Even the geekiest of petrolheads can get caught out by some performance cars of yesteryear. The machine you see here is a prime example, we think - if you saw one of these at a car show, could you identify it before clocking the badging? For most, probably not.
What you’re looking at here is a Matra Murena, a French mid-engined, rear-wheel drive sports car the world forgot. Though its handling was well-received, it didn’t exactly go down as one of the all-time greats, and these days, very few are left kicking around.
A replacement for the Bagheera, the Murena was designed by Antonis Volanis, the man behind the original Renault Espace. Wanting to avoid the Bagheera’s serious tin worm problem, Matra used an industry-first hot-dip galvanising process for the unibody car and flogged each Murena with a six-year rust warranty.
The Murena was also given that lesser-seen mid-engined sports car feature - more than two seats. Rather than squeeze in a token rear bench useful only for small kids, though, the Matra adopted a three-abreast arrangement. The Bagheera had something similar but the two passengers were expected to share the same seat unit. In the Murena, there were three separate seats, with the middle one folding down to form an armrest when not in use. Handy!
Although the Murena itself might not be a car you recognise, you’ll have seen a lot of its components before. The Talbot/Peugeot/Renault parts bin was raided extensively, for smaller bits like the door handles and larger stuff like the engine - a 1.6-litre ‘Poissy’ inline-four producing all of 90bhp. Thankfully, there was also the option of a 2.2-litre Chrysler unit used in - among plenty of other things - the Peugeot 505, producing a more useful 118bhp.
Even back in the 1980s, though, its nine or so second 0-60mph time was deemed poor. A later dealer-fitted power pack at last gave the Murena the kind of poke it needed to go against the likes of the Porsche 944. According to AR Online, the kit comprised a new camshaft, a four-into-one inlet manifold and twin-choke Solex carburettors, bumping the output to a far more respectable 142bhp. Eventually, this was fitted in the factory to create the Murena S.
Had Matra got its way, the Murena would have been even more powerful. It produced a 180bhp 16-valve prototype sporting aggressively flared wheel arches, but Peugeot, the company calling the shots at the time, wasn’t having it. Matra engineers even shoved in a 3.0-litre V12 F1 engine into a Murena frame, but unsurprisingly, the project didn’t progress further than this early stage.
Murena production ended in 1983, with the factory shifting focus to the construction of the Espace, originally a Matra prototype. A very different kind of beast to the Murena, but the cars share more in common than you might think - that innovative galvanising process was carried over to the MPV.
By that point, 10,680 Murenas had rolled off the production line at Romorantin-Lanthenay. One of the few survivors, a 1983 model with the 118bhp version of the 2.2-litre inline-four, is going under the hammer via Silverstone Auctions late next month.
Its original owner ordered the car via a dealer in Newcastle, driving it himself back from the Matra factory in France. It was put into storage way back in 1992, only reappearing very recently, so the Murena is going to need a fair bit of work to get it back up to scratch.
Are you brave enough to rescue this quirky piece of French sports car history?