Matra, purveyors of Frenchness. Matra almost never made a conventional front engine car, unless you count that one weird econo-off-road-proto-SUV-thing. Or the vans they built for Renault! In some ways they couldn’t be more French, in others they’re entirely unique.

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 one.

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We’ll get to you, you pretty thing. Maybe some words about the car too.
Haha! The oldest joke in the book!
We’ll get to you, you pretty thing. Maybe some words about the car too.
Haha! The oldest joke in the book!

Matra, the car company, was born from Automobiles René Bonnet, itself born out of Deutsch-Bonnet cars (known as DB, unrelated to Aston Martin’s DB). All building out of Champigny-sur-Marne just a few kilometers South-East of Paris in a move you’d never see in 2020. DB dissolved when its founders couldn’t agree over whether to stick with Panhard engines or switch to the power of Renault, or to build front-wheel drive cars or mid-engined cars. The year was 1961, and while FWD had been done a few times, a mid-mounted road car had not. This paints a lucrative picture of what’s to come.

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Automobiles René Bonnet’s first car was the continued production of the existing DB Le Mans, a rather frumpy 2+2 convertible, now renamed the René Bonnet Le Mans and with a Renault 4-cylinder engine rather than a Panhard two-banger. This car may have been dragged along from the older company, but its days were not numbered.

René Bonnet Le Mans. Light, lean, fibreglass, Renault 4-cylinder, 51kW, 700kg
René Bonnet Le Mans. Light, lean, fibreglass, Renault 4-cylinder, 51kW, 700kg
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See the tailfins? Part of an effort by DB to design this car to cater to the US, along with generally improved comfort.
See the tailfins? Part of an effort by DB to design this car to cater to the US, along with generally improved comfort.
Illustration for article titled On Matra: Les Débuts
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While selling the Le Mans, René Bonnet also reworked it into a lighter and cheaper 2-seater convertible known as the Missile. It was still FWD, though with the engine set behind the drive axle in a front-mid layout, which is sort of cool but not nearly the same as a rear-mid layout.

René Bonnet Missile. A similar rear, but single-headlights up front, and visibly less car in front of the wheels as the engine is moved further back. Cheaper, sportier, but available with only a 37kw engine.
René Bonnet Missile. A similar rear, but single-headlights up front, and visibly less car in front of the wheels as the engine is moved further back. Cheaper, sportier, but available with only a 37kw engine.
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I wonder if the soft-top and lack of luggage rack speak to this car’s lower price point compared to the Le Mans pictured above, or if it’s just how the last 60 years have treated these cars
I wonder if the soft-top and lack of luggage rack speak to this car’s lower price point compared to the Le Mans pictured above, or if it’s just how the last 60 years have treated these cars

These little 60s roadsters aren’t really what gets me going, but they’re the start, and an important step along the way.

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I leave you with a period ad I stumbled across:

Illustration for article titled On Matra: Les Débuts
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I have been to France a few times and am something of a closet Francophile. Without further adieu, I will attempt a translation with not too much Googling:

Missile II - With 2 seats, 5 cv? Offering the performance...great sport, front wheel drive, economical and of great security!
Le Mans - With sporty 2+2 of great prestige, front drive. Fast, nervous (meaning...agile? I guess?), luxurious, comfortable.
djet - Revolutionary by its conception, mechanicals and its lines. The performance is amazing.

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The next development for the humble DB Le Mans was to move the engine further back - much further back. But that’s a story for another day. Hopefully tomorrow.

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