From Jet to Missile

The other evening I was watching a film called Le Pacha, directed by the late, great Georges Lautner. It’s a typical slice of sixties French policier action, with a couple of big heists, a coldblooded baddie and a slightly grumpy Jean Gabin as the weary cop on his trail, though like all of Lautner’s films, it’s distinguished by a rich vein of subversive humour. I’ve seen it a few times now, and while I always remember the Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack, I always seem to forget the film’s quasi-futuristic settings, which include the best pair of police cars I’ve ever seen on film: a Matra Djet and an M530.

 

Of course I very much doubt that the Police force back then had much use for Matras – a few Alpines were as close as they came – but it’s a fine notion, and it left me wondering how practical the little cars were, and how they stood up to their potential adversaries in the event of a high-speed chase. So what better way to find out than by trawling through my old magazines for some period road tests.

 

L’Automobile was probably France’s most comprehensive motoring magazine, and each month test-driver extraordinaire J-P Thevenet put the latest machinery through its paces on the road, sometimes staging long tours to compare the strengths and weaknesses of similarly equipped cars. In the April ’67 issue there’s a brief technical overview of the new Matra M530, just about to be unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show, but it’d be a while before the new model was ready for testing, and so in the April ‘68 edition it’s a Jet 6 (shortly to go out of production) being tested alongside its rival 1300 sports models.

 

Alongside the Matra this mammoth test featured the following: the Alpine 1300, Mini Cooper 1300S, Renault 8 Gordini, Lancia Fulvia HF Rallye and the Simca 1200S. By far the most expensive was the Alpine (at 29,840.40 FF), followed by the Matra (25,674.90 FF), then the Lancia (21,955.40 FF), the Mini (19,636.40 FF), the Simca (15,913.20 FF) and the Gordini (at 15,646.90 FF). So the Matra was certainly at the high end of the market, and had been since it was first introduced by René Bonnet in 1962. Bonnet had been co-founder of DB (Deutsch et Bonnet), specialists in fibreglass-bodied sports and racing cars, but when the partnership dissolved over Deutsch’s loyalty to Panhard engines, René entered a partnership with aerospace company Matra. Using their Romorantin factory and fibreglass bodies, Bonnet introduced the Djet (thus named in the belief that the French couldn’t pronounce ‘Jet’) in 1962, the world’s first mid-engined production road car, highly priced at around 20,000 FF, and equipped with only the 1,108 cc unit from a Renault 8. In spite of the car’s many advanced features – disc brakes all-round, independent suspension – the high price damaged sales, and in 1964 Matra took over Bonnet’s debts and construction of the Djet, hiring ex-Simca man Philippe Guédon for a mass-production-friendly redesign, and continuing to uprate the car’s performance until production ended in ’67.

 

By the time of the L’Automobile head-to-head then, the little (renamed) Jet was beginning to feel its age, certainly when placed in direct competition with a group of proven race-winners and Simca’s impressive new 1200S. Nevertheless, the car acquitted itself fairly well, setting second fastest time (with the Simca) at the Nogaro circuit, second quickest in terms of acceleration and top speed, and proving best of the bunch on roadholding. Unfortunately middling performance elsewhere left the Jet dead last in the final standings, with the costly Alpine having dominated in much the same way it would on the rally scene. In second place was the Gordini, which clearly provided excellent value for money in terms of performance, was fun to drive, and a reliable everyday car. Third came the Simca, perhaps not the best in terms of all-out sportiness, but an excellent all-rounder; fourth the Lancia which in HF spec was considered a little too “serious” for the everyday motorist; and fifth the Mini, a lot of fun for sporty driving, but again feeling its age in the face of such competition.

 

By July ’69 the price of L’Automobile had gone up by fifty centimes, but with 145 pages full of news, tests and racing I doubt anyone was complaining at the 3 Franc price tag. Reports on both Le Mans and Indianapolis were headlined, but the big cover feature was the seven-car Corsican road-test.

 

It was an odd assortment of cabriolets lined-up against the Matra M530: the debonair Peugeot 504, the quirky little Siata Spring, the Dyane-based Citroën Méhari, the exciting Fiat 124 Sport Spider, the ubiquitous little Triumph Spitfire MkIII and the unusual Simca-based C.G. 1200S. Unfortunately, the diversity of the models made direct comparisons impossible, so individual judgements were passed. The prices ranged from 23,255 FF for the C.G. down to 8,692 FF for the Méhari, with the Matra in the same bracket as the Fiat, at 18,510 FF and 16,980 FF respectively.

 

Development of the M530 had begun in March 1965, Matra’s aim being to create a mid-engined 2+2, combining the sportiness of the Jet with the practicality of a car for the young family, an ambitious project to be overseen by Philippe Guédon, who had joined the company to advise upon suspension and transmission issues on the single-seaters. The fourteen-strong design team was a testament to Matra’s commitment, the car taking two years to go from a clean-sheet of paper to its first road test, which appeared in the March ’67 edition of Champion magazine, when works driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise gave his honest opinions. Unsurprisingly he credited Guédon with having ensured that the necessity for a compact engine in favour of a more powerful American V8 proved no handicap, thanks to sterling work on the chassis and weight distribution. The choice of the high-compression Ford V4 1,699 cc from the Taunus 17 M allowed space for rear seats and a decent-sized boot, and was accessible for servicing through a removable rear Perspex ‘screen, which when combined with a Targa roof transformed the car into a cabriolet. Brakes were disc all-round and suspension independent.

 

As practical as the M530 professed to be however, the styling left no doubting its roots. While the Djet was pretty and curvaceous, it’s successor was angular and aerodynamic, drawing heavily upon lessons learned in prototype racing. Indeed the M530 was clearly from the same sketchpad as the racing M630, which was undeniably advanced – as one would expect from an aerospace company – but perilously close to the forefront of the black art of aerodynamics, as the promising Roby Weber would discover to his cost during the Le Mans test weekend in ’67. The styling was bold, and futuristic, if not universally popular, and in some quarters it would unfortunately detract from the car’s most important quality: drivability.

 

A month after Beltoise, L’Automobile took the M530 prototype out for a spin, praised the well-intentioned practicality of the layout, paused for thought at the modernity of the design, and once again highlighted its finest qualities: extraordinary roadholding, precise, responsive steering and firm suspension. The M530, it was said, handled like a racing car.

 

By the time the car arrived in Corsica much development work had of course been done, but the Matra retained a number of idiosyncrasies in addition to its avant garde styling, and though it fared well, it would unfortunately be these that remained in Thevenet’s mind. The interior – which apparently matched the outward futurism – was well-equipped, comfortable, had an excellent driving position and proved incredibly quiet at any speed. The Taunus engine was found to be slightly lacking in grunt, but this in itself was no handicap, for as Beltoise had commented, the car’s handling and roadholding offered ample compensation, and the impression was that of a refined tourer, as opposed to an all-out performance car. The synchronised Taunus gearbox was apparently well-suited to the car’s performance capabilities, but herein lay the first annoying idiosyncrasy: it was inverted, and the unusual layout took some getting used to. Another issue was found in the storage of the removable roof panels when luggage was aboard, but most disconcerting was the placement of the fuel-filler cap within the boot, with no apparent drainage for overspill. Oddly, given Guédon’s experience of suspension geometry, the ride was also found to be excessively hard, with severe vibrations being experienced on uneven surfaces.

 

To roughly translate Thevenet’s conclusions, “the philosophy behind the conception of this model is very interesting in its non-conformity, and this offers certain qualities and advantages when compared to the more conventional options, but regretfully this has been somewhat mistranslated in the realisation”. And so the well-meaning family-oriented little ‘voiture des copains’ – named after a ballistic missile – couldn’t quite live up to its promise, for the last thing a young family needs is to take a gamble on what might prove a troublesome sports car. But you can’t fault their efforts, for even if the M530 fell slightly wide of the mark, Matra had seen the future, and it’s just a shame they weren’t around to see it realised.

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