Sometimes, the issue with these histories is knowing when to begin (usually, the end kind of writes itself). In the case of Matra, we’re not just talking about highly specialized cars that were almost always made in conjunction with another automaker, but also about a company that wandered into the automotive sector by purchasing an existing firm. It’s complicated – just like this edition’s other two posts. So let’s really wind the clock all the way back to 1938.
The story of Matra starts with DB, a completely different company founded by Charles D and René B above. DB’s first mission in life was to make racing cars. Bonnet was the brawn, who managed the company and the racing team on a day-to-day basis, usually piloting the cars himself. Deutsch was the brain: he designed the cars, paying particular attention to aerodynamics, but only in his spare time. Trained as an engineer, his day job was as a civil servant for the Ponts et chaussées, the State entity for road and bridge construction.
Charles Deutsch inherited his father’s small coachbuilding shop and Citroën dealership, but being only 18, had to also focus on his engineering degree. He enlisted Bonnet’s help in 1932. Both men were drawn towards the racetrack, leading to the creation of their first effort, the DB 1 above, in 1938. The initial DBs used Citroën Traction Avant engines and were, from the very beginning, front-wheel drive.
After the War, the Deutsch-Bonnet racers returned, now featuring a more “tank-like” look and a Y-shaped backbone chassis. But Citroën reversed their hitherto generous engine supply policy, so the fledgling DB concern switched allegiance (and displacement class) to the 610cc Panhard flat-twin in 1949, initially de-bored to 500cc to fit into a new Racer 500 class. It was an inspired choice.
Soon, larger DB prototypes started to make a name for themselves on the ‘50s European racing scene, in friendly competition with Panhard themselves, as well as other teams (Monomill, Monopole, Plantivaux, Riffard and countless privateers) using the Panhard flat-twin. Little blue DBs were winning Le Mans’ performance index on a regular basis and routinely came first in their class at various rallies and endurance races across the world.
Almost inevitably, DB started to investigate the possibility of selling road cars. The first civilian DBs were sold in 1951, with a convertible body designed and built by coachbuilder Antem. About 20 of these little 750cc cars were made before DB switched to an all-alloy closed body in 1952.
A few DB coupés got a nose job, courtesy of Pietro Frua, in 1953. They sure didn’t look any worse for it. But these were still all-metal, when the future lay in GRP, a far more cost-effective method of producing lightweight bodies.
At the October 1954 Paris Motor Show, DB introduced the HBR 5, developed in collaboration with body-maker Chausson’s new plastics department. Few cars had hidden headlamps in the mid-‘50s, but this was no gratuitous addition. The DB was a truly aerodynamic machine – it needed those lights to fold away.
The car’s souped-up 850cc twin could be ordered with a supercharger, making it capable of reaching 150 kph. Initially, DB planned to build about 100 units, but the sold so well that they ended up making over five times that amount. Not a few of these ended up in the US, where many were raced regularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
HBR 5 production finally came to a close in 1959. A new car, the DB Le Mans convertible, was launched to replace it. But there was trouble brewing between Monsieur D and Monsieur B.
Citroën had become a majority shareholder of Panhard and made clear that the flat-twin was not going to undergo any further development. Charles Deutsch felt loyal to Panhard, but René Bonnet wanted to move on from the DB formula. The two men, who were very different in character, no longer saw eye to eye. In late 1961, the partnership was dissolved.
René Bonnet secretly contacted Marcel Chassagny, one of DB’s shareholders. Chassagny was the founder and CEO of the Mécanique Aviation Traction (Matra) company, founded in 1941. He was also a majority shareholder in the Générale d’application des plastiques (GAP), specialized in GRP construction, based in a former textile works in the town of Romorantin, about 200 km south of Paris. Bonnet set up shop in the GAP works, manufacturing the final Panhard-engined DBs there in 1962. For his part, Charles Deutsch continued designing FWD berlinettes for Panhard, including the civilian CD coupé. After Panhard retired from racing (and soon car production altogether) in 1964, he worked with Peugeot.
To keep a level of continuity, Bonnet initially continued making the DB Le Mans Grand Luxe virtually unchanged, with the notable exception of the Renault 4-cyl. engines and “René Bonnet” badges. The lower-spec DB Missile was continued, but traded its chassis for a modified Renault 4 platform. Alas, the R4’s 750cc did not have the potency of the Panhard flat-twin…
But Bonnet wanted to try something really new, something that would showcase his namesake company’s ambition. This entailed a complete change in design philosophy, hitherto impossible due to Deutsch and Panhard’s influence: a mid-engined sports car.
The Djet, seen on the raceteack since the summer of 1962, was the product of Bonnet’s thinking and Renault-Gordini’s muscle – even extending to a special hemi-head version of the 1-litre Renault mill. The mid-engined two-seater was blindingly fast for the times and, compared to the Alpine that positioned the same engine aft of the rear wheels, far more stable at high speeds and in corners.
But the Djet was as expensive as it was exclusive. Let’s look at a few of its contemporary domestic and European rivals. The Bonnet’s real competitors (Panhard, Alpine, most British sports cars) were priced well below it or way above (Lotus, Abarth-Simca, ASA), leaving the top-of-the-range Djet stranded, in terms of price, among the Facels, Porsches and Lancias.
You may question the Peugeot’s inclusion, but these deluxe PininFarina-bodied fuel-injected versions were seen as genuinely sporting – it’s the only “Big Trois” fielding anything remotely like a GT, as well. It would have taken a lot of passion for the Bonnet’s cutting-edge engineering to forego a cheaper and much lovelier Alfa Giulia 1600, or the newly re-engined Facel. Just to provide even more context, you could buy a Corvair Monza, a Mercedes-Benz 220, a Rover 110 or a Studebaker Lark with a V8 for less than that Djet. This is far from an exhaustive list, but the point is: The René Bonnet cars were not as well built as some of their competitors and very small. Either too expensive, or not big enough. This is the same quandary that befell ASA around this time.
Bonnet’s fortunes on the racetrack were also mixed. The Djet’s initial tryout at the 1962 Le Mans race was barely decent, but the CD-Panhard won the performance index. Bonnet won the next year, but none of the five sleek AeroDjets entered in 1964 finished the race – neither did the new CD-Panhards, come to that. This could not continue forever: Panhard pulled out of Le Mans prototype racing and Bonnet found himself in deep financial difficulties. Unlike Panhard, which had helped DB quite a bit back in the day, Renault refused to provide anything but engines. Their home team was always Alpine.
There was no option for Bonnet: in the closing weeks of 1964, he sold his shares to Matra. The timing was perfect for Chassigny: he was looking for a way to raise Matra’s profile and diversify its activity. Up to then, the firm was chiefly known for its military products, especially guided missiles, rocket launchers and aerospace technologies. The new automobile branch, initially called Matra-Bonnet, would be led by one of Chassigny’s dynamic young protégés, Jean-Luc Lagardère.
Djet production continued unabated, but Matra’s considerable technical and financial means were immediately harnessed into a new car. By this time, Matra had ejected René, dropped the hyphenated Bonnet and became known as Matra Sports.
The Matra M530 was presented in March 1967. Like the Djet, it was a mid-engined GRP-bodied coupé, but there were few other commonalities. Named after one of Matra’s most successful air-to-air missiles, The M530 was an attempt at something more user-friendly than the uncompromising Djet. It was designed by Philippe Guédon, who had been headhunted from Simca. The 2+2 cabin was a tight fit, but at least the roof panel could be taken off (and stored in the front trunk) for extra breathing room.
There was no way to fit the Renault engine in the tiny compartment behind the rear seats, so Matra looked around for the most compact 4-cyl. they could possibly find, which turned out to be the German Ford Taunus 17M’s V4. It wasn’t a terribly efficient or powerful plant (84 hp SAE/gross), but the car was very light.
It was a relative failure: Lagardère planned on making 25 cars per day, but only managed to sell five. One issue was distribution, but also the car’s initial marketing, aimed at 20-year olds, was a bit misplaced. Very few young people could afford a Matra, it turned out…
DB had relied on Panhard, but Bonnet had no real dealer network. For Matra to really thrive, it would be necessary to piggy-back on one of the four major French carmakers. Fortunately, Matra Sports put a lot of effort into competition (F2, F1, Le Mans, etc.) at a time when French participation had all but dried up. The aura of the racetrack was working: racing in a Ford-Cosworth-powered blue cigar for Tyrrell’s Matra International team, Jackie Stewart won three grand-prix in 1968. In 1969, he won six out of eleven races, earning him his first F1 world championship title – and Matra’s only F1 constructor’s title.
Thanks in no small part to this feat of sportsmanship, a deal was struck with Simca (or Chrysler France, as they became known officially) in December 1969 for the distribution of the M530. Naturally, the Ford-powered Matra was on borrowed time; work immediately began on a new model built around Simca engines.
Thus the Matra-Simca Bagheera was born in early 1973. The mid-engined principle was kept, but Guédon realized that four seats were probably not needed – especially the two cramped ones in the back. Instead, he opted to make the car a little wider to make it three-abreast.
Initially, the Bagheera made do with the Simca 1100 Ti’s 1.3 litre 84 hp pushrod four, which enabled it to reach 180 kph. Not supercar category, but that’s not what Simca and Matra were aiming at anyway. This was, however, the perfect car to launch during an Oil Shock. The Bagheera sold better than any Matra before it.
The Bagheera S became available in 1975, with the Simca 1308 GT’s 1442cc (90 hp) also found on the trendy all-white, all-options Courrèges version. Matra did toy with a “U8” engine, consisting in two 1.3s side by side, but the spike in fuel prices and the introduction of speed limits on French highways killed the idea.
All the while, Matra-Simca’s outstanding Le Mans performance (three consecutive wins in 1972, 1973 and 1974) proved that the tenacity of Jean-Luc Lagardère was really paying off. He had initiated the creation of the Matra V12 engine, which had not been successful in Formula 1 cars (the 1969 title cars used Ford-Cosworth V8s), but found its laurels in endurance.
Having made their point, Matra quit competitive racing under their own name in 1974, but provided engines to Ligier. Lagardère took control of the whole of Matra by 1977. The group grew even more, buying out companies such as Jaeger (gauges), Jaz (clocks), Solex (carburators), sprouting a telecoms branch and a light rail branch, making JVs in semiconductors and machine-tools, and buying out Europe 1 and Hachette, respectively one of France’s main radio stations and print publishers.
The automobile branch was doing fine: the Bagheera was a hit and Matra created a revolutionary new concept in the Matra-Simca Rancho – perhaps the first CUV. Introduced in early 1977, the Rancho was definitely a step in a new direction for Matra: their first family-oriented vehicle. But it was also a bit cobbled-together on the cheap. The ten-year-old Simca 1100 base was clearly visible and although it did have the Simca 1.4 litre engine the no other 1100 ever possessed, it also cost a bundle (FF 36,000 compared to the most deluxe 1100’s FF 27,500 for MY 1978). Still, with the later addition of a base low-tax utility version, they sold well enough – and must have been pretty profitable.
But then, the Peugeot buy-out happened. Matra-Simcas turned into Talbot-Matras for 1980. That didn’t matter much at all to Matra, from a sales perspective, but it did put them in a strange situation. Now bedfellows with a Peugeot-Citroën corporation that did not know what to make of them, relations soon soured between Romorantin and Sochaux. The Bagheera was long programmed for replacement, so that went ahead regardless: the Talbot-Matra Murena was launched in October 1980. Now featuring a Simca/Talbot 1.6 or 2.2 litre 4-cyl., the Murena was nothing more than a reskin of the Bagheera. It was faster and even more aerodynamic, but also somewhat déjà-vu.
The Rancho continued to be made alongside the Murena, but Matra were having trouble selling their newest one-box minivan concept to Peugeot, who had their hands full trying to turn Talbot from a disaster into an even bigger disaster. Peugeot’s only priority in the early ‘80s were the 205 and the Citroën BX – anything from Matra had to be shelved. But there was nothing to stop Matra taking the concept elsewhere, which at this point could only mean Renault. Peugeot passed on the minivan and Talbot-Matra production stopped at the end of 1983.
There were many political issues to add to the mix. The election of Mitterrand in 1981 ushered in a very different crowd with new policies and Lagardère had to adapt to these changing conditions. Matra’s military branch was nationalized and some of the other ones were sold off – but the media side kept growing (they even owned Car and Driver and Road & Track from 1988 to 2011), culminating in the (disastrous) purchase of a French TV channel. Increasingly, the Matra name retreated in favour of its CEO’s, and by the mid-‘80s, the conglomerate was usually referred to as the Groupe Lagardère or Hachette-Lagardère, reflecting the importance of the media side compared to the rest.
There was still a factory to keep busy over in Romorantin. The Renault Espace was born in 1984, but production was only ramping up. On the one hand, it was a masterstroke, keeping Romorantin’s assembly lines busy for the foreseeable future. On the other, it did mean that the name Matra disappeared. Only the cognoscenti knew that the Renault Espace was a Matra in all but name. But it was a minivan, not quite in line with previous Matra vehicles. All the sporting cred built up on the name since the ‘60s evaporated in short order…
Matra kept dabbling in innovative concepts – they became one of the first electric bike makers in France, for instance – but as far as Renault were concerned, they were a subcontractor. Three generations of Espaces were built by Matra, by far the most volume they ever produced. Then came generation four, in 2002, Renault transferred production to their Sandouville plant. Matra were left with but one vehicle a two-door hardtop version, part Espace, part Vel Satis coupé. The Renault Avantime “coupéspace,” born in 2001, was a terrible flop.
Like some movies that enjoy cult status in later years, the Avantime is now regarded by some as a worthy effort. It was certainly unique. But did it fill a purpose or create a niche, like the Rancho and the Espace had done before it? Not really. It was an answer to a question nobody asked. Less than 9000 were made before Matra decided to pull the plug and exit the automobile industry for good in 2003. Coincidentally, Jean-Luc Lagardère suddenly passed away that very year.
The case of Matra is quite a singular one. The marque came out of nowhere, bought the smallest independent carmaker they could find, turned it around, teamed up with a major without being swallowed by them, shone brightly for a couple of decades, became a volume producer only after they had had their glory days and closed shop just as soon as they made a mistake. Was the Avantime a Deadly Sin? Yes, a thousand times yes. But it also wasn’t called Matra.
So that’s it for the Simca-Talbot-Matra multi-marque cluster-crash. Hope some of you enjoyed this patchwork of ridiculously complex automotive bric-a-brac, with many interesting domestic and international main and supporting roles.
See you across the Channel for the next edition!
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European Deadly Sins series