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!
Curbside Classic – 1967 Matra 530: The French Porsche 914, by PN
Automotive History Capsule: 1977 Matra Rancho – The World’s First CUV, by PN
CC Outtake: 1982 Talbot-Matra Murena 1600 – What Is French For Rarity?, by Roger Carr
Curbside Classic: 1984 Renault Espace – La Monospace Est Arrivée, by Roger Carr
* * *
European Deadly Sins series
French DS 1 (Hotchkiss, Panhard, Citroën) — French DS 2 (Bugatti, Facel-Vega, Monica)
French DS 3 (Berliet, Salmson, Delahaye)
British DS 1 (Jowett, Armstrong Siddeley, Daimler) — British DS 2 (Alvis, Lagonda, Gordon-Keeble)
British DS 3 (Invicta, Standard, Reliant)
German DS 1 (BMW, Borgward, Glas) — German DS 2 (Neckar, DKW, NSU)
Italian DS 1 (Autobianchi, Iso, Lancia) — Italian DS 2 (Isotta Fraschini, ASA, De Tomaso)
Other DS 1 (Minerva-Impéria, Monteverdi, DAF)
The 1975 Bagheera was a recipient of the disgraceful 1975 Silberne Zitrone (Silver Lemon) unreliability award from the German ADAC automobile club.
The failure list of one egregious specimen, compiled in just 10 months, was 1.5 metres (5 feet) long and included:
– bodywork cracks leading to water leaks and subsequent corrosion,
– loose doors dragging on the ground,
– a wing mirror falling off,
– the steering locking itself on the highway,
– driveshaft falling off,
– oil draining itself and seizing the motor up,
– the car being delivered without an user manual.
What’s worst, Chrysler Europe tried to sue the owner, Axel Bier, for “damaging Chrysler’s reputation, profitability and credit rating” for sending the list to ADAC, demanding half a million marks. Not unpredictably, Mopar lost the case.
While this was the peak, other Bagheeras also were badly built and broke down a lot. Just not that much.
Which continues that age-old auto conundrum: Do you want an incredibly fantastic sporting automobile with performance to dream of and a sexuality to revel in . . . .
. . . . or do you want a Camry?
Throughout most of automotive history, that has been the choice, and getting a modicum of both in one package is rare. I’ll always take the former, to the limits of my finances. Which is why the most exotic I’ve ever owned is a four cylinder Porsche. And I will never, ever, ever own a Camry.
Sounds a lot like Lotus.
I own one of the maybe 6 Matra Bagheeras in the US. Interesting they never mentioned the name came from the Jungle Book panther, as Bonnet had two small kids, and was on a daddy kick. Another reason the Bagheera had three across seating. (Rene had the design of the Bagheera already laid out when he sold out to Simca). The car has its issues. They rust like crazy, and the brake balance isn’t very good. But they drive just fine. I used my car as a daily for a couple years, with only modest maint. It needs a clutch these days, so off the road for a while.
Matra brings an old joke to mind. How do you make a small fortune? Start with a large fortune and go into auto manufacturing. This may not be strictly true in Matra’s case but would have but for getting swallowed by one of the big fish.
The trajectory of race cars to sports cars to CUVs and then minivans would be odd enough, but adding the oddball hardtop coupe (way past the time when hardtop coupes were cool) makes for a truly unique story.
Thanks for the additional credits which we all get for our degrees in Advanced Automotive Esoterica.
And I cannot believe you missed the chance to declare Peugeot guilty of Matracide. 🙂
It is funny yet also sad how Matra like Saab (with the 96 V4) look at a Lancia Fulvia V4 for the 350, before opting for the Ford Taunus V4.
Can understand why both did so, however it is a shame we was denied the prospect of a Fulvia-engined Matra 350 and Saab 96 that likely would have been much better received in comparison to the Taunus V4 (though the M350 would have needed a redesigned front-end IMO).
There were plans to improve the performance of the Bagheera (via the U8 and Matra-designed OHC or DOHC Poissy units) and the Murena (via a number of unrealised developments).
You’re saying that Saab seriously considered the Lancia V4? I’ve never read or heard that anywhere. It’s rather surprising, since I strongly suspect the Lancia engine would have been much more expensive, and I rather doubt Lancia had the production volume to sell to Saab, which built and sold a lot more cars than the Lancia.
It was one of the engines under consideration to replace Saab’s old two-strokes along with the Volvo B18, Ford Taunus V4 and a few others.
The Matra 530 remained in production until 1973, the Lancia Fulvia ceased production in 1976 and while the Saab 96 ended production in 1980, there would be spare engines available if needed from 1976 after the Fulvia ceased production.
While there might be production volume issues at Lancia, it would likely not matter due to the arrival of the Saab 99 (until the 96 was replaced by the Saab 900 in 1978) and assume a deal could be negotiated with Saab and Fiat/Lancia on the latter supplying the Fulvia V4 to the former.
The latter due to the good relationship between Marc Wallenberg and Giovanni Agnelli were said to have had prior to their later mid-1970s co-operation including the Saab 600 and the Type Four family.
Forgot to also include the prospect of such an engine powering the Saab Sonnet II/III (plus a possible Sonnet V potentially built by Reliant – though that was to apparently feature a Slant-4).
Yes, would need engine with crankshaft turning the other way to use in Sonnett I. Much more easy with 2-stroke. Ref: Citroen engine in Traction Avant, vs H-Van. Guessing that Lancia V4 an aqavit dream of SAAB engineers. Ford V4 engine weight ~100lbs+ over 2-stroke, kinda upsets nice balance of lighter engine. Ford engine LOTS cheaper, Ford already figured how to fit into 96 shell. Maybe shoulda made Lancia V4 available for competition? Erik would have loved it.
Meant to say Matra 530, not 350.Lo
I was at an impressionable age when the Bagheera came out and all the car mags wrote about it. The line I’ll never forget was “This car is so French, it has room for your wife AND your mistress!”
“But one of them has to drive.”
Fascinating series – thankyou. Your pending cross-Channel series will likely show that while the French give it a very good try, nobody does automotive fustercluckery quite like the British. Can’t wait.
So true. England is a Deadly Sins goldmine.
Great article! I guess the European Deadly Sins series would make for an outstanding coffee table book, if there were a publisher out there, willing to cough up the usage fees for all the images. I’m very grateful to witness a time where Tatra87 and all the other contributors here are able and willing to create and keep on expanding this gem of a site. Thank you!
Another superb chapter.
Always had a soft spot for the Panard DBs, but was not aware of the details of their partnership and its dissolution and eventual evolution into Matra. Fascinating.
The 503 is a curious thing. It’s hard to fathom why they bothered with the 2+2 seating. A shorter wheelbase and no rear seats would have improved its looks and performance. But what do I know about the French market?
Yes, that rear seat on the M530 makes little sense in practice, but Matra were really keen to market these to as many people as possible.
A 2-seater turns a lot of French buyers off, it seems. Even before the war, French sports cars and coupés, other than carrossier-made specials, usually had some sort of extra seat(s) at the back – or a front bench big enough for three. All the factory-made convertibles and coupés from Citroen, Panhard, Renault and Talbot going back to 1930 were homologized as 2/3 seaters at a minimum.
Peugeot and Simca did have 2-seaters in the ’30s and’ 40s, but not many after that. Except the Peugeot 203 coupé (1953-54). It was derived from the cabriolet, which was a 2/3-seater, but in practice its low and short roof design eliminated the small third seat as a viable option for living beings. They didn’t even manage to sell 1000 units in two model years.
Same for Facel-Vega. Daninos’ initial 1954 prototype was a strict 2-seater. But by the time production actually started in 55, the wheelbase had been stretched a bit to turn it into a 2+2.
That’s one of the reasons why Matra switched to a 3-seater layout. Two is just too few.
The rancho was seen as quite a posh car when launched, it was very expensive for what it was (a nicely trimmed simca 1100 pickup with a grp shell on the back) but the butch looking plastic add ons made it look like a pseudo Range-rover with a similar cache. True to it’s root(e)s, they rusted away very quickly and terminally in around 7-8 years. survivors in the U.K. number in single figures.
The Missile is cool looking, sort of Sabra Sportish. Another one for the fantasy garage.
Had no idea of Matra’s association with publishing, and not an insubstantial association at that.
I’ve got a real soft spot for the Bagheera, it’s a natural fit for the very handsome Lotus range at the time – like a sort of mid-engined Eclat or extraseatified Esprit. And from the same hand that gave us the godawful M530. Chouette!
An interesting read Tatra87, thank you. I found the Avantine intriguing in pictures and magnificent in person. Deadly sin? I don’t think so; more the culmination of the decades or meandering, and certainly meant that Matra didn’t go out unnoticed.
Finally had some time to read the next chapter of the future best-selling book by Dr T.
Like Don, I had no idea of the publishing stuff, and I too really like the Bagheera (though not the cheap-looking Murena). Why a single M530 was ever sold is a wonder. It looks as if a helium-filled prototype of mysterious dimensions deflated over a go-kart and some drunken management party declared it a fine thing and no-one would ever own up to the truth, which was that the Emperor was naked. And wrinkly. No! Rather, that he was indeed clothed, but in a lumpy tablecloth. Seems only Vignale was game to give him something decent – they really should have taken notice.
I had no clue that Matra made the Avantime, my favourite piece de French folle. (Truly, I loved the thing the moment I saw one, knowing full-well it was pretty much insane. Rather like my parents, I guess).
I have enormous affection for the Djet (which, again, I did not know started as a Rene Bonnet). Do you know who styled it, as it’s very pretty but very singular?
The Djet was designed by Jacques Hubert, an aerodynamics engineer who had worked for DB’s racing department. The Djet went from paper to launch (via Le Mans) in about 12 months, and the company had very little money, so Hubert was nicknamed l’ingenieux instead of l’ingenieur (“ingenious” vs “engineer”).