The PSA Group, formed in 1976 when Peugeot bought out its competitor, Citroën, took over the former Chrysler Europe in 1979; one its first decisions was to rebrand all of the models manufactured in the French and British factories to Talbot. Among the models inherited from Chrysler was the Scottish-built rear-wheel drive Talbot Sunbeam, the only supermini in the lineup.
The Sunbeam was originally conceived by Chrysler as a stopgap model, developed to keep the Linwood works running—it was based on the running gear of the earlier Avenger made there—while helping the company to maintain a foothold in the growing supermini market. Aware that a more modern design was needed to compete with upcoming front-wheel drive rivals, Chrysler undertook some development work on a shortened version of the Chrysler Horizon (which had the development code C2), dubbed C2-short, but it was cut short by the company's financial problems and plans to divest Chrysler Europe.
PSA decided that the Linwood plant would be unprofitable to maintain and should be closed, which meant an end to both the Avenger and Sunbeam model lines, further emphasizing the need for a new supermini in the Talbot lineup. On the eve of the 1980s, PSA's supermini lineup consisted of models based on the veteran front-wheel drive 1972 Peugeot 104, which came in a shorter three-door and longer five-door version. Citroën rebadged the short-wheelbase 104 as the Citroën LN, and the long-wheelbase chassis formed the base of the five-door Citroën Visa.
In 1979, PSA decided that their new small Talbot would also be based on the 104 rather than the Horizon. Keeping the common underpinnings allowed the new model, known internally as project C15 (later renamed to T15 to reflect the brand change from Chrysler to Talbot) to be launched in 1981, in time to replace the Sunbeam when Linwood would close. In order not to create too much internal competition with the Horizon and Peugeot's planned 104 replacement (which later became the Peugeot 205), the shorter version of the 104 platform was chosen. This made the projected model slot in size slightly below popular superminis such as the Ford Fiesta, but above the smallest cars, including the about-to-be-launched Austin Metro.
As with previous Talbot and Chrysler Europe models, styling of the T15 was the responsibility of the British design centre in Whitley, Coventry. The stylists were limited by the need to retain the entire body structure of the 104, and allegedly were given Peugeot's own proposal of a 104 facelift as a starting point. The resulting design was quite different from and more modern-looking than its progenitor; only the bonnet and tailgate were shared, and the car was given a distinctive front end in Chrysler/Talbot "international" style.
Production of the new car started in October 1981, and it was officially launched as the Talbot Samba in December. Unlike the Horizon, 1510/Alpine or Solara, which were made simultaneously in France and England, the model was assembled only in Poissy. The engine lineup included three versions of the four cylinder PSA X engine, which the Samba shared with its Peugeot and Citroën siblings, coupled with three trim levels. The base LS came with the 954 cc XV, the GL with the 1124 cc XW and the top-of-the-line GLS' with the largest 1360 cc XY. The GL was rated as "Europe's most economical car" according to the official EEC fuel consumption figures, bettering the previously triumphant Renault 5, but later lost the title to the Austin Metro.
In an effort to make the vehicle stand out in the market against similar rivals, which included its own derivatives, Peugeot added a more glamorous two-door cabriolet to the standard three-door hatchback. Although announced at the hatchback's launch, the first models were not available until 1982. Designed and built by the Italian coachbuilder Pininfarina, who had been building open-top Peugeots since the 1960s, it came only with the 1360 cc engine; two engine versions were offered, 53 or 59 kilowatts (72 or 80 PS)—the latter was dropped after 1984. At the time of its launch it was the only cabrio supermini available from the manufacturer, although other models subsequently entered the market segment created by the Samba, including PSA's own Citroën Visa Decapotable. Pininfarina built 13,062 Samba cabriolets.
Following the rallying successes of the Simca 1000 and the Talbot Sunbeam, PSA launched the Samba Rallye. Fitted with the 1219 cc XW version of the X engine, delivering 66 kilowatt (90 PS), it came in either white or red, with a hood scoop and side stripes. In 1985, a version with the 1360 cc unit producing 59 kilowatt (80 PS) was launched, without the stripes. A special rallye-only Group B model, officially called the Peugeot Talbot Sport Samba Rallye preceded the later Peugeot 205 T16, with a 1285 cc, 96 kilowatt engine (130 PS).
In 1982, the Talbot Group was merged into Peugeot within PSA, and responsibility for the model was devolved to France. The Whitley design studio was dissolved, and some of the designers crossed over to British Leyland, where they joined their former boss Roy Axe. PSA had by then already started work on a replacement for the Samba, based on the Citroën AX, a few prototypes of which—essentially rebadged AXs—were created in 1983/84. The Samba sold reasonably well throughout 1982 and 1983, after which sales began to suffer, partly because of the model's aging and partly because of competition from the very popular Peugeot 205, which created powerful (and successful) internal competition within PSA for the little Talbot.
To sustain interest in the Samba towards the end of its life, PSA launched a few concept and special versions of the model. The Copacabana was a Samba-based concept car, featuring body elements painted in garish colors. It was followed by the 1984 Samba Sympa production model, targeted at "young buyers", which came in silver metallic paint, with a choice of yellow, red or blue highlights and either a radio or a sunroof. In 1985, the sunroof became standard and only yellow highlights were available. The Samba Bahia (marketed as the Samba Trio in the UK) was a 1985 model, also targeted at younger customers. It came with the 1.1 litre engine, denim-covered seats, and a sunroof, and was painted in metallic blue. The Samba Style model was launched with both radio and sunroof as standard, but not the colorful highlights, essentially to facilitate the sales of the last Samba series.
The Samba was not the only Talbot model to see customer interest waning; as the 1980s progressed, all Talbots began to sell rather poorly and the range was gradually phased out. Peugeot had been working on developing a replacement for the Samba as late as 1984, which would have been based on the forthcoming Citroën AX, but this project was abandoned as Peugeot took the decision to phase out the Talbot brand.
The Citroën AX was launched without a twin in 1987, and the only other Talbot in development, the Arizona family hatchback, was launched instead as the Peugeot 309 at the end of 1985. Production of the Samba ended in May 1986, by which time 270,555 had been made, signalling the beginning of the end of the Talbot brand for passenger cars, the death knell finally sounding the following year when the last Horizon rolled off the production line in Finland.
It was, however, retained until 1992 for the Talbot Express, one of the Sevel Sud vans.
Jeremy Clarkson video
In Jeremy Clarkson's 2009 DVD Duel, a 1984 Talbot Samba Cabriolet was destroyed via hurling it from a catapult into a wall, with a speed camera nearby showing that its speed was 164 mph (264 km/h) before it hit the wall and exploded.