear end,you would have been able to find one.

    And it wasn’t that slow,I could get up to Whisler quicker than the skiers in the Boss Mustang, it could handle that well.

  • avatar

    Well gang, i could post some Simca pictures, but i do not think you would want to see them. I grew up in deep south Georgia where my Dad was a Chrysler service manager in the 60s. We had several Simca cars. I learned to drive in a 69 1204 and had to haul it to the scrap yard in November. Boo Hoo!!! This was the car I learned to drive in, a 4 speed 4 door Maroon 1204. I was hit by a guy in a Mitsubishi Sapporo in 1980. Now you do the math… The car sat for 30 years. Well, it was not alone. I think we had over 24 Simca cars. I sold the last four 1000/1100 (rear engine rear wheel drive) cars this past year, and am having to scrap the remaining 1204 cars as all have rusted way beyond repair. I sure did love those cars.
    Check out the  video a kind fellow posted on YouTube. He titled it “Simca Cemetery” appropriately enough.


  • avatar

    Excellent reading!
    The 1204 was, indeed, a remarkable car! Simca was a trailblazer in this area!
    The Simca Cemetary was a really sad place. Simca Dave and i travelled down to the south of Georgia to visit the place and shot these photos. By 2009, however, there wasn’t much metal holding any of these cars together.
    Thanks for the great work!!
    Matt Cotton
    Lake Parsippany, NJ

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