15th February 2021

Matra Rancho: 40 years ahead of its time

Rugged looks with beefed-up arches and bumpers, headlight protectors and room for all the family to enjoy the appearance of an off-roader with front-wheel drive purchase and running costs. This is not the 2021 launch of the latest, jacked-up faux mini-SUV for fans of tall hats. The year is 1977 and the trendsetter is the Matra Rancho.

Inspired by the commercial success of the Range Rover and, comparatively, its own Murena, with the backing of Chrysler Matra launched its bid to develop a car that provided an off-road lifestyle for the price of a family estate. The result was truly visionary.

Despite its unique, chunky looks, the Rancho was based on existing Simca-sourced underpinnings. The Simca 1100 donated its platform, with the front and rear torsion bar suspension set-up and TI brakes also originating from elsewhere in the range. If they look closely, Simca fans will also notice that the doors, wings and even windscreen are familiar. The 1442cc engine was good for 80bhp and a top speed of 91mph.

If the mechanicals played safe, the Rancho’s visuals were anything but. Beyond the details mentioned, each had a black plastic roof rack (apparently designed to disguise the raised roofline at the rear), wheels unique to the model and a pair of spotlights mounted to the scuttle. With a typically Matra quirk, these only worked with the ignition off – perfect for enthusiasts of nighttime countryside pursuits.

The glass-adorned design provided cavernous interior space thanks to a fiberglass over steel frame construction for the rear three-quarters. This also enabled the rear seats to sit higher than the fronts, because, obviously, that is what adventurers and the Pope do. It even had a split-folding rear tailgate, just like a Range Rover.

A wide variety of special edition models were produced for Europe, such as the Grand Raid, which included a limited-slip differential for improved wet weather and off-road performance, extensive underfloor protection, electric windows and even a winch. Sadly, although it was Matra’s original intention, none ever featured four-wheel drive.

With early cars carrying Matra-Simca badging and later vehicles Talbot-Matra, just under 57,000 Ranchos had rolled off the line when production ceased in ’84. Despite being the company’s most profitable ever car to that point, production was stopped prematurely so that it could concentrate on another pioneering family car: the Espace. We wonder what happened to that…

Despite the surprisingly lofty production figures, few Ranchos remain. Mostly due to their tendency to rot in every area other than the fiberglass tub.

What are your memories of the first ‘lifestyle SUV’?