The sublime Matra 530 sports car led to SIMCA/Chrysler taking an interest in the company. That co-operation led to the aerodynamically styled three-seaters, the Bagheera and Murena.
Matra remained independent until the 21st century, surviving through close alliances with SIMCA and Renault. Matra has been responsible for some of Europe's most innovative cars, including the still-popular Espace.
Matra (Mechanique-Aviation-TRAction) grew out of CAPRA, a small aeronautical contracting firm whicih had been based in the free French zone; it changed its name to Matra in 1942, and built guided missiles in the post-war years.
Matra became a major force in French aeronautic research, and by the 1960s it became clear that a side-benefit of its research could be applying its technology, such as aerodynamics, to motorsports. In 1965, Matra took over the manufacture of René Bonnet's Renault-powered sports cars and threw itself into an ambitious race and rally car programme, that would lead to the company lifting the most glittering prize of all.
The first Matra road car was the Ford V4-powered Matra 530, which broke new ground in aerodynamics. A critical, if not a commercial success, the 530 paved the way for an allegance with SIMCA to produce the Matra-SIMCA Bagheera sports coupé in 1973. The Bagheera sported a mid-engined layout and three-abreast seating - and it paved the way for a fruitful relationship with Chrysler.
The Bagheera was followed by the Matra-SIMCA Rancho, a pseudo-offroad vehicle with rugged styling, a plastic body, and two-wheel drive. The Rancho sold in reasonable numbers, and thanks to continued investment from Chrysler, production levels continued to rise. When the Bagheera was replaced by the even slippier Murena in 1981, it seemed as if the relationship between Chrysler and Matra had reached maturity, but it was not to be.
In 1978, Chrysler pulled out of Europe to avoid complete bankruptcy, selling its holdings to Peugeot. In 1979, the British and French operations, including the Rancho and, later, the Murena, were re-branded Talbot. In the years that followed, much rationalization took place in an effort to find a profit. Matra's operation was left to fend for itself until Renault purchased it in 1983.
One of the most influential cars of the 1980s had been in development at Matra at the time: a one-box multi-purpose vehicle, which would have been powered by a range of Talbot engines, whilst using many carry over parts (such as headlamps, grille, interior fixings). Renault saw the concept, embraced it, introduced it almost unchanged (down to the Alpine-esque headlamp/grille arrangement), and went on to produce hundreds of thousands of them. It was the Renault Espace.
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.
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 car 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. As can be read elsewhere, that deal fell through, and the Matra production line was dismantled for sale in 2003.
After talks with MG Rover had failed, Matra shut down the production line of the Renault Avantime and appeared to have no other option but to close. However soon after, Matra were saved when the vehicle design company Pininfarina bought them. Matra are now the French based part of the Pininfarina company. (Thanks, Glen Pérez, for this information.)
With thanks to Julian Marsh for additional information.
Rootes Group cars including Singer, Sunbeam, Hillman, Humber, SIMCA, Chrysler Europe, and more!