Wednesday January 4, 2017
Written by Andy Roberts
To start 2017 in style, I’d like to mark the 40th anniversary of one of my all-time favourite cars, one that mesmerised my younger self.
As compared with the Morris Oxford taxis and HC-series Vauxhall Vivas that populated the streets of Southampton, the Matra Rancho seemed as rugged as Patrick Mower in Target or Lewis Collins in The Professionals. With its nudge bar, mesh covered auxiliary lights and (my favourite detail) the swivelling spot lamps on the front wings, it looked poised to cross the Gobi Desert even if beneath these elaborate decorations was a converted Simca 1100 Van.
Chrysler Europe, the parent company of Simca, intended the Rancho to compete with the Renault Rodeo and Citroen Mehari in the 2WD light utility/leisure vehicle market and, to minimise costs, they employed an elongated 1100 Commerciale floor plan. The distinctive GRP body which was combined with metal front wings and opening panels from the 1100 hatchback, was a Matra Company creation and powered from a 1442cc engine shared with the Alpine. One especially charming detail was that the rear bench was mounted four inches higher than the front seats. If there were any leopards to be sighted near the village post office, those lucky passengers would be the first to see them.
French sales commenced in May 1977 and a year later, RHD models were imported into the UK. Motor magazine almost immediately appreciated their appeal, noting that ‘True the Rancho does not have four wheel drive… but what it does have is a highly marketable image. Plenty of people pay £8,500 for a Range Rover that spends a wasted life in suburbia, so a vehicle that looks as good, if not better, than a Range Rover yet costs £3,000 less has got to be interesting.’
And no time behind the Rancho steering wheel could be considered wasted, especially if the driver enjoyed a rich fantasy life. £5,650 was still a considerable sum of money in 1978, placing the Rancho in the Volvo 245/Citroen CX Safari price bracket, but owners could always justify the cost by citing how genuinely practical the Matra was as family transport, especially when equipped with the optional third row of seats. A potential Rancho owner might have also considered a Subaru 4WD Estate, but that was the complete opposite to the Matra in both form and content. The Japanese car combined a low-key exterior with genuine off-road ability, making it the ideal transport for country vets or rural businessmen while the Rancho brochure promised that it could ‘tackle tough terrain, tow your boat and pack in a mountain of gear.'
In short, this was a car that revelled in its exuberant appearance and complaining that the matt black detailing was somewhat flamboyant was akin to moaning that candyfloss tasted sweet. Chrysler Europe also ensured that the Rancho was fairly well appointed, in marked contrast to earlier generations of 2WD utilities such as the Mini Moke. These had little in the way of creature comforts, but the Matra offered a pleasant cabin in which the owners could imagine that they were Bill Travers in Born Free.
Peugeot acquired Chrysler Europe in 1978 and from 1980 onwards the mighty almost-off-roader was badged as a Talbot. Production ceased in 1984, although the Rancho was still listed as recently as early 1985. Today, they deserve to be remembered as rather more than an intriguing novelty, as the Rancho helped furnish Matra with the development funds to create the Renault Espace and defined the ‘soft-roader’ leisure car as we know them today. Above all, the Matra Rancho offered unashamed and delightfully over-the-top fun and that is an invaluable automotive commodity.