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The History of Matra: Innovative Minivan, Sports Car Creators

djetMatra (Mechanique-Aviation-TRAction), one of the larger industrial complexes in Europe, grew out of CAPRA, a small French aeronautical contracting firm; CAPRA changed its name to Matra in 1942, and built guided missiles in the post-war years. As Matra became a force in aeronautic research, it became clear that it could, like Saab, apply its technologies and skills to motorsports.

In 1963, Jean-Luc Legardere joined Matra, at the age of 35. The very next year, René Bonnet, who made small Renault-powered sports cars, ran into financial problems. Because Matra supplied Bonnet with his fiberglass, Legardere knew of the problems earlier than others, and bought the little company, renaming it to "Matra Sports," and throwing Matra into an ambitious race and rally car programme. He pushed a lot of money into it, ostensibly to give its weapons company parent a better image.

The first Matra, the Djet 5, was a continuation of the René-Bonnet Djet line; only 916 Djet 5s were built, all powered by a 1.1-litre Renault-Gordini motor, and coming off the Romorantin assembly line.

matra 530 M530

The first car designed entirely by Matra was the Matra 530, named after a Matra missile, and replacing the Djet; its attention to aerodynamics shows its heritage. The targa roof was ahead of its time, as was the top speed: 110mph from an uninspiring, central-mounted V4 Ford engine. Thanks to the chassis and aerodynamics, Matra won the 1969 Formula 1 Championship - the crown of the European car racing series. They also won the 24 hours of Le Mans three times - and were in the spotlight of the media at that time.

matra bagheeraIn 1970, Chrysler, which was still working on boosting overseas sales, entered the picture; rumors say that they wanted to buy Matra Sports completely, but Jean-Luc Legardere was not willing to step out, so they agreed to a 50/50 solution. In the 1970s, Matra Automotive was 50% owned by Chrysler and 50% by Matra Holding.
bagheera

Chrysler also owned SIMCA, and together they produced the Matra-SIMCA Bagheera sports coupé in 1973. The Bagheera sported a mid-engined layout and three-abreast seating; it was a stylish coupé that carried over some of the M530's engineering, saving money by using off-the-shelf parts. The engine came from the SIMCA 1100 (1442cc), but the Bagheera comfortably topped 100mph.

The Bagheera was a commercial and critical success, but it was not popular outside of France due to rusting spaceframes and other quality issues.

Jackie Stewart won a world championship at the wheel of a Matra-Tyrrell and back-to-back Le Mans victories in 1973/74, boosting Matra’s reputation.

matra ranchoThe Bagheera was facelifted in 1976, and then followed by the Matra-SIMCA Rancho, a pseudo-offroad vehicle with rugged styling, a plastic body, and two-wheel drive which sold in reasonable numbers. The Rancho dipped heavily into the SIMCA parts-bin, cutting its price. It was basically the front and drivetrain of a compact car (Simca 1100) with a tall, light fiberglass box, beginning behind the front seats and changing the character of the whole car. They equipped it with elements to let it look like a 4x4, but it never was.

In 1978, Chrysler had a new idea: the minivan. Matra saw the potential and started to adopt this to the European car size. Then, in 1979, Chrysler pulled out of Europe to avoid bankruptcy, selling its substantial holdings to Peugeot, which re-branded its new acquisition to Talbot. Peugeot was mainly lurking at the production capabilities in Poissy (Simca). They retired Talbot in 1986, but the successful Peugeots of the 1990s were developed by the former Chrysler-Simca.

matra murenaPeugeot maintained a partnership with Matra, and the new Murena appeared in 1980; it used the same structure as the Bagheera. The Murena had two four-cylinder engines: a 1.6-litre version (92 hp) of the Bagheera S engine (as later used in the Alpine and Solara), and an optional 2.2-litre (118 hp) development of the Chrysler 2-Litre unit. Styling was organic and streamlined with a final Cd (co-efficient of drag) rated at 0.328, which was very good indeed.

The handling, styling, and accomodation of the Murena were praised, but straight-line speed was slow for the price. Peugeot vetoed numerous improvements and finally let Matra market an aftermarket tuning kit, which boosted power to 142bhp but was expensive to buy and install. After a production run of a mere 10,680, the Murena was officially shut down, and Peugeot dissolved their partnership with Matra; Renault took over where Peugeot had left off.

Still in development at Matra was a small one-box multi-purpose vehicle, which would have been powered by Talbot engines, using many carry over parts (such as headlamps, grille, and interior fixings). This started out as, essentially, a larger version of the successful Rancho, created from the larger platform. Matra presented the first European minivan (1.5L engine, 75 hp, 5 seats, shorter than a VW Rabbit) to the board of Peugeot. They refused.

Still, Matra needed to produce something; they were making Ranchos and Murenas, split 70/30, and Rancho had already been extended to 1983. Peugeot did not support the Rancho replacement — the minivan — and was not willing to put money in the company. It looked like the end.

matra hqBut then two things happened: Jean-Luc Legardere bought back his 50% share from Peugeot, so Matra Automotive was independent of Peugeot.

In 1981, talks with Renault were held; in 1982, a production contract was signed. Renault saw the concept, and introduced it almost unchanged (down to the Alpine-esque headlamp/grille arrangement), and went produced hundreds of thousands of them as the Renault Espace.

This marked a final break with Peugeot: Renault did not accept the Murena (a competitor of Renault Fuego and Alpine) to be produced by Matra at the same time with the Espace. Matra dropped Rancho and Murena in 1983, and redesigned their factory for the production of the Espace.

The drivetrain and suspension had to be replaced by Renault parts; and while a 1.5L cross mounted engine had been planned, Renault wanted to make a high end product, and demanded a "huge" engine: 2.0L and 81 kW/110 hp, longitudinally mounted; look under the hood and you see the misfit - a lot of space on the left hand side, but the back part is half under the passenger compartment.

Renault also wanted to have 7 seats, as they had no 7 seater, unlike Peugeot and Citroen, so the Espace grew to 4.26 m, 60 cm longer than the early 5-seater prototypes (which had almost exactly the dimensions as the Mercedes A class, introduced in 1997).

Sales and production started in June of 1984. Only 9 cars were sold in the first month. But as the year progressed, sales rose, and production stayed on target.

The Renault Espace started out as the Matra P11, and was envisaged as a replacement for the Matra-Rancho. After approaching other manufacturers, including Citroen, it evolved into the P20 (having been re-modelled by Philippe Guédon, and revised to use the Renault 18 platform). There was still much SIMCA in the styling; the lean-forward nose, for example, came straight from the Chrysler Alpine, according to original designer Geoffrey Matthews.

In 1984, the Espace was not only the first European minivan, but was the only one for ten years. In 1994, the first concurrent appeared - a joint venture of Fiat (Ulysse) and Peugeot (806), also badged as Lancia Zeta and Citroen Evasion. In 1995, Volkswagen (Sharan) and Ford (Galaxy) went to market with their joint venture, later also sold as the Seat Alhambra. In the years between, there were Honda (Civic Shuttle, no real minivan), Nissan Prairie, Mitsubishi SpaceWagon (all introduced 1983-1985), Pontiac TranSport (distributed through Opel), and Chrysler Voyager. The TranSport was later replaced by the Opel Sintra (a rebadged Pontiac, produced in the US).

espaceThe Espace dominated the European minivan market until the late 1990s, when more and more smaller "vans" took their share - and traditionally smaller cars sell better in Europe. In its prime, Espace production capacities had to be extended frequently. Through late 2002, Matra built almost 1 million Espaces (in 18 years). Matra’s production before (1964-1983, 20 years) was below 160,000.

Matra built the first three generations of Espaces, but when the model was taken "in-house" by Renault in 2001, the company started producing the Avantime. When it became clear that this was not selling and Renault were going to pull the plug on the operation, Matra tried to cut a deal with MG Rover to produce a version of this car for the British to sell. That deal fell through, and the Matra production line was dismantled for sale in 2003.

Jean-Luc Legardere tried what he could to keep his "car adventure" alive, but in February 2003 Matra Automotive closed their doors; the fight was lost, and Pininfarina bought the remains. Jean-Luc Legardere was ill in that time, and passed away in March 2003. Matra Automotive was his life and both slipped away together.

Matra's successor, Legardere, is one of the main owners of EADS, the main European airplane and spacecraft company, building the Airbus.

In 2011, the Espace, as made by Renault, had been in production for nearly a decade, and several rumors circulated that it was to be dropped without a successor. In Matra times, production was over 50,000 cars per year; in 2011, it was a projected 15,000.

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