Photo: Craigslist

Earlier this week I said I was looking for a sensible, reliable, no-bullshit daily driver that would give me time to work on my project cars. Someone suggested this $700 Simca 1204, and I’m seriously considering it because I’ve somehow managed to justify it as a good idea. Just hear me out.

Before you scoff at me for this one, let me just make my case here, because after speaking with my coworker Jason Torchinsky (a reliable fount of good ideas and life guidance) it became clear that me buying this Simca makes a lot more sense than I bet any of you realize. For one, it’s a sensible, front-wheel drive, hatchback four-cylinder economy car that probably gets triple the fuel economy of any of the old Jeeps I currently own. It’s basically a Honda Civic, if you think about it, and we can all agree that a Honda Civic is a smart purchase.

The seller writes in the ad that this particular car has been “sitting in [a] barn since 1991,” and while that may sound bad to you, I see this as a positive thing. It’s been well away from salty Michigan roads for the past 28 years! I talked with the owner over the phone, and he said the car ran well when he parked it after buying a new car, and the ad says that today the car starts right up with a bit of gas in poured down the carb.

I bet this 1204 has very few miles on it, and who knows, maybe I could slap some fluids in it, fill the fuel tank with a fresh helping of baguettes, replace any worn escargots in the suspension, and drive this thing for miles! Multiple miles!

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If you’re still not convinced, and telling yourself I’m doing “mental gymnastics,” read this 1971 review from an auto journalist named David Ash:

“1204 can bring nothing but praise...highly sophisticated set of specifications. Independent suspension by torsion bars at all four corners, front wheel disc brakes and radial ply tires are just part of a bill of fare that might be tempting to people who know about cars. Long orphaned here, the Simca 1204 is a genuine, solid machine.”

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Oh yes, he calls it a “genuine, solid machine”—what do I have to worry about? Who are we to doubt Ash’s wisdom?

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If that’s not enough to convince you to buy this French hatchback so I don’t have to, read Paul Niedermeyer’s writeup on the 1204 in Curbside Classic. In it, he writes about how important the car was historically, even if the Autobianchi Primula offered a similar layout a bit earlier:

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.

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He also writes about how Car & Driver ranked the 1204 second in a comparison test:

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.”

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Second place, folks! That’s almost first!

Photo: Craigslist

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Now, despite what you may now think, this Simca isn’t exactly perfect in every way. For one, 1204s were only offered in the U.S. between about 1969 and 1972, so finding parts could be a challenge. In fact, the cars are so rare that Niedermeyer wrote this in his article:

I don’t have any shots of the Simca 1204. (Update: I still don’t, two years later...) I haven’t seen one in over twenty-five years; have you?

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Another downside that he mentions is that the engine “developed a reputation for certain weaknesses in its upper regions.” And there are a few less-than positive accounts of the car’s reliability in the comments, as well.

“The reason you don’t see them now is rust; my floor boards fell out after 4 years and 60,000 miles,” one commenter named “roger harrison” wrote. Plus, in a different article on this very car (which has apparently been for sale since at least January of 2018) on Barnfinds.com, a few commenters talk about their less-than positive ownership experiences. Someone named Ed wrote:

Where do I start? The electrical system was absurd. The rear brakes froze in cold weather. At 40,000 miles, the engine had to come out, the rings were shot. The universals in every 1204 in America had to have the universals replaced, no boots, so the bearings in the universals rusted out. Finally, the body completely rusted out at about 45,000 miles. Sold it for $100.

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David Wick was especially displeased with the car’s drivetrain, writing:

I paid $2000 for a NEW Simca 1204 GLS 2 dr. wagon in 1969. The transmission bearings went at about 10,000 miles – had them replaced with Timkin bearings. The u-joints went at 18,000; Chrysler replaced them although the warranty had expired at 12,000 mi. Then they went again at 36,000 miles (consistent quality in evidence there)– the left one actually broke apart — and there were no replacement parts to be had. Calls to Chrysler were fruitless. I made car payments for about 10 months on a car that had to be towed to a junkyard.
Never bought another Chrysler product, never will.

Comfortable seats; good handling, sturdy little 1.2 liter four banger that was alas seriously underpowered. Shift linkage made of bubble gum and rubber bands, frequently impossible to get into reverse. Starter solenoid failed repeatedly, which I remedied by always parking facing downhill. If I couldn’t find a hill (the slightest downgrade sufficed for a rolling start) I wouldn’t park, I’d drive on. Would misfire and damp weather, and stall in wet weather. Yes, quite the gem of a little car.

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But there are also some positive accounts! One person in the Curbside Classic comments section said that he and his friend “pounded the hell out of [a 1204 4 door wagon] both on and off road and it took whatever we did to it without complaint.” Commenter percheno was also a fan, writing:

The Simca didn’t disappoint . . . it was gem, with great handling, comfort (those wonderful seats), and fuel economy, although not quite to the standard of my friend’s Fiat 850 Spider. With FWD, it was great in the snow, and it took me skiing nearly every weekend during the winter (but more about that in a moment). 

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See that bit in bold? It’s a great winter car, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for!

So basically, what we have here is a sensible, fuel efficient, front-drive, front-engine economy car that’s been stored safely away from the horror that is the salty Michigan highway system, that offers great winter handling, and that holds an important place in automotive history.

Sure, I have some concerns about parts, but Simca built over 2 million “1100" models on which the 1204 is based (according to Allpar). Granted, most were sold in Europe, but still: The parts are out there! Plus, the seller says this 1204 comes with “Maybe 1 or 2 extra engines and trans. Both rear quarters, heater box.” And, worst case, if I can’t find a part, I can just improvise a bit.

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So yes, an initial glance might have you thinking that this obscure French car isn’t the trusty winter daily driver I need right now, but for a number of smart and totally logical reasons, I’m convinced that it totally is.