The Matra Bagheera. The second real Matra, the first with a real name, one that’s taken from The Jungle Book. Like the Tatra Baghira but...different.
I’m going to do a few brief posts about the history of Matra. Because cheap mid-engined cars are cool, and French cars are weird, and I need something to do. Also car content on Oppo can’t hurt. This is part four. (Parts one, two, three).
Matra are developing a bit of a stigma around naming aren’t they? The Djet had half a hundred names. The M530 kept it simple but was hardly inspirational - it’s just the internal development code after all. But not only does the Bagheera have a name that’s near identical to a car that was produced at the same time, it was sold both as the Matra-Simca Bagheera and the Talbot-Matra Bagheera, due to owner Chrysler Europe collapsing and PSA taking the reins. I can’t tell you much about Simca and Talbot, but I can tell you this is confusing. I’m not sure how adding a random unrelated company’s name to “Matra” makes it more appealing. Can’t we just let Matras be Matras?
The Bagheera was tasked with fixing the perceived failure of the M530, which didn’t hit sales targets despite outselling it’s predecessor 6 fold. I thought the M530 represented an ambitious design executed well, but apparently Matra aren’t so easily pleased. Gone was the MR 2+2 layout I made such a big deal about in my last post, and gone the targa-topped roadster-style body. The Bagheera wore a wedgy hatchback body, with no targa available but an optional and rather generous folding cloth sunroof. For seating they picked an even rarer layout: the 2+1. That is 1 row only, containing a driver’s seat and 2 passenger seats. The thinking was that a sports car carrying 4 passengers was uncommon and the rear seats to accommodate such a thing were too small to be useful, so a single row that could fit 3 adults was more useful and left more room for engine and storage. I question how comfortable even one passenger would be in that narrow seat - one benefit of the 2+2 is that the 2 front seats that get the most use are uncompromised. But what do I know? I’m no Frenchman.
This time the engine was borrowed from the Simca 1100, with many parts being fished out of the Chrysler-Simca parts bin. Displacement was 1.2-1.4 litres with power peaking at 67kW - still less than some variants of Djet, though weight increase was constrained to give a total of 965kg, 30-50kg more than the M530 before it.
Matra used a low-pressure high-temperature pressing method called “LP” to produce cost-effective fiberglass-reinforced polyester body panels for the car. They pioneered this method early in the car’s development, which lead to a large number of problems with early cars including water leakage (ironic given this is the first Matra without a targa top), which didn’t rust the polyester panels but did rust the unprotected chassis. In 1976 the car received a restyling whereby almost every panel of the car was changed in some way, yet even so few Bagheeras exist today.
It’s really not the prettiest car. The rear is quite uninspired, particularly the bland taillights on the pre-’76 models. Its short wheelbase and modest proportions are attractive as is the wedgey nose, though perhaps as a result of the popup headlights, the nose is sort of plain too. One quirk of the Bagheera model range is the Courrèges, all-white inside and out and styled by fashion designer André Courrèges, with two detachable Courrèges handbags mounted on the door cards.
In 1973 work began on a super-Bagheera developed under the name 560, the 550 being the Bagheera and the 540 being its shelved predecessor after the intended Chrysler 1.8L engine increased pricing too much. The 560 had a U8 engine - that is, an 8 cylinder created by joining two Simca straight-4 engines. The result was a 2.6l engine producing 126kW, roughly twice that of the regular car as you might imagine. 3 prototypes were built with a number of chassis and body changes required to fit the engine, but in the midst of a fuel crisis and its own financial troubles, Chrysler Europe sadly never greenlighted the project. One 560 prototype exists at the Matra museum in Romorantin.
So did it work? Did the unusual panel pressing process and the weird seating position, and the quality problems and the moderate performance and the financially ruined parent company and the fruitless development of the U8 somehow lead to a sales success? Well, yes. 47,802 Bagheeras were produced between 1973 and 1980, nearly 5 times the number of M530s built. Like Citroens 2CV and DS, this serves as an example that French ingenuity and thinking far outside the box can produce outstanding results. Or it could back then, these days people would be too worried about resale value and the hassle of drawing any attention at all.
Next up we trade 70s wedge for 80s wedge with the Murena, maybe the prettiest Matra. Maybe the only one that could be called truly pretty without some qualifier such as “...in a French sort of way”.