It’s time we talked about the other side of Matra. As well as the line of sports cars, Matra had a wild streak: a desire to make a lifestyle vehicle. Something unique, practical and fun. It started with the Rancho.
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 six. (Parts one, two, three, four, five).
The idea of the Rancho was much the same as the Subaru Crosstrek or any number of modern SUVS - to give the appearance of capability. It wasn’t a rugged workhorse like a Defender or Hilux, or the Range Rovers it was intended to undercut, but you wouldn’t mistake it for one. It was based on a car, the popular Simca 1100, and had car-like civility. But it came out in 1977! This is a relatively modern idea, one that took off somewhere around the CR-V in the 90s, and now makes up the bulk of vehicle sales and associated profits - but it’s an idea that Matra put to market decades earlier.
In some ways it’s a very Matra way to do innovation. It wasn’t a moonshot in terms of creating an entirely new car from scratch to prove an idea, it used bits and bobs from other companies to save costs, and yet create something special. The Djet took uninspiring Renault engines and gearboxes to create the world’s first mid-engined road car, as the Rancho took a plain economy car and turned it into a whole new type of vehicle.
The incomplete Simca 1100 utility would leave Simca’s Poissy plant near Paris on a truck, to be taken to Matra’s Romorantin factory and finished as a Rancho alongside the Bagheera/Murena production line. Like many modern SUVs (and their cousin, the lifted AWD wagon) the Rancho had body mouldings, slightly increased ride height over the car it was based on, and some other goodies like fog lights mounted in the bull-bar. Unfortunately all Ranchos were FWD 1.4L 4-cylinders which limited their effectiveness off road despite what the advertising would have you believe. But there was a more capable Rancho Grand Raid model which came with a winch up front, a roof-mounted spare, an LSD and undercarriage protection, only available in a sort of matte green/yellow. There was also a Découvrable (“discoverable” - not Discovery, not quite) version with fabric windows at the rear that could be rolled down for a proper safari look, and a Rancho AS with no rear seats for commercial use.
Despite endless jokes about its limited capability off the road, the Rancho was a runaway success, selling 57,792 vehicles between 1977 and 1985 - more than the Bagheera it would share a factory with (which had been Matra’s best selling model so far), and far more than the later Murena. While it’s a shame they didn’t make the kind of sales that SUVs bring in today, nor get credit for kicking off the trend, even so it’s a big stepping stone in the fate of Matra. They’d made a car that wasn’t their bread and butter mid-engined sports car, and proven that the burgeoning recreational vehicle segment was ripe for plundering. It was to give them all the confidence they needed to leave sports cars completely and start a whole new vehicle segment. We’ll delve further into this next time.