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