The cars we loved.
Many interesting cars from Europe never made it to US shores. Some never made it as far as Brittan officially. In the case of the Matra-Simca Bagheera it was probably for the better, considering that ‘70s era Chrysler was involved. Chrysler in America had long been a supplier of engines to various small European exotic automakers who were trying to offer simple and reliable power in an effort to compete with the Germans and Italians. While that was going on, Chrysler’s European arm became more interested in trying to expand its market share. It entered into arrangements with smaller companies to build cars that would have never come from its Simca brand. One such marriage of convenience resulted in a deal with the French company Matra. For Matra, the deal meant that it would have access to Chrysler’s vast dealer network in Europe. For Chrysler’s Simca, it could associate itself with a new flagship sports car.
Called the Matra-Simca Bagheera (after the panther in Disney’s the Jungle Book), it was cobbled together from parts in Simca’s inventory. While many elements may have come from Simca , the car’s overall look was more inspired by its competition. The wedge shape was very much a ’70s design trend made popular by the Lotus Eclat and Esprit. The front of the Bagheera had a distinct Lotus-like appearance while the fastback hatch form factor could have been lifted from any number of Alfa Romeos GTVs or Datsun hatchbacks.
The Bagheera was designed by Greek designer Antonis Volanis who was able to bring several contemporary themes together. Volanis won the approval of the automotive design community by racking up several awards for in 1974. The motoring press was impressed too, often waxing about how the Bagheera’s mid-engine layout aided performance.
The Bagheera was a limited distribution proposition. At left hand drive only, it was destined to be sold in contentinental Europe only. A few found their way to Australia and even America. The Bagheera remained rare enough that many who saw them figured it was one of those new fangled kit cars that were all the rage in the Disco era. Speaking of Disco, the Bagheera’s body was made of a kind of polyester that was mounted over a steel frame.
The Bagheer’s low and wide stance was as purposeful as it was attractive. Handsome 13 inch light alloy wheels looked like they could have come from Maserati while they helped ride quality. The mid engine design might suggest a small cramped interior, but the Bagheera was designed to carry three thin people in a pinch. For two normal sized occupants, it was roomy and quite comfortable. By today’s standards, the dashboard appeared random in its design, with odd alignments .
As a sports car, the Bagheera’s saving grace was its handling. Rear wheel drive and a fully independent wishbone front and rear trailing arm suspension insured lively corning, while disc brakes all around made for better than average stops. Assisted by low weight, the Bagheera’s 1.3-liter four cylinder engine worked hard to make its 70 or so horsepower. A larger 1.5-liter S model came along to raise the stakes to 90, but it was far from being anything more than an exotic looker. At best, the top line X model might be able to do 0 to 60 in the 11 second range and reached a top speed of 115 mph. While not the fastest car in its class, it was said to be a joy to drive.
The truth of the matter was that the Bagheera was an exotic car with a pedestrian engine. Engineers considering increasing power as early as 1973. Their solution was the unusual method of joining two 1.3-liter four cylinder engines together in a kind of U block. The “U design” resulted in a 2.6-liter 8 cylinder engine that made 168 hp. The experimental design never made it to production, but a few working prototypes were said to have been made.
More effort to production car quality would have paid off. Early in its life the Bagheera earned a reputation for being poorly built. Many were victims of body rot due to having a steel chassis with little if any rust protection. A German based auto club, gave the Bagheera its Silver Lemon award in 1975. Things seemed to go downhill for the Bagheera, even after it only refresh in 1976.
While some attention was paid to improving quality and modernizing its appearance, it was the subtle new front end that got the most attention. For the 1977 model year, the ultimate Bagheera, the X was released. It was loaded and may have been among 50 or so cars to leave continental Europe with left-hand drive. A total of 47802 Bagheeras were built during its life cycle. A few exist today with a small but devote following in Europe.
As fate would have it, the Bagheera never got the chance to redeem itself. Chrysler of Europe’s demise, meant that Simca’s new owner the PSA group would bring in the Bagheera’s improved replacement; the Matra Murena in 1980.