Matra Rancho: Revolutionary or Rubbish?

Updated: Jan 17

It is an irrefutable fact, that the French have been behind some of the most remarkable automobiles ever produced. No discussion about revolutionary car design is complete without citing André Lefèbre's Citroën DS, and this is hardly surprising. Boasting self-levelling, hydropneumatic suspension, front disc brakes, space-age styling, and eventually steerable headlights, the DS truly was one of the greatest pieces of automotive design to date.


However, if I was to tell you that the most forward-thinking piece of French car design was not the DS, came from a mongrel conglomerate of Chrysler Europe, and was actually designed by a Greek gentleman, you'd probably accuse me of treason. But before you wheel out your guillotines, or put a match to that pile of tyres, please permit me to explain.

Launched in 1977, the Talbot Simca Matra Rancho (to give it one of its full names), was the brainchild of Antonis Volanis, the man behind the Renault Espace. It is quite possible that you haven't even heard of the Matra Rancho and I grant you, it did suffer from something of an identity crisis. During its eight year production, it was marketed under numerous seemingly random selections from the same four words:

Known variously as the Matra-Simca Rancho, the Talbot Matra Rancho, and, (for no apparent reason), simply as the Matra-Simca; the car in question was quite successful for Chrysler Europe, selling nearly sixty thousand examples.

Not only was the Rancho's name hard to pin down, so was its purpose. Despite a rugged appearance, underneath that fibreglass rear bodywork, the Rancho was heavily based upon the Simca 1100, the company's popular 60s supermini [pictured below],powered by the "Poissy" four cylinder engine. Therefore, it was only available in front wheel drive, and thus had the off-road capability of a raggedy french donkey with its hind legs removed.

The unbelievably exciting sounding "Grand Raid" edition, equipped the Rancho with a winch and green paintwork, but didn't go so far as to give it anything in the way of traction when straying off the beaten track.

Well, this has been a pretty damning account so far; so why on earth have I had the gross impertinence to proclaim the Rancho, the most visionary piece of French car design of all time?

Well, I put it to you, that the Rancho represented the genesis of what is the most popular genre of car on the road right now - the SUV.


Now before you shout, "Now hang on a minute! What about the Range Rover, the Jeep, or even the original Land Rover?" Let us first consider what a modern Sports Utility Vehicle or Crossover, actually consists of:

You have likely heard the term "soft-roader" being banded about recently in the automotive press, in relation to the newest breed of SUV. This is because, like the Rancho, SUVs are not all-terrain vehicles in any way, shape, or form. Their popularity derives from their beefy, off-road appearance, not their abilities in adverse conditions.

The term SUV, actually refers to cars that look purposeful, but in reality are all mouth and no trousers. The Matra Rancho was exactly this, but way ahead of its time in the late 70s. The likes of Range Rovers and Jeeps had the same look, but also the sturdy underpinnings and price tag to match. In other words, the SUV formula looks like Ray Mears from the waist up, but Liberace from the waist down.

"it was only available in front wheel drive, and thus had the off-road capability of a raggedy french donkey with its hind legs removed"

So how do we arrive at a verdict on the Matra Rancho? Unfortunately, I fear that I'm going to have to be dangerously Clarksonian about it. This is to say that the Matra Rancho was terrible and brilliant at the same time. As a car, it didn't know what it was, but miraculously, its designers knew the Rancho was exactly what the car-buying public would crave more than 40 years in the future. The DS may have been a technological tour de force, but you won't see anything like it on the road today. It represented what a car could be, while the Rancho showed what a car would be. Even Matra's next project with Volanis, the highly successful Espace, represents a genre of car that is no longer seen on the roads; the MPV.

In the interest of fairness, the Rancho was perhaps forward thinking in more ways than its inherent ineptness. That raised roof line is later seen on proper off-roaders, such as the Land Rover Discovery and Daihatsu Fourtrak, whose designers I'd like to think took some inspiration from the humble Rancho.

Nevertheless, it is ironically the Rancho, as arguably the least technologically impressive French car of the 20th century, that regardless proved itself to be the most visionary of them all.



Images reproduced courtesy of:

By Charles01 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Oxfordian Kissuth - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Luc106 - Own work, Public Domain,

*[The Corgi model photographed is my own. Even I can't resist a tasty Rancho...]

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