Three’s Company (Part Two)

We recall the Talbot-Matra Murena, successor to the successful Matra-Simca Bagheera, and chart Matra’s departure from the automotive business.

1981 Talbot-Matra Murena. Image: secret-classics.com

1978 saw the departure from Europe of Chrysler, the US automotive giant that was in considerable financial distress at that time. It offloaded its European assets (and very considerable debts) to the PSA Group(1) for a nominal US $1. In the preceding years, Chrysler had replaced the individual European marque names it had acquired with its own, which meant that PSA now had to find a new name for its acquisition.

It might have resurrected the recently deceased Simca and/or Hillman names but chose instead to dig deeper into its past and found Talbot. This marque name, which had been retired in 1958, had the advantage of being perceived as British in the UK and French in continental Europe, and so was revived in August 1979.

In its last year of production, the Matra-Simca Bagheera was rebranded Talbot-Matra. A replacement was in the final stages of development under the project code numbers M551 and M552(2) and would be called Murena in production. The new model was designed to address the major failings of its predecessor, these being a lack of power, a propensity for water leaks in the bodywork and, most seriously, severe corrosion issues with the chassis, which had already written off many early examples.

The new chassis was similar in design to that of the Bagheera, albeit with a different rear suspension setup, but it would be fully galvanised, making the Murena the first production car to feature this method of protection, which would subsequently become a near-universal standard.

The Bagheera’s power deficit was addressed by carrying over an enlarged 1,592cc version of the Poissy inline-four OHV engine for the entry-level model and introducing a 2,155cc SOHC engine shared with the Tagora large saloon for the performance model. The smaller engine produced 92bhp (69kW) and 102 lb ft (136Nm) of torque, while the larger engine produced 116bhp (87kW) and 133 lb ft (181Nm) of torque. A five-speed manual gearbox, based on the one used in the Citroën CX, replaced the Bagheera’s four-speed unit. The drivetrain was again installed transversely ahead of the rear axle.

The Bagheera’s longitudinal torsion-bar front suspension design was retained, but the transverse torsion bars at the rear were replaced by MacPherson struts with coil springs and trailing arms. Anti-roll bars and dual-circuit servo-assisted disk brakes were fitted front and rear.

The styling was claimed by Antonis Volanis, who was part of the Bagheera’s design team and had led on the interior of that car. The distinctive three-abreast seating was retained, but this time there would be three individually adjustable seats instead of the Bagheera’s two-seat bench for the passengers. In order to improve the car’s practicality over its predecessor, it grew modestly in all dimensions, notably by 45mm (1¾”) in height to improve entry and egress.

The overall look was perhaps less exotic supercar and more mainstream sports coupé, but still very attractive, and the Murena’s Cd of 0.33 bettered its predecessor’s 0.41 considerably. In order to simplify construction and reduce the propensity for leaks, the number of individual major body panels was reduced from nineteen to twelve.

1981 Talbot-Matra Murena’s Three-Abreast Seating

Production of the 1.6 litre Murena began in November 1980, with the 2.2 litre version following in the spring of 1981. Renowned automotive journalist Leonard Setright drove the new models in Morocco and reported his findings in the May 1981 issue of Car Magazine. Setright had liked the Bagheera, although he felt it deserved a more fitting engine. He particularly approved of the three-abreast seating, which he thought much more practical than a nominal 2+2 layout, often with almost unusable rear seats. He did, however, struggle with the Bagheera’s lack of headroom.

Setright was fulsome in his praise for Matra’s racing heritage and expertise, which was evident in the Murena’s “suspension so superb that it need never go slowly [and a] body so aerodynamically economical that it needs little to make it go fast, [so it] achieves far more than its mechanical specification might promise”. The ratios of the five-speed gearbox were well suited to getting the best out of the smaller engined version. Talbot-Matra claimed top speeds of 115mph (185km/h) for the smaller and 124mph (200km/h) for the larger engined version. Unfortunately, the heat and altitude of the test drive route prevented verification of these claims.

While neither car felt particularly fast in a sprint, the fluid handling made it easy to sustain high speeds on winding roads. In this regard, Setright rated the Murena as “better than the basic Porsche 924, every bit as good as the Lancia Monte Carlo (sic)(3) and losing only in sheer agility to the Fiat X1/9”. He also described it as “one of the most sweetly responsive cars that ever offered a driver a choice of how to steer through a bend…the throttle can be used to modulate the curve as progressively and predictably as could be wished”. The car’s suspension setup was very well judged, although the shock absorbers seemed to be at the limit of their performance when the car was driven energetically over undulating roads.

1981 Talbot-Matra Murena. Image: secret-classics.com

Wind noise at speed was “almost nothing” apart from an occasional sound around the mirrors. Stability was excellent, with “not a trace of crosswind waywardness at any speed”. There was little mechanical noise and no vibration or discernible heat-soak from the engine into the cabin. The only unwanted noise was an intrusive creak from the scuttle on two of the three cars he drove, leading Setright to wonder how consistently the body and chassis were put together.

At 6’3” (1.91m) tall, Setright again found headroom to be marginal, just as he had in the Bagheera. With the seat at its rearmost position so the pedals could be operated comfortably, fifth gear was “too far flung for comfort” and he disliked the flat-bottomed steering wheel. The cabin was otherwise snug but not uncomfortable with three occupants.

Setright thought the car could cope with more power, but was more exercised about the possibility of RHD examples being built for the UK market. Talbot had apparently calculated that the cost would be covered by the sale of just 150 examples, so Setright was optimistic about this possibility(4).

Despite its competence and appeal, the Murena would remain in production for only three years, during which time a total of 10,680 were built. The Murena fell victim to PSA’s failure to re-establish the Talbot marque, which was retired again in 1984, bringing the relationship with Matra Automotive to an end(5).

This was not, however, the end of Matra’s involvement in motor vehicle production. The company had completed the design of a large monobox MPV-style vehicle for Talbot. The original concept for this had been developed a few years earlier by two Chrysler UK designers, Fergus Pollock and Geoff Matthews. It was passed to Simca, then on to Matra, where Antonis Volanis readied it for production. This used a similar composite construction to the Murena, with a glass-fibre body over a steel platform.

1979 Matra P18 Concept. Image: autohistory.blog.hu

The MPV was a new concept in the European market, the potential demand for which was unknown. With Talbot failing, PSA had no interest in putting the design into production, so Matra sought a new partner. They found one in Renault and the MPV was launched as the first Renault Espace in 1984(6).

It was, of course, a highly successful vehicle and Matra would go on to build two further generations of Espace for Renault. Ironically, Matra actually fell victim to its success as the production volumes allowed Renault the opportunity to manufacture the fourth and subsequent generations of the Espace in-house from 2002, using conventional unitary construction. In September 2003, Matra Automobile’s engineering, testing and prototype business was sold to Pininfarina, marking the company’s final exit from the automotive business.

 

(1) PSA Group was the name of the holding company for Peugeot and Citroën.

(2) M551 was the project code for the 1.6 litre version, while M552 was the code for the 2.2 litre model.

(3) The name of Lancia’s mid-engined sports car was styled as Montecarlo.

(4) In the event, there were no factory RHD cars built, just a handful of aftermarket conversions.

(5) In addition to the Murena, the rebranded Talbot-Matra Rancho was also discontinued in 1984.

(6) It has been alleged that Renault, regarding the Murena as a competitor to its own Alpine A310/GTA sports car, made its discontinuation a condition of the contract with Matra to build the Espace.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

16 thoughts on “Three’s Company (Part Two)”

  1. A fascinating story; thank you for researching and sharing it Daniel. I have vague memories of reading about the Bagheera and Murena as a child (I was still very young when production ended) but remember being intrigued by the three-abreast seating. I had forgotten about the link with the Espace entirely. A shame the car part of the business died a quiet death after such an interesting (and quite successful) history.

  2. Thanks Daniel. I always found the Bagheera more atractive than the Murena, but reading your article it seems that the Murena sorted out a lot of its predecessor troubles, mainly lack of power, rust, and poor aerodynamics.
    It´s a surprise for me that the Murena was a bit bigger. I´ve never seen one of them in the flesh, but in the pictures the Murena seems smaller than the Bagheera.

  3. Good morning Chris and b234r. I always thought that the Murena, although attractive, looked somehow less exotic and more mainstream than the Bagheera. The Murena was actually longer than the Bagheera, but only by 96mm (3 3/4″) and it was just 11mm (1/2″) wider. Its wheelbase was 65mm (2 1/2″) longer.

  4. Let’s face it, Renault screwed Matra in the end. How hard could it have been for them to let Matra have the little cake of mpv-production as a sort of personal fiefdom? Why weren’t they given more opportunities as a consulting skunk works? Even if some of the reward of Espace production were given back as royalties to Matra, Renault must’ve gained a substantial profit throughout almost twenty years of production. They okeyed the Avantime as a parting gift, knowing fully well that would be the end of it. They could’ve bought Matra outright, giving the owners some of the profits back. Instead they starved them until the company was practically worthless. They knew fully well without any new orders from Renault the company had to fold. I think it’s such a shameful end to such a fruitful collaboration, and something Renault could’ve handled much much better.

  5. Oddly I knew a little of the Matra connection with the Espace yet nothing of the Murena which, to these eyes has a little Stratos to its stance – no bad thing. Having a penchant for gilt cars, the picture above does the car justice. And I do like the clean glass rear. About as safe as a gold-leaf parachute but very cool. I’m with Setright on the interior though. Even when brand new, the dash and that wheel appeared like a kit-car.

    Should you desire a Murena, this site has a few. Get your bullion ready, mind.

    https://www.autoscout24.com/lst/talbot/matra-murena

  6. Matra has developed a new type of chassis construction for the Murena.
    Instead of a tube-frame, pressed sheet metal parts were welded in the form of a kind of tube-frame. This combined the (cost) advantages of pressed sheet metal with the advantages of a tube-frame (weight and rigidity).
    The welded chassis was dipped in a zinc bath to protect all sheet metal parts inside and outside, as well as the weld seams and sheet metal overlaps against corrosion.
    (This manufacturing principle was also used for the first series of the Espace built by Matra).

    My father, who at that time worked for Porsche in the body construction department, was so enthusiastic about this type of chassis construction that he bought a 2.2 in red.
    From my own experience I can say that on a clear road the top speed of +/- 200 km/h could easily be reached. At the same time, the car felt very quiet and stable and showed a trustworthy driving behaviour. On winding country roads, the vehicle was a lot of fun.
    The workmanship was good, measured against the predecessor even very good.
    The interior space was sufficient for three adults, generous for two.

    (Unfortunately, the history of the Murena did not last long in our family. My father may have been a good designer, but he was not a good diplomat. Because of his position, he had a parking space near the design office, so anyone going in and out of the house could see his vehicle. The advice to his colleagues “If you ever want to see a well-designed car, down there the red one” was not helpful. The management was not amused by his teasing. So after a year or so they made him “an offer he couldn’t refuse”. The Murena was sold and made way for future leased vehicles from Porsche’s own production.)

    1. Absolutely! Thanks for sharing, Fred.

      In my banking days, I once visited Mercedes-Benz head offices in Stuttgart. I noticed that what I assumed was the senior management car park was exclusively ‘own-brand’ with not a single interloper to be seen.

    2. Here’s a Murena chassis

      dipped in melted zinc

      And here’s what most Bagheeras looked like in next to no time

      The dip bath of the ready built Murena chassis is what every blacksmith does when he corrosion proofs a garden door.
      It’s completely different from the processes used in large scale series production where bodies are built from zinc coated sheet metal. Dipping the body in melted zinc leads to distortion through the heat, gives an uneven and rough surface that’s difficult to paint and tends to build up lumps of zinc in unwanted places.

  7. Hi Daniel. Thanks for the article.
    Simca enjoyed in France a very faithful customer base from the 1940’s that helped it being commercially very successful in the 1960’s. Chrysler gave it the first blow when it rebranded it. Peugeot gave it the coup de grâce by renaming it Talbot for idiotic rationales. Too bad, the Murena could probably have had a chance of making a good career and certainly improve over the years. Maybe using only the Matra brand would have helped.

  8. Good afternoon, Daniel. What surprises me most in today’s article is that LJK Setright found that the engine didn’t transfer a lot of heat to the interior. Somehow this car seems like an oven to me, so all the more kudos to the designers and engineers.

    Having said that, I’m still not convinced by the three-abreast seating arrangement. I’m not convinced by the 2+2 either given the fact that the average car is occupied by about 1,3 person. I have no need for more than two seats. It also looks like the driver is squeezed a bit to the side of the car and that the width of the car is a compromise between seating three in comfort and not making it too wide. I’d rather have two good seats and a bit more elbow room.

    1. The seating position and the space for the driver were good and comparable to a normal 2-seater.

      Of course, you didn’t need 3 seats during the week.

      When I borrowed the car at the weekend, these were the perfect amount of seats.
      On the way to the disco or bar, you had enough space for your girlfriend and her (single) friend. On the way back, it was either the three of us again – or the two of us, because the third girl had found a more pleasurable chauffeur for the way home.
      Most of the time, the girls without boyfriends always came in pairs. With 3 seats, you could both get home. The first one was dropped off and with the second one, the few centimetres more inside width (compared to a normal 2-seater) were very useful afterwards. But I’m digressing too much into memories….

  9. It does seem mean-spirited not to have offered a RHD Murena.

    In Britain at least, the required 150 cars would have livened up Talbot showrooms filled with over-familiar rebadged Chryslers, and symbolised confidence in the brand, and the prospect of better products ahead.

    1. That’s a good point, Robertas. Talbot showrooms were indeed rather dreary places, a jumble sale of unrelated and reheated old models, and really could have done with some excitement.

  10. There were some promising ideas for the Matra Murena that never came to be such as the 180 hp 16-valve DOHC Murena 2.2 4S, aftermarket Murenas with the 148-178 hp Peugeot 505 2.2 Turbo and 120-130 hp Peugeot 205/309 1.9 GTi engines, the Murena Chapron Chimera a removable roof panel as well as the Group 4 Matra Murena 4WD.

    Click to access matra-murena-specials-final-6.pdf

    There were other Matra projects, some with more potential then others although outside of the unusual 1989 Matra M25 nothing close to a Matra equivalent of the Lotus Elise let alone a Matra analogue of the Alpine W71 (A710/A410) prototype.

    Matra P43: In 1990 Matra considered developing a traditional convertible sportscar, powered by a high-volume 4 cylinder engine of around 2 litres, and with seating strictly for two in a design reminiscent of 1960’s British
    roadsters. A design was worked through and a prototype finished in 1991. It was intended as a serious production possibility within Matra.

    Style wise it was very much like a grownup first series Lotus Elan, with tight rounded lines and not excessively stylised. However, Mazda were working on a similar project at the same time, the MX5, and when Matra heard of this they abandoned the P43 project with only one prototype completed; a sad lack of faith in oneself… but still, Matra had had many promising projects turned down by Renault, so it was not a surprising response. The car was kept secret from there to the year 2000 when it was first shown publicly when Jean-Luc Lagardère took control and merged Matra into the Lagardère Group.

    The impetus behind the P43 was the lack of open roadsters on the market at the time; most similar roadsters before this had been older designs killed off by their makers in the wake of pending roll-over legislation in the USA – a major
    sportscar market. Of course, this never eventuated, but by then there were no more cheap roadsters around, at least
    not from the major manufacturers. So Matra saw the gap, and started planning…

    Not much detail is available on the car, other than it used the Renault R21 as its basis, and was powered by a
    120bhp turbo motor, but of course R21s also came out with 175 and 165bhp turbo engines using the alloy 1995cc Douvrin engine. Top speed with the 120bhp motor was forecast as 200kph; meaning that as a base model it outran
    the MX5, with a lot more potential in hand. Fwd may seem incongruous for a traditional 60’s style roadster, but the fwd M100 Elan had just hit the market and was praised for its dynamics, while early Bonnet Missiles and Le Mans were
    fwd too.

    Click to access matra-later-prototypes-beginning-and-the-end-final-10.pdf

  11. Hi Daniel, that rather lovely facelifted Bagheera (a more evocative name than Murena, to my ears):

    has a rather Alfa Romeo vibe, I think:

    Above the waist, anyway. I was broadly aware of the Bagheera, Murena and Espace. An acquaintance from university was one of those devotees, operating a Murena. We weren’t close enough for me to sit in it, though.

    Somewhat incongruously for a company with such a small car manufacturing footprint, they also made an F1 engine in the Seventies (mainly for Ligier) and won Le Mans three times.

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