History : MG Rover and Matra

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

MG Rover and Matra? Now there’s a winning combination, and one not as outlandish as it seems. Briefly, the two companies considered joining forces to build a Rover-badged version of the Renault Espace Mk3.

Keith Adams tells the tale, and the follow-on that briefly had MG Rover considering building a rather different CityRover…


The strange story of how MG Rover almost won the Espace

Matra's Espace would have made an interesting and much-needed new Rover...
Matra’s Espace would have made an interesting and much-needed new Rover…

Back in 2000, MG Rover’s management was in a terrible pickle – ‘gifted’ a £500m dowry – which amounted to three months’ turnover – from former owners, BMW, a range of aging saloons, a roadster and a crumbling factory badly in need of investment, things were looking bleak no matter how positive a spin could be put on the situation.

Although the return of MG Z-cars was a welcome addition to the MG Rover range, what was really needed were genuinely new and exciting products – the sort of niche cars that small producers like MG Rover could turn their hand to more easily than the volume sized opposition.

Niche cars couldn’t be conjured up from thin air, though, even with what remained of Rover’s talented engineering team – but, luckily, the solution was readily at hand: look for new partners. It didn’t take long for MG Rover to come up with Matra as a potential bedfellow – the innovative French company was about to part company with Renault and needed to find another company to work with if it wasn’t to go under.

MG Rover’s desire to build an MPV explored

This time, the deal was to have been struck between MG Rover and Matra over the production of the Matra-built Espace Gen III, which had recently been phased out by Renault. When Renault developed its own Espace replacement, Matra looked for a partnership with another car maker and approached Rover (the only major carmaker not to have an MPV in its model portfolio by this time).

Matra submitted design and engineering proposals for a Rover MPV. MG Rover conducted negotiations with Matra, as the French company possessed the sole rights to the platform, which it designed and produced for Renault.

According to an informed source, MG Rover was ‘ninety per cent’ of the way to signing a deal with Matra to build a rebadged and lightly revised version of the previous Espace. Technically, it would have been simple for MG Rover to make the car look like its own as, the old Espace understructure was relatively easy to restyle given the fact that the panels were not load bearing. The plan advanced as far as devising an engine strategy, which revolved around the usage of Peugeot diesel engines and the KV6 engine.

MG Rover and Matra couldn’t agree terms

The promising plan went sour when MG Rover and Matra could not agree on production volumes. Matra was hoping to achieve something like 100,000 units over five years, whereas MG Rover were being more realistic, by projecting half that. There were also the potential implications of using the KV6 engine, as it was more expensive than the Renault V6 that had been used in Matra’s own costings.

MG Rover was perhaps being pessimistic, but given its patchy European dealer network and non-existent image in some European countries, it paid to err on the side of caution. There was also the important issue of funding: MG Rover was of limited means and the Matra project would have taken resources away from important future models…

The plan would have not been without merit though, as the previous generation (Matra) Espace was still a mightily competent machine at the time, even at the end of its life. In many ways, it was a superior car to its Renault-designed replacement.

Moving on from the Espace to the M72

Renault Avantime
The Avantime died just after Matra/MG Rover talks failed and it was clear the company could not remain in the volume business

Another product that MG Rover briefly looked at was the fascinating Matra M72 – 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. It could supply the finances to get the project up and running in term for a sales deal – one that would have been similar to that discussed with the Gen III 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 sure.

Could it have been an alternative CityRover?

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, but one that could have been pretty profitable given Matra’s expertise in the field and the potential future demand for city cars designed specifically for commuting.

In the end, negotiations between MG Rover and Matra floundered in the Autumn of 2001. Matra, which had been very keen on the deal, did try very hard to make it happen but, in the end, the companies could not quite clear the final furlong. This breakdown in the talks resulted in the entire Espace Mk3 production line was being closed, as no other buyer for the car could be found. Incidentally, the loss of the Renault Avantime (which had been cancelled due to unsustainable sales volumes) could have had a knock-on effect on the Rover MPV, had the plan had gone ahead.

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

Matra M72
Producing the Matra M72 was one of MG Rover’s wacky ideas – it would have been called CityRover
Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

18 Comments

  1. If the negotiation for this joint venture had been concluded as succees, how was the result?
    Rover 65 or 85, I guess… Is somebody who has more specific expectation?

  2. I can understand MGR’s caution regarding sales volumes of a “Roverised Espace” but I can’t help thinking a great opportunity was lost. The Espace Gen III was still very competent, could easily be re-styled as a Rover and was an entry to the growing MPV market – a gift!! Yes, it would have consumed a large part of the dowry and left little for other new models. However, the dowry was only ever going to be enough to fund one new model, other collaborative arrangements were always going to be needed to fund a new range. Could they not have come to an agreement over the volumes? Wasn’t a lower volume Espace production line better for Matra than no line at all?

    Never new the negotiations were between MATRA and MGR – I new of the idea but thought it was RENAULT and MGR.

    Never before heard of the M72. Radical and an even greater departure for the Rover name. It was more innovate, inspirational than the actual CityRover though and so in this respect a better car to associate with the Rover name, prestige image.

  3. It’s such an irony that a company that had been notorious for being overly optimistic since at least the days of the Maxi & arguably the 1800 lost out on a potentially lucrative deal by virtue of, for once, realistic forecasts.

    The full-sized MPV market was living on borrowed time by 2000 with Vauxhall & Honda coming to the market to late with their respoective Sintra & Odyssey models. Therefore however in order for the tie-up to have any long term success, a mini-MPVs along the lines of the Meriva & Zafira would have to have been concocted at the same time.

    This was certainly possible even with RDX60 in its infancy. The R3 platform could have been used for a Meriva sized model & at the end of the day, the floorpan was an shrunk R8 one & the original sized one would have sufficed for a Zafira competitor.

    An HH-R based mini-MPV wouldn’t have been viable given the royalties that this platform commanded were just too great.

    These would have been stopgap models which may have been problematic for an R3 based model given that no platform was on the agenda at the time but they could have been strong-selling models in what was a popular segment at the time.

    • Yes, the decline of full size MPV sales perhaps wouldn’t have made a “Rover Espace” such a good proposition. I hadn’t quite realised the fall in sales of such vehicles by this time.

  4. Wouldn’t this have still been produced in Matra’s factory, so a bit of extra volume for MGR’s dealers and hopefully a bit of profit, but no help to Longbridge…

  5. Perhaps the experience with the Oden MPV, which morphed into Freelander, put MGR off the idea. At least they tried to be realistic with volumes – I can remember when the 75 volumes – always planned to be 100k annual – were suddenly cut to 25k with little apparent senior level consequences.

  6. This could have been quite something with Rover TCV styling. A Nissan Qasqai MPV/crossover type vehicle that the Streetwise would have had a family resemblance with. *sigh* What if…

  7. So, Rover could have ended up with a range made up of the Tata Indica, Fiat Stilo, Renault Espace and Rover 75, all with wood on the dashboard and olde-worlde grilles on the front. How bizarre! Mind you, the Stilo and Espace were good cars and maybe they would have sold, although there would still have been a sense of a company living on borrowed time.

    • I doubt MG Rover Group’s finances would have stretched to funding all of these licensing ventures, possibly one at best.

    • The Stilo was adequate, but not competitive with the best in class and lacking the distinctive styling (like say the Tipo) to make it stand out. It’s hard to imagine a Rover badged Stilo flying out of the showrooms.

      Full size MPVs weren’t a large niche back then, and the market has shrunk down even more subsequently, apart from the likes of Addison Lee!

  8. As Philip said, the full size MPV was starting to become a niche product, as manufacturers created mid-sized MPVs such as Scenic, Picasso etc. that sold well. GM didn’t help themselves with the Sintra, by contemporary reviews a spacious but dreadful US import. They upped their game with the mk1 Zafira though.

    Only VW-Seat-Ford seemed to get away with selling a ‘large’ MPV with their Sharon/Alabama/Galaxie.(sarcastic spellings…) And to an extent the Chrysler Voyager, which although the marque is being axed next year, sits next to the Merc Vito as the chauffeurs’ choice of Executive MPV transport.

    The RDX60, even if it was based on the floorpan of the 75, could have been the basis of a mid-size MPV.

    With the large floorpan, a wheel at each corner would offer great interior space, and indeed handling in what is an unsporting segment. (Imagine an MG MPV!). Add some Streetwise cladding, all of a sudden a crossover before Nissan murdered the Primera to plague our supermarket carparks with Qashqais. It would out-Mini the MINI Countryman!

  9. Even though the large MPV was in decline a rehashed Espace would have sold more units than the rehashed De Tomato super car!

  10. Heheh.. I have an Avantime! The Matra story is quite an interesting one in its own right. A manufacturer of racing cars and sports cars, it also started to manufacture vehicles for the PSA Group (e.g. the Talbot Rancho) and then later the Espace.

    The space frame construction of the Espace was a Matra speciality (the Avantime also has a space frame), but it was the sort of thing that worked OK in low volumes whereas pressed metal sheets were more effective for high volumes. And in part, the success of the Espace is what killed Matra.. it was better made in a Renault factory with big bits of metal, and when Renault switched production the esoteric Avantime never sold in the volumes needed (only about 8000 worldwide). Matra closed their factory in 2003.

    A small manufacturer getting shafted by a much bigger partner? An echo of Rover and BMW perhaps?

    • Hmmmm, I suspect Rover, (nee ARG, nee BL, nee BMC) shafted itself 60 years ago then continued to shaft itself, (with enthusiastic help from the unions) over subsequent decades. I’m amazed it lasted as long as it did.

      There’s no doubt about the quality and ingenuity of the Engineers. It’s just a shame that the managers were not of similar calibre.

      In hindsight you can see the path of history littered with atrocious decisions:

      The failure to rationalize following the formation of BMC. The Riley and Morris marques should have been run down and deleted by 1955.

      The criminally inept meddling by that joker Tony Benn in pushing the marriage of the lame duck BMC with the hugely successful Leyland/Triumph/Rover combine.

      The failure to curb the power of the unions throughout the 60s and 70s culminating with the requirement to elect MT to swing her morningstar in the industrial heartlands.

      The shocking sale of the rejuvenated and rising automotive star ARG to British Aerospace by the Tory government.

      The sale of ARG\Rover to BMW.

      The failure of New Labour to bail out Rover.

      I think we should be glad it lasted as long as it did. By rights 2005 was a miracle of longevity.

      Nige

  11. Sorry but this story sounds like the old adage of two rocks who think they can stop themselves sinking by clinging together. The Avantime was a terrible car and don’t see how a big selling MPV could have been created by somehow giving it 5 doors and sticking in a K Series Engine – the market had already moved on from 80s/90s full size MPVs (Jasper Carrot’s “vans with a bit of carpet and a pop-up shrine to the virgin mary”)

    We’ll never know, but the brand was such that I’m not convinced a Rover equivalent of a Zafira / Picasso / Focus C-Max / Galaxy would have sold in the big numbers needed to justify the investment in creating something like that from the platform up.

  12. The full-size MPV market was still pretty strong at that time, as evidenced by the fact that Matra’s production figures of Espace III were hitting nearly 70,000 per year at the turn of the millennium. Although it’s unrealistic to assume that a Matra-Rover MPV would have hit those sort of numbers, Matra’s figure of sales of 20,000 per annum over a five year period doesn’t seem grossly optimistic.

    Incidentally, Matra themselves foresaw the advent of the mini-MPV even before the series 1 Espace hit the roads, as evidenced by their P19 prototype of 1982.

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