Book of the Dead – Matra

To become a Henokien(1) is granted to few.

Image: the author

Now an exposition centre and museum, the factory in Romorantin-Lanthenay where once Matras were made started out as a spinning mill and weavery. Designed by the architect François Hennebique, it saw one of the earliest applications in France of reinforced concrete in its construction.

Owned by the Normant brothers, the business went very well for decades but saw a sharp decline after the end of World War Two. One of the main customers of the Normant factory had always been the military(2) so, when hostilities ceased, so did demand for uniforms. Forced by the arduous economical situation, in 1961 the Normants decided to sublet parts of their factory to two companies: Général Application Plastique (GAP) and SCI Romorantin Sauldre — industrialist Marcel Chassagny being a majority shareholder in both companies.

Marcel Chassagny (left) and Sylvain Floirat (right). Images: and Pinterest

Chassagny was the director of a company originally named CAPRA(3), but renamed MATRA (for Mécanique Aviation Traction) in 1941. After the war, Matra became a succesful supplier of rocket launchers and missiles to the French air force. In 1957, Chassagny met another big player in French business: Sylvain Floirat, who had made his fortune with the airline Aigle-Azur which he had recently sold, leaving him with a large amount of money. He invested part of it to establish the radio station Europe 1, which still exists today, and acquired a significant share in Matra, making him the vice-president of the company.

Being a car enthusiast, Marcel Chassagny became a shareholder in the small French sportscar manufacturer Deutsch-Bonnet (DB, for Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet) in 1958. DB’s official engineering partner for competition vehicles was Panhard, but their takeover by Citroën meant that all meaningful engineering development at Panhard almost ground to a halt. This created a rift between the two partners: Bonnet pushed to look for a new supplier but Deutsch wanted to remain loyal to Panhard.

As the majority shareholder of DB, Bonnet signed a lease agreement with SCI Romorantin Sauldre in order to move production of the cars to the Romorantin factory. In the Autumn of 1961 the corporate name was changed to Automobiles René Bonnet; Deutsch was unceremonuously ousted but would continue his business with Panhard for a while under the CD moniker.

René Bonnet quickly found a new partner in Renault and presented three models in 1962: the Le Mans, the Missile (an obvious reference to Matra) and the new mid-engined Djet. The fiberglass reinforced polyester bodies for the cars were made within the same premises by GAP. Demand was only lukewarm, however:  just short of two hundred vehicles left the Romorantin plant over the first year of production there and the company’s quickly worsening financial situation forced Bonnet to turn to Marcel Chassagny.

The timing was fortuitous, as Chassagny and Floirat already had plans to widen the reach of Matra to beyond just weaponry. On 14 October 1964 Matra Sport was created, taking over from both René Bonnet and also incorporating GAP. From then on, the cars leaving the plant were known as Matra-Bonnet. Two years later the end of the existing management lease agreement meant that Matra became the sole brand: Matra as a car manufacturer was now a reality.

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Production of the Djet was continued by Matra but the car underwent a few changes such as a longer body and a wider rear track, but the most effective amendment was an efficiency improvement in the entire manufacturing process that resulted in Matra being able to lower its price by some 15%. Even so, since the Djet was a quite specialised, impractical and spartan proposition, sales remained modest, with about 1,500 cars produced, culminating in the 105bhp Matra Jet 6(4) which achieved a maximum speed of 125mph (202km/h), impressive at the time for a car with an engine of just 1,200cc.

The charismatic Jean-Luc Lagardère was appointed CEO of Matra cars by Chassagny and Floirat and under his leadership the young firm would not only greatly increase production but also enter the motorsports arena, with some very impressive results.

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Matra knew it had to come up with a sporty car that would appeal to a wider audience. In 1967 the replacement for the Jet was presented at that year’s Geneva Motor Show. Called the M530, it was named after one of Matra’s air-to-air missiles. The body was once again GRP on a steel frame, styled by ex-Simca designer Philippe Guédon. It was a distinctive and modern shape, still areodynamic like its predecessor, but now with 2+2 seating capacity and removable roof panels.

The engine was again situated in the middle, but in the M530 it was not one of the rev-happy Gordini Renault powerplants but a 1,700cc V4 engine sourced from Ford. It got the job done, but was not exactly a paragon of refinement, and performance, with a maximum speed of 109mph (176km/h)  was not as good as its racy looks suggested.

Your author has some childhood experience with the M530 as my mother had a yellow one in the early to mid-1970s. As a small boy, I of course knew next to nothing about technical details, but I did like its looks then and now. I distinctly remember the thrummy sound that the V4 made. My mum never really warmed to the car and it was eventually replaced by a Renault 5 Automatic.


As Matra’s sales ambitions for the M530 were higher than for the Jet, a partner with a wide distribution network – which Matra did not have – was found in Simca(5), that company taking a 45% stake in Matra as a result. The more lofty production goals also necessitated a reorganisation of Matra’s facilities at the Romorantin plant. M530s were already being produced, but that work was subcontracted to a company called Brissoneau & Lotz(6).

Fortunately for the young French carmaker, the spinning and weaving business of the Normant brothers that owned the factory went bankrupt in 1969, so Matra immediately pounced and acquired the entire site. Soon after, the revised and extended assembly line was ready and production of the M530 moved to the Romorantin factory.

Press coverage of the M530 was generally positive, especially concerning ride and handling, but the V4 engine was almost without exception seen as a substandard powerplant for a car like the M530. Production continued until 1973, by which time the designation had changed to M530LX and a cheaper M530SX variant added. In total 9,609 cars were sold, admittedly not a huge number, but six times as many as its predecessor.

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In the meantime, Matra had also made quite a name for itself on the racetrack: with Jackie Stewart at the wheel, both the Formula One driver’s and constructor’s championship was won in the 1969 season, and the V12 powered Matra M670 was victorious at Le Mans in 1972 and 1973 (and would be so again in 1974).

Given that Matra wanted to capitalise on these achievements, it was not surprising that the new Matra-Simca Bagheera was presented at the 1973 Le Mans event. The new light sportscar certainly looked the part(7) with its low, streamlined shape and the three-abreast seating configuration was an interesting novelty.

The general technical setup was similar to the M530 with a GRP body mounted on a steel frame and the engine placed amidships. The tough but rough Ford V4 engine was gone and replaced with the inline four that also powered the popular Simca 1100 Ti. As with its predecessor, however, the looks again wrote cheques the car couldn’t cash(8), although by the same token the handling, roadholding and comfort, as well as its appearance, where again generally praised.

With production ramped up to meet initially high demand, problems arose however: there were fit and finish issues, electrical gremlins and, ultimately chassis corrosion that could prove terminal. A Bagheera could still look fine after a few years from the outside since its body was made of GRP, but the steel frame that supported it often rusted quite readily and heavily due to insufficient protection measures. This damaged the car’s reputation and sales fell sharply as time went on. Nevertheless, by the time the Bagheera was discontinued in 1980, almost 48,000 had been sold.

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A vehicle of a different nature, and arguably the very first of its kind, was born in 1977: credited to Antonis Volanis, the Matra-Simca Rancho(9) may not have been 4WD as its appearance suggested, but offered a fresh perspective, despite being based on the Sinca 1100, a car that was almost a decade old by then. As with the Simca however, the dreaded tinworm was to be the Rancho’s nemesis, but over 56,000 still rolled off Matra’s assembly line between 1977 and 1983.

With the Murena, the follow-up to the flawed Bagheera, Matra was determined to eradicate that car’s fatal flaw. The Murena was developed with PSA Peugeot-Citroën, which had taken over Chrysler’s European arm in 1978. The overall technical configuration was again quite similar and the three-abreast seating was retained. In order to prevent corrosion, however, the steel chassis on which the Murena’s sleek GRP body (another design attributed to Antonis Volanis) was mounted was now hot-dip galvanised, a world first.

Performance was again only adequate with the 1,592cc Poissy engine but, fitted with the 2,155cc SOHC powerplant, this Matra could finally deliver on its visual promise, helped by its at the time world’s lowest drag coefficient for mid-engined cars. However, even though it was better in every measurable way than the Bagheera, its sales performance was quite disappointing. There were two main reasons for this: the well publicised problems of the Bagheera had made potential customers wary of choosing a Murena, and the advent of the ‘hot hatch’, which offered similar performance in a much more practical wrapper and for less money. After just 10,680 cars made, production of the Murena was halted in mid-1983. It was the last sportscar Matra would ever build.

The clever P18 prototype, declined by troubled PSA but which would eventually become a production reality as the Renault Espace, would extend the French firm’s lifespan substantially. The first three generations of Renault’s original MPV would be manufactured in Romorantin, a total of close to a million cars in total.

The downside of this arrangement was that Matra made itself entirely dependent on Renault, and when la Regie decided to switch the Espace to a steel and aluminium body with the fourth generation and produce it themselves starting in late 2002, the company’s fate was sealed. The last remaining vehicle produced by Matra was the highly original Renault Avantime, which sold only in tiny numbers and was discontinued in 2003.

Images: and Renault

The end had come, and Matra was forced to declare bankruptcy and closed the Romorantin factory in March 2003. Still, the company survived longer than some other now defunct automotive nameplates, had an enviable motorsports record and, throughout its existence, Matra never produced a ho-hum, boring vehicle, a claim not many car manufacturers can make.

(1) The Henokiens is an association of companies that have been continuously operating and remain family-owned for 200 years or more, and whose descendants still operate at management level. It derives its name from the biblical patriarch Enoch.

(2) Originally the French army of course, but during World War Two, the occupying German forces.

(3) Compagnie Anonyme de Production et de Réalisations Aéronautiques.

(4) The ‘D’ prefix was dropped in 1967.

(5) And, by extension, Chrysler Europe, which had by then a majority share in Simca.

(6) Brissoneau & Lotz also made the bodies for the Opel GT.

(7) It won the magazine Style Autos 1973 award.

(8) A high performance variant powered by an unsusual U configuration eight cylinder engine was tested but never offered. DTW tells its story here.

(9) Later rebadged Talbot-Matra Rancho.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

26 thoughts on “Book of the Dead – Matra”

  1. Good morning Bruno and Thanks for another interesting history lesson. For me, the Bagheera was peak Matra, with its proper mini-supercar looks:

    The post-facelift car, with its longer rear side window, was even nicer:

    .Nobody woukd ever have guessed it was powered by such a modest engine. What a shame it was concealing such a terminal problem. The Murena may have sorted out the chassis corrosion issue, but it was rather less exotic and more ordinary looking to my eyes, for some reason:

    I wonder how the three-abreast seating worked in practice? I imagine some athleticism was required to access the centre seat.

    1. I imagine their target costumer would have been father+mother+child?…
      I looked hardly for a good Murena several years ago since I allways found its shape perfect, but (fortunately?) I never found one – parts would be dificult to get…

    2. Target customer were father, mother, mistress (on centre seat).

  2. Here in our area there is a well-maintained yellow M530 on the road. Just last weekend we saw this vehicle again at a classic car meeting. With the right exhaust system, it also sounds like it looks. My wife and I are always delighted to see this car.

    Owning a Bagheera was always a (youthful) dream that unfortunately never came true. As a memory remains a ride with a colleague of my father (His everyday car, for the weekend trips he had a Lotus 7. Unbelievable to what sufferings man is voluntarily capable of).

    My father had a Murena 2.2 – unfortunately not for very long, as this vehicle was a thorn in the side of his bosses at Porsche in Weissach from the very beginning and they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. It was the vehicle with which I exceeded the 200 km/h limit for the first time (Sunday morning, free motorway and me at the wheel. You don’t forget something like that).
    Using the three seats was actually no problem. You sat on the outermost seat and moved to the middle. But often the middle seat back was folded forward to serve as an armrest.
    In the last decades I often had the idea to own a Murena again, but the spare parts supply always deterred me. (Compared to that, the spare parts supply for an Alfasud Sprint is a Children’s birthday party).

  3. There was a Murena 2.2S with hot cam and double twin-choke Webers and 142 PS. Regrettably it came with an ‘aero kit’ (sill planks and spoilers) as standard. They made 480 of them.

  4. The Murena is my Matra i have a soft spot for. But the Rancho is the one with the best concept, design and realisation.

    A few years before the bankruptcy, Matra shows the M72, an idea of a fun-car without any chances at the european markets. A sort of a Citroen Mehari (or a Smart Roadster) for much more money and without and practical purpose. Matra had lost their sixth sense for niches.

    1. And thinking the Rancho is based on the Simca 1100 Pickup turns it into something even more worthwile.

      I see a mustard coloured one regularly around here, in good shape and I can’t understand how it survived all these heres.

      Last one I had seen wasn’t surely on this millenium

  5. Renault starved Matra to death by turning down every single proposition of theirs until the Espace was the only thing they had, and then they deliberately killed the entire company by taking the Espace in-house. I can not see it any other way. The Avantime was a bitter sweet parting gift but that is all.

    1. Ingvar, I see it in the same way.
      In order to be allowed to build the Espace, Renault demanded that the Murena be discontinued because it was seen as a competitor to the Alpine – which at that time already had the 6-cylinder and was a class above.
      Matra had only one product depending on Renault, and it is always difficult to stand on one leg.
      The only thing Matra was allowed to do was to build any kind of Conceps for Funmobiles, for which nobody in the Paris HQ was interested in the first place. There are some good ideas on display in the museum.
      But one must not forget: Renault was not even able to make something sensible out of Alpine. For Matra as another niche supplier, the decision-makers in Paris completely lacked the ability to recognise the possibilities. (Or they saw the possibility, but also the work that could be involved and preferred to choose the free weekends at the stud farm).

  6. Good afternoon, Bruno. Fascinating stuff. I knew all the cars, but not the history behind them.

    1. +1. It’s interesting to hear about the Ford V4 being used; I think the 1,500 cc version was used in the somewhat similar SAAB Sonett.

      It’s a shame that Renault bought Matra but didn’t continue to make use of them.

    2. They never bought them outright, did they? The Espace was such a success that all of Matra had to be expanded around it, the car-making part at least. Still, shameful conduct on Renault’s part.

      In the great merry-go-round that is defunct brand names (Kodak, Nokia), Matra is now a brand of bicycles, sold in France (where name recognition will be highest):

      Matra’s sports cars were always weird and wonderful: typically French in the best way possible. I always liked them, especially the Bagheera. Good name, too.

    3. The 1,700cc Cologne V4 was used in the US version Saab 96 and in umpteen German Fords from Capri to Transit.
      Ford made a specjal version for Saab with tolerances allowing it to be bored out to 1,850cc and cylinder heads modified to get over the siamesed ports, result 135 PS. Imagine that in a 530.

    4. Am I right in thinking Cologne built a V4 and Dagenham built a different V4 – and they each built their own V6s ? That’s mad Ted.

    5. The Cologne and Essex V4 and V6 engines are completely different and share no parts.
      The British engines are much larger and heavier because they were designed with a possible diesel version in mind that never became a reality. The Essex engines have heron type cylinder heads (to make a conversion to diesel easier) and very large diameter crankshaft bearings (to stand the combustion forces in a diesel).
      The Cologne V4 was dumped on them by Dearborn with the left overs of the mid-engine Mustang and Cardinal projects that became the Ford 12m P4. The V6 has two more cylinders added. The V4 has siamesed inlet and exhaust ports and therefore the V6 has one siamesed port and one extra, only very late in the engine’s life this was modified for the last Scorpios. The biggest (not to say only) advantage of the Cologne V4 is its extraordinary compactness which even made it a suitable replacement for the three cylincer two stroke in Saab 96.
      Mustang show car in which the V4 was presented first

  7. I recall that in the late ’90s Bagheeras and Murenas were available for just a few thousand Deutsche Marks at second hand dealerships. Looking at current prices, their value did not appreciate much since then.
    Not sure about the original target audience, but at that time high school and college students bought them as first car – the 3 seat layout was ideal as they could fit a whole dormitory room of friends and it was sporty without carrying a bad reputation like the Opel Manta did. In fact it didn’t have any reputation as the name and design was so obscure and Matra’s motorsport fame faded so much that barely anyone could recognize the brand and model.
    I confess that I have difficulties with differentiating Matras from the shape of certain pop-up headlight Lotuses from afar as well. Though given that Lotus is even less realiable, the long term observation is that if certain sporty object approaching is driving on it’s own wheels instead of being towed or on trailer then it’s probaby just a Matra.

    1. Yes, in the 90s you could still find a small amount of survivors of the 70s and 80s for little money. Among them were also examples of the “sporty class”, all of them ridden down with a (mostly) unknown number of previous owners and the last time these vehicles had seen the inside of a workshop was a long time ago. But only the really desperate bought something like a Matra.

  8. Mindboggling really, that an operation like Matra built a V12 F1 (and Le Mans) engine… especially as they bought the engines for their road cars from others. It served for almost a decade and a half as well.

  9. Apparently the Murena was the first production car to be hot dipped – some distortion problems had to be overcome. It also became necessary to avoid air bubbles that would expand greatly when the chassis was dipped. If I recall correctly, the dip is about 480°C.

    1. Here’s a picture of a Murena chassis dangling over the zinc.

      Dipping not only leads to distortions, it also creates a very uneven and rough surface with lumps and flakes of the metal. It all didn’t matter because the chassis was invisible in the completed car.

  10. For the M530 though the Taunus V4 engine chosen provided the best cost/ packaging
    answer, it turned out supply by Ford was supply was not always reliable, causing some difficulties and along with the lack of engine power limiting its appeal outside of France. Leaving some to reason to V6 conversions.

    Other alternative engines for the M530 include the Renault 16, Peugeot 204 and in particular the Lancia Fulvia (too dear), with the team behind the project keen to use a BMW 4-cylinder engine (also too costly) mounted transversely above the rear axle, but this would have required a special transmission to be made and would have bust the budget.

    Before the development of the Murena, did Matra contemplate designing the Type 180 engines around the Bagheera? If they were thinking of blind alley ideas like the U8, surely it would have been more straightforward to fit the 1.6-2.0 Type 180 engines?

    The Murena deserved a better fate what with the 4S prototype. turbocharged Type 180 used in the 505 Turbo and Citroen BX 4TC Group B, plus Matra’s own idea to use the PRV V6 in the Talbot Tagora (on top of a few Murena V6 conversions).

    Matra did seem to lose their intuition for seeking out new niches, never mind the odd calls they made concerning aspects of the Matra M25 exterior (resembling a warped version of the more atheistically pleasing Alpine A710 W71 prototype) and the Renault 21 based FWD Matra P43 Maquette roadster (that was to use the 21’s 120+ hp 2-litre engine with top speed forecast as 124 mph or 200 kph before abandoning it after hearing about the upcoming Mazda MX5).

  11. Ah, Matra… The Bagheera was one of those odd little outliers I had a soft spot for while growing up. In 1980s and 1990s Greece, I remember seeing a few Bagheeras – all of them post-facelift- parked in various places. As the years went by, they all vanished. It looks like they succumbed to rust.

    The most recent one I remember was in Chania, when I was an undergrad at the Technical University of Crete. When I first saw it, it was white and rather decrepit-looking, and it haunted various bars near the Old Harbor. At some point (I think it was around or 1996 or 1997), it was restored, or, more accurately, heavily modified: it was repainted in a very garish mustard yellow, lowered (as if you could lower it much), and given bigger wheels and a body kit that made the Ferrari 348 Zagato Elaborazione seem tame in comparison. I have no idea if they did anything to its oily bits.

    After 2000, it remained parked outside, hidden under a tarpaulin, on the left-hand side of Apokoronou Avenue, near the Polentas bridal store. It stayed that way, in that same place, for many years; most likely rotting away unseen under the tarp that became more and more tattered. The last time I saw it was in 2012, when I went down there for my PhD thesis defense. I highly doubt it survived.

    Incidentally, I’d also seen a few interesting cars in Chania: among them were a red Fiat Dino Coupé, which must have perished sometime around 1998, and a red Maserati 2.24v, which was eventually given some cringe-inducing “upgrades” around 2005: a tacky black-red leather interior and 18″ wheels with 35-profile tires that wouldn’t look out of place on something you’d see on the Barry Boys forums.

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