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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.