Plastic Panther

A few months back, as you may recall, I was dispatched to the Footman James Classic Motor Show at the NEC in Birmingham, and though the day itself was somewhat hectic, it did give me a chance to meet some really nice people and see some really exciting cars. Undoubtedly the highlight of my day was a brief stop at the Matra Enthusiasts’ Club stand, during which I was treated to a nice glass of red, a few nibbles and the chance to try out the drivers’ seat of several lovingly preserved examples of their exciting range, amongst them a gorgeous Bagheera.


My personal favourite had always been the Djet, the tiny mid-engined sports car with which Matra entered the car industry in 1964. The Djet was initially constructed by Rene Bonnet, but when he ran into financial difficulties the car passed into the hands of Aerospace company Matra, who had been producing the cars plastic bodyshells and had also provided factory space for their construction. Unbelievably, within four years Matra, a company with no experience whatsoever of manufacturing cars, would be competing for the F1 World Championship, having already won the European F2 title (in 1967) and the French F3 title three times. They had also come frustratingly close to victory at Le Mans in ’68, an overarching ambition they would finally fulfil in 1972, repeating the feat in ’73 and ’74. By this time, partly in response to heavy demand for their affordable mid-engined products, the company had allied itself with Chrysler France, and been rebadged Matra-Simca, which proved something of an issue given that their controversial replacement for the Djet, the angular 530, was powered by Ford… A new model was clearly required, especially in the face of competition from the Porsche 914 and Fiat X1/9.


The 550, soon to be renamed the Bagheera (after the paternal panther in The Jungle Book) would enter production in March 1973, proving an immediate and enormous success. Part of this was down to the recent success at Le Mans, though the spacious interior layout, with its three-abreast seating and flat floor was undoubtedly a strong selling point, given that the conventional 2+2 layout generally proved synonymous with leg-snapping discomfort for the rear passengers. Also garnering significant praise for its precise steering and well-balanced handling, the only department in which the car was found wanting was power, the 1294 cc Simca unit (all mechanicals were from the Simca parts bin) proving woefully inadequate for a sports saloon even accounting for the weight-saving fibreglass body. The ’75 Bagheera S and limited edition all-white Courrèges provided the much needed boost, the power now coming from the 1442 cc Chrysler Alpine unit, though sadly development work on a 2.6 litre ‘U’ configuration engine (created by joining two Simca straight 4 units) was abandoned due to Chrysler’s concerns over the fuel crisis.


A Series 2 model appeared in 1976, remaining in demand until the quicker, and most importantly galvanised (the first mass-produced car to be given such treatment) Murena replaced it in 1980. Retaining the layout and most of the Bagheera’s mechanicals, the new car was armed with the 2.2 litre engine from the Talbot Tagora (or the old 1.6 Alpine unit) and proved even more successful with both press and customers, but was sadly short-lived. In 1978 Peugeot had taken over Chrysler’s European interests (for the nominal sum of $1.00), including their 45 per cent share of Automobiles Matra, but also a considerable debt. Cutting their losses they offered Matra to Renault, who seized the opportunity to shut down production of the Murena, an unwanted rival to their own Fuego, and instead concentrate upon the P18 people carrier project, soon to become known as the Espace.


The remaining components were utilised for the 142 bhp Murena S (a spec formerly available with the special order ‘Préparation 142’ tuning kit) launched in July ’83 but lasting only until January 1st 1984 when the last sports Matra rolled off the line. Chronic chassis rot might well have claimed the bulk of the Bagheeras, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about driving one, and that’s the true test of a sports car.


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