The Matra company were responsible for two extremely interesting mid-engined sports cars during the 1960s; its own version of René Bonnet's Djet, and then, in 1967, the first car to be designed entirely by Matra: the M530. Both cars were built around the same ideals of mid-engined layout, low weight, superior aerodynamics and a small engine, in order to deliver speed and economy. The Djet was aimed primarily at the motorsport market, but the M530 was created primarily as a road car for enthusiasts.
However, such was the mood of optimism within the motor industry at the time, many companies sought out expansion, and Matra wanted a piece of the action. Matra's plan was simple: built an inexpensive, yet practical sports car, using as many off-the-shelf components as possible, with a view to increasing sales considerably. However, Matra lacked the distribution network needed in order to sell widely, and if it wanted to keep the final selling price of its next car down to a manageable level, it would need to enter an accord with a larger carmaker.
In 1973, Matra found its partner in the form of Chrysler France. Chrysler's SIMCA division had built up an enviable position of strength by the early 1970s, selling 1000s by the boat load, whilst also boasting France's best-selling car, in the shape of the 1100. However, the SIMCA range lacked a sporting car to head the range, and following the Chrysler-SIMCA 160/180's failure to make a significant impact on the market, a vital shot of glamour seemed a necessity to the French management. So, the deal was a match made in heaven - Matra gained access to Chrysler/SIMCA's hardware and distribution network, and Chrysler gained a sports car, with which to fight Renault-Alpine.
Prototype Matra 550 shows that there was still some cosmetic work to do, even if the fundamntals were already there.
Although the M530 had been considered aerodynamic by the standards of its time, Matra felt that there was considerable room for improvement, and ensured that the new car (intended to be called the M550 at this time) included lessons learned during more recent aerodynamic research. Matra was also very keen on offering a sporting car that offered accomodation for more than two people. However, as the company's idea was to produce an inexpensive car, using one of SIMCA's off-the-shelf engines, the idea of producing a 2+2 car was not really on, as it would have increased the size and weight too much. So, in an interesting twist, Matra designed the M550 slightly wider than the norm, and designed it around a three-seat abreast configuration. In a car of this size, this was a highly unusual, but acceptable levels of shoulder room could be released if it was designed with convex flanks (in plan view).
Quite rightly, it was considered essential for the styling to be just right: dramatic, yet aerodynamic; realistic to produce in number, yet more advanced than the M530. The M550 was originally penned by Jean Toprieux, but was further developed by Jacques Nochet and Antoine Volanis. Their role in the styling process was to produce an arresting Ferrari-like design, that would meet the practical requirements laid out for it by the company's management.
Interestingly, a McLaren F1-style central driving position was mooted during the design phase, but the idea was soon dropped on the grounds of costs and practicality.
The SIMCA engine chosen to power the M550 - renamed "Bagheera" (yes it was named after the "Jungle Book" character) - was 1294cc engine, taken from the 1100TI model, and it produced a more than healthy 82bhp. The end result was a car that was pleasantly quick (112mph maximum speed, 0-60mph in 12 seconds), given its low kerb-weight (a featherweight at 885kg) and excellent aerodynamics, but was also highly economical (no lower than 30mpg, no matter how hard one drove it). Therefore, it achieved the goals that Matra set for it.
The Bagheera was rigorously tested (from Saharan Mauritania to Lapland) to ensure that the tightly packaged car worked in all conditions. There were some teething troubles with interior cooling (especially the luggage area!), but on the whole, testing passed without much in the way of incident. This was probably as much down to its tried and trusted engine, gearbox and suspension components, as Matra's construction technniques. The development programme, therefore, was completed rapidly, and it was time to roll-out the car to the critics...
From a subjective standpoint, it is fair to say that the Bagheera looked more Italian than French; one thing is for sure: most commentators were not shy in praising its beauty. Objectively, it featured superb aerodynamics and excellent accommodation. Bagheera was unveiled to the press on the 14th April 1973, at Annecy Lake. Generally, the the assembled motoring scribes loved it, and for once, beautiful surroundings did not steal the show. The interior obviously drew the most attention, given its three-abreast seating plan, and overall, it was given a firm thumbs up. The lack of mechanical refinement was questioned, though, although few could fault the cars handling; which rated very highly indeed. The official unveiling of the Bagheera took place at the 1973 Le Mans 24-hour, and to mark the occasion, Matra ensured that a pre-launch consignment of 500 yellow Bagheeras were readily available at SIMCA dealers across France. The launch couldn't have been timed better: A Matra 670B took the victor's spoils at the famous endurance event.
The UK's motoring press loved it too, and although the Matra-SIMCA Bagheera was never officially imported into Britain, many examples did find their way on to these shores; some being converted to right hand drive... CAR magazine's LJK Setright was a fan and even in 1980, still had glowing things to say: "I liked the Bagheera. All God's children liked the Bagheera. If they did not, it must have been because it did not have enough horsepower or enough gears. It was good that car, like a poor man's Uracco. Long serving readers will remember how both the Editor and I were profoundly impressed by the supple ride, sweet steering and incomparable roadholding of the little Lamborghini, and were even more pleased because it was a little one..."
The Bagheera was a sales success in France, though: within eighteen months of its launch, over 10,000 examples had been delivered - a much larger volume than Matra had encountered before. Matra did not rest on its laurels, though. The 1442cc 90bhp Bagheera S duly followed, and performance took a useful jump; maximum speed rose to 115mph and 0-60mph dropped to 11.2 seconds - not bad for a car conceived in 1973, using such a small engine.
...and here's the interior. Be honest, it cannot be accused of being bland, and that extra seat will always come in handy.
The process of improvement continued, and saw the launch of the Bagheera Mk II in 1976. The engine range remained the same, and modifications were limited to the addition of new bumpers, and a more aerodynamic nose.
And that is how the Bagheera saw out its days. Production lasted until 1980, when its replacement, the Murena was showcased at the Paris Motor Show. Happily for Bagheera enthusiasts, its replacement offered up more of the same: better aerodynamics, and arguably more style, improved corrosion resistance, but most essentially for all enthusiasts: more power. The Bagheera sold well enough for Matra to increase its resources enough to contemplate a second model line (the Rancho), and thanks to being under the protective wing of Chrysler, it was not directly exposed to some of the economic difficulties encountered by rival sports car producers.
In total, 47,802 Bagheeras were produced during its six-year production run.
Bagheera laid bare for all to see, and that three-seater layout is much in evidence. The compact transverse installation of the SIMCA 1100TI power unit allowed for a roomy cabin and acceptable luggage room - how many sports cars that looked this good could make similar claims?
Images and production data courtesy of Lennart Sorth
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