The cars : Talbot-Matra Murena (M551) development story

Keith Adams tells the little-known story of the three-seat Talbot-Matra Murena, a mid-engined sports car for the ‘masses’ that ushered its maker into a brave new world for the 1980s.

Sadly, its potential remained unfulfilled following its launch, petering out just three years later.

Talbot-Matra Murena: Smoothly does it

Pictured at rest during the press launch in Morocco. (Picture: CAR magazine)
Pictured at rest during the press launch in Morocco. (Picture: CAR magazine)

The Bagheera was a good example of that old cliché, ‘racing improves the breed’, and following Sir Jackie Stewart OBE’s 1969 World Championship win at the wheel of a Tyrrell Racing Organisation-run Matra MS80-Cosworth and end-to-end Le Mans victories in 1972, ’73 and ’74, Matra’s credentials were impeccable.

Clearly, the Matra-Simca Bagheera had been a commercial and critical success for Matra and Chrysler – thanks to its combination of prettiness, generous accommodation and sweet chassis, it had the French buying it in droves.

However, it wasn’t perfect, and Matra had clear goals to aim for when it commenced work on its replacement in 1976. The main barrier to success in export markets, was the Bagheera’s build quality, or to be more precise, the lack of it.

In Germany, especially, it was held back by this, and those that were sold in Northern European markets soon suffered from rusting chassis. Also buyers demanded more power, and even though the Bagheera S could deliver a fair turn of speed, it could not be described as a fast car. What Matra needed, then, was a ‘new’ Bagheera, built to higher standards, with improved resistance to rust and larger engines.

Project M551 comes into focus

Essentially, that was how the Murena came to be: project M551 was defined as an evolution of the Bagheera, and was soon built around the existing structure. The final engine decision came later but, at that point, it was decided to equip the M551 with a 1.6-litre version of the Bagheera S engine (as later used in the Alpine and Solara) as well as the 2.2-litre development of the Chrysler 2.0-Litre unit (later to be found in the Talbot Tagora).

The engine situation was still fluid at the time that Chrysler Europe became part of PSA – and so Matra set-about investigating options within the PSA range. For the larger version, the 2.0-Litre joint-venture (Peugeot-Renault) Douvrin engine (so-called because it had been designed by Française de Mécanique, and built at a factory in Douvrin) looked good.

Being all-aluminium, it was somewhat lighter than the existing Chrysler lump, which would have beneficial effects on the car’s handling. However, Renault vetoed the plan, as the company feared that the Murena amounted to too-effective competition for its upcoming Fuego model, which would also be receiving a Douvrin engine.

Publicity photo of the Murena at home on the Autoroute. Directional stability and lack of wind noise at high speed were plus points, but it was also pretty effective on twisty roads. Even though it was offered with a 2.2-litre engine, the chassis still cried out for more power.
Publicity photo of the Murena at home on the Autoroute. Directional stability and lack of wind noise at high speed were plus points, but it was also pretty effective on twisty roads. Even though it was offered with a 2.2-litre engine, the chassis still cried out for more power…

Styling and engineering

Undeterred by Renault’s snub, Matra finalised the engine range – in both cases ex-Simca units were used. However, the styling was unlike anything that had come before: it is difficult to describe the Murena as an evolution of the Bagheera, as that car was firmly planted in the 1970s (classic wedge, defined by clear edges), whereas the Murena was much more organic. That streamlined style was an obvious result of the many hours spent honing the design in the wind tunnel.

And the results were impressive: the final Cd (co-efficient of drag) rated at 0.328, which in 1980, was nothing short of sensational. To put that figure into perspective, one must compare it with another of 1980’s ‘streamliners’: when launched, the Renault Fuego’s aerodynamics were loudly trumpeted in its advertising, and yet it scored 0.347…

Body engineering was similar to the Bagheera: a plastic outer-skin, comprising of a mere twelve panels was fitted to a heavy and rigid steel spaceframe. Importantly, the Murena’s spaceframe was completely galvanized, thus ensuring that history did not repeat itself – and Matra backed that up with a six-year anti-corrosion warranty.

The rear suspension comprised of MacPherson struts, but at the front, the Alpine/Solara’s torsion bar set-up was used. Power was definitely up, compared with the Bagheera: the 1592cc version boasted 92bhp, while the 2156cc version (ironically, an identical capacity to the 2.2-litre Douvrin) put out 118bhp, but much more torque. To answer another oft-repeated Bagheera criticism, both Murenas came with five-speed gearboxes as standard.

To launch: Talbot-Matra Murena blows in

Talbot Matra Murena Paris 1980

Matra Murena Paris 1980

The Murena was launched at the Paris Motor Show in September 1980 (above), and found itself sharing the spotlight with the new Tagora. However, journalists would have to wait some months before they would be able to get their hands on one, as Talbot’s ambition to show it at the Paris Salon outweighed the desire to present a finished product – it was probably not coincidence that Renault unveiled the Fuego at the same show, and Talbot management felt that the Murena possessed more than enough style to overshadow it.

The Murena did make a favourable first impression, and most journalists couldn’t wait to get their hands on it. Sadly, that would not happen until the following Spring, thanks to the need for Matra to cure a last-minute bug, in the shape of an oil starvation feed problem in the 2.2-litre model.

However, the conclusions drawn by journalists after their first drives were mixed. As was to be expected, the styling and accommodation of the Murena were praised, and the its handling was particularly lauded, but there was unease about price and performance. Despite offering 118bhp in 2.2-litre form, most felt that the Murena was simply not fast enough.

First drives: less than impressive performance

Talbot Matra Murena seats

In his report in CAR magazine, LJK Setright made some not-too favourable comparisons between the 2.2-litre Murena and the Volkswagen Scirocco GTi. Straight line speed was the issue and, given the profusion of newly-launched hot hatchbacks, coupés such as the Murena were being left behind.

In terms of pricing, the Murena was no bargain either: comparable coupés such as the Alfasud Sprint and Scirocco were considerably cheaper, similarly priced cars, such as the Porsche 924 and Alpine-Renault A310 were faster. The Murena might have been able to run rings around any of these cars on a twisty B-road but, in the minds of most, this was not enough.

Matra Murena

Updates were coming

Stung by such criticism, Matra developed an uprated Murena 4S model (4S=quatre soupapes, four valves). Based upon the standard 2.2-litre model, the Murena 4S sported a clever 16-valve head, which upped the maximum power to a much more respectable 180bhp.

The gearbox remained unmodified, and apparently had no trouble handling the extra power, and in testing, the 4S model proved impressively reliable.

To differentiate the 4S from the standard model, Matra developed a suitably extrovert bodykit. Performance was boosted accordingly and the Murena 4S could reach more than 140mph. When presented with the 4S in November 1981, Peugeot management would not approve it for production; no doubt struggling with the bigger issue of the logistical nightmare of trying to manage three marques, all with overlapping models.

Unfulfilled promise

Talbot-Matra Murena S

Matra did not give up on the idea of a faster Murena, but Peugeot would not play ball: a promising V12 designed by André Legan was passed over after not progressing far beyond the drawing board. A version powered by the 2.9-litre PRV V6 engine (Tagora, Volvo 760, Peugeot 604 and DeLorean DMC-12 among others) was similarly vetoed. A final attempt at getting Peugeot to approve the 4S for production in fuel-injected form also proved fruitless.

In the end, Peugeot relented slightly, by allowing Matra to market an aftermarket tuning kit (above), which boosted power to 142bhp. The hike in power was achieved through a more aggressive camshaft and a four-into-one inlet manifold feeding two twin-choke Solex carburettors.

As this was an aftermarket conversion to be fitted by a Talbot dealer, the cost implications of the upgrade further added to the financial burden of purchasing a Murena (the S kit took 25 hours to fit). Thankfully, performance was now in keeping with the Murena’s sleek looks and, in a straight line, it could keep a Porsche 944 honest.

Sadly, Matra had only one production line capable of producing the Murena (thanks to its galvanisation process), and this kept production at a lower level than desirable. Matra therefore decided to wind down production of the Murena. In the end, the 142S kit became a factory option (to use up the remaining chassis and body shells), and the Murena-S became a full-time member of the family in June 1983.

End game

Just a month later, and after a production run of a mere 10,680, the Murena was officially killed off – Matra and Peugeot had parted company. Traditional profit-maker Peugeot found itself enduring some of the worst financial performances of its existence, following the purchase of Chrysler Europe, and found itself in a rationalising phase. When Matra offered the P18 project to replace the Rancho, PSA famously turned down what would end up being one of Europe’s most innovative cars of the 1980s.

The partnership was dissolved, thus ending the Murena and the Rancho. Matra would be left to fend for itself, but not for long: it approached Renault with the P18 design. Unsurprisingly, la Regie was more than happy to take up the option of the brilliant Renault Espace, entering into a similar commercial partnership to build this pioneering MPV…

..and with that, one of Europe’s most innovative line of sports cars was no longer. Should PSA, Matra or even Chrysler be held responsible? Probably a combination of all three, plus the changing demands of performance car buyers. During the early 1980s, the hot hatchback was the car to be seen in. The Volkswagen Golf GTi and, later, the Peugeot 205 GTI showed us all that you could have it all: a thrilling drive, sharp looks, and practicality.

The Murena offered all of these qualities, too; it could seat three, its boot was much larger than you’d imagine and, once the Lancia Monte Carlo disappeared, it was clearly the best-looking mid-engined real-world coupé available.

However, it was too slow. This might have been acceptable in an inexpensive car like the Bagheera, but not in one as expensive as the Murena. The Murena was never replaced and, apart from the homologation special Peugeot 205 T16, PSA never produced another mid-engined sports car..

Talbot-Matra Murena

Keith Adams
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  1. A nice write-up, but there are a couple of inaccuracies:

    Both the Bagheera and the Murena had monocoque chassis, not spaceframes.

    Whilst it’s true that LJK Setright called for a more powerful Murena, he loved the car – his driving impressions were published in Car magazine under the heading ‘Murena the Marvellous’.

    The Murena 4S did not have a targa roof of any sort – you’re thinking of the Chimera, a targa-roofed Murena made by French coachbuilder Chapron. Incidentally, only two 4S prototypes were made. One – blue with green badging – had the revised body and the other – two tone yellow and black – had the 176 bhp engine. Both still exist (in excellent condition) today, but the yellow/black car now has an S engine fitted – the 4S unit isn’t homologated for road use in France. The 4S powerplant can, however, be seen at the Espace Matra Automobile in Romorantin, along with a great selection of Matra road, racing and prototype cars.

    As far as I know, the 4S engine was always intended to be fuel-injected.

    Finally, the relatively low production of the Murena was due to a bottleneck at the Matra factory, but rather to the fact that it simply didn’t sell as well as had been hoped for. A great shame, as it offered a fantastic driving experience in addition to a very exotic shape.

  2. In retrospect would the Matra Murena have been better off using the existing Simca Type 180 or the Douvrin units?

    • The Douvrin units are using a belt instead of the chain-driven camshaft of the Chrysler-Simca 180 engine. Imagine a cambelt change in that already cramped engine bay…

  3. A GRP specialist once told me that the quality of the body panels was much better in the Bagheera than in the Murena. Bagheera panels had a tendency to fade under UV exposition but could be easily fixed and repainted. Murena panels developed cracks in the gel coat with age and could be repaired only with a lot more effort. Murena GRP also cracked much more badly under mechanical stress.

  4. Quite a nice looking car. In some ways it reminds me of the mid/late 1980’s Nissan Silvia which also had pop up headlamps

  5. The Murena 2.2S was one of the most expensive French cars, fitting the PRV would have made it the MOST expensive one (let alone lack of engine accessibility..) and dearer than a 944!!! Alpine and Venturi(VS 911) had the same problem a few years later…

  6. PSA did not pull the plug on Matra’s partnership, Matra did. Matra had the successor to the Rancho ready as prototype P18 which would become the Espace later, but PSA didn’t want it as they were heavily cash-strapped, so they turned to Renault, who bought PSA’s shares in December 1982. The Murena was far from a sales success and the factory in Romorantin had only one production line, so by June 1983 Murena’s production was halted to allow for re-tooling. By April 1984 the first Espaces ran off the production line.
    I’ve owned a Murena 2.2 for 14 years, still regret selling it!

  7. Amusing that Renault would see the Murena as a competitor to the Fuego, when the Murena was an expensive and exotic mid engined sports car whereas the Fuego, while nice looking, was just an R18 in drag!

    • I imagine the Murena was seen by Renault as in house competition to the mid engined Alpines rather than the Fuego.

      • Agreed, however I do not believe Renault would have had any say what PSA put the Douvrin (and PRV V6 for that matter) into.

        I suspect that limited production capacity, as they also chose to continue the Simca 180 stretched to 2.2 litre for the Tagora instead of utilising the 2.0 and 2.2 litre variants of the Douvrin even though the Tagora derived the rest of its powertrain from the 505 and or internal politics, with Talbot (Simca) pushing hard to justify the continuation of its engine programs in the new organisation.

        • It seems there were unrealised plans to fit the Renault 21 Turbo engine into the Renault Alpine GTA, maybe there were plans to fit the naturally aspirated 2-litre Douvrin engines as an entry-level Alpine GTA model during its development that would have conflicted with the Murena?

          • To which I believe PSA would have said “So What” because I believe they were free to put the Douvrin engine in whatever of their products they wanted, also I doubt Renault executives were so bothered about the Alpine GTA competitors compared with PSA competition with the Renault 20, 30 and 21.

          • Between the Douvrin and the Type 180 it is difficult to say which would have been better for the Murena, the former was lighter yet the latter was potentially capable of producing more power both in turbocharged as well as naturally aspirated (e.g. 180 hp Murena 4S) forms.

            Also one would have thought a 2-litre version of either the Douvrin or Type 180 would have been more useful for the Murena in markets that penalized cars over 2-litres.

          • Nate, the Douvrin engine was far superior in terms of reliability and can do astronomical numbers, and as shown in the 21 turbo very fast. The 180 engine was know as being unreliable and in 505 turbo mode very fragile.

  8. It is a sign of the Murena fundamentally good styling that it still looks fresh today and like the 928 has aged so much better than contemporizes such as the 924,944 and 968.

  9. I think of the Porsche 928 and I always think of a young Tom Cruise driving around in one in Risky Business when his parents were away. Actually this was the market Porsche wanted for the 928( not the young Tom Cruise, but the actors who played his parents), well off, middle aged or older, wanting supercar performance, but wanting something more practical and more refined than a 911. The 928 was probably aimed at the Jaguar XJS buyer as well as it was a 2+2 and had a large engine that was designed for performance and refinement.

    • I love the 928 – if I ever win the lottery it is a car I have always promised myself I would buy. The Murena was definitely aimed at the 924, which was originally conceived as an Audi with its VW van derived engine. The 924 only got better when we got the Porsche engine 944, and then the ultimate 968 – another classic.
      If the Murena had been given the engine it deserved from the start, I still not sure if it would have cut the mustard in the market as the Matra’s F1 successes had been just under a decade earlier. Also due to the Peugeot/Matra split I think it would still have had a short life with Matra concentrating as they did on the Espace which was financially probably more rewarding for them.

    • It’s interesting that Porsche conceived the 928 as a 911 replacement, but it ended up being sold alongside the older model and being outlived by it!
      Jaguar by contrast replaced the E-type with the XJS, but eventually via the XK8 ended up with the F-type which spiritually is far more of an evolved E-type than an XJS…

  10. The 928 was Porsche’s answer to the Jaguar XJS and the Mercedes 500 SEC and was intended as a competitor to these rather than the Italian supercars the 911 saw as rivals. Also most 928s were sold as automatics, which suggested buyers weren’t interested using the car to beat Ferraris, more a rapid coupe that could cover hundreds of miles in comfort. Yet the performance was there if needed, the 928 could reach 145 mph, and still handled like a supercar.

  11. I think the Murena’ range wasn’t the Best. If it HAD to be sold in 1,6L, thé à back to basics less expensive version nearer to Bagheera’s price would have been a good idea, then the one with better trim and équipements we had.
    Definitly, the 2L in 110bhp should have been available with both trims( at least in Italy, tax was steep above 2L!) and to top that, the 2,2L in 142bhp and all the bells and whistles…
    Matra muséum is quitte intéressant.

  12. I think the Murena’ range wasn’t the Best. If it HAD to be sold in 1,6L, then a back to basics less expensive version nearer to Bagheera’s price would have been a good idea, then the one with better trim and équipements we had.
    Definitly, the 2L in 110bhp should have been available with both trims( at least in Italy, tax was steep above 2L!) and to top that, the 2,2L in 142bhp and all the bells and whistles…
    Matra muséum is quitte interesting.

  13. Cars in France were crippled by the tax on engine size that saw any car with an engine above 2 litres hit with a massive purchase tax. This meant executive type cars like the Renault 20 topped out at two litres and the biggest engine available on a French car in the late seventies was the 2.7 V6 found in the Peugeot 604 and Renault 30, both of which sold in small numbers. The purchase tax also killed off luxury car makers like Facel Vega, as the tax on their V8 engines made it uneconomic to continue production.

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