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