A Tale of Resilience and Evolution: Talbot Cars

Founded as Clément-Talbot, the company was the ambitious brainchild of two visionary entrepreneurs, Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, and French car maker Adolphe Clément-Bayard. Yet the history of Talbot cars is one of tenacity and adaptability, combined with complexity and eventual obscurity.

Automotive History
14 December 2023

In the annals of automotive history, few stories resonate with as much determination and versatility as that of Talbot cars. The collaboration between Charles Chetwynd-Talbot and Adolphe Clément-Bayard marked the inception of a brand that would become known for innovation and resilience.

The beginning of Talbot cars’ history was marked by an ambitious foray into the burgeoning world of automobiles, building vehicles that combined elegance with engineering prowess. It set the stage for a complex and convoluted legacy that would go on to become synonymous with different owners in different countries, excellence on the track, hiatuses, dormancy and a final flourish in the 1980s, before finally sinking into eventual obscurity.

This is the history of Talbot cars.

The Birth of Talbot Cars

Charles Chetwyn-Talbot, 20th Earl of Shrewsbury (Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector via Getty Images)

In 1903, Major Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, 20th Earl of Shrewsbury, and French entrepreneur Adolphe Clément-Bayard, a passenger in the car that won the world’s first competitive motor race in 1894, joined forces as Clément-Talbot.

The company started importing French car parts and assembling them in a factory in the west London suburb of Ladbroke Grove. Within a year, Clément-Talbot cars became simply Talbot cars.

The first line-up of these French-designed cars consisted of smaller twin-cylinder models, all the way up to the 6.3-litre 35/50, but the first of the all-British Talbot motor cars was the 3.8-litre, C.R. Garrard-designed 20/24. This car, and the follow-up 2.8-litre 12/16, were early stars of the competitive speed trials and hillclimb circuit and were popular as far away as Australia, where the company had established a lucrative export market.

The next few years were the halcyon days in the history of Talbot cars.

The Golden Years

Percy Lambert in Talbot Special 25hp (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Up to the start of World War I, Talbot cars were some of the most famous in the world.

The 1906 Olympia Show saw the debut of the three-litre 15HP, featuring dual high-tension ignition. A year later, the marque registered an astonishing 109 victories in various speed trials and hill climb events around the world, including a ‘world record for efficiency’ at the Caerphilly event in Wales. In February 1913, a Talbot driven by Percy Lambert became the first car in history to cover 100 miles in 60 minutes (in fact the total distance was 103.76 miles).

The brand was so successful it earned the moniker ‘The Invincible Talbot.’

During World War I, Talbot, like many other car makers of the time, shifted its focus from civilian vehicle production to support the war effort. Talbot were exceptionally busy, making military vehicles and staff cars, ambulances, and shells and munitions.

After the war, Talbot returned to civilian car production, incorporating many of the technological advancements and lessons learned during the conflict. However Talbot cars’ history was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. A turn from which it would never properly recover.

Darracq and Ruin

Vintage Sunbeams cars with a 1959 model (Credit: Coventry Telegraph Archive/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

In December 1919, Talbot was bought by French company Darracq, who had also bought another British manufacturer named Sunbeam. The new company was called Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq (STD) Motors Ltd. This acquisition was part of a larger trend of consolidation in the motor industry during the interwar period.

Two of the standout Talbot motor cars produced under Darracq’s ownership were the 60hp, 4.5-litre V8 Talbot-Darracq, and the three-litre, 100hp Talbot 105, an incredibly successful road and race car, finishing third to the vastly more powerful Bentley Speed 6 at Brooklands in 1931.

But by 1935, unable to service debt repayments, Darracq sold Talbot, and, six months later, Sunbeam, to the Rootes Group.

From Pillar to Post

Sunbeam Talbot 'Ten' 1939 (Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector via Getty Images)

The first Talbot cars under Rootes brothers ownership were poorly reversioned Hillmans, and in 1938, to spare the Talbot name any further embarrassment, what was known as Clément-Talbot became known as Sunbeam-Talbot.

In 1954, the Talbot name was dropped completely and it looked like the history of Talbot was at an end. In the late 1960s, Chrysler took control of the Rootes Group and the Talbot name lay dormant. That is until 1979, when Chrysler Europe was acquired by the French PSA Group (Peugeot Société Anonyme) for the nominal sum of $1. All previous Chrysler models registered in the UK after August 1st 1979 became known as Talbots.

There was a brief resurgence in the storied history of Talbot cars with the release of the Alpine, the Solara and the Horizon. In 1979, the combined sales of Chrysler and Talbot models – around 120,000 – was only bettered in the UK by Ford and British Leyland.

However, by 1985, Peugeot were predominantly focused on their own cars and it became clear that there was no long-term future for the Talbot brand. The last cars bearing the Talbot name were produced in Finland and Spain until mid-1987. The Talbot cars’ history was finally at an end.

In an ironic twist to the Talbot story, PSA merged with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in 2021 to create – at the time – the fourth-largest carmaker by sales in the world, behind Toyoya, VW and Hyundai. It brought Talbot, by now a dormant brand, back under the same owners as Chrysler, over four decades after the American giant sold Talbot for $1.

Track Stars

3-litre V12 Talbot-Ligier, 1981 (Credit: Don Morley via Getty Images)

While the road-going history of Talbot was somewhat convoluted, the company enjoyed an array of success on the track. The 1950 Formula One British Grand Prix saw Talbot cars finish fourth and fifth driven by Yves Giraud-Cabantous and Louis Rosier respectively, and the Talbot-Ligier team, in a car driven by Jacques Laffite, came fourth in both the 1981 drivers’ and constructors’ world championship, with two victories in Austria and Canada.

There was more success in the World Rally Championship, with stage victories in 1980. Furthermore, thanks to consistent podium finishes and victory in Rally Argentina, Talbot took the manufacturer’s crown in the 1981 season.

Group B regulations and absolute dominance from the legendary Audi Quattro saw Talbot pull out of WRC for a couple of years. Yet in 1984, motor-racing royalty Jean Todt’s Peugeot Talbot Sport team debuted. It won the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in 1984 driven by Timo Salonen, and again the following year with Juha Kankkunen at the wheel.

Talbot Cars: From Dawn to Dusk

The Talbot emblem. (Credit: François Pugnet/Sygma via Getty Images)

The history of Talbot cars is a compelling saga of resilience and evolution, marked by a series of remarkable transformations and enduring legacies.

From its inception in the early twentieth century to its final days in the automotive arena, Talbot navigated through tumultuous periods, including world wars, economic crises, and a complicated labyrinth of corporate changes.

Despite these challenges, the marque consistently demonstrated an unwavering commitment to innovation, and performance, and while the name may no longer be visible on our roads, its influence keeps the brand alive.


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