I was shocked to read that my favourite motor museum, the Espace automobiles Matra in Romorantin, had suffered badly during the recent floods in France, for apart from being a wonderful museum in its own right, it’s an enduring monument to the history of a genuinely innovative car company, Matra Automobile.
Innovative? Hell, yes. Having been involved in the production of the world’s first mid-engined road car, first as a supplier and later as its manufacturer, Matra then devised and built the world’s first mid-engined 2+2 sports car (complete with targa roof), proved that three went into two by producing not one, but two sports cars with three-abreast seating, took the fight to corrosion by building the world’s first mass-produced car with a hot-dip galvanised chassis and turned a Simca 1100 pick-up into a pioneering soft-roader. Oh, and they were also responsible for something called the Renault Espace. Not bad, eh? But there’s more.
Around the same time that they started to build road cars, they decided to go racing too. And they didn’t do things by halves. Within a decade they had won in Formula 3, Formula 2, taken Jackie Stewart to his first Formula 1 world championship, triumphed at three consecutive Le Mans 24 Hours and taken two consecutive World Championships for Makes. They withdrew from motorsport at the height of their powers, but later went on to share in three Grands Prix wins as an engine supplier. Many of the most famous drivers of the day drove for Matra in one formula or another, including Stewart, Graham Hill, Amon, Ickx, Brabham, Cevert, Courage, Gurney, Beltoise, Depailler and, of course, Pescarolo.
And then there’s the prototypes. We’ll come back to those, but meantime let’s turn our attention to Romorantin.
A small town on the banks of the River Sauldre, Romorantin could conceivably have become the capital of France if plans made by King Francis I in consultation with Leonardo da Vinci had come to fruition. But like the best laid plans of mice and men, it ultimately came to nought and Romorantin was destined to remain a backwater.
It was, however, a backwater with an industrial heart. In the 19th century, the Normant brothers started a textile business in the town. The business flourished and soon grew to occupy a number of sites in and around Romorantin, including a large town centre site on the banks of the Sauldre. As the 19th century rolled into the 20th, the factory on this site was reconstructed using Francois Hennebique’s newly devised process for reinforcing concrete, an act that would help to ensure its survival over a century later.
In the years that followed, Normant’s fortunes reflected the turbulence of the times, and by 1945 the company had survived a global economic depression, two world wars and Nazi occupation. The great days of the French textile industry were past, however, and the post-war years saw it fall into sharp decline. In spite of the company’s efforts to find new markets, Normant’s workforce dwindled with its order book, and on 12th December, 1969 the factory horn sang out for the final time.
But as one door closed, another one opened. Matra took over the factory and soon its walls reverberated to the sound of the assembly line. As production moved from sports cars to SUVs, Matra’s success and sales volumes grew. The factory grew, too, but as the site’s capacity for growth was limited the company’s operations gradually expanded into other sites in the area. In 1991, Matra opened a new, state-of-the-art car plant just outside Romorantin. The extra capacity that this provided meant that in little more than 25 years they had gone from building under 2000 cars a year to over 60,000. For Romorantin, Matra’s success meant jobs and prosperity. Sadly, though, it wasn’t destined to last.
Having taken the Espace concept to Renault in the early 1980s, Matra went on to build the first three generations of the car. By the mid 1990s, the company’s plants were churning nearly 70,000 Espaces a year. Very good figures for a small company, but not enough for Renault. Having kick-started the SUV sector, they saw sales disappearing to competitors who, though less innovative, were able to produce their Espace equivalents in higher numbers than Matra could manage.
The situation came to a head in 1997 when Renault informed Matra that production of the fourth generation Espace was going to be taken in-house. Henceforth it would be of conventional construction rather than Matra’s tried and trusted recipe of composite bodywork atop a galvanised chassis. For Matra, all of whose proverbial eggs were in a basket owned by Renault, it was a hammer blow.
Renault tried to sweeten the pill by agreeing that Matra could build a new car based on the third generation Espace platform, but it was clear from the outset that this vehicle, initially known as the Coupéspace, would appeal to a much smaller market segment than its Espace parent. It was hoped, however, that it would help to keep the assembly lines rolling while Matra searched for a project that would replicate the success of the Espace.
It didn’t turn out that way. Development of the Coupéspace, now known as the Avantime, was far from straightforward. The absence of B pillars and the presence of a large glass roof presented engineers with the twin challenges of keeping the centre of gravity low whilst maintaining the structural integrity of the vehicle. That was tricky enough, but the doors fell into a whole different category of difficult.
As a coupé, the Avantime would have two doors, not four. This, however, meant that the doors had to be large. And then some – they would be the largest doors ever fitted to a production car. This made them heavy and gave them a wide opening arc – too wide to be opened fully in the restricted confines of car parks and garages. A practical, reliable solution had to be found.
The issue with the roof was the easier obstacle to overcome – the pillars and roof structure would be formed from aluminium. It was an elegant solution to the problem and it worked. The doors, on the other hand, called for a more complex, but no less elegant, answer: they would be double hinged, thereby reducing the size of the opening arc to acceptable proportions. But finding the solution was one thing, making it work was quite another. As a result, the Avantime came to market later than originally intended.
The motoring press liked the Avantime, but wondered about what place it was trying to occupy in motoring’s firmament. As an MPV, its interior lacked space and flexibility; as a coupé, it was neither fast nor agile enough to match the competition, and clever though the large opening sunroof and pillarless windows were, it wasn’t a proper convertible. It was a misfit, albeit a hugely stylish one. The public clearly thought so too, and sales were poor from the outset. Even so, Renault and Matra must have taken some initial comfort from the fact that only nine Espaces had been sold in its first month on sale yet it had gone on achieve great success.
It didn’t help that Renault had chosen to launch an in-house competitor for the Avantime, the only slightly less avant-garde Vel Satis. Indeed, there were dark mutterings at the time that Renault favoured the Vel Satis over its half-sister. Certainly, the Vel Satis was better equipped (in spite of its space-age vibe, the Avantime was not given the keyless entry system offered on lesser Renaults) and had a broader choice of engine options, including a 3 litre diesel and 3.5 litre petrol V6 that were not available to Avantime buyers.
Whatever the reason, sales of the Avantime failed to approach its makers projections. And that meant that Matra, now shorn of the Espace, was losing money. For a company that had known nothing other than success for nearly two decades, troubled times had come. In an effort to turn the tide, Matra executives met their counterparts at MG Rover to discuss a commercial partnership. Matra urgently needed a new partner and MG Rover’s range lacked an MPV, so relaunching the third generation Espace with Rover running gear seemed to be in the interests of both companies. As an added incentive for MG Rover, Matra’s latest project, the M72 city car, was all but ready to go into production without needing to be re-engineered. Alas, the talks broke down when the two companies failed to reach agreement on production volumes, leaving only thoughts of what might have been.
By early 2003 the writing was on the wall for Matra. Sales of the Avantime remained desperately slow and, in spite of a drastic cost-cutting programme, the company was still bleeding cash. Finally, on 27th February, 2003, Matra’s parent company announced the closure of its car plants. A few weeks later the old Normant factory fell silent once more, this time for good. In just under 18 months, a mere 8557 Avantimes had been built.
Matra retained a small presence in Romorantin after the closure of the car plants, but the loss of around 2000 jobs over a two year period had a devastating effect on a town of under 20,000 people. As Romorantin adjusted to the harsh realities of post-industrial life, its population fell as families moved elsewhere in search of employment.
The old Normant factory lay empty for many years and the site on which it stood passed into the ownership of the town council. Plans were announced to redevelop the site as social housing and the bulldozers duly moved in. Most of the site was levelled, but the old Normant factory, classified as an historic monument in 2002 (at least partly on account of its method of construction), survived once more. It still stands there today, a proud and defiant symbol of the town’s industrial past.
Other traces of Matra survive too, most notably within the walls of the Espace automobiles Matra**. Opened in 2000, it houses one of the greatest single marque collections in Europe. Occupying the former Beaulieu camera factory close to the town centre, it is home to a beautifully preserved fleet of road, racing and prototype cars. There are engines too, and if you think that Matra only built a V12 racing engine then you’re in for a surprise.
In fact, you’re in for a lot of surprises. The prototype hall, in particular, contains some fascinating examples of creative design and engineering. There’s the MS15, a car that could have become the small Peugeot of the 80s, then there’s the P19, a mid-sized MPV that predated the Renault Scenic by 14 years, and the P43, a pretty roadster that came close to production and…well, go and see for yourself. You will not be disappointed.
Romorantin isn’t desperately far from the great châteaux of the Loire and is within easy reach of both the A71 and A85 autoroutes. It’s a pretty town and you’ll enjoy its relaxed vibe as you partake of lunch at La Belle Epoque or – if you’ve deep pockets – the Lion D’Or. Wander over to the Matra museum and bask in its treasures then, before you move on, be sure to go down to the old factory and gaze upon the faded beauty of its entrance. Your imagination will do the rest.
*The Avantime was offered with a 2.2 litre diesel engine in continental Europe, but UK models came only with a choice of 2 petrol engines: a 2 litre turbo or 3 litre V6.
**The Espace automobiles Matra reopened on 16th June, 2016. Due to flood damage, only the upper floor is in use at the time of writing and some of the exhibits are not currently on display. Normal service will doubtless be resumed in due course – they’re a resilient lot in Romorantin. Check the museum’s website for details.