A lightweight, wedge-shaped, mid-engined sports car from France with seating for three.
French carmakers have always been regarded for their innovation and adventurous design spirit. Quirky even. Low volume car maker Matra was no different, dove-tailing its world championship-winning motorsport exploits with a road car program that while small, was nevertheless innovative.
It should be noted that cars weren’t Matra’s main business, the French industrial conglomerate – Mecanique Aviation Traction – involved in aeronautics and military manufacturing as well as bicycles and cars.
Its motorsport activities saw the company race in Formula One (winning the 1969 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships) as well as amassing titles in junior categories in Europe. Matra was also a dominant force at Le Mans in the 1970s, winning the 24 hour three times in a row from 1972-74 as well as the World Championship for Makes in ’73 and ’74.
But it’s Matra’s relatively short reign as a maker of road cars that piqued our interest, the French company producing just five models that bore its name.
Matra, then heavily involved in aeronautics and weaponry, acquired Automobiles Rene Bonnet in 1963 and over the intervening years produced just five models bearing the Matra name.
The first Matra road car was the Djet, an update of the Bonnet Djet it inherited from the takeover of Automobiles Rene Bonnet. It was replaced by the Matra 530 which in turn made way for the Bagheera which gave rise to the car we are featuring here, the Matra Murena.
The Murena made its debut in 1980, as a replacement for the Bagheera. To solve the rust problems that afflicted its predecessor, the Murena made a little bit of automotive history, the first production car in the world to benefit from hot-dip galvanisation.
Keeping things nice and light, the Murena was draped in an all fibreglass body consisting of just 12 panels. That helped keep weight down, the little wedge tipping the scales at a sprightly 930kg.
Three engines were offered, crammed into the middle of the Murena behind the cabin. The base model was powered by a 1.6-litre inline four-cylinder making 68kW and 132Nm providing modest performance – 0-100km/h in 11.8 seconds and a top speed of 182km/h.
A bigger and more powerful 2.2-litre four-cylinder significantly boosted performance. With 87kW and 181Nm on tap, the 0-110km/h sprint time was dispatched in 9.3 seconds while top speed increased to 197km/h.
And topping the range, the Murena S was powered by what Matra dubbed the Préparation 142. Twin Solex double-barrel carburettors fed the 104kW/183Nm 2.2-litre inline four, helping to propel the Murena from standstill to 100km/h in just 8.4 seconds, quick for the time. Top speed increased to 210km/h.
All three variants used a five-speed manual gearbox sourced from Citroën which sent drive to the rear wheels.
The gearbox wasn’t the only donor part found on the Murena, which also relied on the parts bin from fellow French company Talbot for the tail-light assemble, the steering rack and the suspension. The Renault 12 provided the front indicators and running lights while the door handles were pilfered from the Peugeot 505.
But, the little mid-engined wedge also brought a unique selling point to market – three seats. Yep, the Murena is a three-seater, a layout carried over from its Bagheera predecessor, hardly surprising since the designer responsible for the Bagheera’s cabin, Antonis Volanis, led the design team on the Murena.
Occupants sat three-abreast across the front (there was no second row) on velour-trimmed seats oozing with 1980s vibe. The middle seat could be folded down to create plush armrest.
The Murena enjoyed a short production run, from 1980-83. A total of 10,680 of the wedge-shaped dynamo rolled off Matra’s production line in Romorantin-Lanthenay in central France.
Contemporary reports praised the Murena’s handling and agility, with Britain’s CAR magazine writing “[the Murena is] endowed with a suspension so superb that it need never go slowly”.
The review added that the Murena’s strength wasn’t in outright speed, but in how it handled twisting and winding roads. “The Murena ranks high,” reported CAR, “better than the basic Porsche 924, every bit as good as the Lancia Monte Carlo, and losing only in sheer agility to the Fiat X1/9, while it shows up the Porsche 911 as ill-balanced and inept.
“[The Murena] is one of the most sweetly responsive cars that ever offered a driver a choice of how to steer through a bend.”
High praise for a relative minnow in the world of sports cars.
Today, the Murena hasn’t yet reached the ‘modern classic’ status it probably deserves. A quick scan online found any number of Murenas from around €5000-€10,000 (AUD$9,500-$19,000). And for those super keen, there’s a 1.6-litre example available in Australia today, listed online for $35,000.
Despite Renault buying Matra in 1983 in retiring the brand, the Matra’s story of automotive innovation continued, the team designing – and building for Renault – the Espace, widely regarded as the first minivan.
And just for fun, it was Matra which took a 1994 Renault Espace and crammed a 640kW Renault V10 Formula 1 engine amidships, added a host aerodynamic aids and cut sick in a minivan concept that is likely to never be bettered. The Espace F1 was capable of sprinting from 0-100km/h in just 2.8 seconds and featured a top speed nudging 300km/h. Epic!