Warning: the new series of Top Gear contains scenes of a Matra Bagheera S nature which some viewers might find distressing.
Yes, Top Gear is back (again), with a fresh bunch of presenters (again), and a new approach (again). Which means social media will be alive with criticism, complaints and carping (again).
This blog isn’t about the rights and wrongs of modern Top Gear. It’s not a yearning for a return to the ‘good old days’; many people seem to forget that there was life before Clarkson et al. A return to the good old days should mean watching Angela Ripon piloting a Ford Capri on the roads of the West Midlands.
Instead, this is what I suspect will turn out to be an obituary for the Matra Bagheera S. You may have seen the trailer for the new series: the one which shows a pedalo enthusiast and one half of Max & Paddy subjecting a Bagheera to what appears to be a slow and painful death.
Many of the tabloids refer to the car as an “obscure French 1970s Matra Bagheera”, but it’s not immediately clear why Top Gear selected the car for death by television. One can only assume it’s because it was named after a Jungle Book character and the episode is set… in a jungle.
If this is the case, could they have chosen something less ‘obscure’? A Mitsubishi Shere Khan, for example. Maybe a Ford Kaa. Or even a Vauxhall Baloo.
Admittedly, the Matra Bagheera wasn’t the finest sports car of the 1970s. Build quality was poor, mechanical failures were plentiful, and rust was a big issue. It was so poor, ADAC named it the most troubled new car in Germany.
It was designed to capitalise on Matra’s successful motorsport heritage, with the company signing a deal with Simca to expand its road car business. The agreement gave Matra access to Chrysler’s engineering might and the ability to sell cars through Simca’s vast dealer network.
The result was a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car powered by the 1.3-litre engine from the Simca 1100 TI hot hatch, which was mated to a four-speed gearbox. The later Bagheera S – as seen on Top Gear – gained a 1.4-litre unit.
A certain L.J.K. Setright likened it to the Lamborghini Uracco, saying: “I liked the Bagheera. All God’s children liked the Bagheera. If they did not, it must have been because it did not have enough horsepower or enough gears.
“It was good that car, like a poor man’s Uracco. Long serving readers will remember how both the editor and I were profoundly impressed by the supple ride, sweet steering and incomparable road-holding of the little Lamborghini, and were even more pleased because it was a little one…”
A total of 47,802 Bagheeras were built before the three-seater sports car made way for the much-improved Matra Murena in 1980. As a side note, during the Bagheera’s development, the plan was to have a three-seat layout in the same manner as the McLaren F1, but the final version received the three-abreast treatment.
According to the How Many Left website, there are five Bagheera S cars on the road, along with a further 13 listed as SORN. While these figures might not be entirely accurate, the number of cars on the road is likely to drop once the Top Gear car’s MOT runs out in September 2019.
Worse still, DHP 794T just happened to be an original press car and was used in the Bagheera brochure. How do we know this? Because the car in question was for sale on the Car & Classic website, with the vendor providing a detailed description of the “VERY RARE 1979 Matra Bagheera”.
This isn’t the first time Top Gear has trashed a rare car in the name of entertainment, and it won’t be the last. I’m also acutely aware that there are far bigger things to worry about than the ill-treatment of an “obscure French 1970s” sports car.
To be honest, I’m not even sure why I’m writing this ode to a car that very few people seem care about. Maybe I should be pleased that the Matra Bagheera is going to get its long overdue moment in the sun.
You never know, the Bagheera might return to the UK, receive a complete restoration, and all will be right in the world…
Meh, I’m probably just bitter that I didn’t get to rescue this particular slice of French Tat for the fleet. And on that bombshell…
Hat tip to Ben Hooper for the intel on the Top Gear Matra Bagheera.