Talbot-Matra Murena: Europe’s forgotten sports car

There are those who worship at the automotive temples of Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt, but I’m not one of them. Never ighave been; never will be. Even if I could explain why, it would be of no consequence. Whether by happenstance or otherwise, I follow – and occasionally fall off – a different path, one that leads me to all manner of strange, and sometimes wonderful, locations.

One such location was Romorantin, an agreeable little town situated in the Loir-et-Cher region of France, from which a succession of original, quirky and sometimes brilliant cars emerged for over a quarter of a century.

The company that built those cars was Matra (a contraction of Mecanique Aviation TRAction), an aerospace and defence company that branched out into the production of road and racing cars. The Matra story is an interesting tale, but it’s one for another day.  Today, we’re going to focus on one particular Matra model. And in the true spirit of Matra quirkiness, we’ll start with its predecessor.

As some of you will know, Matra teamed up with Simca in the early 1970s to produce a pretty mid-engined sports car: the Bagheera (shown below). Clad in a stylish composite body and bestowed with an interior that would have done NASA proud (and not just because the three-abreast seating echoed the accommodation in the Apollo space capsules), the Bagheera was launched at the 1973 Le Mans 24 hours, a race won by its big sister, the Matra MS 670B.

Matra-Simca Bagheera

The Bagheera received a warm welcome from the motoring press and the car-buying public alike, winning the Style Auto award for 1973 and enjoying a production run that extended to just under 48,000 examples.

There were, however, a couple of serious problems with the Bagheera: a lack of power (it was powered by 1294cc and, later, 1442cc overhead valve Simca engines) and the chassis’s unfortunate penchant for dissolving into a heap of rusty flakes.

Matra considered producing a ‘super-Bagheera’ powered by two 1294cc Simca engines joined together in a U8 configuration. Prototypes were built, but the oil crisis put paid to the idea. As for the rust problem, Matra installed huge hot-dip galvanisation tanks in their Romorantin factory, but these came too late for all but a handful of the very last Bagheeras.

During the course of the Bagheera’s seven year production run, Chrysler sold its European operations (including Simca) to PSA (Peugeot) for the princely sum of one dollar. In exchange, PSA inherited Chrysler Europe’s debts and a model range that included the Bagheera and another quirky Matra, the Rancho.

Matra-Simca Rancho

Matra soon reached a commercial accord with PSA in the same way that it had with Simca, and a new company was born: Matra Automobile.

In 1980, the first fruit of that alliance was revealed: a wedge-shaped slice of automotive sculpture that would replace the Bagheera in Peugeot-Talbot’s line-up. The name of that car? The Talbot-Matra Murena.

The Murena represented a sizeable evolutionary step over the Bagheera. It looked more modern, had the world’s lowest drag factor for a mid-engined production car (a record it would keep until it was bettered by the ultra-low production Panther Solo in 1989) and, significantly, was the first series production car in the world to have its entire chassis protected against rust by means of hot-dip galvanisation.

On the powertrain front, the Murena was initially offered with a 1592cc overhead valve unit (the final development of the venerable Simca Poissy unit used in the Bagheera and various Simcas), but it was soon supplemented by a 2155cc SOHC unit which also saw service in the Talbot Tagora. Neither unit, however, gave the Murena the performance to match its exotic looks.

Talbot-Matra Murena rear

Matra had hoped to persuade PSA to green-light a high performance version of the Murena. This model, known as the 4S, would use a Matra-developed DOHC, fuel injected, 16 valve version of the 2155cc powerplant. A running prototype of the engine was built along with a Murena featuring revised, more aggressive styling.  However, in the economically dark days of 1981, PSA refused to sanction production of the engine. Deprived of its intended powerplant, the restyled Murena was never put into production, although both it and the engine still exist.

In spite of some strong reviews, including an L.J.K. Setright penned feature in Car entitled ‘Murena the Marvellous’, sales were disappointing. There were a number of reasons for this: it was too expensive at a time when European economies were in recession; the advent of the hot hatch meant that similar (or better) straightline performance was offered in tandem with four seats, and for less money; the Murena’s marketing was lacklustre and the legacy of the Bagheera’s rust problems put off potential buyers.

Giving the Murena more power was one obvious way of increasing its appeal, so Matra engineers looked again at the issue of the Murena’s performance.  Without the funding for an all-new engine, they came up with an affordable and workable solution: improve the output of the 2.2-litre engine by fitting a lightened flywheel, double-twin choke Solex carburettors and a high-lift camshaft. Power rose from 118bhp to 142bhp and the Murena finally had the go to match its show.

These engine modifications were sold as part of a dealer-fitted kit, known as Préparation 142, that also included a rear spoiler and sill extensions. It wasn’t enough, however, to save the Murena, and only around 100 Préparation 142 kits had been sold when the decision was taken to end Murena production.

For the 1984 model year, there would only be one variant of the Murena: a special run-out model known as the Murena S – essentially a factory-produced version of the Préparation 142 model with a couple of small interior changes.

And that was that. The Murena’s production life was limited to three years and a run of 10, 680 cars – far below what Matra and PSA had anticipated.

The Matra Murena

After the Murena, Matra would never again produce a sports car. Nor would they ever produce another car bearing their own name. In 1984, Matra (having purchased PSA’s share in Matra Automobile) teamed up with Renault to produce a new type of car: the Espace. Matra would go on to build the first three generations of the Espace and the quirky Avantime, all of which would be badged as Renaults.

In 2003, following poor sales of the Avantime, Matra’s parent company decided to cease their involvement in car manufacturing. After lying empty for a time, the factory in which the Murena was produced was almost entirely demolished and the land on which it stood was redeveloped as housing.

Thirty-five years on from the first spy shots of the prototype undergoing testing, the Murena is largely forgotten about – especially here in the UK, where it was never officially imported. But does it deserve better than to be a footnote in European sports car history?

Let’s look at the evidence.

The Murena looked good and handled well while still offering typically French levels of comfort. The cabin was spacious for two, but was a mite cosy when the third seat was occupied. That, of course, may or may not have been a bad thing, depending on who was occupying the middle seat…

On the negative side, the fit and finish of the cabin was not of the highest quality, and the cabin styling, though tidy, felt like a retrograde step from the spage age anarchy of early Bagheeras.  The gear lever had a fairly long throw, and over time wear in the linkage mechanism would introduce sloppiness to the gearchange. The brake calipers also presented some problems, having an annoying tendency to stick.

The 1.6-litre model offered good fuel economy for the day, but this came at the price of outright performance. The 2.2-litre version had a reasonable turn of pace, but only the Préparation 142 and S models could really  be said to walk the walk.

Talbot-Matra Murena doors open

The chassis galvanisation was an outstanding success. Many Murenas still survive today, more than three decades after the final Murena S left the factory.

You won’t, however, see many Murenas in the UK. There used to be about 250 of them on this side of the English Channel, but there may now only be a tenth of that number. Some have gone to meet their maker, but many have been snapped up by French enthusiasts and returned to the land of their origin. It’s our loss.

In the final analysis, the Murena was an original, attractive and comfortable sports car that was born at the wrong time and, with the exception of the Préparation 142 and S models, was slightly hindered by underwhelming powerplants.

But that’s no reason for it to languish in the doldrums.

The last sports car produced by the company that took Jackie Stewart to his first World Drivers’ Championship and ensured Graham Hill’s place in sporting history as the first (and so far only) man to have won the World Drivers’ Championship, the Le Mans 24 hours and the Indianopolis 500 deserves better than that.

 

Further waffle you might like

Facebook Comments

comments

ABOUT AUTHOR
David Milloy
Freelance writer and all-round good guy (it says here). Loves cars with character, movies, history and the offbeat.

16 comments

  1. June 18, 2015
    Gavin Big-Surname

    Now you see, this brings back memories. Forgive me, because my mind is a tad hazy.

    Back in 1998/1999, part of my university studies involved heading over to West Lulworth for a day a week. Just outside the village was a small garage, which happened to have a Murena for sale. Weird place to have such an exotic car.

    After a few weeks, I plucked up the courage to make some enquiries and was immediately offered a test drive. To my surprise, the garage owner simply gave me the keys and invited me to head off on my own. Naturally, I didn’t hesitate.

    I remember the Murena feeling very tired, especially that long-throw gear change you mention. Of course, I also remember the three seats at the front.

    It was priced somewhere between £2k and £3k, which wouldn’t have been out of the question with the help of some student loan funding. Sadly, I didn’t buy it, but I often wonder what happened to it.

    So, if anyone out there bought a Murena for a garage in rural Dorset, around the turn of the new millennium, please get in touch!

    Great piece, David.

    Reply
  2. June 19, 2015
    David Milloy

    My love affair with Matra began when I was given the 1977 ‘Motor’ road test annual as a Christmas present. As presents go, this one was to make a lasting impression.

    In amongst reprinted road tests of Vauxhall Chevettes and Rover SD1s lay a road test of a Matra-Simca Bagheera S – a series 2 Bagheera S, to be precise. Although not the highest specification Bagheera (that distinction lay with the limited edition Courreges model, with its faux leather seats and matching detachable door pockets cum handbags), the S had the twin carburettor version (downdraught Weber 36 DCNFs for those interested in such things) of the Simca 1442cc pushrod engine that pumped out all of, er, 90 bhp…

    It may not have been the fastest thing on four wheels, but by ‘eck did it look great: low, swoopy and with – joy of joys – pop-up headlamps. Better yet, ‘Motor’ loved it. “Other manufacturers please copy” they said, to deaf ears.

    It was love at first sight. My heart was set on owning a Bagheera one day. It wouldn’t be soon, I knew, not least because I had yet to reach my teens in 1977. No matter. I would wait.

    Eleven years later, I found myself driving home in a silver Bagheera. My adventures in Matra-land had just begun…

    Reply
  3. June 21, 2015
    Ben

    The Murena is just lovely. Those door handles look familiar, where are they from in the parts bin?

    Great read, thanks.

    Reply
  4. June 21, 2015
    David Milloy

    Glad you enjoyed the piece, Ben.

    The Murena is a very pretty car indeed. My personal favourite is the 4S body prototype – the blue car in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cx7YaYWHmag

    As for the door handles, I’m fairly sure that they come from the Peugeot 505.

    Reply
  5. July 5, 2015
    rotation

    Rover 800 rear lights?

    Reply
    • July 5, 2015
      David Milloy

      I can see why you’d think that, but the answer is no. The Murena’s rear lights are unique to the model.

      Reply
  6. July 8, 2015
    David Milloy

    I should have added in the piece that some Murena 2.2s have been retro-fitted with Alfa’s glorious 3.0 litre V6. You’ll mostly find these in the Netherlands. The Dutch Matra specialist, Carjoy, is a good place to start your search for one: http://www.carjoy.nl/

    Closer to home, a few Murena 1.6s were converted to accept the Peugeot 1.9 litre SOHC lump as used in the 205 GTI, albeit most of the converted Murenas are carburettor fed rather than fuel-injected. The Peugeot engine is reckoned to give good performance without upsetting the Murena’s handling. And there’s one for sale at the moment: http://www.carandclassic.co.uk/car/C634082 I’ve no connection with the car or the seller.

    Incidentally, the two-tone interior (dark brown dash, tan door panels) may look odd, but that’s how earlier 1.6 litre Murenas came. I dare say you could still pick up the later dark brown door panels or indeed a black dash and door panels if you look in the right places.

    Reply
  7. July 8, 2015
    David Milloy

    And just for the sake of completeness, I’d best add that a Dutch company produced a turbo kit for the 2.2 litre Murena back in the day. Indeed, in 1983, John Miles tested a turbocharged, right hand drive Murena for Autocar magazine. The rhd conversion was carried out by a Cartel of Woking. They converted five Murenas to rhd. To my knowledge, at least one other car was converted to rhd.

    Reply
  8. October 25, 2015
    Geoff Davies

    Liked the article on the murena. I believe I own the lowest mileage one which I have owned since new . The car has been in a heated garage since. 1997 last trip that year to matra passion in Paris I intend to put it back on the road in a few weeks

    Reply
    • October 26, 2015
      David Milloy

      Thanks, Geoff.

      Would I be right in thinking that you and your Murena attended the Matra-organised bunfight at CERAM Mortefontaine on 27 September, 1997? If so, you’ll see some footage of it (and a couple of later meetings) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hu_kiB7dIjU

      Reply
  9. October 5, 2016
    Roy

    Hello David, A good article to remind people that there is a much under-rated, very pretty and practical sports coupe, that most people don’t even know about. There are two points I would take issue with you though. You say it was too expensive. I’m sorry but I don’t agree at all. It cost less than half of a Lotus Esprit S2.2 which was it’s nearest competitor at the time, and yet it only lacked the additional power of the Lotus. The engine could easily be tuned to give the extra power. In other respects it was easily its equal or better. An Esprit S2.2 was £15,200 whilst the Murena was only £6,900. That was even less than a Cortina GXL and was to my mind the Matra was a bargain. Second point is that you give the power figures as bhp but they are not – they are PS which is slightly different and they are also incorrect anyway as the French measured the power figures in kilowatts (under their metric system) and then used the wrong conversion factor! I still have mine and continue to develop and improve it for even better reliability. However, good to see the article and know you are still around.

    Reply
    • October 7, 2016
      David Milloy

      Hi Roy,

      Thanks for your comments. It’s been a long time and it’s good to hear from you.

      Knowing me of old, it probably won’t surprise you that I’m going to stick to my guns on the issue of price. There’s no denying that the Murena represented superb value when compared with an Esprit. That said, I don’t think it’s the right comparison. The Esprit was a high-performance car built in tiny numbers (10,675 over 28 years) and aimed at the Ferrari 302/328 end of the market. The Murena had neither the badge nor the performance (not even the 142/S could match a normally aspirated Esprit 2.2’s pace) to compete in that sector, which in any event was too small to generate the volume of sales that Matra Automobile needed the Murena to achieve.

      As I see it, the Murena’s true competition came from what I’d refer to as sporty cars – in other words, the coupes and hot hatchbacks of the day. And by the early 1980s that was a very competitive sector. The Murena was beautiful, original and innovative, but it was up against cars that could match or better its performance, offer more space for people and luggage and undercut it on price.

      In December 1980, Echappement magazine conducted a group test of 10 ‘sportives’ ranging from a Murena 1.6 to a Sunbeam Lotus. Although it did well in the test (finishing third), the Murena was the slowest of the group in a straight line. But even in basic 1.6 specification (steel wheels, clear glass and manual windows) it cost more than several cars that offered both greater performance and practicality. Using the prices quoted by Echappement, a Ford Escort XR3 could be purchased for around 20% less than a Murena 1.6 while a VW Scirocco GLi (the test winner) came in at around 10% less. Although the Murena 2.2 would have been a better match for those tested in terms of outright pace (though by no means the fastest of the group), it would also have been the most expensive of the ten.

      To some, smitten by the Murena’s beauty and road manners, that wouldn’t have mattered. To others, however, price was a factor that counted against the Murena.

      So much for price, let’s look at power.

      I took the power figures used in the piece from contemporary sources, including the ‘Motor’ road test of a Murena 2.2 from July 1981, the ‘Autocar’ feature on the Murena from April of that year and L.J.K. Setright’s excellent appraisal of the 1.6 and 2.2 Murenas from the May 1981 issue of ‘Car’. All of those give figures of 92 bhp for the 1.6 and 118 bhp for the 2.2. Moreover, a handout prepared by the Espace automobiles Matra for Retromobile 2001 states that the 2.2 has an output of 118 ‘HP’ and the S has 142 ‘HP’.

      The Echappement group test referred to above states that the Murena 1.6 has a maximum power output of 92. This is expressed as a DIN value, which could of course refer to either bhp or PS. I’d also observe that the Bagheera technical data issued by Chrysler France also refers to DIN values for power outputs without providing further elaboration.

      I’m going to look into this matter (an interesting one that I’m grateful to you for raising) a little more deeply once I find the rest of my Matra technical papers etc. I’ll report back here in due course.

      Reply
      • October 8, 2016
        David Milloy

        A chat with Roy and a bit of poking around has confirmed that the power figures stated in the sources used by me are wrong. And that, by extension, means that I’m wrong. Oh well, at least I’m in good company…

        According to contemporary Matra documentation, the power output of the Murena S is 100 kW. That equates to 134 bhp or, if you prefer, 136 PS. So the Prep 142 kit should, in fact, have been a Kit 136. Oops.

        But how did this happen? Well, as Roy says, it seems that someone used the wrong formula when converting kW to PS. If so, they did it consistently over the years, as all the published Murena power output figures are wrong.

        That’s the first error, but there is a second.

        Every contemporary UK road test or feature about the Murena (well, at least every one that I’ve seen – and I don’t think I missed any) confuses PS with bhp. How did that happen?

        Well, my belief (and it’s no more than that) is that the information packs handed out to UK scribes gave a bald figure for power without stating whether it was in PS or bhp. ‘Our’ lads and lasses (wrongly) assumed it was the latter and, hey presto, there’s the second error.

        Now that I’m getting over the shock of discovering that my beloved (and much missed) Murena S ‘only’ had 134bhp, I’d like to thank Roy for setting the record straight.

        Reply
        • October 8, 2016
          David Milloy

          Just noticed an error in the above.

          The sentence that states that all the published Murena power output figures are wrong should have read: ‘all the published Murena 2.2 power output figures are wrong.’ That’s because the Murena 1.6’s power output of 68 kW was correctly converted to 92 PS (91bhp).

          Reply
  10. October 10, 2016
    Osella

    Great article – and allow me to jump off topic with the observation that Tyrrell – who ran the Matra for Jackie Stewart in 69 – their F1 entry ultimately became Mercedes’, via BAR, (-)Honda, Brawn; and Stewart’s became Jaguar then Red Bull. Matra are indelibly linked with greatness.

    Reply
    • October 10, 2016
      David Milloy

      Thanks, Osella. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments about Matra and greatness.

      It’s worth adding that Ken Tyrrell ran the Matra International team in 1968 as well as 1969. Indeed, looking back the 1968 season it’s quite conceivable that in the tragic absence of the great Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart would have won the drivers’ title had he not fractured his wrist and thereby missed the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix, the MS10 having been highly competitive at both rounds in the hands of Messrs. Beltoise and Servoz-Gavin respectively. As it was, he took three Grand Prix wins and would also have won at Spa if he hadn’t run out of fuel very late in the race.

      That same season, Matra Sports ran the MS10’s Matra V12-powered sister car, the MS11, from the Monaco Grand Prix onwards. The highlight of this two-pronged attack came at the Dutch Grand Prix, at which Stewart in the MS10 led home Beltoise’s MS11 for a novel 1-2.

      Reply

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *