Three’s Company (Part One)

The Matra-Simca Bagheera combined supercar-apeing looks and robust if rather prosaic mechanicals to produce a practical, everyday sports car.

1973 Matra-Simca Bagheera Series 1. Image: hemmings.com

Mention the name Matra-Simca to a car enthusiast of mature years and their mind will almost certainly turn to the 1977 Rancho, a modestly successful vehicle that was decades ahead of its time. The Rancho was based on the FWD Simca 1100 but had a bespoke fibreglass body aft of the B-pillars, with a raised roof and a large split tailgate. It also had a raised ride height, plastic wheel arch extensions and other faux off-road addenda. It was, in effect, a crossover, long before that term was coined.

There is, however, an earlier and less well-known vehicle that carried the Matra-Simca name. This is the 1973 Bagheera, a sports coupé, the most unusual feature of which was its three-abreast seating arrangement.

Matra(1) was a French industrial engineering conglomerate that was established in 1945. Its activities included aviation, satellite and defence technology. Following the acquisition of Automobiles René Bonnet in 1963, it also became a car manufacturer, albeit on a modest scale: it inherited Bonnet’s small two-seater mid-engined sports car, the Djet. This was succeeded in 1967 by the somewhat larger Matra 530, still mid-engined, but now with 2+2 accommodation. The latter was only produced in small numbers because Matra simply did not have the dealer network to sell and support it effectively. A total of just 9,607 cars were built over six years.

Recognising this commercial handicap, Matra in December 1969 entered into a commercial partnership with Simca to develop a replacement for the 530 which would be marketed through Simca’s dealer network. Work began immediately under the joint management of Matra Automobile’s head of engineering and design, Phillipe Guédon, and Simca product planners Jacques Rousseau and Marc Honoré. Later in 1970 Simca was taken over by Chrysler Europe, but this did not appear to affect progress on the joint project, dubbed M550.

One of the issues Simca’s product planners identified with the 530 was its accommodation. Although nominally a 2+2, the rear seats were really only suitable for small children. Because the brief was to build an accessible and relatively practical small sports car, reverting to two seats was not regarded as a viable option, so Guédon proposed an alternative layout: three-abreast seating. In this arrangement, the driver’s seat was separate and individually adjustable, but the passengers shared a seat made in a single unit, albeit with sculpted buckets and bolsters for each passenger. This arrangement was readily approved, and work continued.

The Bagheera’s Seating Arrangement.

The new model would use as many stock Simca mechanical parts as possible, including the engines. These comprised the familiar Poissy 1,294cc and 1,442cc inline four-cylinder overhead valve engines with a distinctive tappety sound from their top ends. The smaller engine produced 84bhp (63kW) and 80 lb ft (108Nm) of torque, while the larger produced 90bhp (67kW) and 90 lb ft (122Nm) of torque. The engine would be installed transversely ahead of the rear axle line, canted 15° rearward to reduce its height, and mated to a standard Simca four-speed gearbox normally used in FWD installations.

The car featured independent suspension using longitudinal torsion bars at the front and transverse bars at the rear(2). Disc brakes all round were dual-circuit and servo-assisted.

The three-door liftback coupé styling was initially designed by Jean Toprieux and refined by Jaques Nochet and Antonis Volanis. In order to accommodate the three-abreast seating, the car’s flanks were slightly barrel shaped (on the horizontal axis) so that the body was widest at the position of the seats without appearing overly wide when viewed from the front or rear. Its sleek looks flattered to deceive somewhat, as the Bagherra’s Cd was an unimpressive 0.41.

With its pop-up rectangular headlamps and low overall height of 1,175mm (46¼”) the car had a contemporary mini-supercar appearance, somewhat akin to the Lamborghini Uracco, which belied its modest mechanical specification. Inside, it combined rudimentary secondary controls from mainstream Simca models with exotic touches like a vertically mounted radio and a flat-bottomed steering wheel(3). This had twin vertical downward pointing spokes connecting to the rim at either end of the flat section.

The body was constructed from nineteen individual glass-fibre reinforced polyester panels over a steel platform chassis. This had the benefit of keeping overall weight to just 885kg (1,951 lbs) which was critical, given the modest power and torque of the engines. One downside of the lightweight body but relatively heavy engine and gearbox, however, was that weight distribution was some way from the 50:50 ideal, with 58% carried by the rear wheels.

Matra-Simca Bagheera Series I Advertisement. Image: thetruthaboutcars.com

The new car was called Bagheera, the word for panther or leopard in Hindustani. It was unveiled in April 1973 at a press event near Annecy, an alpine town in south-eastern France near the border with Switzerland. The smaller engined variant went on sale in July 1973, with the larger engined Bagheera S following a year later. Reflecting Matra’s high-volume ambitions for the Bagheera, a fleet of 500 cars, all in yellow, was made available to Simca dealers across France at the time of its launch.

Car Magazine’s veteran journalist George Bishop drove the 1.3 litre Bagheera and reported his findings in the December 1973 issue. In a witty if crudely stereotypical remark, Bishop said that “It had, of course, to be French, for the man who has everything including a wife and mistress who insist on being taken out together.”

The instrument and secondary control binnacle was described as being “styled to look like a 1949 wake-me-up-in-the-morning-with-a-cup-of-tea machine.” The speedometer and tachometer were often unreadable “because of the confusing reflections from the allegedly non-reflecting glass”. The claimed but untested top speed was 115mph (185km/h). The gearchange was “as semi-detached as Colliers Wood(4) and as full of spring as [a] trampoline.” Wind noise was minimal, handling was neutral within the car’s limits and the ride quality was good. Despite his cheeky witticisms, Bishop rather liked the Bagheera, describing it as a “civilised device”. He felt it would benefit considerably from a more powerful engine.(5)

The Bagheera’s attractive appearance and accessible price made it a hit in its domestic market, racking up 10,000 sales in its first eighteen months. Although never officially manufactured in RHD form, a number, thought to be around fifty, were brought over to the UK and underwent specialist conversion.

1976 Matra-Simca Bagheera Series 2. Image: aronline.co.uk

The Bagheera was facelifted in 1976 with integrated bumpers that now wrapped around to the wheel arches. A key point of recognition is, however, the deletion of a bright metal finisher panel aft of the rear side window and an extension of that window rearwards. The car continued in production until April 1980 and a total of 47,802 were manufactured over seven years. It was replaced by the Talbot-Matra Murena, a car similar in concept but quite different in style to the Bagheera.

Unfortunately, because of water leaks and rampant corrosion affecting the ungalvanized platform, and the car’s prosaic image, the attrition rate has been high and only a handful of Bagheeras have survived to the present day. They are, apparently cherished by their enthusiastic owners.

 

(1) Although not capitalised, Matra is an acronym for Mécanique Aviation TRAction which gives a clue to its initial business interest, developing aircraft engines.

(2) The front suspension was from the Simca 1100, the rear was bespoke and designed by Matra.

(3) This is now, of course, a ubiquitous signifier of a sporty car, but was the Bagheera the first to feature it?

(4) A mainly residential outer London suburb containing much of this type of housing.

(5) Bishop’s wish might have been fulfilled if an intriguing prototype had made production. Most unusually, the Bagheera U8 employed two 1,294cc engines mounted side by side, with a chain drive linking both. The 1973 Middle East Oil Crisis killed the project. This unorthodox version will be profiled later in the week, as will a concluding part, covering the Matra Talbot Murena.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

26 thoughts on “Three’s Company (Part One)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Wonderful article. I had a poster of the Murena in my bedroom when I was 6 or 7 years old. It was only later I found out about its predecessor, the Bagheera. I think I’ve seen a Bagheera only once. I used to see a Murena every day as a guy who lived close to my parents had one. He was restoring it. At one point in time he had two. The second car was used for parts. Not sure what became of it. At one point it was gone and I haven’t seen a Murena or Bagheera since.

  2. Sonebody I know does clay modelling and GRP work for a living. He owned a 530 first, Bagheera later and ended with a rare Murena 2.2 S.
    When he tried to fix some corrision on the Bagheera he found that the steel frame was almost completely unpainted and only had some black mist in some corners. He also told me that the quality of the GRP was far better on the Bagheera than on the later Murena where it was very brittle and tended to crack.

    The Bagheera was one of the first cars with different tyre sizes front and back. They had to use 185-13 tyres on the rear wheels for their larger diameter/circumference because they could not change the gearbox but needed somewhat longer gearing for the higher top speed compared to the Simca 1100.
    French fashion house Courrèges designed a Bagheera version with matte white paint, plastic leather seats and handbags attached to the doors with press studs

  3. A friend of my sisters had one of these about 35 years ago – he was in his early twenties and was deeply attached to it, spending a fair proportion of his limited hard-earned on maintaining and restoring it. I recall it featured in a couple of UK classic car magazine articles given its rarity and his efforts to preserve it. Its appeal was as a curio and that down-sized Lotus with a twist styling, and I recall a fun spin around the block sat three abreast in it, looking up at the world from the low seating position. Happy days.

  4. Visually would say the Bagheera Series 2 along with the prototype Bagheera Jubilee and U8 were the best looking IMHO, not perfect though in the right general direction.

    It could have benefited from the 1592cc engine (especially if tuned a bit more above 100 hp instead of featuring a similar output as the 1442cc), however doubt the early Type 180 engines was considered except for being used to develop the Murena.

    As appealing as the Bagheera U8 probably was and taking the engine’s enlargement potential to its logical maximum of 3.2-litres, it seems to be a bit too unusual to succeed even without the fuel-crises beyond being a technically interesting historical footnote as is already the case with the prototype. The Bagheera like the later Murena could have probably benefited from a V6 had one been available, be it the stillborn Avenger-based 60-degree V6 or some hypothetical Type 180 derived V6 prior to the PRV V6 being temporarily considered once Peugeot acquired Chrysler Europe


  5. Oddly enough I saw a Bagheera for the first time in my life only about a month ago. It was in Dublin and on French plates with a couple and a child on board, so I presume they were using it for an actual family holiday. I imagine that would have required some difficult discussions about what to pack…

  6. Hello all and thank you for your comments. The Bagheera really was a rather inspired idea, an affordable sports car with quite exotic looks. It’s a shame that other manufacturers didn’t follow Simca’s lead. Cars like the Capri, Manta, Renault 15/17 etc. were all rather mainstream looking by comparison. The facelift was also very nicely judged:

    1. Even though the facelift was quite successful, the front lost some flair and the side lost not only the Matra logo but also some character.
      I would choose the first series in any case. (And based on the experience with our Alfasus Sprint, I can say that the small engine is completely sufficient to have fun).

    2. Does this make the Bagheera a more sensible X1/9? A mad thought…

  7. I must have seen the car in a book when much younger for I knew the name but little else apart from when the Top Gear buffoons ruined one a year or two back. And Simca gave Brezhnev one in the wrong colour.

    I love the fact the first 500 we’re yellow; that’s a splash of the bold. As is Dave’s X1/9 train of thought.

    On the whole, it’s an agreeable little thing. Parts two and three of the story will no doubt reveal more which I hope will maintain that feeling.

  8. Hi Daniel
    Interesting piece.
    I remember quite well this model. It’s a pity Matra didn’t take its own motorsport standing seriously enough to create a really competitive version and enter it in racing. That’s how Alpine got its credential… and today Alpines command outrageous prices. The Renault base engines were not better than the Simca ones. With its low center of gravity, its width, its low weight and with the right tweaks the Bagheera would have certainly be able to shine in rallies.
    Nick

    1. When Jean-Luc Lagardère took over Automobiles René Bonnet in 1964, it was with the aim of making the name “Matra” better known. In fact, one can almost say that the takeover of a car manufacturer was purely an image-building exercise for the aerospace group.

      From this point of view, the production of the 530, Bagheera (and later Murena) was, despite small numbers, a success – an advertising success.

      René Bonnet’s racing department was renamed “Matra Sports” and was commissioned by Lagardère for a 10-year programme: the F1 world title, an (overall) victory in the 24h-du-Mans and the world title in the sports car class.
      Other racing classes were not of interest, so none of the production cars were ever intended for racing by the factory.

      When all goals were (more or less) achieved, the racing department, i.e. Matra Sports, was closed – the image campaign ended.

      The area of vehicle development and vehicle production must be viewed from a completely different entrepreneurial point of view. One should not be confused by the same name (Matra). There were many development and production areas under the Matra name: Transport systems, telecommunications, computers, etc.

    2. Fred G. Eger says:
      14 Sep 2021 at 10:10

      “When Jean-Luc Lagardère took over Automobiles René Bonnet in 1964, it was with the aim of making the name “Matra” better known. In fact, one can almost say that the takeover of a car manufacturer was purely an image-building exercise for the aerospace group.”
      I think this move was like many of his intiatives pretty much driven by his ego rather than by rational thinking. Did Airbus for example created a motorsports subsidiary to promote its image and sell planes? They just made better planes.
      I was a young adult when the Bagheera was released and I remember it was not taken very seriously as a sports car. It was the not too expensive and not too dangerous toy a young man was presented to by his parents so he could impress his girl friend.
      Nick

    3. Without a doubt, Jean-Luc Lagardère was driven by his big ego.

      However, the comparison with Airbus doesn’t quite work. Airbus didn’t have to build sports cars later on to make the name known, they did that through Matra in the early days. Matra was part of EADS, which was later renamed Airbus Industries.

  9. Daniel – thanks for your insight.

    The whole mid-engine mania era is enthralling. It looks as if Matra tried to create their idea of a Porsche 914 with more flair, and largely succeeded.

    I’m looking forward to the U8 exegesis. Although others may disagree, I don’t think the Matra-Simca device is a U-engine in the proper parallel sense, although there are various interpretations, for example Edward Turner’s twin crankshaft Ariel Square Four, or Lancia’s single crankshaft U4 in the Beta – the 1950-61 LCV, not the 70’s coupes and sedans.

  10. Hello all. Dave has rightly reminded me of another model in the same vein as the Bagheera and about which I had forgotten, the Fiat X1/9:

    Both the Bagheera and X1/9 are reminders of a time when small, light and only modestly powerful cars could look quite exotic and be tremendous fun. What a shame there’s nothing like them today. I suppose the Opel Tigra and Ford Puma were the last gasp for those sort of cars, from European marques at least (although both were based on FWD superminis, so not so exotic).

  11. Hi all,

    thank you for reminding me of car I always liked, but haven’t seen in ages. Looks fine on paper, and quite competitive against the (similar priced) Alfa Junior 1300 and Porsche 914. I looked up the members club site and even there, everybody seems to agree that the ownership experience in everyday use must have been a true nightmare. Built quality appears to have been so shoddy, it made even the worst BL product of the time appear solid like a rock in comparison.

    Most astounding, however was the complete lack of protection against corrosion: the plastic body parts were simply glued to the bare metal structure. No wonder most cars were gone in a few years. Interestingly, this didn’t bring Matra to rethinking the construction of the bodies: instead, they started experimenting with galvanising and the result was that the follow-up Murena was the first production car ever to have a fully galvanised chassis, before Porsche or Audi got into it.

    1. Porsche got serious about rustproofing in 1967. They made 3 911’s out of unpainted stainless steel. As from 1970 the 911’s wheel arches and pans were galvanized. By 1976 the car was fully galvanized safe from the roof panel on the coupe. A Targa was a fully galvanized by that time. The zinc coating was done in a 500C immersion bath. At that time they also needed to change the welding procedure in order for it to work. Technically one would have to call it zinc coating instead of galvanizing as the thickness of the zinc was only 20 microns and 40 microns on the areas most prone to rust.

      The 928 was fully galvanized or zinc coated apart from the aluminium of course. I’m not sure how thick the coating was on the 928. You’ll still get some rust issues especially on the areas were different metals meet. Porsche was confident enough to give a 6 year warranty on the ’76 models, which was increased to 7 years in ’81 and to 10 years in ’86.

    2. I don’t want to pre-empt an upcoming article about the Murena here on DTW – there will certainly be one.
      But the production process Matra developed after the Bagheera (for the Murena and Espace) was indeed revolutionary. (One of the reasons why my father, who worked for Porsche in Weissach at the time, enthusiastically bought a Murena).

      What is always fascinating is that in those days car manufacturers (all of them!) put so little focus on rust prevention. All the Bagheera’s competitors (Alfa Junior, X1/9, 914, the list is almost endless) have also almost disappeared, taken away by rust.

  12. Hi Daniel,

    Thank you for this piece on one of my childhood favorites. Along with the Lancia Montecarlo and the Fiat X1/9, this little car has always fascinated me. I recall having seen a handful of them, scattered in Athens, Thessaloniki, Larissa, and Chania. All of them were Series 2, and all of them were modified one way or another. I don’t believe any one of those has survived, though, due to – what else? – rust. The saddest was one in Chania, which was usually parked on Apokoronou Street. It looked like it had been heavily modified, with flared wings front and rear (obviously, spacers had been added) and wider tires. It started out as white, and then it ended up being painted in a very Fiat Punto GT yellow. Shortly thereafter, it was hidden forever under a car hood, which became more and more decrepit. I believe disuse, rust, and – perhaps – mechanical issues killed it.

    That said, I was always intrigued by the three-abreast seating arrangement, although I now believe it required that all occupants be really thin. Otherwise, things could get a bit awkward, if not weird, courtesy of the narrow seats and, especially for the passenger sitting next to the driver, the gear lever’s placement and vagueness. Imagine a passenger sitting next to the driver being of the same sex as the driver, or the two of them not really getting along. So, while the idea did look practical, I’m not entirely sure it worked out that well in reality. Then again, perhaps it did – for a certain type of driver, who only put a certain type of passenger in the car.

  13. Great article about a lovely car. Still it makes one wonder how they could claim a top speed of 185km/h with a Cd of 0.41 and 84bhp…

    1. At the end of the day, I am not sure if the figure of 0.41 mentioned in the article is really the right one.
      There are sites in this so-called internet where you can read numbers between 0.32 to 0.35…
      At that time, the maximum speed was cheated everywhere. Our Alfasud Sprint has a top speed that can only be reached in the very very best conditions – with the engine speed in the red zone, so once; or in free fall, also once.

    2. Hi Patrick and Fred. The 0.41 figure quoted in the piece came from the contemporary Car Magazine road test. I’m old fashioned enough to trust print journalism rather more than the Internet, but you are correct that a figure of 0.33 is quoted (repeated?) widely around the Web, with 0.35 quoted for the facelifted version.

    3. Fair point, Konstantinos, although the Internet is even more problematic these days, where falsehoods become ‘facts’ just because they are repeated ad nauseam, either inadvertently or, more worryingly, deliberately to spread misinformation.

  14. Bagheera 174cm or 68.5″ wide. I thought this would have been the most salient dimension in a 3
    abreast car.
    Talbot Matra Murena 174.5cm 68.7″

    McLaren Speedtail 200cm 78.7″
    McLaren F1 182cm 71.7″
    Nissan BladeGlider 185cm
    Ferrari 365P Berlinetta Speciale 189cm 74.4″
    X 1/9 157cm or 62″
    914 165cm or 65″

    All of the expensive 3 seaters have center driver seating.

    In general aviation, 20″ width per seat is considered uncomfortable, unless staggered. I assume the Matra’s rarely carried a third adult. As far as power goes, it needed a 2 liter, not a two engine.

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