By on May 19, 2011

When you’ve driven your $500 Citroën ID19 race car from San Diego to Miami and raced a Mini Moke-based Apollo Lunar Rover, where do you go from there? Why, you buy a furiously underpowered, 40-year-old Chrysler of Europe product and race it for 24 straight hours at a high-altitude road course packed with BMW E30s and V8 Detroit bombs. What else could you do?

The Henri ‘Cuda started out life as a 1971 Simca 1204. Chrysler, unable to manufacture a Detroit-designed subcompact that anyone in America would buy, was busy importing rebadged Mitsubishi Colt Galants and Hillman Avengers at the time, but they decided to throw some Simca 1100s onto American showroom floors as well. Simca wasn’t quite a household name in North America at the time, and sales were weak to put it mildly. The ’71 Simca 1204, as the American version was badged, packed 62 horsepower in a 1,204cc front-wheel-drive package (yes, MG fans, that’s the exact same rating as the 1,800cc engine in the ’71 MGB) and sold for $1,693. That was $139 more than the 1971 Fiat 850 sedan, but 222 fewer bucks than the ’71 Plymouth Cricket. Even a Pinto would set you back $1,919 in 1971, so the Simca was quite a deal.

However, the Simca was also a genuinely terrible little car, making even the purgatorially bad Pinto seem solid and luxurious by comparison. That means, of course, that a Simca 1204 starts a LeMons race with a huge advantage in the Index of Effluency trophy race; all a Simca team needs to do to grab LeMons’ top prize is to finish in, say, the top half of the field.

At the Sears Pointless race in March, the Henri Cuda took quite a while to get through the tech inspection and hit the track a bit late in the game. To be honest, it hit the track during the race’s final lap. Spank and his crew had high hopes for the Goin’ For Broken race.

Since it’s not possible to get any replacement parts for a Simca 1204, the Henri Cuda still had its 30-year-old ignition points, factory shocks, and everything else. In fact, other than the addition of a roll cage and a kill switch, the car was painfully, gloriously stock. That meant that the car was going to have a few reliability issues during the course of 24 straight hours of racing. Shift linkage problems and electrical woes required the services of the wrecker on occasion.

Eventually, the Race Director got tired of dropping full-course yellow flags in order to drag the Simca back to the paddock, and issued an ultimatum at about 2:30 AM: One more tow-requiring breakdown and that’s it. Spank and his crew decided to bench the car for a while, but eventually convinced the man in the tower to let the car back out.

It was by far the slowest thing on the track (its quickest lap of 3:44 was nearly a minute slower than the Killer Bees MGB’s best lap, so we’re talking serious slowness), but it also got the most respect from the crowd. Only 35 laps total; not enough for an Index of Effluency this time, but we can count on a strong IOE performance at the next race, now that most of the Henri Cuda’s bugs have been worked out. Well done, Team LeMopar SIMCAcuda!

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26 Comments on “When You Have More Balls Than Sense: Road Racing a Dead-Stock 1971 Simca 1204...”

  • avatar

    I drove a rental Simca wagon–probably an 1100 or a 1500–in 1971. It was not a bad car for the era, but I do remember the thing having a bit of trouble in first gear on a really steep climb in the Pyrenees.

  • avatar

    I think that they are babying it a little; it has to be faster than that.

  • avatar

    It’d be fantastic to take that thing as-is, show up at a classic car show with it, and park it smack in the midst of the firebreathing muscle cars and glittering chrome boulevard cruisers.

    I guess if they told you to get it out of sight, you could always offer to park it in the truck of a ’59 Chrysler Imperial.

  • avatar

    That’s insane.

    I love it.

  • avatar

    Thank you for putting this up, Murilee! This answered all of my questions about this car and then some! Henri CUDA! Hilarious!

  • avatar

    This is the true forefather of the modern FWD car. It has the transverse engine with transmission sitting next (inline with the crankshaft), the same layout as every transverse engined FWD car today, unlike the transmission-under-engine design of the original Mini.

    • 0 avatar

      It was also the car that saved Chrysler. It served as the template for what became the 1978 Omni/Horizon and the 1981 K Car. If Chrysler had not had the 1204 to start with, it would likely have been gone by 1981.

    • 0 avatar

      I shared this misonception for years, but it turns out that the Autobianchi Primula came before the Simca with a hatchback and transverse drivetrain.
      I won’t claim it was first, because I’ve been burned by saying the Simca was first. The Primula did come before the Simca though.

      • 0 avatar

        Yep CJinSD,

        According to Wikipedia and other sources, the Autobianchi Primula which was introduced in 1964-1966 time period, I forget the exact year had all these and it paved the way for the Fiat 128 which not only had the trans-axle alongside the motor, it also spawned the use of an OHC motor and McPherson struts up front for a modestly priced sedan for the masses to afford, and made its debut in 1969 and it also had disc front brakes and radial tires too right from the get go, a rarity in most cars at the time as well (Fiat used the Autobianchi as a test marquee for new features etc found later on Fiats, Alfa Romeos and Lancias).

        Sadly, the lack of reliability and rust did it in – and Fiat’s reputation back in the day.

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    Calling the Simca 1204 GLS a “genuinely terrible little car” completely misreads what this vehicle was. I had two 1969 versions, a hatchback and a wagon, that I drove in the mid to late 70s in North Dakota. It had by far the best handling, at the time, on North Dakota’s gravel and dirt roads (yes, there is a difference) and blasting through snow drifts endemic to the Northern Plains.

    The Simca was a marvel to someone accustomed to the skitterish performance of almost all cars on the road at the time. With a cross-wind it would track straight as an arrow, unlike my VW bus, which would jump two feet to the side when passed by a semi. It had so much room inside that I lived in it for a summer as I travelled around North Dakota as a photographer on the Dakota Photo Documentary Project. I gave a co-worker a ride once who was astounded at the legroom compared to his Camaro, and he was talking about the front seat! The back seat was no contest, since the Camaro had virtually none. The rear seatback folded down and I would sleep back there, saving on hotel bills.

    I averaged 38 mpg overall, and even with a 9 gallon tank, I was able one Sunday to drive 100 miles along the Missouri River, spending the day photographing, and then drive 250 miles home without running out of gas. Back then, North Dakota had a strict Sunday closing law and there were no gas stations open along my route.

    It was underpowered, but so what. It had way more oomph than my VW, and the only time I really wished I had more power was when I was stuck behind a coal truck on a winding, hilly Missouri road. Power is way overrated as an absolute need in America’s car culture. I’ve driven plenty of grain trucks that were much slower than my Simcas and was able to function just fine on the road.

    More so than the Mini or the Rabbit, the 1204 is the car that really brought transverse-engine front wheel drive to America. It formed the basis for the Omni/Horizon designs that sold in large numbers, in spite of getting no respect from the auto press, and which pushed American auto design into the front wheel drive camp. Front wheel drive is superior in so many respects over front engine rear wheel drive that the conversion was inevitable, but the little Simca led the way.

    I still have my three 1204s (one was a parts car) parked in the grove at the farm, near Kindred, North Dakota. All the other cars went to the crusher, but I couldn’t do that to my Simcas. I will gladly donate them to anybody who does Simca restoration.

  • avatar

    So this is the Simca that supposedly revolutionized the car industry world wide?

    • 0 avatar
      fred schumacher

      No, the Simca didn’t revolutionize the world car industry. That was done by Citroen with the Traction Avant and the 2CV and by Alec Issigonis with the Austin Mini. It did kick start the American design revolution. Out of it came the cars and minivans that made Chrysler profitable, until Daimler came along. Simca 1204 (called the 1100 in Europe) morphology is the standard for modern automotive design.

      When parts became hard to get, I parked my Simcas and bought the highly regarded Datsun 510 to replace them. The Datsun was a disaster. It was uncomfortable, whereas the Simcas were, like all French cars, very comfortable. After a 200 mile drive, I could barely walk — the seats were so bad. It had rear wheel drive with seriously bad axle tramp on washboarding, where the Simcas had none. The Simcas had a lot of suspension travel, which made driving on North Dakota’s unpaved roads a dream. (North Dakota has only 12,000 miles of paved roads.)

      The Datsun was the last rear wheel drive car I’ve owned, other than for trucks. I replaced the Datsun with a 1973 Saab 99 EMS, which had tons of power, although today it would be considered grossly underpowered, but only got 23 mpg, even with its Bosch electronic fuel injection. My wife liked the Saab the best, but I preferred the Simcas, until I bought my first Dodge Caravan, which I used instead of a pickup truck on the farm. I drove that descendent of the Simca 1204 to 300,000 miles, and I’ve had many more of its descendents since.

  • avatar

    I really enjoy these Deeper looks at individual LeMens autos And I hope you do more of them as well as provide a bit more detail on Black Flag event penalties; and also entrants that get hit with huge BS lap counts at Tech


  • avatar

    I had a used Simca 1204GLS about 1972 or so. It was a well-designed, but cheaply made car. On a trip from Washington DC to New York City, the tiny engine cried for mercy at 60 mph. I remember the noise as excruciating. On the other hand, in winter on Semperit 155-13 all-season tires, the grip was sure and the ride was very comfortable and the little car went everywhere, even when other cars were immobile. The five-door hatchback with its folding back seat was spacious and utile. Too bad that the 1204’s build quality was in line with its price. You got what you paid for. The 1204’s design was widely copied. So many modern five-door hatchbacks can trace their lineage or their’s designer’s inspiration to that French modelle.

  • avatar

    Y’all convinced me.

    Gonna’ write Santa and ask for one as a Xmas present.

  • avatar

    If Team LeMopar SIMCAcuda do have parts supply problems, they might want to take note of

    They were life savers when I had my Simca. They supplied what I needed to sort my shift linkage problems. Even sent me a brand new gearbox.

    You might want to dust off your fax machine for placing orders though as I didn’t find them very internet savvy.

  • avatar

    As CJinSD indicated, the Simca 1204 was NOT really the first FWD car with the trans-axle on end to the motor, Fiat superseded it with the Autiobianchi Primula in 1964 when it went into production and ran until 1970 when it went into production, however, it used an OHV motor initially and had disc brakes on all four corners and an independent suspension – and was the first car to use the then new rack and pinion steering. The Simca began in concept in 1962, but actual testing/development was in 1964 with a target production date of 1967 and it was produced until 1982 and yes, it DID pave the way for what would be the Omni/Horizon twins that began life in 1978 for Chrysler and later begat the K cars – all of which saved Chrysler back in the day.

    It paved the way for the then highly regarded Fiat 127/128 FWD models that made their debut in 1969 (128), 1970 (127) with the major differences between the two cars were in the motors used and the suspensions and bodies as both were FWD, trans-axle on end with unequal half shafts, the 128 used an OHC motor design (1.1 and 1.3L 4 cyl.) and McPherson strut front suspension, front disc brakes, radial tires and rack and pinion steering and came in a 4 door sedan, 2 door sedan, a 3 door wagon called the Familiare and added a sport coupe as well, whilst the 127 used slightly smaller OHV 4 cylinder motors, same trans-axle setup, bit different front suspension and came only as a 3 door hatchback and was a bit less than the 128 in price.

    So while both paved the way for the modern FWD small cars we drive today, the Autobianchi beat the Simca to production by 3 years.

  • avatar

    The car is/was straight out of 1987 showing 137k miles and lacking a brake master cylinder– According to windshield markings, it was considered abandoned and impounded (probably after a home foreclosure) and passed around to a couple different tow yards until it ended up in my hands for $500 after several failed attempts to sell it at auction. $800 in back registration fees I learned.

    Anyway, I’m looking to give ‘er ONE more shot to either win an award or blow the hell up trying. If anyone who is singing the praises of this particular make/model would like to share piloting duties (since apparently it’s such a wonderful and revolutionary platform) please contact me and I can make it happen if you’ve got your share of the expenses to run it for a weekend.

    • 0 avatar
      fred schumacher

      It seems like a terrible waste to destroy this car in a race, when it was never designed to be raced, and when there are so few of these groundbreaking cars left.

      The Mini, the Primula, and the 1100/1204 set the stage for the majority of cars we drive today. They were the forerunners in developing the design morphology which is the modern standard.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ll make you a deal: Sign on to drive this thing in the upcoming Thunderhill race in August (and I do mean “drive” because this thing certainly isn’t “racing” anyone but itself), and for $500 (the original purchase price for the derelict, non-running, rusted-firewall-and-floorpan, 5-flat-tire car) I will sell you the car. I’ve butchered nothing, the cage will cut out easily, and I still have all of the interior and original, as removed components. Nothing has been modified, and the few “improvements” I’ve made (repairing the firewall and floor, installing the cage and the kill switch, new brake and fuel lines, new master cylinders and clutch slave cylinder, new brake pads and rear wheel cylinders) are easily reversible.

        Pictures here:

        Trust me: It was either LeMons or the crusher for this one.

        I treat LeMons like the zoo or circus: Sure, the car is now living an unnatural life in captivity being asked to perform in ways in never would in its natural habitat, but it’s bringing awareness of the current plight and previous glory of these cars to the masses who, if they really gave a shit, would do something about it besides sit behind a keyboard and wag fingers.

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    to Spank

    I would love to join you in this race and gladly give you $500 for the car, but I’m a 62 year old grandfather who is taking care of his grandchildren full time, and this summer, I’ll also have to take care of my daughter-in-law who is having hip replacement surgery. I’m pretty well tied down.

    Actually, I’ve been trying for four years to get someone to cover for me for a few weeks so I can retrace John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley route and do the journey as a photo odyssey. This Simca would be the ideal car to do it in: good gas mileage combined with the ability to sleep in it with the back seats folded down. A cross-country drive in this car would make a great auto magazine story.

    Maybe my brother-in-law would be interested. He races his old Volvos in slaloms and he goes back to California twice a summer to volunteer at the Strawberry Music Festival near Yosemite Park. He’ll be there at the end of August and beginning of September. His son is a downhill bike racer and lives in Reno. He might be interested too.

    I am glad you rescued this car. If it had to be for a race, so be it. With no rust, I figured it had to be a California car. Here in Salt Belt Minnesota it’s hard to keep an old car from rotting out. But with only 37,000 miles on it, you really lucked out. None of my Simcas had such low mileage on them. Back in the day when you figured on doing an engine rebuild at 60,000 miles, I took my first Simca to 120,000. I have a soft spot for this car, that’s why I didn’t have the heart to send my three Simcas to the crusher, although I did that with 14 other cars as a birthday present for my wife’s 60th. I also saved an old Willys pickup with a Chevy V-8 in it. Now there’s a vehicle you could race at LeMons. But the Chevy was too much power for the original tranny.

  • avatar

    I just now happened upon this thread and felt compelled to add my $0.02. My first car was a 1969 Simca 1204 wagon, beige with black vinyl interior, and nothing but a heater. It was purchased in Racine, WI, in early summer, from a car dealer who allegedly took it in trade (with about 2500 miles on it) on a motorcycle, from the son of John Steinbeck.

    I promptly drove it down to Texas, where I was going into my sophomore year of college. On a good day, going downhill, with a tailwind, the speedometer would reach an indicated 80MPH. But, it was my first car, and the one on which I learned to drive a stick – unfortunately for the car, I’m sure.

    You could fold both front seats completely, so with the back seat flat, could stretch out quite comfortably. I was in the marching band at school and used the car to haul a boatload of instruments when the band tug broke down.

    After about three years, and only 48,000 miles or so, I had a hard time trying to get the clutch (inexperienced driver, I’m thinking) repaired. So I had to find other transportation.

    In the 40+ years since, I have never seen another of those on the road. But I do remember it fondly, in spite of its lack of amenities. It didn’t even have a radio. I bought a Wollensak (I think) cassette player that ran on batteries and carried it along for some entertainment.

  • avatar

    I just found a Simca 1204 in a garage that has been there for 25 years. A body with no dents or rust, needs paint. All glass is good, interior is good except for cracks in dashboard. Haven’t started yet on trying to start it, do know that the clutch cycliners are going to need work. Any suggestions out there from anyone?

  • avatar

    As the new owner of “le Mopar” I am quite proud of this, allegedly horrible, little monster. It has far more potential than anyone gives it credit, and I plan to surprise some people with it over the next few years. to those who have other Simca 1204/1100 or even 1000/1118 models here in the USA, please email me, because I have certainly fallen in love with this little car. having a daily driver, on top of spare parts for the racecar would be wonderful, so I don’t have to rush ordering emergency replacement parts from Europe. [email protected]

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