Factory visit: Peugeot-Talbot

The Lion in Ryton

The car from Sochaux has come a long way in the affections of British buyers since the 1920s, when advertisers thought it desirable to include in their announcements the words: “You pronounce it PUR-JO”. Now the respected French make is being produced in Coventry, Britain’s once-proud Motor City, at Ryton.

I remember what an impressive car in its day was the Peugeot 201, with its slim build, ingenious overhead valve-gear and effective brakes. I went to see Peugeots being made at Sochaux, near Belfort, in 1959, in the days of the 203 and 403 when French cars had a character, and an aroma, all their own.

The factory employed many women operatives, as it still does, much of the machinery was driven by overhead-belting, and new cutting machines had just been installed for making the worm-drive of the back axles. A bronze worm wheel was then a feature of these individualistic Peugeots, although no-one seemed to know quite what were the advantages of this form of final-drive!

Ironically, our visit to the Sochaux plant 28 years ago was made in a Sunbeam Rapier saloon, then a model in the Rootes repertoire, flown across the Channel in a Bristol Freighter belonging to the now long-defunct Silver City Airways.

Since then many changes have occurred. In 1977 Peugeot took over Chrysler’s European operation, which had taken over the Rootes Group business in 1974, which explains why you now find Peugeots at Ryton, where “Rootesmobiles” were made from the mid-1930s. Production of the Simca make, under the Talbot name, also continued at Ryton for some time.

Driving to Ryton brought back a few memories. I used to know the factory quite well, having seen Sunbeam-Talbots and Talbot Solaras and others made there, of which I thought the 1981 Talbot Tagora a rather nice 2.1-litre car.

I remember, when my wife was running it, how the STD Register was generously entertained at Ryton, the great Louis Coatalen sending Albert Divo over from France as his representative. Puzzled he may have been in those embryonic days of historic car gatherings, but the equally great Albert at least saw some cars of the sort he used to race . . .

The old Ryton plant was seen as ideal for manufacture of the Peugeot 309, and Peugeot-Talbot invested £3 million in it. This is administered by the chairman Jean Boillot (a famous name, but no racing connection, I believe!) and Geoffrey Whalen, the British managing director.

At present only the 309, in three and five-door variants, is being made at Ryton, to a capacity production of 1250 per week, but a Montego-sized saloon will soon follow. A start was made in November 1985, and viewing the plant today one is impressed by the vast unobstructed floor-space under one roof, and by the fact that a test track has been constructed behind the factory on Peugeot-Talbot land. Interestingly, it is the old Chrysler test track at Bruntingthorpe which Motor Sport now uses for performance testing.

Construction takes place mainly on floor-level chain-conveyors, but the bodies are elevated for the painting processes. Consider able use is made of computers for checking accuracy of assembly during and after construction. Most welding is carried out manually. Assembly lines wind back and forth, the sequence of build at Ryton being multi-welding of the understructure and bulk multi-welding of both body sides and roof, windscreen area, this being a two-stage manual spot-weld line.

Completed body shells then progress for the fitting of front wings, bonnet, and so on, at the metal finish-line. Inspection takes place at various stages, and it is interesting that Peugeot-Talbot employs separate “quality auditors” for this purpose. Here, computers discover fit-faults and the like before the body leaves the line.

Body panels come from the plants at Poissy and Valenciennes but 66% of British components are used, such as Hills Precision body trim and parts, Goodyear tyres, Dunlop wheels made specially for Peugeot, and Lucas/Rists electrics. The 309 floor-pan is moved automatically to a storage bank before it goes to the body assembly buck. Side panels are attached by small tabs to the floor pan, to ensure accurate automatic welding.

The preparation of body shells for painting follows accepted practice, with the proviso that the standard must meet the six-year rust warranty. Computer-controlled sprays apply primer, oven baked at 177°C for 15 min, and the final coat is baked for a further 17 min at 127°C, using Estabell rotary sprayers. Metallic colour receives a clear varnish finish, and wax is pressure-injected into chassis box sections. The factory was completely re-equipped before Peugeot production started; many of the tools are of P-T’s own construction, others coming from Renault.

After painting, body details such as electric harness, trim, headlining and glass are fitted, and along the line a water test is carried out by immersing the bodies in a reservoir.

The test track outside the factory incorporates pave, undulations, corners and a longish straight, while brakes can be tested in a covered area to contain noise. Here headlamps are set, using big mirrors above the cars, and other electrics are tested for defects. The aforementioned “quality auditors” do special extra checks on a number of cars every day, and about one in eight 309s go on a 25-mile road test. The electrics, which can give much trouble even on modern cars, are checked on a “Conley” machine.

Quality at Ryton is regarded as matching the best in Europe, and the 2000 operatives seem proud of the cars they produce. It is good to remember that the Peugeot family still owns more than half the company’s shares, and the success of the 205GTi is a notable achievement in a long line of very desirable, durable cars of distinctive character.

Some engines are built in the former Humber factory at Stoke, and it is here that the spares service is linked to the main dealers by a department adjacent to the computer centre, from which spares can normally be turned around within 24 hours. Peugeot-Talbot uses computers for tracking cars throughout the build processes, for quality checks, and at Tile Hill for linking the main dealerships with the spares supplies. The UK plants currently contain five mini-computers, 25 micro-computers and more than 100 terminals.

It was fun to be back at the Ryton plant, and even more fun to drive away from Stoke and down Humber Road in a Peugeot 309 SR Injection, which has the same 1.6-litre engine as the enchanting 205 GTi. Both are lively little cars, which uphold the great Peugeot tradition. It is significant that, in Britain, 20% of 205 sales are of the GTi, but in Europe only some 13% to 14%. Rally successes may well contribute to this situation.

Export cars, as well as those for Peugeots, 500 British dealers, go out from Ryton, so there is a trace of Simca still in the smaller power units built at Stoke. WB