The Bagheera’s highly unusual twin.
In the early 1970s Automobiles Matra enjoyed popularity as a manufacturer of relatively inexpensive light sportscars such as the Djet, 530 and Bagheera. The French firm’s racing arm – Equipe Matra Sports, founded in 1965 – likewise had swiftly built up an impressive palmares in motorsports. Matra won the 1969 Formula One Championship with the MS80 driven by Jackie Stewart and with the MS670 emerged the overall victor at the gruelling 24h Le Mans endurance race three years in a row starting in 1972.
These impressive results stimulated Matra to entertain the idea of adding a faster, more powerful sportscar to the range to capitalise on the motorsport successes. Initial experiments where the 530 was fitted with the 2.3 Litre Ford V6 and later the 1.8 Litre inline four of the new Chrysler 180 proved dead ends and were abandoned early on.
Project 550, which was to become the Bagheera in 1973, soon took precedence. Powered by the 1.3 litre engine of the Simca 1100 Ti, this modern mid engined sportscar with its interesting three-abreast seating arrangement was originally also to be joined by a much more powerful eight cylinder version internally known as project 560.
Matra engineers Philippe Guédon and Georges Pinardaud had devised a most unorthodox engine for the planned flagship model: an eight cylinder engine, but not in the traditional V configuration nor as an outdated inline straight eight. Their engine concept was so unusual that it warranted a new name: U8. The U8 consisted of two different Simca engines: one the same 1294cc four as fitted to the standard Bagheera, the other also a 1294cc four – but this was the version that powered the rear engined Simca 1000 Rallye 2 whose crankshaft turned in the opposite direction.
The engine blocks were positioned against one another at an angle of 82° and worked independently of each other – they had separate ignition distributors and valve gear as well as their own petrol, water and oil pumps. For the coupling of the crankshafts, a common crankcase with gear connection was fitted.
At the front of the first engine, a sprocket and Morse chain connected the crankshaft to a central shaft and another chain provided the connection with the other crankshaft but this time to the back. The other engine received the flywheel, a diaphragm clutch and a 5-Speed Porsche-sourced gearbox. A self-locking differential was to be part of the setup.
Being substantially larger, it was no longer possible to mount the U8 engine transversally as was the case with the normal Bagheera, so the U8 was mounted in a longitudinal configuration. As a result of this the wheelbase had to be stretched by 9 inches, to 102 inches. The rear suspension was changed to a double wishbone setup and ventilated disc brakes were fitted on all four wheels to cope with the extra grunt.
Inside, a more comprehensive instrument panel with separate gauges for each engine was the only noticeable change. The 2588cc U8 developed 168 Bhp at 6200 Rpm; this would put the U8 in approximately the same performance bracket as for example the Alfa Romeo Montreal which although more powerful was also heavier; Matra even had its eye on Porsche’s 911 as a possible target.
Top speed of the Bagheera U8 was 146 mph but its fuel thirst when driven to its maximum potential was reportedly a horrendous 8.4 Mpg. More development could and likely would have brought this down to a more acceptable level, but the projected sales price at which the U8 would be profitable presented another problem. Matra calculated the price of the U8 at around 65,000 Francs; in that same year one could drive away in a brand new BMW 3.0 CSi for 63,700 Francs while a Porsche 911 S carried a price tag of 69,000 Francs. Oh, and the Citroën SM seemed almost a bargain by comparison at 59,350 Francs.
The energy crisis and Chrysler France’s own financial difficulties sealed the audacious but complex Bagheera U8’s fate – the project was shelved during 1974. Just three prototypes were ever built of which one has survived and is on display at the Matra museum in Romorantin. With the complexity of the unproven drivetrain concept in mind and the potential ensuing reliability issues it is probably for the best that the Bagheera was limited to a 1294cc four during its 1973-1980 lifespan; on the other hand… wouldn’t it be fascinating to know what a U8 sounds like?