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by Keith Adams
Following Jackie Stewart's world championship at the wheel of a Matra-Tyrrell and back-to-back Le Mans victories in 1973/74, Matra's credentials were impeccable. The Bagheera had been a commercial and critical success for Matra and Chrysler, thanks to its combination of prettiness, generous accomodation, and a sweet chassis. However, the main barrier to success in export markets was the Bagheera's build quality, or to be more precise, the lack of it. Those sold in Northern European markets soon suffered from rusting spaceframes.
Buyers also demanded more power, and even though the Bagheera S could deliver a fair turn of speed, it could not be described as a fast car. Matra needed was a Bagheera built to higher standards and with larger engines.
The Murena, which started out as project M551, was defined as an evolution of the Bagheera, and was built around the existing structure. The engine came later, but it was decided to equip the M551 with a 1.6-litre version of the Bagheera S engine (as later used in the Alpine and Solara), and an optional 2.2-litre development of the Chrysler 2-Litre unit (later to be found in the Tagora). The engine situation was still fluid at the time that Chrysler Europe became part of PSA; and so, Matra set-about investigating options within the PSA range. For the larger version, the 2-Litre Peugeot-Renault Douvrin engine (so-called because it was built in Douvrin) looked good. Being all-aluminium, it was somewhat lighter than the existing SIMCA lump, which would have beneficial effects on the car's handling. However, Renault vetoed the plan, as the company feared that the Murena amounted to too-effective competition for its upcoming Fuego model, which would also be receiving a Douvrin.
Undeterred by Renault's snub, Matra finalized the engine range; in both cases ex-SIMCA units were used. The styling, however, was unlike anything that had come before: it is difficult to describe the Murena as an evolution of the Bagheera, as that car was firmly planted in the 1970s (classic wedge, defined by clear edges), whereas the Murena was much more organic. That streamlined style was an obvious result of the many hours spent honing the design in the wind tunnel. And the results were impressive: the final Cd (co-efficient of drag) rated at 0.328, which in 1980, was nothing short of sensational. To put that figure into perspective, one must compare it with another of 1980's "streamliners": when launched, the Renault Fuego's aerodynamics were loudly trumpeted in its advertising, and yet it scored 0.347.
Body engineering was similar to the Bagheera: a plastic outer-skin, comprising of a mere twelve panels was fitted to a heavy and rigid steel spaceframe. The Murena's spaceframe was completely galvanized, and had a six-year anti-corrosion warranty. The rear suspension comprised of MacPherson struts, but at the front, the Alpine/Solara's torsion bar set-up was used. The 1592cc version boasted 92 bhp, whilst the 2156cc version put out 118bhp, but much more torque. Both Murenas came with five-speed gearboxes as standard.
The Murena was launched in September 1980, and found itself sharing the spotlight with the new Tagora. Talbot's ambition to show it at the Paris Salon outweighed the desire to present a finished product - Renault unveiled the Fuego at the same show, and Talbot management felt that the Murena possessed more than enough style to overshadow it. The Murena did make a favourable first impression, and most journalists couldn't wait to get their hands on it. Sadly, that would not happen until the following Spring, thanks to the need for Matra to cure an oil starvation feed problem in the 2.2-litre model.
The styling and accomodation of the Murena were praised, and the its handling was particularly lauded, but there was unease about price and performance. Despite offering 118bhp in 2.2-litre form, most felt that the Murena simply was not fast enough. In his report in CAR magazine, LJK Setright made some unfavourable comparisons between the 2.2-litre Murena and the Volkswagen Scirocco GTi. Straight line speed was the issue, and given the profusion of newly-launched hot hatchbacks, coupés such as the Murena were being left behind. Comparable coupés such as the Alfasud Sprint and Scirocco were considerably cheaper, and similarly priced cars such as the Porsche 924 and Alpine-Renault A310 were faster. The Murena might have been able to run rings around any of these cars on a twisty B-road but in the minds of most, this was not enough.
Stung by such criticism, Matra developed an uprated Murena 4S model ("4S"=quatre soupapes, four valves). Based upon the standard 2.2-litre model, the Murena 4S sported a clever 16 valve head, which upped the maximum power to a much more respectable 180 bhp. The gearbox remained unmodified, and had no trouble handling the extra power; the 4S model proved impressively reliable. To differentiate the 4S, Matra added an aluminium targa-top, wider wheel arches and spoilers, front and rear. The Murena 4S could reach reach more than 140mph. When presented with the 4S in November 1981, though, Peugeot management would not approve it for production.
Matra did not give up on the idea of a faster Murena, but Peugeot would not play ball: a promising V12 designed by André Legan was passed over after not progressing far beyond the drawing board. A version powered by the 2.9-litre PRV V6 engine (Tagora, Volvo 760, Peugeot 604) was vetoed. A final attempt at getting Peugeot to approve the 4S for production in fuel injected form also proved fruitless.
In the end, Peugeot let Matra market an aftermarket tuning kit, which boosted power to 142bhp through a more aggressive camshaft and a four-into-one inlet manifold feeding two twin-choke Solex carburettors. This was to be fitted by a Talbot dealer, and the cost implications of the upgrade added to the financial burden of purchasing a Murena (the "S" kit took twenty-five hours to fit). Thankfully, performance was now in keeping with the Murena's sleek looks, and in a straight line, it could keep a Porsche 944 honest.
In the end, Matra decided to wind down production of the Murena. The 142S kit became a factory option (to use up the remaining chassis and body shells), and the Murena-S became a full-time member of the family in June 1983. A month later, after a production run of a mere 10,680, the Murena was officially dead. Peugeot pulled the plug on its accord with Matra. Traditional profit-maker Peugeot found itself enduring some of the worst financial performances of its existence, and since Matra's commercial performance had faded since the mid-1970s, Peugeot decided that it no longer needed Matra. The partnership was dissolved, thus ending the Murena and the Rancho. Matra would be left to fend for itself, but not for long: Renault swooped in and entered into a similar commercial partnership.
Should PSA, Matra or even Chrysler be held responsible? Probably a combination of all three, plus the changing demands of performance car buyers. During the early 1980s, the "hot hatchback" was the car to be seen in; and one can see that the ownership proposition of a good GTi was compelling. The Murena could seat three, its boot was much larger than you would imagine, and once the Lancia Monte Carlo disappeared, it was clearly the best-looking mid-engined real world Coupé available. However, it was too slow. This might have been acceptable in an inexpensive car like the Bagheera, but not in one as expensive as the Murena.
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