Museums: The Espace automobiles Matra

Matra's last car, the Renault Avantime poses outside the museuum

The Espace automobiles Matra museum is one of those hidden gems that you’ll be glad you made the trip to see the place. I first stumbled upon the place in 2006, when on holiday in central France – I spotted a flier for the museum buried among a million other fliers in my holiday cottage. It was in the next town up the road, Romorantin-Lanthenay, and thought a visit was too good an opportunity to miss. Ever since then, I promised I’d return, armed with more time, a camera, and behind the wheel of one of the company’s products.

The first two were easy commodities – but actually owning a Matra of my own took rather longer. Eight years, in fact. Despit me loving these cars, and desiring to own one of my own. So, following my recent purchase of the company’s last new car – a Renault Avantime – and coinciding with a trip to the south of France for a mini-break, my return was soon mapped out.

The history of Matra should be familiar to anyone who loves cars – MATRA (Mechanique-Aviation-TRAction) grew out of a small aeronautical contracting firm called CAPRA in 1942, which had been founded by Marcel Chassagny. It wasn’t until 1965 that it started building highly innovative and individual cars. The change in tack followed with Jean-Luc Lagardere at the helm, when it took over Automobiles René Bonnet and General Application Plastic (GAP). Rene Bonnet was responible for the Renault-powered lightweight Djet, an interesting little sports car made from similar stuff as the Lotus Elan.

From there, a string of interesting cars emerged from the Romorantin-Lanthenay, most notably the mid-engined pioneer, the Matra 530, the three-seater sports cars the Bagheera and Murena, and wonderful faux-SUV Rancho. For a decade from the early 1970s, it allied itself with Simca (which was owned by Chrysler) before changing partners, and going with Renault. It was with La Regie that the company’s most successful product, the Espace, was launched in 1984. And thus, the mass-market MPV was popularised in Europe.

The incredible Renault Espace F1, powered by an 800bhp Renault RS10 Formula 1 engine

At its height, the Espace was built at up to 350 cars per day from a new factory in Vierzon, but the company’s heart remained at its Romorantin-Lanthenay headquarters. Matra continued to build Espaces for Renault until the end of the third generation, when it switched over to the Avantime, a brave, but ultimately ill-fated flagship that buyers failed to understand. Matra’s road car production ended in 2003 as a consequence.

As well as its road car legacy, Matra also racked up an enviable motor sport record, especially in endurance racing. Its first victory came in Reims in 1965, and was topped off by three consecutive Le Mans wins. In total, Matra scored 124 victories, including the those as a Formula 1 constructor between 1967 and 1972. Matra scooped the driver’s and constructor’s titles 1969 with Jackie Stewart. Even after the F1 team closed, its legacy lived on until the early 1980s, when Ligier used Matra’s wonderful V12.

Today, all that remains is the two-storey museum, which now resides in the former assembly buildings and company headquarters of Matra. The town of Romorantin-Lanthenay is a delightfully sleepy Loire Valley town, with a pretty centre-ville, but one suspects it might have been somewhat busier prior to the company’s close-down. It’s well worth a visit, with a great selection of production cars, unreleased prototypes, and racers. The jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Renault Espace F1 (above) – a wonderful creation that combined the MPV body of an Espace with the running gear of a Williams-Renault F1 car.

Having seen it in action during practice at the 1994 French Grand Prix at Magny Cours, I can confirm it was as spectacular as you can imagine. The Espace automobiles Matra is certainly worth a visit – if you’re heading to the south of France on the Autoroute du Soleil, it’s literally half an hour’s detour. During the couple of hours you’ll spend there, you’ll gain great insight into a specialist manufacturer, the likes of which is rapidly disappearing – tragically – from the automotive landscape.


Keith Adams

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