Matra Automobile

Although the company was founded before World War II, it wasn’t until 1964 that it shifted its focus to the development and production of automobiles.

Before that, Matra operated as a supplier to the aerospace industry, conducting research and development. The company name, Mecanique Aviation TRAction, reflects this background.

The decision to venture into automobile production stemmed from the concern of Marcel Chassagny, the then-director, despite the company’s good business performance, about its military and armaments factory image.

Matra acquired the promising sports car firm René Bonnet after supplying polyester components for some time, and subsequently established Matra Sports. Heading the automotive division of Matra was Jean-Luc Lagardère, an ambitious individual and the driving force behind Matra Sports. The René Bonnet Djet underwent numerous modifications, and production numbers of the new Matra-Bonnet Djet were increased. Additionally, under the leadership of Philippe Guédon, formerly of Simca, work commenced on an entirely new Matra product. This resulted in the production of the Matra Sports M530 in 1967.

In addition to producing compact and unique production cars, Lagardère had a highly ambitious sporting goal: to win both the Formula 1 title and the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Matra Sports within 10 years! This goal was further intensified by the announcement that Matra Sports would develop its own V12 engine. Matra Sports made its racing debut in Formula 3 in 1965. Experience gained from aerospace projects proved beneficial, as the monocoque construction was introduced to motorsport. This involved replacing the tubular frame with a metal cell, onto which all mechanical components were mounted. Additionally, the traditional fuel tank was replaced with fuel placed between the inner and outer skin of the monocoque. Matra quickly became dominant in Formula 2.

In 1969, Matra began collaborating with Simca, which was then part of Chrysler France. This collaboration led to the birth of the Bagheera in 1973. A novelty in the automotive industry was the installation of three seats in the front.

A grand introduction was chosen: the 24 Hours of Le Mans!

In 1977, alongside the Bagheera, a second Simca-Matra product emerged: the Rancho. The Rancho was designed for all types of roads but not for all types of terrains, as it lacked true 4×4 capability to keep production costs low. Meanwhile, Matra Sports had achieved significant success in motorsports. They clinched the Formula 1 title in 1969 with Jacky Stewart, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1972, ’73, and ’74, and secured the World Championship titles for manufacturers in 1973 and 1974.

By the end of 1974, Matra decided to end its motorsport activities, transferring its racing division to Guy Ligier’s team in 1975. Until the early ’80s, engines were supplied to Ligier, and Jacques Laffite managed to secure three Grand Prix victories with the aging Matra V12 engine. The successor to the Bagheera was the Murena, which went into production in 1980. As Matra had become part of the PSA Group (Peugeot Société Anonyme), which had taken over Chrysler’s European operations, the Murena was marketed under the Talbot-Matra brand in showrooms.

Much was learned from the Bagheera, which influenced the design of the Murena. As a result, the Murena featured a fully galvanized chassis, a five-speed gearbox, and more powerful engines (1.6 and 2.2 liters).

Inspired by the popularity of vans in America and the success of their own Rancho, Matra conceived a European variant of the van in the late ’70s. However, it was to be equipped with a modular multifunctional interior. Yet, it was a challenging time for the PSA Group, and as Matra’s vision diverged further from Talbot’s, their collaboration ended in 1983.

Convinced of the potential of the European van concept, Guedon approached Renault and presented his “voiture à vivre” (living car) idea to the then-directorate. After some modifications, Renault’s management was also convinced of its success, leading to the creation of the Renault Espace.

However, due to the partnership with Renault, Matra had to halt production of the Murena, as Renault did not want internal competition for its Alpine and Fuego models.

Despite being sold as a Renault, the Espace was essentially a Matra underneath, with features like the galvanized chassis and plastic panels. Additionally, up until the third generation, the Espace had a Matra chassis number.

When Renault decided to produce the fourth-generation Espace entirely in-house, it left Matra with a significant gap in production capacity. To fill this gap, Matra conceived the first MPV coupe: the Avantime. This luxurious coupe, based on the Espace, featured a bold design.

The Avantime took time to establish itself, unlike the Espace. Aware that production capacity would still be available despite the Avantime’s production, Matra sought additional opportunities within its capabilities. This led to the development of the production-ready Matra M72 in 2003 and the concept model Matra P75.

The disappointing sales of the Avantime put significant strain on Matra’s financial situation. With bleak prospects ahead and the sudden passing of Jean-Luc Lagardère, Matra decided to close its factory in Romorantin in March 2003.

By the end of 2003, the renowned design studio Pininfarina acquired Matra’s design and development department. Allowing this department to continue under its “own” name (Matra Automobile Engineering) underscored Pininfarina’s appreciation for the expertise that Matra had built in this field. The first Pininfarina product in which Matra also had a role was the Enjoy, created to commemorate Pininfarina’s 75th anniversary.

Despite the challenges, Matra’s history is well preserved and can be explored at the Matra Museum in Romorantin. Furthermore, Matra’s influence in the automotive industry continues to be felt through the previously mentioned Matra Automobile Engineering and the production branch Matra Automobile MS (Manufacturing Services).

Here’s an overview of production numbers for Matra Automobiles:

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