A single marque car show may not be as interesting as a multiple marque show–the reduction in variety means there is a reduced opportunity to compare and contrast. How does the Ford compare with the Vauxhall and the Hillman? What was the German style? How did the French do it?
However, when that marque has an international heritage and is linked to one of the British industry’s various groupings, the options open up again, as they did at the Simca-Matra-Talbot International Rally in Beaulieu in southern England on 11-13 July.
The relationship between the marques is actually straightforward. Matra built some sports cars from the early 1960s and later models had Simca engines and were sold through the Simca network, and badged as Matra-Simca, and later Talbot-Matra. Talbot was the name adopted by Peugeot for products inherited from Chrysler Europe, from 1979, after Peugeot purchased all of Chrysler’s European operations, including Simca. So essentially, it’s a rally for Simcas, Talbots and cars sold by Simca network but badged differently to reflect their origins or the parent company’s marketing strategy. Let’s take a quick tour through some of the highlights, or at least my selection of them, starting today with cars built by Matra for Simca, Peugeot and themselves.
It was billed as an international rally, and more than lived up to that billing. There were cars from the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Austria and the Czech Republic. That is a quite amazing selection for what in the most part are relatively ordinary cars.
The starting point has to be the Matra Djet–this is a 1964 example. The Djet was built by Matra, the French aerospace company, to a design of Rene Bonnet, and was originally marketed as the Rene Bonnet Djet. The Bonnet company ran into financial difficulty in 1964, and Matra bought the company, renaming the car the Matra Djet. Production continued to 1967.
The car itself was powered by an 1108 cc Renault engine, more commonly seen in the Renault 8, in a mid-mounted position and built around a steel chassis and composite body. Suspension was by wishbones all round, and all-round disc brakes.
In 1967, Matra replaced the Djet with the Matra 530 (left). In many ways this was very similar, but the engine now came from Ford (a 1.7 litre, 70-bhp V4 from the front wheel drive German Ford Taunus) and offered 2+2 seating. The car had a targa roof with removable panels and an acrylic rear window, which had to be removed for access to the engine. This example is mocked up to recreate the cars seen in the promotional caravanne for the Tour de France in 1970. To place this in car a bit more context, it was very close in concept to, though less powerful than, a contemporary Lotus Europa, and significantly more expensive than an MGB.
And although there are many cars named after aircraft (Mustang, Concorde, Comet and Spitfire for example) this is the only one I know that is explicitly named after a guided missile.
In 1973, Matra formally teamed up with Simca, by then Chrysler’s French outpost, to produce the Bagheera. This was again a mid-engine car, but this time it used Simca engines and gearboxes, and was sold as the Matra-Simca Bagheera through the Simca network to get the volume.
The car had the 1.3 litre engine from the Simca 1100, turned 180 degrees and mounted behind the three seats (all in one row) under a glass hatch, with a small boot in the front. The car was built with a composite body on a steel backbone chassis, and sold over 47,00 in seven years, a significant increase on the Djet and M350.
The Bagheera achieved enough success to be not only exported to the UK in left-hand drive configuration but also for its replacement, the 1980 Matra Murena (which was built on the same structure but, crucially, with the steel elements galvanised), to be built in right-hand-drive.
The engines for the Murena were the 1.6 litre from the Chrysler/Talbot Alpine and the 2.2 litre 4 cylinder from the Talbot Tagora. These are cars that need a full CC.
Matra had one other collaboration with Simca in the 1970s, which was also recently featured on CC. The Matra-Simca Rancho was based on the Simca 1100 hatchback, or more accurately, on the light commercial version, and the body, aft of the B-pillar was replaced with a larger capacity composite shell, with very clear SUV overtones, including a Range Rover style split tailgate. The SUV wasn’t really present in 1977 (at least in Europe) but this car could be seen as the first running example of the what has become a dominant market. Vehicles such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV and Land-Rover Freelander owe a lot to Matra’s ingenuity and original thinking.
Uniquely, to my knowledge, the rear tailgate wiper and the composite tailgate itself, were handed for both left-hand drive (on the Danish car below) or right-hand drive (as on the British registered car). And that on a car that did not set up the windscreen wipers for right-hand drive, leaving them in the left-hand drive setup.
The engine was a 1.4 litre, 80bhp 4 cylinder from the Chrysler Alpine, fitted with a four-speed gearbox and front-wheel drive only. Don’t underestimate this car though–not only did it (arguably) trigger the SUV boom, it also had a part in the MPV people carrier story. The Rancho was also available with three rows of seats, giving seven in total, and that leads to the next Matra product.
The Matra-Talbot partnership was dissolved in 1983, stemming from the strain on Peugeot’s finances in the wake of the company’s purchase of Chrysler Europe and Citroen. This denied Peugeot the opportunity to take advantage of Matra’s next great idea, the car became the Renault Espace.
The first three generations of Espace were built in a similar way to the sportscars, with a steel backbone structure and composite panelling. Indeed, the headlights for the first series of Espace were shared with the 1975 Chrysler Alpine.
As it happened, the only example of the Espace family at the show was a Renault Avantime, seen on CC previously and a prime example of space and light as being true luxuries. So, no shots of the innovative Espace from this show, but it does give me the opportunity to show you just the best rear lights ever.
So Matra, from mid engined, composite sports cars, some with three seats, the first compact SUV to a luxury MPV Coupe – that’s a quite a list!