It's been a little while, but I'm back with yet another oddity from the annuls of automotive history. Today's model can only be described as a true supercar. The stuff of legend. Imagine the following - A mid engined, three seat, two-door coupe from a legendary racing name with victories from some of the top forms of automotive racing in an ultra-light package from a European nation. If you imagined a McLaren F1, congratulations! That was the car that was (not at all) inspired by today's car that time forgot - the Talbot-Matra Murena!
What is this thing?
The Matra Murena is the latest and last in a line of three-seat coupes from Matra. The predecessor to this car was the ill-fated Matra Bagheera. Both follow a similar formula of a cockpit that seats three all in a row while putting the engine behind the passengers and driving the rear wheels. Both used existing Simca engines but the predecessor to the bagheera, the more traditional sports car called the 530, used a Ford Taunus V4. In either case, the car was meant to be simple to service and be a coupe available to those of more modest means. By reducing service costs and fuel consumption, the initial view of both of them was of a stylish, semi-practical coupe that would not cost you your house to own. Neither was meant to be a tire scorcher, but the Murena was a massive improvement over the Bagheera in a few key areas.
Why should I remember it?
I'm switching things up and starting with the "Remember this thing" section because it is a textbook case of "learning from your mistakes". The bagheera had a synthetic polymer used for its body panels (compressed polyester blend) so Matra thought "A-ha! We've successfully defeated rust!" but forgot that a poor quality iron alloy will rust underneath those panels and cause some problems. So for the Murena, they went ahead and galvanized the chassis and suspension metal to prevent such a thing from happening. They also made the body panels out of fibreglass as another measure of rust protection. The end result is that Murenas have survived the trip from the early 80s to today with a relatively decent survival rate. If it was say.....GM doing such a thing, they'd just offer an extra year on the corrosion warranty and tell you to go bugger off if you whined about it.
But the quality improvements aside, the Murena is just so.....French. It is so damn French I can imagine it asking for a splash of wine with its petrol and a bit of baguette in the crankcase. The three abreast seating is a definite identification mark for it and the Talbot 2.2L inline 4 checks the "Quirky French branded powerplant" mark quite nicely. But of course, this calls for a name change! Hence, the Matra Murena becomes the Talbot-Matra Murena! A solid handling MR platform combined with reasonable French power and quirky seating makes for a car that just.....stands out. It strikes me as something no one would even consider making. Ask yourself if you can picture the execs and engineers at Honda or Ford considering such a car today.
Why was it forgotten?
There is a reason the modern execs and engineers won't build such a car - it just doesn't sell. The car was never that powerful, even for the 80s. And though it only had one row of seats, I can't help but feel like that would be cramped seating. It just doesn't strike me as a good driver focused cockpit like the MR2's but it only holds three people where a grand national, 944, or a 3-series will seat four.....Well two adults and two kids in the 944 but still, you can fit yourself and your SO and two kids in it which is more than you can say about the Murena. Matra only made it from 1980 to 1983 and while few other radical or interesting cars came out around that time, the heavy hitters came out hard by the end of the decade. Plus the Matra feels a bit half-baked and possibly even rushed? Meanwhile, the other 80s stars like the Buick Grand National, Toyota MR2, BMW M3/M5, Porsche 944, and others, all had a bit more.....engineering to them. That's really the best way I can describe this car. It is quirky and different and should be remembered as another unique oddball from the French auto industry, but it just isn't as finished as others. The rustproofing did wonders to help keep them around so if you want one, at least you shouldn't have to worry about a hole in the floor. But at the end of the day when you think of a great affordable MR car from the 80s, the fiero and MR2 come up. When you think of a fun 2-door with some extra seating you think of the 944 or Grand National. When you think of a semi-reliable and practical daily driver with some sporting credentials you think of the BMW 3-series or the Golf GTI. There's just no room for the orphaned French 3-seater.
Matra - The French equivalent of TVR?
So far, this article has been focused on the Murena itself, but I think Matra themselves need to be discussed a bit. As an independent company, Matra's cars have always been a bit piece-meal. Maybe an in house chassis and body but get the suspension from a Peugeot and an engine from a Ford or something. To make up for that, their cars are just a touch too crazy to be considered "normal" but they are still approachable by most. Even with the dealer-installed S-kit, the Murena topped out at 140hp. The base motor only made about 90 and the "top" motor made 115 without the S-kit. So yes it is an MR type car but it has a nice sloped hatch over the back and three seats for holding yourself and two thin french models you picked up at a cafe after a coffee and cigarette break. After the Murena, the factory (and some of the engineering staff) were sold to Renault. Their first car? The Espace. Funnily enough, the Espace wasn't a hit either at first. Matra is always just a few steps away from falling off a cliff but for some reason no one seems to want to walk up and ask them why they stand there. Oh, you still don't think they're a touch insane? This was the group responsible for the Avantime. They are a French TVR and that might even include all the time they spend on strike.
The end of the lunacy
The Murena was the last Matra branded vehicle as Renault acquired their automobile engineering branch and assembly facilities. By this point, they were also no longer involved in motorsport despite being a three-time consecutive winner at the 24h of lemans from 72 to 74. They also have an F1 title (1969) and even made an AWD F1 car - the MS84. But by the 80s, this was all over. And now even their engineering team is done. Pininfarina owned the group for a while as a prototyping and testing house but now some other tech group owns them. So if you want a proper memory of the last car to bear the Matra name with pride, you need a Murena. You will never win any races, nor will you have the most practical car, nor the most reliable, but you can be damn sure you'll have something different. And for some of us (like myself) that just makes you feel.....a bit better off.
Thanks for reading!