In more than a hundred years, the French motor industry has never tackled the muscular off-road market. In Europe, only the British Land Rover has been a serious player on the global 4X4 stage, although Mercedes has been since the 1980s attempting to get itself a little more than walk on role. Some oft these German vehicles have been assembled in France for military use but France’s main contribution to the sport utility boom that swept the world at the end of the twentieth century was a small estate car that talked the talk but couldn’t really walk the walk. The Matra Simca Rancho was one of the most macho looking cars ever made but underneath it was a real softie at heart.

France’s first serious attempt at a multi-purpose utility vehicle came not from one of its major car companies but from Matra, one of the few small-scale specialist producers based in the country. The Rancho was a result of Matra's growing confidence from being under the corporate wing of Chrysler. The Bagheera had been well received by the press and buyers, alike, and the company decided that it was ready for expansion. Matra was an innovative company - whatever it produced had to reflect this forward thinking, imaginative philosophy. However, Matra also needed to develop a car that would fit neatly into the Chrysler range but also attract new buyers into the fold. The mechanical parts of the new car would naturally come from Simca, Matra’s industrial partner.

The project was given added impetus by the 1973 fuel crisis. Matra Automobiles had specialised in building sports cars, including by the 1970s the three seat Simca powered Bagheera. The company was apprehensive that the after shock of the crisis would reduce demand for sports cars. At the same time, they noticed the success of the Range Rover – a strong seller in spite of its thirsty V8 engine. Matra reasoned that there could be a market for a car that looked as rugged as the Range Rover but which was smaller, cheaper, lighter and more economical.

Chrysler, who since the sixties had owned Simca, supported the idea. The Simca 1200 Campero may have influenced that decision, a Simca 1100 based utility vehicle produced by a Spanish dealer. Chrysler are reported to have taken one back to France, pulled it to pieces and decided that the concept bore further investigation. Matra – already looking for something to build alongside the Bagheera and taken by the idea of a mini Range Rover - were only too happy to pick up on the idea. They launched into the development of a similar project to the Campero, based upon the 1976 Simca 1100 VF3, a commercial version of the small car with a roofline raised by eight inches.

The idea of basing the new Matra on the front wheel drive Simca 1100 platform was a sound one. It was produced in large numbers, the French public loved it, and its mechanical bits were tried and tested. It also meant that the new car could be developed within a limited budget.

A sense of adventure…

The new car was christened P12 and was developed into a faux off-roader with many of the styling attributes associated with the Range Rover such as its horizontally split tailgate. It was launched in Europe as the Matra-Simca Rancho in May 1977 arriving on the British market in May 1978. Most of the rear body was made from a fibreglass clad steel frame with large picture windows in the sides and large rear tailgate. The back seat was ten centimetres higher than the front seats to give back seat passengers a sense of adventure!

Underneath, it was pure Simca 1100, based on a reinforced Simca/Dodge 1100 Pick Up chassis made longer and stronger aft of the front doors. That meant the Rancho shared its torsion bar front and rear suspension with the 1100 but it was fitted with an 1442cc 80bhp Simca 1308/Chrysler Alpine engine. This helped propel the new car to 91 mph although fuel consumption was fairly high as the car was only slightly more aerodynamic than a brick. The brakes came from the high performance Simca 1100 TI, the doors, front wings, windscreen and wings from the 1100 Pick Up and the dashboard from the hatchback 1100. Unique sports style wheels were fitted along with large plastic bumpers and grilles over the lights. Two spotlights were mounted on the front wings, next to the windscreen pillars. These only worked with the ignition switched off! On top of the steel roof over the front two seats was a matt black plastic roof rack. This was to provide additional storage space and to try and disguise the sudden change in roofline between the Simca derived cab and the glass fibre rear extension. Matt black wheel arch extensions, side rubbing strips, bumpers and window frames were fitted to give the Rancho an aggressive yet practical appearance. Even the steering wheel was black! Accessories available included a third back seat.

Although the final production car was front wheel drive only, Matra did experiment with four-wheel-drive versions. With the limited development budget available, developing a 4X4 was not really a viable option - in any case, 4X4 would have meant extra weight and fuel consumption. However, the Rancho did come with a sump guard just in case owners were fooled by the looks into heading for the hills. The company had also hoped to replace the 1442cc carburettor fed engine with a 1600 cc fuel injected unit – again, another plan that remained but a pipe dream.

It was the lack of four wheel drive that was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the car, which certainly looked every bit the part of the go anywhere, do anything type of vehicle that would appeal to upwardly mobile adventurous young people. Publicity photographs invariably featured people using their Rancho to indulge in various outdoor sports in what were obviously supposed to be out of the way places. Unfortunately, with just front wheel drive and ground clearance limited to six inches, the Rancho had no more chance of getting through the jungle or across the steppes than, say, a regular Simca 1100…

Britain’s Motor magazine described the Rancho as: “well equipped and fun to drive”. However, their overall view was that: “it is a compromise: more capable that the average estate but difficult to take seriously as an off road vehicle”.

It did however have lots of style as well as lots of room and made an interesting and good looking alternative to the other options that were available in the late seventies to those with demanding leisure interests. This growing group of car buyers had a choice of an estate car version of a regular saloon or a small van - maybe with windows cut into the sides later! Chrysler’s press department described its as: “a multi purpose leisure vehicle” and the Rancho came fourth in the 1977 Car of the Year competition.

Matra-SIMCA Rancho in découvrable form.(Picture: Graham Arnold)

Form over function…

The Rancho soon found favour with buyers, especially in its native France, who appreciated its huge interior space and limited off-road ability. Car magazines tended not to understand the Rancho, questioning why it should look the way it did, whilst not being able to back up the macho image with genuine off-road ability. Buyers, on the other hand, understood it immediately...form over function! At the British launch Chrysler said: “the Rancho has become a very fashionable car in which to be seen along the boulevards of Paris”. The Rancho may not have had the capability of a Land Rover but it cost 20% less and looked like it cost 20% more. In 1979, the Rancho was offered with a low compression petrol engine, the idea being to allow lower octane petrol to be used which was useful for support exports to those countries where petrol was generally of a lower grade than that available in France. This engine option was not offered to British buyers.

In October 1980, the Rancho gained electronic ignition, a special economy tune carburettor, a slightly lower differential ration and a radio. However, 1980 was also the year that the seeds of the Rancho’s demise were sown.

During 1980 Matra had developed project P-18 as a replacement for the Rancho. This was a much larger concept than the Rancho although it was based on the Talbot Solara floorpan which was itself based on the same Simca 1100 chassis that underpinned the Rancho. Peugeot didn't feel they had the money to develop the new project and Matra were turned down. Matra then approached Renault with their new idea. Renault snapped Matra’s hand off although their decision cost Matra their place in the sports car market. Renault felt that the Matra Murena was competition for their Alpine and Fuego models and demanded that production of the Murena was stopped before the P18 would be produced. Just before Christmas 1983, when the Matra factory closed down for the holidays, the last Murena - a red 142bhp Murena S - rolled off the production line. The plant was converted to produce the P18, which became one of Europe’s most influential cars - the Renault Espace, Europe’s first people carrier. Peugeot over the years must have felt like the chap who turned down the Beatles! Without the Simca sponsored Rancho, Matra – and Renault - would never have made the Espace.

The relationship between Matra and Peugeot became strained thanks to the burgeoning co-operation of Matra with Renault. Sales of the Rancho were more than the double the forecasts. Thanks to comparatively low development and production costs Rancho was also the most profitable Matra until the Espace. However, Peugeot took a fair slice of the profit on each car and had of course turned down Matra’s next big idea. Matra took a strategic decision to end production of the Rancho in 1984 and concentrate their efforts on the Espace – a wise decision because Espace production soon climbed to 300 cars per day! It became the most produced car in Matra’s history, taking that record from the Rancho.

The Rancho remained on sale until early 1985, having been renamed the Matra-Talbot Rancho in 1982 as a result of the take over by Peugeot of Chrysler’s European operations. Even though Matra were, since 1980, increasingly focused on the P 18/Espace project, they did not neglect the Rancho. The Rancho Grand Raid was launched in 1980, intended for use over rougher country than the standard model. It featured a limited slip differential to try and mitigate the limitations of front wheel drive only in slippery conditions. Other additional equipment included floor protection, electric windows and tinted glass, a front mounted electric winch capable of hauling a 1,200kg load and heavy duty tyres. The Grand Raid, which was never sold in Britain, was offered in matt green only with safari beige trim.

Also announced in 1980 was the Rancho X, a more luxurious model with metallic paint, alloy wheels, tinted glass and posher trim. The limited edition Midnight, a special model available only in black, was announced during 1980. This model was the only Rancho to feature chrome trim, albeit restricted to the door handles, a bull bar at the front and the side rails of the cab-based roof rack. Only a hundred are believed to have been made. Neither the X nor the Midnight made it across the Channel.

There was a special French market only version, designed to exploit French tax laws that smiled favourably on utility vehicles. It had the rear seats removed, giving more load space, and was marketed as a workman’s truck.

The Rancho Découvrable appeared in 1981. It featured canvas sides and rear to the rear compartment in an attempt to create a more Jeep-like vehicle. Two colours were offered - green or brown. Seats were vinyl trimmed rather than the cloth used on the fully enclosed versions. No more than two hundred examples were built, most winding up on the Spanish Mediterranean coast and in the Greek islands.

After that, changes were minor. The original mirrors and the chrome-plated window handles were replaced in 1982 with parts used on the Matra Bagheera II and Murena 1.6.

The Rancho’s Legacy…

Just under 56,700 Ranchos were built between 1977 and 1984. Unfortunately, none of them were particularly well protected against rust. As a result, there are surprisingly few Ranchos left running either in Britain or in Europe. Although the rear section, being made of fibreglass, lasts well, the same cannot be said of the rest of the car. Particularly tasty areas for the Rust Bug were the floor, wings, front doors, bulkhead, windscreen surround, rear chassis, front chassis... The engines last well though. If you see one, it is a nice gesture to complement the owner on what is a true labour of love.

The Rancho's contemporary French competitors, apart from regular estate cars, were soft roaders such as 2CV based Citroën Mehari, and the Renault Rodeo, based on the Renault Four. These were rather crude and much less powerful in comparison to the Rancho. However, neither offered more ability in the rough stuff than the Rancho as both were front wheel drive.

In Britain, the car was priced to compete with much bigger cars. In 1978, when it was launched, the Rancho was priced at £5,650 – which put it up against such competition as the Volvo 245 DL at £5,357 and the Citroen CX2400 Safari at £5428. The Rover 2600 may not have had as much space but its payload at 1,268lbs was much greater than the Rancho’s 1,025lb. Having said that, a Range Rover would have cost £8,528…

Real 4X4 competition did not really exist below the Land Rover. The Japanese baby 4X4s such as the Suzuki SJ410 and the Daihatsu were only starting to appear on European roads and were firmly marketed as working cars. Subaru were only just becoming known outside of Asia. The Russian Lada Niva was perhaps the most realistic competitor to Rancho, offering true off road ability with its coil sprung four wheel drive chassis and tough 1600 engine. Its price was, like all Comecon cars, extremely competitive! Build quality wasn’t too good but the Niva’s did have at least some protection against rust.

The Rancho's influence on the automotive world was not immediate, but in time it made its mark. The tough looking Rover Streetwise and its copycat rivals, announced in 2003, shows that!

Pictures supplied by Lennart Sorth and Graham Arnold. Additional information supplied by Andy Thompson.

// added //

(Is this anything like the 2009 Dodge Journey crossover or 2009 Toyota Venza crossover?)

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