Matra Simca Bagheera
The Panther from the jungle book provided his name for this car in 1973. Its design was special but, unfortunately, its reputation not. The French company Matra introduced its predecessor in 1967, the 530, likewise an attempt with a central engine, however a lengthwise-lying Ford engine. Now Matra had hooked up with Simca and had to avail itself from their shelves. It is very interesting how the engineers managed the difficult task of transforming a compact class car (Simca 1100) into a sports car. Unfortunately they were so busy with accomplishing the project that they spent less time on durability.
Its successor, the Murena, introduced in 1981, was much more durable. In 1984 there was the transition to Renault and later to Pininfarina.
The Simca 1100 belonged, together with the Mini and the Peugeot 204, to the first small group of front-driven cars with transverse engine. This resulted in a large variable trunk with big boot lid. The first and most important step in transforming the Simca 1100 into a Matra was to shift the complete front axle with drive unit to the rear. It is usual. In this case, Matra designed two completely new semi-trailing arms from aluminum with torsion bar springs. While the engine moved to the rear, in front the old front axle remained. As one can still see on Renault models with central engine, a small part of the drive shaft, holding the wheel bearing, remained, too.
The consequences are substantial. The once respectable trunk of the Simca vanished, there could have been something like a badly usable trunk in front, but Matra decided to make do completely without. In return, there was a marvelously aerodynamically flat hood. Under the hood the cooling system, battery and emergency wheel were situated. Disturbing still was the brake booster remaining from the Simca, which was twisted 90° by suitable mechanics. In the back there definetely was not much left of the once large trunk, only a relatively small, deep and warm container remained behind the drive unit. Even the rear seats had to vanish. But who would have been willing to buy such a car? Since, however a sports car should be flat (in this case 1.2 m) but relatively broad, the idea of three seats positioned aside each other was born.The idea was kept until today (e.g. with Fiat and with Honda), although the concept is much more charming with a sports car with central engine.
The Simca engines were not really famous for their power. In order to experience a respectable sports car-like acceleration, the car had to be light and aerodynamical, particularly with the conceived width. For that time the values were respectable. It reached clearly over 180 km/h with 62 KW (84 hp). This was also accomplished because of a generous lining of the underbody. In order to limit the weight, the body was built from glass-fiber reinforced plastic, realizable only for small series. However it is not true that the Matra could do completely without steel frameworks and would thus be corrosion resistent, the opposite might be more accurate for the Matra Simca Bagheera.
It is nice to see, how the engineers tackled the many challenges of such a project. The customer had to be somewhat extraordinary to fall for the charm of this car. A lining with leather would have been suitable, but the budget did not allow it. For particular plastic parts in the interior, the series was too small. The solution was found by covering the dashboard with fabric, which provided together with the striking colour a plushy atmosphere. Inside, the control elements of the Simca 1100 remained. Only the enormous Simca steering wheel and the tachometer unit were replaced. The adjustment unit for the heating was shifted towards the driver and covered with a fine aluminum sheet metal. Despite the three seats, to the right of the driver's seat there still was space for the gear stick, emergency brake and choke.
First the engine with 1,3 litres capacity and down-lying cam shaft should be praised. It was pushed by two-double carburetors units with a, for that time, remarkable litre achievement of nearly 50 kW/l. In combination with the aerodynamic and light body the fuel consumption was low. This combination enabled fast driving without regret at the gas station. A pre-condition was however the carburetor tuning, which could be performed only by experienced mechanics.
Although the complete drive unit was taken over from the Simca, the engineers were forced to be creative here, too. First, the entire cooling unit had to move to the front, causing the weight to increase. The company Smart knows why they arranged the radiator directly above the engine. Next there was the usual commotion with the gear shift and clutch, which fortunately operated hydraulically. The drive unit was not appropriate for the top speed. Here the engineers seized the trick to put substantially broader tires in the rear (185 mm) than in the front (155 mm). With a height/width ratio of 80 there was a substantially larger rolling circumference. Thus, it was not necessary to change the gear ratio of the original drive unit, and in addition, the car obtained a more neutral handling. This finding was not friendly on the purse of the consumer though, because the replacement of tires of this dimension was difficult and costly, particularly as they had to be certified for more than 180 km/h.
We almost forgot the at that time very sporty headlight retractors. They were rather inconspicuous in terms of operation. Switching on the main light caused an electromagnetic valve to lead negative pressure to a so-called servo actuator. That was a metal container with a diaphragm in its center. It could apply if necessary a large strength (more than 750 N) on the tie bar to move up the two headlights.
A serious point at the end: the rear brakes. For the Simca drum brakes were sufficient in the rear. The Matra took together with the drive unit the disc brakes with it to the rear. Only the comparatively ridiculous small problem of the parking brake remained. The Matra engineers designed a floating brake, which should automatically adjust the park brake. If the Matra engineers had known how long the completion of the sliding-calliper brake with self adjusting park brake later on would take, they would have perhaps decided in favour of the extra drum brake for parking . They did not, and the consumer had to pay for it. Sensitive drivers had a notion of approaching mischief, if the vehicle at a red traffic light did not coast on the last meters before stopping as usual. There was an obstruction in the form of (once again) a jamming brake. Removing the brake or a new sealing set dit not help much. It was a shame that such comparatively little things spoiled a brilliant vehicle. As the reputation was ruined, better versions (Murena) with more engine power and an increased durability, came in too late.
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