Faux by four or pre-emptive strike? We cast a (largely) unprejudiced eye over the Rancho.
The 1973 oil embargo had a profound effect upon all auto manufacturers, but the low volume specialists were most exposed. Mécanique Aviation Traction, better known as Matra were no exception and in the aftermath of the fuel crisis, found it necessary to broaden their automotive base. Best known for sports cars, Matra had introduced the Simca powered Bagheera in 1976 and were now seeking a second Chrysler-Europe-derived model programme to boost revenues in addition to providing a buffer against further geo-political shocks.
Inspiration is believed to have come from two diverse sources. First and perhaps least credible, was that of the 1970 Range Rover, a model line which almost single-handedly redefined the nature of the utility vehicle in addition to becoming a bona-fide object of desire. Second and more relevant was the Simca 1200 Campero, built in Spain by Talleres Panades, a Chrysler-Europe dealership in Madrid. Introduced in 1973, it combined a Simca 1100 floorpan with a utilitarian glass fibre and polyester body. It’s believed that Chrysler France took a keen interest in this vehicle, and with Matra seeking an additional model line, the idea took on fresh impetus, so with Chrysler backing, the programme was given the P12 moniker, utilising the commercial version of the 1100 hatchback as its base.
P12 used a reinforced Simca/Dodge 1100 pick-up platform, lengthened and reinforced aft of the b-pillar. Forward of this, all external panels were shared with the 1100, including doors, front wings, bonnet and windscreen. A steel framework supported a composite rear body, (a Matra speciality this) with large split level side windows and a Range-Rover style split tailgate. Further composite body additions included a matt black roof rack above the cab section of the roof for additional stowage space. Chunky matt black plastic wheel arch covers, bumpers and side rubbing strips provided a suitably rugged appearance, as did the additional spotlamps and grille mounted nudge bar. A third row of seats was offered as an option on production models.
Styling was said to be attributed to Bagheera designer, Antonis Volanis. P12 was mechanically identical to its Simca 1100 donor with torsion bar suspension all round, but the engine was the stronger 1442 cc unit derived from the (1976 COTY-winning) 1308 hatchback, developing 80 bhp. Although its appearance suggested all road ability, it was resolutely front drive, although a sump guard was fitted. Matra engineers had hoped to provide a four wheel drive option, but a lack of resources and the likely weight penalty meant it never happened. With scarcely more ground clearance than the 1100 pick-up it was so cleverly derived from, the car’s off-road capabilities were therefore pretty limited.
Introduced in 1977 as a ‘muli-purpose leisure vehicle’, the Matra-Simca Rancho, was well received by customers even if the UK motoring press found it a less credible proposition. Being rather expensive for what it offered and with British journalists getting the Range Rover jibes in early, sales on this side of the Channel were not stellar. In its native France however, the Rancho appealed to those for whom off road capability was not a prerequisite and with virtually nothing else remotely like it available at the price, the Rancho appealed to farmers, outdoor enthusiasts who valued its versatility and cavernous interior space, but it also became popular with city dwellers who wished to project a more rugged image. Following its introduction, it allegedly came fourth in the 1977 COTY awards.
In Europe, the Rancho was offered with commercial variants and innumerable special editions, the best known being the 1980 ‘Grand Raid’edition, which came with off-road tyres, a limited slip differential, underfloor protection, two spare wheels (one roof mounted) and a winch. A Découvrable version with roll-up canvas sides was offered in 1981. Rancho sales were more than double initial projections, and held up even as more affordable 4×4 vehicles became available. In 1982, following PSA’s acquisition of the Chrysler Europe operations, the model was renamed with a Talbot-Matra moniker.
However, with the Espace project becoming a priority, Matra elected to cease Rancho production in 1984, although cars remained available into the following year. Despite being a profitable vehicle for the firm, PSA took a sizeable royalty, as well as taking umbrage for Matra’s newfound dalliance with arch-rival Renault. One casualty of this change of allegiance was said to be the cancellation of the pretty mid-engined Murena.
Few Ranchos have survived as they were generally hard-working cars and their Simca body structures were not particularly well protected against rust. Despite being recognised as being at the vanguard of the current crossover and plastic-clad ‘allroad’ craze, the Rancho remains subject to derision for its lack of authentic offroad credentials; Andrew English in the Telegraph latterly describing the car as a “front-drive 4×4 lookalike for impecunious Range Rover wannabes”. But strip away blind prejudice and what we have is an admittedly expedient, yet highly inventive reworking of a humble commercial vehicle into a fashion statement – if one that took several generations to seriously gain commercial traction.
Being ahead of the game isn’t much use if you fail to capitalise upon it. Matra walked away from the concept in 1984, before ceasing car production entirely in 2003; backing what turned out to be the wrong horse with the Espace concept. But neither PSA nor Renault have much to gloat about either, having taken over thirty years to see the wood for the trees. They really needed to get out(doors) more.