The Matra Murena. The beginning of the end. Truly, Matra had gone from strength to strength, increasing sales by five fold or more with each new model. The Murena would spell the end of that growth.

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 five. (Parts one, two, three, four).

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Model name in huge script on the nose - a Matra staple by this point
Model name in huge script on the nose - a Matra staple by this point

Also known confusingly as the Talbot-Matra Murena (Italian for Moray - like the eel!) it is a car that inherited much from the Bagheera. From the 3 seat single row layout, to the hatchback shape, to even the model number. Bucking the trend of each new model increasing by 10 on the previous model, the Murena only bumped the Bagheera’s code of 550 by a tiny bit, to 551 and 552. Even development models like the 540 and the 560 8-cylinder prototype got suitable jumps in model number. The fact that the Murena was given a new name to market but an internal code that’s almost identical perhaps says it all.

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But this may not be a bad thing - the Bagheera was a successful and lauded model, so perhaps a refresh and some fault correction could go a long way. The biggest issue with the Bagheera was chassis rust under those rustproof panels, which the Murena solved by being the first production car to use galvanised steel for all chassis parts. To solve power woes the Murena was offered with larger 1.6 and 2.2 litre Simca engines including a dealer installed Préparation 142 package that boosted power to 104kW, making this the most powerful Matra yet to hit the road. Even so, many Murenas including all the earlier cars (ie. the ones reviewers got a hold of) were lesser spec cars. While the handling was much appreciated, the car was said to have required more power yet again. The Préparation 142 package would give the car the power it deserved, and was to be made standard for the final model year as the Murena S (possibly to help move stock as production winded down) but this cream of the crop model would only find its way into 480 or so buyers.

It’s a pretty car! It’s maybe a bit too short to be classically beautiful, but that whispers of its light weight and agile handling. Imagine that the engine fits in that tiny space between the door and the rear wheel!
It’s a pretty car! It’s maybe a bit too short to be classically beautiful, but that whispers of its light weight and agile handling. Imagine that the engine fits in that tiny space between the door and the rear wheel!
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Another thing kept from the Bagheera was the oddball 3-in-the-front seating arrangement, though it was improved upon. The Murena came with 3 proper seats, rather than the 2+1 arrangement on the previous car, if you care to make such a distinction. The 2 passenger seats were separate units, with the middle one capable of folding down to become a rather large arm rest, making things nicer when you’ve only got 1 passenger in the car. This answers the question of which passenger seat your sole passenger would take - the one furthest from you, all the way across the car!

3 actual seats. And snazzy they are too
3 actual seats. And snazzy they are too
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Worth mentioning is a curious list of prototypes and other developments that sprung from the Murena. This sort of thing has precedent, earlier Matras have had weird fashion-based models and prototypes. We have:

  • A version with 16v and 132hp, sure to fix the power problem if the Murena S didn’t
  • A Murena with the MS81;s Matra Formula 1 V12, and about damn time
  • A 4WD Group 4 development
  • A targa topped car, the Murena Chapron Chimère
  • A Murena kitted-up to look like a BMW M1

Some of these were further developed than others. Some even have photographic evidence below.

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Murena Chapron Chimère
Murena Chapron Chimère
Is Murena M1
Is Murena M1
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So, did the improvements over the successful Bagheera make the Murena a success? Not exactly. Sales seemed reasonable, around 4000 cars a year for the first two years, but it wasn’t on track to meet the sales of the Bagheera and it wasn’t to last. Production ended in 1983 (after just 4 years to the Bagheera’s 8), with sales continuing through 1984.

But I think this abrupt end says more about the company than the car. In 1983 the contract with PSA ended, Matra parent company CEO Jean-Luc Lagardere bought the Matra car division back and struck a deal with Renault to produce the Espace in the factory in Romorantin. This spelled the end of the Murena, but brought volume, consistency and profits to the company and off the back of their own innovative design, as we’ll see in a future post. Even so, Matra was never to produce another road going sports car - the days of the plucky Djet and innovative 530 had come to a close.

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Illustration for article titled On Matra: La Murena, le Début de la Fin
Illustration for article titled On Matra: La Murena, le Début de la Fin
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And one last tidbit - there’s a Murena for sale near me in Melbourne, Australia. No more than half an hour away from me, the owner has had it for some 32 years but has moved on to an Alpine. Looks fantastic, though I’m not sure the rarity justifies the price, especially given it’s not the desirable 2.2.

Those who know their French cars will know that this is not quite a chronological piece! This skips over the Rancho which appeared years before the Murena. But the Murena follows so sweetly after the Bagheera, it had to be done, and the Rancho is really the first chapter in the Espace story. That’s where we venture next.

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Apologies for the break in Matra posts! Despite how it may seem, a lot of research goes into these bits and it’s hard to crank them out consistently at the end of each work day! I filled my weekend with time-consuming semi-fulfilling crap and took a bit of a break. Onwards.

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