Concepts and prototypes : Matra M72 (or CityRover, take one)

Keith Adams tells the story of the rather prescient Matra M72, a fun-filled city slicker designed for sunnier climes.  

More strangely still it was briefly considered as a potential addition to the MG Rover range – could it have worked in Brum?


Matra M72: Anglo-French Rover?

Matra M72
Stranger things have happened – this production-ready prototype came to the attention of MG Rover executives who could see a certain potential…

Buried in the annals of MG Rover’s history is a potential commercial tie-up with Matra Automobiles. There was a plan to build the Renault Espace Gen 3 as a Rover-badged MPV, with discussions taking place in 2002.

However, tucked away in Matra’s back pocket was something even more curious. Longbridge executives could have ended up reviving the MG Midget name with a version of the fascinating M72 prototype, and also coined the CityRover name for it…

Back in 2000, MG Rover’s management was in a terrible pickle – ‘gifted’ a £500m dowry – that amounted to three months’ turnover – from former owner, BMW Group, a range of ageing saloons, a roadster and a crumbling factory badly in need of investment. The situation was looking pretty bleak no matter how positive a spin could be put on it…

Matra M72

New metal needed

During 2000, Matra unveiled its radical, and rather interesting M72 Prototype. This was a car designed to fill a specific niche in the French market. The sub-350kg car, which bears a passing resemblance to the Lotus 340R, was designed to fit in with legislation that allowed 16-year olds to drive cars, as long as they fell within that weight limit, and its engine produced less than 20bhp.

Although these cars aren’t popular outside of France, the higher powered (50bhp-plus) versions of this radical vehicle were considered to have some potential… and it was with this in mind, that MG Rover began to talk to Matra about a possible deal.

The open-wheeled prototype was production-ready, and could have hit the streets by 2003 – and this was where MG Rover would come in.

Matra M72

How the deal world have worked

It was mooted that MG Rover would supply the finances to get the project up and running in return for a sales deal. This would have been a similar arrangement to that discussed elsewhere with the Gen 3 Espace.

The car itself definitely had some potential, and MG Rover coined the name CityRover with this car in mind, although just how far discussions about this project went, we’re still not 100% sure.

However, what we do know is that, with a predicted on sale date of mid-2003 and pricing of around £5500 for the 50bhp version, the motorcycle engine-powered CityRover would have been aimed at a small market niche.

Could it have been a money spinner?

With the benefit of hindsight, the product could have been pretty profitable given Matra’s expertise in the field. However, the early 2000s might have been too soon for the M72/ CityRover even if the potential future demand for city cars designed specifically for commuting was building up just beyond the horizon.

Not that time was a luxury that MG Rover had.

In the end, Matra and Rover couldn’t agree terms, and the French company was swallowed up by Pininfarina. Deals with the Indian Company, Tata, and the buy-out of Qvale came into focus and resulted in the only all-new MG Rover products, the CityRover hatchback and the XPower SV supercar, neither of which were greeted warmly by the press.

Matra M72

And what about the M72? It came painfully close to production before Matra closed its doors for good. The Chinese company Yema picked up the project and briefly considered building it alongside the Maestro-based SQJ6450 (above). Small world…

For more information about the M72, visit Lennart Sorth’s excellent Matrasport website.

Matra M72
Matra’s M72 fitted the CityRover moniker more effectively than the Tata Indica V2
Keith Adams

5 Comments

  1. Hi

    Is there a chance to see this car in production ?
    I like this concept for the citt, the beach, perfect idea
    Any info would be appreciated

    Regards

    philippe

  2. The M72 was very close to production when Matra Automobile’s parent company decided to cease vehicle production in 2003. The sign which can be seen at 1:40 on this video (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6qpj_ex-usine-matra_news) shot at Matra’s state-of-the-art Romo 3 facility after it closed gives a tantalising clue as to just how close the M72 came to making it into production.

    Chinese company Yema Auto exhibited a clone of the M72 (probably a repainted and rebadged Matra prototype) but, like the original, it never made it into production.

    If you’d like to see an M72 then the Espace Automobiles Matra at Romorantin (http://www.museematra.com/) has one of the prototypes on display along with a terrific selection of Matra road, racing and prototype cars.

  3. From some angles and viewpoints it reminds me of a Smart, i.e. looks like a cheap, plastic kit-car which has been somewhat cobbled together.

  4. Yes I was going to say it looked like a Smart too.

    As to actually manufacturing this Matra thing, just look at the horrible cost-issues that the Smart has incurred for its various owners.

    And who would have bought it anyway? I can’t see it as having the necessary degree of watertightness to be of much use in a typical UK winter…. and I guess it wouldn’t have been fast enough to attract bikers either. Maybe they could have produced a version in pale blue, fitted with hand-controls, and sold to disabled people as a replacement for the dreaded AC ‘Invacar’ that we remember from the 60s andn 70s.

  5. For this Matra-based offering to have sold in reasonable numbers it would have required both of the following:

    1. MG Rover Group to not only be financially stable and able to afford taking this flutter, but also have at least one of its two core brands to be stable and commercially successful. Sadly, both the Rover and MG brands were still commercially compromised by the events of 1999/2000 involving the Rover Group’s former keeper. Therefore, this project would have done neither of these brands any favours at a time when the focus needed to be on delivering all-new replacement models for sale in multiple market territories, despite the huge costs involved.

    2. Linked to this would be a more cynical motoring press who would treat this ‘offering’ as yet another golden opportunity to take a side swipe at the company and its management’s efforts to deliver new projects. This would rub even more salt into the sales wounds caused by a combination of the events of 1999/2000, an ageing product range that had already reached its natural sales peak and the fact the company still had no focused plan on how to replace its core models. The motoring press would have received it in the same way as they did the actual CityRover, resulting in both a PR and sales disaster for MG Rover Group.

    Some would say the fact it didn’t progress into production was a saving grace for MG Rover Group and its dignity. I would agree with this.

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