The cars : Matra-Simca Bagheera (M550) development story

The Matra-Simca Bagheera development story tells the tale of the French company’s clever take on the affordable sports car.

With a mid-engined layout and three-abreast seating, the Bagheera was a great example of supercar ideology for family car money. Largely forgotten today, but loved by those with a penchant for the unusual.

Matra-Simca Bagheera: it takes three

The Matra-Simca Bagheera Courreges was one of the first designer cars, available in white only, and with tan interiors featuring detachable Courreges-logo'd handbags on the door cards.
The Matra-Simca Bagheera Courreges was one of the first designer cars, available in white only, and with tan interiors featuring detachable Courreges-logo’d handbags on the door cards.

The Matra company was 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 a 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 motor sport 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: build 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.

Help from Chrysler

Early M550 project thoughts involved updating and expanding the existing M530, and adding additional seats in the rear.
Early M550 project thoughts involved updating and expanding the existing M530, and adding additional seats in the rear.

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.

The deal was therefore something of 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. The prototype Matra 550 shows that there was still some cosmetic work to do, even if the fundamentals 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 accommodation for more than two people.

Mid-engined delight

A more indvidual style was developed for the M550 project, intending to give the car a more contemporary feel.
A more individual style was developed for the M550 project, intending to give the car a more contemporary feel.
This was developed into a typically wedge-shaped theme, with two contrasting rear window layouts. M550B was chosen as the winning design
This was developed into a typically wedge-shaped theme, with two contrasting rear window layouts. M550B was chosen as the winning design

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.

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 achieved 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.

The M550B was further developed, and this final styling buck was built to evaluate the three-seat packaging layout

Ferrari-style for the working man

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 a 1294cc unit, taken from the Simca 1100 TI 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.

Bagheera out pre-production resting, alongside an M530.
Bagheera out pre-production testing in Lapland, alongside an M530

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 techniques. The development programme, therefore, was completed rapidly, and it was time to roll-out the car to the critics…

The Bagheera meets its public

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.
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

The Bagheera was unveiled to the press on 14 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 car’s handling; which rated very highly indeed. The official unveiling of the Bagheera took place at the 1973 Le Mans 24-Hour race 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.

A warm UK welcome

Three-abreast seating layout in all its glory. The middle seat might be tight for adults, but for a couple with a younger child, this was a small coupe that actually works.
Three-abreast seating layout in all its glory. The middle seat might be tight for adults, but for a couple with a younger child, this was a small coupe that actually worked

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 as, within 18 months of its launch, more than 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 (above) 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.

Developments on a theme

Bagheera S looked great in two-tone.

The process of improvement continued and saw the launch of the Bagheera Mk2 (above) in 1976. The engine range remained the same, and modifications were limited to the addition of new bumpers and a more aerodynamic nose.

It was this version that was imported into the UK in left-hand drive form only and sold through Chrysler dealers at a stiff premium over its French counterpart. About 50 or so were converted to right-hand drive by Hampshire-based RHD specialist Wooler Hodec.

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?
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?
Production of the Matra-Simca Bagheera at full swing in Romorantin-Lenthenay.
Production of the Matra-Simca Bagheera at full swing in Romorantin-Lenthenay
Keith Adams


  1. Some corrections and additions.

    The series 2 Bagheera WAS officially imported into the UK in LHD form only and was sold through Chrysler dealers. About fifty or so were converted to RHD by Hodec.

    The Bagheera won the Style Auto award for 1974, presented by an Italian car magazine.

    Matra and Chrysler Europe entered into an agreement in 1969, if my memory is correct. That resulted in the odd situation where they had an accord with one car maker but were using the engines of another – Ford – to power their sole product, the M530. Matra’s F1 and Le Mans cars of 1970 onwards were known as Matra-Simcas. This confused some people, who erroneously thought that the V12 engine that powered them was made by Simca.

    You didn’t mention the Bagheera Courreges, one of the first ‘designer cars’ – available only in white with tan interiors featuring detachable Courreges logo handbags on the door cards. The white Bagheera shown in the first photo on the page is a series 1 Courreges.

    There exist a handful of Bagheeras with galvanised chassis – Matra used these to test the hot-dip galvanisation tanks installed for Murena production. As recently as 2003, there was at least one new (in the sense of unused) galvanised Bagheera chassis available in France.

  2. A truly wonderful little car that had everything you could possibly want in a small sporty car,why hasn’t any other manufacturer (apart from McLaren) thought about using the three abreast seating. Together with the equally wonderful Fiat/Bertone X1/9 makes you realize that even with ever increasing emissions & safety legislation cars like great as these were being produced in the 1970’s. Really Matra were true automotive hero’s yes we all laughed at the Rancho then,but now forty years later it can be seen as the forerunner of the crossover.After the collaboration with Chrysler with Renault they then built the Espace,the template for the European MPV and signing off with the magnificent Aventime a concept that fifteen years after fifteen years has me scratching my head and thinking Qui?

  3. Sadly, Matra folded after the brilliant but mad Avantime proved to be a sales flop, but there is an excellent museum in the town of Romorantin-Lanthenay (about an hour south of Orleans) featuring a wide variety of production cars, concepts and racing cars plus guest exhibitions. Sadly it got very badly hit by floods earlier in the year, but is open again. Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in the area.

  4. A friend of mine had a Bagheera S, and it was a super car to ride in, but the ( horrible ) Simca engine just was not up to the standards of the rest of the car, for the same reasons that it let down the Alpine so badly

  5. Suggests what British Leyland could have done if they had gone down the MG Route and developed a O & E6 Series powered / Princess based solution as a replacement for the sports cars instead of the TR7.

    I see key gap in the oily bits with the lack of 5 speed for the E6 and O Series, but this really should have been sorted for the Princess anyway, may be at the same time allowing for a 2600 variant of the Princess.

  6. Great to see the Matra Simca Bagheera again, yes it was an attractive car that I had almost forgotten about. To me it had some design similarities to the Alfasud Coupe and Alfa GTV coupe of the mid/late 1970s. Lots of character looking back in time.

  7. I’ve heard a U8 engine made out of 2 Simca engines gears together was considered.

    Would have any of the Chrysler 180 or 2 Litre engines have fitted, though they probably have needed a new gearbox for the transverse layout.

  8. Quite like the look of the mk2 Bagheera, pity though it never received tuned or at least the standard Murena’s 1.6 and 2.2 engines from the outset.

    As for how BMC could have utilized the mid-engined layout to create a “British Fiat X1/9”, it would have been interesting to see the ADO16-based mid-engined Healey WAEC prototype instead derived from the Mini along the lines of the GTM Coupe / GTM Rossa.

  9. Thanks for filling me in.

    Considering a lot of R&D was done with the “Twini” did anyone consider just using the rear engine in a car?

  10. Very nice looking cars. Despite growing up in the 70s and being a car enthusiast I don’t think I ever saw one on the road ! Wonder how many are left.

  11. The 1970s does seem to be a bit of a forgotten period of car design

    It’s notable that when manufacturers play on their heritage and go retro, it’s rarely to the 1970s they go.

    Rover went back to the 50s for the Rover 75, ditto the BMW MINI and Fiat 500, VW have the Beetle and Type 2, while even Fiat’s MX5 based roadster, pretends to be a 1960s 124 Spider! Citroen meanwhile have created a DS brand to cash in on that car’s reputation, while the recent Ford Mustangs clearly try to ape the 60s version

    Even with more expensive cars, the Jaguar F-type (and the XK8) clearly have much more in common with the E-type than the XJS, similarly the current Astons hark back to the 60s DB cars, while the modern Maseratis similarly hard back to the 50s and 60s, rather than the Merak or 1981 Biturbo!

    The angular styling of the 70s seems really out of favour now and hasn’t even been rediscovered as a retro style either!

    • I think it was one of those “design language” prototypes that aren’t intended to make production, but watered down elements made the Twingo.

  12. The Matra Murena (and yes, that name still confuses people) from 1980 was the last sports car from Matra, and it fixed the rust issue that had plagued the Bagheera. But stylistically this I think is the best-looking sports car with clean, angular lines that have a touch of Lotus Esprit about them.

    Incidentally, the designer of the Bagheera and Murena was a talent chap named Antonis Volanis, who also designed the Rancho and Espace. Apparently he also designed the Xsara Picasso, so I guess even creative genuises have bad days..

  13. I remember retailing one of these back in 1986 which if memory serves me correctly was a 1977/S in metallic grey. It Was a good looking car with its bench 3 seat let down by its horrible bulky Alpine/Horizon gearbox which just awful, I also remember it was riddled with rust behind the fibre glass lower panels!.

  14. While we’re still on the subject of Matra, there’s the curious story of Matra and Rover nearly striking a deal to sell a version of the Espace – – sadly that came to nought.

    Poor old Matra was really shafted by Renault when they took the Espace in-house. That’s the problem when you have a business partner who is much bigger than you are and that doesn’t really understand your heritage. Sound a bit like another company we know?

  15. The Matra Rancho, marketed by Talbot, was really ahead of its time and had a deserved niche in the market. It wasn’t a four wheel drive, but looked like one( think of a seventies version of the Nissan Qashqai),and had excellent ground clearance. Also its large boot and high driving position won the Rancho many friends. I’d imagine had the Rancho been offered with four wheel drive it could have really challenged the far more expensive Land Rover.

  16. Have always reckoned the Matra Rancho’s appeal would have been further enhanced had it been fitted with the 1.9 PSA XUD diesel as on the Chrysler Horizon.

  17. The Rancho managed to be a good 15-20 years ahead of the softroader trend, especially as many never go off-road to need the 4WD, which the Rancho lacked.

    It’s a bit ironic that the Rancho’s spiritual successor the 2008 isn’t offered as a 4WD as there was little demand for it on the 3008 IIRC.

    • Given that Chrysler produced the Dodge Caravan / Chrysler Voyager from 1984 (from an idea originally conceived at Ford in 1974), it is surprising that they never considered developing their own in-house replacement version of the Matra Rancho from the Chrysler Horizon (since Matra was focusing on what eventually became the Renault Escape).

      • I think originally Chrysler Europe was the intended partner for the Espace, hence the Simca-esque snout of early ones. But then PSA took over Chrysler Europe and they weren’t interested..

        Now, the poor old Rancho (which is one of my favourite car designs ever, incidentally) had a problem of rusting underneath which proved fatal. Although never a massive seller in the UK, it’s still a shock to realise that there are only 5 left on the road (according to plus another 5 SORNed.

        • Is the Espace had stayed with Simca/Chrysler Europe, would the engine from the Chrysler 180/2 litre etc have fitted?

          Otherwise, the 1.6 engine would have been a bit gutless

          • Well, it was a long time between the PSA takeover of Chrysler Europe and the Espace actually coming to market, so it’s probably a bit moot. However, the Talbot Tagora (for example) which would have been roughly contemporary had a 2.7 litre V6 which would have propelled it along nicely. The Tagora was designed by none other than Roy Axe.

            Interesting, according to Wikipedia, AMC were interested in importing the Espace into the US and badging it as their own. That was scuppered when AMC were taken over by Chrysler who of course had their own minivan offering in the same space.

            So, at various points during its life the Espace could have been badged as a Simca, Chrysler, Talbot, AMC and even at the end of its run as a Rover. Of course, it ended up as a Renault. The only badge it never wore was a Matra one..

          • Dynamoo

            Could the Espace have spawned Chrysler Europe and pre-Eurovan Peugeot / Citroen variants similar to how French carmakers and others collaborated with the PRV V6 (originally V8) and PSA X engines?

            Would it have been possible for the 1.9-2.1 PSA XUD and 2.5 PSA DJ / DK diesels engines to power PSA and Chrysler Europe versions of the Renault Espace, production capacity issues notwithstanding?

        • Imagine how good it could have been if Peugeot improved the rust protection, fitted a Peugeot engine to replace the Simca unit, and gave the Rancho five gears, with the option of 4 wd. I’m sure this decent car could have really done well.

  18. A Rancho was the original time car for the London Marathon in 1981.

    Even though I’ve not seen many I have a soft spot for the Rancho.

    Like the Bagheera, Matra managed to make an interesting car from the Simca parts bin & plenty of GRP.

    It’s a shame the Simca rust problems carried over into the Talbot era, judging by how fast the Horizons, Alpines & Sambas vanished from the roads by the late 1990s.

  19. Quite like the look of the more individual contemporary styled M550 proposal.

    Would have been interesting seeing the Bagheera with pre-Murena Type 180 engines and updated 1.6 Poissy unit to replace the 1.5 engine.

    Regarding early M550 project thoughts on updating and expanding the existing M530 and adding additional seats in the rear, would it be correct to assume the Poissy engines were planned from the outset in place of the Ford Taunus V4?

  20. In the early 80s I had a MK2 Bagheera for a few years. It was an excellent car, great handling and surprisingly refined. You didn’t hear that rattly Alpine engine from inside the car…..twin twin choke Webber’s made the engine breath well and did not need the constant attention that you sometimes find with this set-up. Fuel economy was remarkable.
    I used all three seats on one occasion!
    When I got the car it had low profile tyres (50s I think) this messed up the gearing and I had to fit standard profile tyres on the rear. Second gear synchro used to fail on these due to the long gear linkage, I got used to double clutching for first to second.
    I think this is the only car that I have owned that I wish I still had now.

  21. Keith, a very interesting story. However, when looking at the photos of the M550 A and B design proposals, I was struck by how much, from the rear, they looked like they had come from American Motors. The M550A looks like the last AMC Matador, while the M550B looks like a lower, wider Gremlin!

  22. In the following article below mention is made of a 1.3-litre Simca 16-valve 4-cylinder prototype engine that allegedly used a cylinder head derived from the Matra V12 programme to put out 180 hp and was allegedly planned for the Bagheera, only for Simca’s management to refuse to approve the project.

    However it is not immediately clear whether the engine was basically a 1.3-litre Simca Poissy or some version of the Type 180 engine, converted to 16-valves and featuring a new cylinder derived from the Matra V12.

    While have heard of a few 16-valve Type 180 engine projects, it would be interesting to find out whether the above is evidence there were plans to develop a 16-valve version of the Poissy engine likely detuned to around 100 hp 1.3-litre (and around 110-120 hp in 1.6-litre form) for road-going Simca models.

    • The answer can be found here:

      Matra later developed an all-singing, all-dancing, DOHC 16V version of the 2.2 litre SOHC unit used in the Tagora and Murena. It offered 63bhp more than the ‘stock’ engine but was never put into production. Like its little sister – and the MS 82, Matra’s stillborn 1.5 litre V6 turbo engine – it now resides in the Espace automobiles Matra in Romorantin.

      • Thanks. So the 1.3 16-valve Simca Poissy engine also appears to feature DOHCs as well and put out 165 on the bench, the main intention being for competition use though likely capable of series production were it not for the prohibitive costs involved?

        Makes sense though initially thought the engine was a SOHC 16-valve design for some reason.

        Financial problems aside always found it strange neither the 90 hp 1442cc nor of the 92 hp 1592cc Poissy engines managed to break the 100 hp barrier, let alone featured an OHC conversion at minimum if not some series production version of the 16-valve DOHC Poissy engines.

        More viable OHC and DOHC versions of the Poissy engine would in 1.6 form be roughly put out similar figures to the original mk1 108 hp Golf 1.6 GTI and the 136 hp Golf GTi 16 S Oettinger special edition.

        • It is odd that a less radical overhaul of the Poissy engine didn’t occur, not least given that the man behind it, Georges Martin, had moved from Simca to Matra, where he designed the Matra V12 racing engine.

          I dare say that lack of money was the main reason why Matra’s clever reworking of both the Poissy engine and the 2.2 Tagora/Murena unit failed to make it into production. Chrysler Europe’s finances were in a dire state in the 1970s, and PSA had their own financial issues in the early 1980s.

          • Though Chrysler HQ in the US apparently had its own issues, perhaps its European division instead of being composed of Simca and Rootes would have been better off being composed of Simca and Borgward.

            Heard PSA managed to tighten up the manufacturing tolerances of the later Poissy engines, which apparently remedied the tappet issues.

            Was initially under the impression Poissy engine was derived from the old Fiat 1100 engine (a version that was used at Simca in the 1300/1500), though was mistakenly thinking about the rejected 119 proposal (featuring an 1100-based 1000cc unit) for what eventually became the Simca 1000.

            Also thought there was a connection between the Poissy engine and the Fiat 100 Series engine, since the approved 122 proposal used the same 843cc engine as the Fiat 850.

            However while Georges Martin did design the Poissy engine it seems to share some similarities to the Fiat 100 Series engine, almost suggesting the Poissy unit is in some respects essentially a slightly upscaled version of the latter.

  23. The dashboard is pure French eccentric, with its radio facing sideways, clock on the passenger side, and speedometer that looks like a radar screen. Also love the orange dashboard material.
    Certainly proves one thing, if you wanted a car that was different in the seventies, you bought Frencn and the Bagheera is no different.

    • Citroen would be proud of that dash, the GS was one of their quirkiest interior designs.

      The Italians made some strange ones for the the Alfa Sud & Lancia Trevi.

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