Once again, the CC gods delivered. Who had “three-seater mid-engined ‘80s French orphan sports car in pristine nick” in their finds-of-2022 predictions? Nobody, that’s who! Least of all yours truly, though you’d think that by now I would have understood that anything is possible in Tokyo, at least in terms of automotive unicorns. And they don’t come out of left field more than the Matra Murena.
Sorry, that was “Talbot-Matra” officially, though in their home country, nobody ever bothered with the “Talbot” bit. The Matra story is a very convoluted one, and some of their greatest successes wore Renault badging, but the Murena is interesting in that it represents the final chapter of the Matra marque, which all told only existed for about 20 years. It is also one of the last followers the wedge design philosophy which, after having been the shape that defined the ‘70s, hit its nadir in the early ‘80s.
Matra originally branched out to the automotive sector by buying out Automobiles René Bonnet, a tiny sports car firm, in 1964. By the early ‘70s, Matra had joined forces with Simca (then officially known as Chrysler France) to bring the fourth-largest French carmaker some direly-needed sporting cred.
In exchange, Simca’s substantial dealer network and parts catalogue provided Matra with the means to increase production and drive down costs. The Simca-Matra deal led to the launch of the Bagheera three-seater coupé (above) in 1973 and the Rancho proto-CUV in 1977 – both were very niche but commercially successful vehicles.
But in 1978, Chrysler sold their loss-making European operation (Simca in France, Rootes in the UK and Barreiros in Spain) to Peugeot, which had just taken over Citroën. In the event, Matra decided to try and stick with the corpse of Simca, rebranded as Talbot from mid-1979, and continue on as part of the PSA family. And it so happened that a replacement for the Bagheera was being readied, thereby providing the “Talbot-Matra” sub-branch a new model for the 1981 model year.
The Murena replaced the Bagheera immediately upon its launch, which took place at the 1980 Paris Motor Show. It was a busy time for Talbot, as the new marque introduced both the Matra coupé and the infamous Tagora. There were two Murenas on the Talbot stand, as seen above, but only the 1.6 litre cars were available in the near term. The more expensive 2.2 litre cars only reached the showrooms in the first weeks of 1981.
The Murena (Italian for moray eel – very close to the French term for the same animal) definitely took after the Bagheera. It shared its predecessor’s general layout: Simca-sourced engine transverse-mounted ahead of the rear wheels, manual transmission only, three-abreast seating, wedge-shaped GRP body, flip-up headlights…
The same people were involved in creating the Bagheera and the Murena as well: they were both the work of designer Antonis Volanis and Philippe Guédon, the latter being the engineer behind all Matra road cars since the M530.
But all these similarities did not mean the Murena was merely a facelifted Bagheera. The suspension was new. Now able to raid a much bigger parts bin, Matra took the front torsion bar and wishbone set-up from the Talbot Solara / 1510 (a,k,a the Simca 1307/1308), with some Tagora bits thrown in for good measure. The rear suspension was a MacPherson strut-type deal. The 5-speed gearbox came off the Citroën CX and was mated to either a 1.6 or a 2.2 litre 4-cyl. – both Simca/Talbot mainstays.
The parts bin was also used for more than just the mechanical bits. The taillights were based on the Horizon’s items and the door handles came from the Peugeot 505. One big development since the Bagheera was a new emphasis on build quality: the Matras of the ‘70s were notoriously brittle, shoddy and rust-prone. Things needed to be different in the ‘80s, and they were: the Murena’s galvanized steel skeleton was so well protected that it came with a six-year warranty. Factoring in the 12 body panels bolted to the structure being made of a new type of polymer, the Murena was supposed to at least look great for many years after its purchase. Which this one certainly does.
However, the issue with the Murena was the two engine options, neither of which were really up to the challenge. The smaller block was an OHV design of the Simca Poissy family of engines, displacing 1592cc and producing 92hp. This venerable motor, used in anything from the Horizon to the Peugeot 309, was never known for its discretion or vigour, but it was a reliable and familiar workhorse. Still, entry-level Murenas only reached 180kph (and a similar number of decibels) with it. For a fair few fistfuls of French Francs more, the Tagora’s new 2155cc OHC 4-cyl. provided more power, all of 118hp. This brought the 0-to-100kph time below ten seconds and the top speed to about 200kph, but remained pretty underwhelming, as noted by critics and commenters at the time.
The consensus was that the Matra might have been able to stomach the Tagora SX’s 165hp V6, turning it into a proper French DeLorean, only more nimble, and a true rival to the Alpine. That was never going to fly, though, so the Matra folks did what they could with what they had and, in June 1982, the Préparation 142 (P142) kit was made available. This dealer-installed performance kit included sill extensions and a rear spoiler, as well as a twin-carb set-up, lighter flywheel and special camshaft for the 2.2 litre engine, resulting in a claimed (but almost certainly overstated) 142hp DIN.
Only about 75 cars ended up receiving this P142 treatment, which is not a big shock: the price of the beast, north of FF100,000 in 1983, was nothing short of outrageous – dangerously close to the Alpine A310, the Big Daddy of French sports cars, not to mention the many imports this kind of tidy sum could afford. Our feature car was re-upholstered and sadly lost its original steering wheel in favour of an anonymous aftermarket Momo imitation.
Here’s an excerpt from the 1983 Murena brochure to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs. The P142 interior would have included black velour with red piping, making the entire cabin almost painfully ‘80s. The only thing missing to complete the ambiance would be Duran Duran in the tape deck and some way for the two passengers to play an Atari 2600.
Our CC also wears these remarkable four-lug Gotti wheels, which look period-correct, though I’d expect to see these on a Renault product of some kind. The alloys that 2.2 litre Murenas came with originally (as seen on the period photos posted near the top of this post) are not better looking than these, so for once, the aftermarket option is the right choice. Makes this special version of the Murena even more potent.
Alas, the P142 and all that notwithstanding, Murena sales remained sluggish and PSA were not having an easy time of the whole Talbot debacle in general, so being associated with that sinking ship was not to Matra’s benefit. Having failed to sell their Espace concept to a financially distressed PSA, Matra bought back their freedom from Peugeot and went knocking on Renault’s door. This meant it was curtains for the Talbot-Matra range as a whole, and the marque was cancelled before the end of MY 1984. In fact, it’s not clear to me if any were sold past December 1983 – certainly production was already stopped by that month.
As far as the Murena was concerned, the 1.6 litre model died out by mid-1983 and the last batch of cars, i.e. about 480 units, were sold as 1984 model and named Murena S, most of which were sold in West Germany. They were pretty much a factory version of the Préparation 142 and are highly sought-after for this reason, though they were a little less powerful (140hp).
In the end, only 10,860 Murenas were made in three years. Matra, as an automobile marque, ended with a whimper. But as a carmaker, they carried on regardless and kept the lights on at their Romorantin factory until 2003, having built over 800,000 Espaces in the interim.
Ditching the small mid-engined wedge in favour of the big FWD box was the right decision, although this wise and daring choice may have been made at the expense of Matra’s identity and soul. Good thing the final Matra-branded sports cars, like this Murena, were rust-resistant and plastic-bodied so a few nice examples could still be around, even 40-odd years hence and in a land far, far away.