By on January 13, 2017

1974 Simca-Matra Bagheera, Image: Matra Sports

The French have always had a penchant for doing things a little differently. Take Matra, for example.

The Matra R530 is a medium range air-to-air missile normally fitted to the Dassault Mirage fighter jet.

The Matra M530, on the other hand, is a mid-engine sports car. Of course, that was no coincidence, as the first real Matra sports car was named after the missile built by the same company’s weapon division.

Yet the company’s abnormal conventions didn’t end at naming a mid-engine sports car after an infrared homing missile, making Matra one of the more interesting — albeit obscure — footnotes in French automotive history. The company went from producing front-line weaponry to winning the Formula One title in five years, won Le Mans three times on the trot, and produced some of the first minivans. Yet, at the height of their power, they hung up their automotive jacket and today they produce….bicycles?

Perhaps because they had few conventional restraints, Matra pioneered some very interesting designs and technology in the marketplace, bringing us curiosities and sounds we would be worse off without.

1965 Matra D'Jet 6, Image: Matra Sports

D’jet

Matra didn’t actually start out producing cars, but its production of car bodies for René Bonnet’s diminutive mid-engine, rear-drive coupe ultimately resulted in the takeover of the company. Jean-Luc Lagardère became the head of Matra Sports, and the Djet was their first “new” car. The Djet was the first production mid-rear car in the world, though the Italians would become better associated with it shortly thereafter.

Still, the engine layout wasn’t the only revolutionary thing about the Djet — it featured a fully independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, double coil-over shocks in back and sway bars on both ends. They were very pretty small coupes, with some elements that look quite Italian in origin, but the sideways-opening hood was a sure-fire sign this was a French creation. Under the hood lay engines from Renault that were steadily upgraded over the production run. In total, about 1,500 Djets were produced.

Highlights: The French version of the Opel GT (which was the German version of the Corvette), engine by Gordini.

1969 Matra M30SX, Image: Matra Sports

M530

The car named after a missile continued its path of innovation by bonding the fiberglass bodywork to the steel frame. The styling was typically French-funky, a strange combination of the Porsche 914, Volkswagen Karmann Ghia T34 and Lotus Elan that somehow works.

Power came from the Ford Taunus P4 in the form of their new V4 motor, compact and sitting directly behind the rear passengers — which left room for a somewhat conventional trunk. Like the D’jet, the M530 underwent several changes over its production run in an effort to make it more accessible to the public. Plans to keep costs affordable worked; 9,609 M530s were produced.


Highlights: You didn’t know Ford made a V4, did you? This is perhaps the only mid-rear 2+2 targa ever made.

1974 Simca-Matra Bagheera, Image: Matra Sports

Bagheera

The Bagheera was born out of a necessity to please Chrysler, Matra’s new partner (through Simca) in the 1970s. Innovations continued, though — while the mid-rear layout was retained and the V4 Ford was abandoned for a more pedestrian Simca inline-four, Matra’s desire to include more of your friends to come along on the ride resulted in an unusual three-abrest seating.

The shape was decidedly more modern than the ’60s-style D’jet and M530, with a profile that mimicked the Lotus Esprit and a few more models of the Wedge Era. Matra toyed with making a more powerful “U8” — essentially, two of the inline-fours running in parallel and connected by a single clutch, but plans never came to fruition. However, a more powerful 1.4-liter, 90 horsepower Bagheera S was launched in 1976. In total, some 47,796 Bagheeras were produced.

Highlights: The most successful car named after a character from a Rudyard Kipling book. Though probably more reliable than a same-vintage Lotus, they were unfortunately more prone to rust, too.

1979 Simca-Matra Rancho, Image: Matra Sports

Rancho

Buoyed by a series of increasingly popular and successful mid-engine, rear-drive sports cars, the natural progression was — of course — to build a offroad-inspired wagon.

The Rancho was essentially a Simca 1100 with some modifications, so there was no trick all-wheel drive setup like the AMC Eagle or Jensen FF. There was, however, the same propensity to rust as found in the Bagheera. Despite that, the Rancho was the most popular Matra model produced, with some 56,457 making to the market before immediately rusting to death.

Highlights: You’re welcome, Subaru, Volvo and Audi.

1983 Talbot-Matra Murena, Image: Matra Sports

Murena

The Bagheera’s basic design was further honed into the Murena. The major innovation was rust protection; the Murena was the first production car to have a galvanized chassis. The body was even more aerodynamic and angular, and the three-wide seating remained.

Power was increased over the production run; the original had a 1.6-liter inline-four nabbed from the Chrysler Alpine (European Car of the Year in 1976, don’t you know!) but was later upgraded to the 2.2 from the even less successful Talbot Tagora in the midst of the Peugeot takeover of Chrysler. A further upgraded “S” model with revised camshaft and 25 more horsepower was made in limited numbers.

A total of 10,680 Murenas were produced.

Highlights: Le MR-3

1984 Renault Espace, Image: Renault

Espace

Now well established in building semi-obscure mid-engine sports cars, Matra’s next logical step was to produce a minivan. The Espace came from the same designer as the Murena, Antonis Volnais. Originally labeled Project P18, the Espace had been pitched to PSA, but they rejected the design. However, Matra managed to get Renault to sign on to the project, and the Murena’s production line was closed, now replaced by Espace body molding and assembly.

The company’s expertise in plastic resin helped in no small measure here, and the Espace went on to become hugely successful. Matra produced all of the first three generations of Espace, through the 2002 model year, with a total production of 885,557 produced. They also made the one-off Espace F1 we looked at a few weeks ago.

Highlights: The world’s second production “minivan”?

2002 Renault Avantime, Image: Renault

Avantime

The Avantime was the swan song for the company, as Renault moved production of the newer steel-based Espaces to their own production facility. In its place, Matra made the auto show-pleasing but slow-selling Avantime.

Perhaps true to its name, the Avantime predicted the emergence of the sporty crossover market nearly a decade early. It was made available with the 3.0-liter 24V V6, good for 207 horsepower, and could be mated to a 6-speed manual transmission. Maybe it was a bit too far ahead of its time, though, as Matra produced only 8,552 over the short three-year production span before Renault canceled the project.

Highlights: If it’s good enough for Top Gear, it must be good enough for you?

1972 Matra M670s, Image: Matra Sport

Formula 1 and Le Mans Prototypes

Perhaps most stunning was Matra’s foray into the top echelons of motorsports. Heading the Formula 1 effort was Ken Tyrrell, who struck a deal to utilize Ford DFV power. He recruited Jackie Stewart to drive, and the combination proved quite successful, with Stewart winning the championship in 1969.

However, Matra — who had only to this point borrowed engines for all of its projects — decided to build its own 3.0-liter V12 to race. Of course, for a company known for making air-to-air missiles and plastic car bodies, competing at this level against establishment automakers like Ferrari sounds a bit like lunacy.

But the result was quite successful, creating one of the best-sounding V12s ever produced and some of the coolest exhaust arrangements ever seen. The engine would power a series of prototype sports-racers at Le Mans to victory in 1972, ’73 and ’74 with the M670, the crowing achievement of French motorsports.

The V12 also went on to be mildly successful with the Ligier team until regulations killed it off.

In 1974, Matra boss Jean-Luc Lagardère decided the company had quite simply won enough and withdrew from motorsports entirely. Matra still runs a classic museum with many of these winning cars, parading them around to classic events such as the Goodwood Festivals and in historic racing.

Highlights: Seeing Hearing one in person

[Source, images: Matra, Matra Sports]

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26 Comments on “Matra: The Unconventional and Unexpected French Superhero...”


  • avatar
    JimC2

    Wow! Really neat article. I love historic and obscure stuff like this.

  • avatar
    Corey Lewis

    I love the derpy Rancho, and would happily drive one around all the time.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Both obscure over here and groundbreaking. The Espace was radical for its time. Would love to learn more about the Avantime which trule seems ahead of its time. And is it just me or does the front end of the Bagheera looks somewhat like the Bricklin?

    Would greatly appreciate production dates to go along with sales/production numbers.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Thanks, Arthur. The Bagheera looks like a few cars, but I think it’s prettier than the Bricklin, personally. The Avantime was really a neat car-van!

      D’Jet – 62(Matra, 64)-68
      M530 – 67-73
      Bagheera – 73-80
      Rancho – 77-83
      Murena – 80-83
      Espace – 84-02
      Avantime – 01-03

      Thanks!

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        Carter, Thanks and thanks for writing one of the better columns on TTAC the past few months. It forced me to research these vehicles and came up with a video review of the Avantime that was posted on Jalopnik.

  • avatar
    spookiness

    I really like the Avantime.

  • avatar
    wristtwist

    Great read, thanks!

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    They were cool cars and good lord OMG did they sound amazing. The Italians may have made the V12 their definitive engine, but the French knew how to make just about the sweetest sounding one. It’s that much better knowing that it was a race winner. Matra still produces missiles though. their MICA is the frontline missile in the French Air Force, and they are a part of MBDA, who just introduced what is probably the most advanced and deadliest air to air missile, the Meteor.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Those V12s really are amazing. They capture a bit of the BRM H-16 sound but actually worked.

      Matra actually still produces cars (sort of – electric mobility carts) in conjunction with Chrysler – GEM is the company, but they’re a brand of Matra.

      Their bikes look pretty neat, too.

  • avatar
    NeilM

    Nothing sounds as good as a classic racing V12, and Matra’s F1 engine with its Trumpets of God exhaust system was as good as they come. I saw them race at Monaco sometime in the late 60’s and will never forget that glorious blare.

    Back in those days a teenager like me could get within touching distance of the race cars before the race, separated only by a theatre style velvet rope. Today, of course, Bernie’s bodyguards would have me body-slammed, trussed up and on a one-way trip to an undisclosed location.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Back in the day when F1 and the like were still held at Mosport Park we used to be able to tour gasoline alley and go into the infield grounds, due to a number of personal connections.

      Even got to meet Paul Newman, could not believe just how ‘tiny’ he was. Listed at 5’8″ but that I believe was stretching it by a couple and probably couldn’t have weighed much more than about 130lbs at the time.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    The Murena was sold in Canada for a little bit. I’ve seen two on the streets. It’s a good looking car in real life.

    You’ve got quite a typo in your opening sentence. The word your were looking for is penchant. Which would make sense because it’s a French word, so who else but the French would have one?

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @heavy handle,

      You’re right. However, in a few generations with no more pensions being offered from companies, the idea of a pension will be novel. At that point, I’ll be right and you can look back and say I was avant garde.

      See what I did there?

      Also, you’re right – the Murena (and the Bagheera, for that matter) are pretty slick looking units!
      Thanks for the catch!

  • avatar
    nguyenvuminh

    This is great stuff. Thank you.

  • avatar
    Carter Johnson

    @NeilM – very cool that you saw them originally. I was lucky enough to see a few at the Goodwood FoS in ’04 and ’06. They are awesome though they’re not running them as hard as they once did.

  • avatar
    OldManPants

    I’ll take the Espace in the photo and the lovely lady in the Espace in the photo! Dude can go stomp grapes or something.

    Somehow I missed this yesterday; I suspect the miasmic yellow hue of the lead photo triggered some kind of protective blindness as I scrolled.

    The first gen Espace is magnificent, so cab-forward it almost needs to be rear-engined. It’s as if the first gen Trooper donated its greenhouse to a minivan.

    And look at the piece of puke that today carries the name:

    c2.staticflickr.com/8/7100/13222444294_afa9f8462c_b.jpg

  • avatar
    hawox

    “the sound of the matra v12 was just spectacular, it just sounded like power” cit.

    i liked the 530, was light and nice to drive and aslo more spacious than it may look in pics. was also cheaper than the opel gt. the alpine a110 was much faster but very small and also twice the price.

    here in italy the fiat spyder and alfa coupe were similarly priced and more practical but not nearly as fun to drive.

    the baghera/murena sold quite well but was numb and slow compared to the 530 and djet. i remember the golf GTI was faster and more agile.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Late to the party, loved the article. I knew none of this. The Trumpets of God make very pretty harmonics.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    Interesting article. It would be helpful though if there were more dates attached regarding the production cars to help with contextualization.


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