History of the museum
It is in an industrial building dating from the beginning of the 20th century and owned by the city of Romorantin that the Matra Museum was established in 2000. Used for a shoe factory and then the textile industry, this building was then the factory of the Beaulieu cameras, before being abandoned and then taken over and restored by the city to house the Matra Museum. Presenting mainly the heritage of Matra Automobiles, the museum allows to highlight a company whose factory was in Romorantin and was once the largest employer in the department.
The Matra museum covers about 3000m², with large, light and airy spaces, allowing for beautiful perspectives and a very pleasant visit. The collection is divided between several rooms and spaces, dedicated to different themes.
Throughout the visit, you will undoubtedly be struck by the creativity and fertile imagination of Matra’s engineers, to which the Museum pays tribute.
Practical note: because of its rich heritage, the Matra Museum regularly exhibits or lends cars to major classic car shows. It is therefore better, if possible, to avoid visiting it at the time of one of these shows. Generally, the museum’s website indicates its participation in these events.
As we said, the Matra museum is rich and exhibits several unique vehicles or objects. But in the whole visit, I will retain 5 favorites not to be missed :
- The Espace F1, an F1 for 4 in a bodywork quite close to the Espace of production
- The “500,000” Espace, to look for the signatures of the most famous drivers and engineers
- The MS 120D of Chris Amon, for the memory of his race at Charade, where he came so close to signing the 1st F1 victory of a Matra V12
- The MS 650 “Tour de France”, prototype escaped from the circuits to the small French roads
- The engines room as a whole, for its atmosphere, the sound and an incredible “window shopping” session
Matra, a short but bright history
Few car brands have been able to make such a mark on history with a relatively short existence. Matra built cars for less than 40 years, but production under its name lasted barely 20 years. So why has the brand become so well-known and remains mythical in many ways? Undoubtedly because of the originality of its productions, but above all because of an extraordinary racing track record acquired in only ten years. For French motor sport enthusiasts, Matra is also the brand that has allowed the emergence of many drivers who have gone on to shine on circuits around the world. In the early 1960s, Matra was a military equipment manufacturer that took over the small-scale car manufacturer René Bonnet in 1962. Matra Automobiles was created in 1964 to develop the name and image of the company. Matra-sports is created at the same time and starts designing racing cars. In 1965, Jean-Pierre Beltoise won a F3 race on a Matra car in Reims. F2 and F1 follow quickly, always with success since in 1969, Matra wins the manufacturers and driver titles in F1 with Jackie Stewart. If this F1 is propelled by a Ford Cosworth engine, Matra develops its own engine, a noble V12 which, if it will know less success in F1, will triumph in Endurance, with 3 consecutive victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, numerous successes in other races of endurance and a title of world champion in 1973. In terms of production, the first "real" Matra is the 530, a pretty and original 2+2 seat coupe with its central engine and retractable headlights. The Bagheera and the Murena followed, 2 coupes also with central engine, but with 3 seats in front, then the Rancho, a kind of small SUV before its time. The great success of Matra will be the Espace, the first minivan of the production. Entirely designed by Matra's design office, it will be marketed by Renault with the success that we know. The first 3 generations will also be manufactured by Matra in Romorantin until the beginning of the 2000s. The last model developed by Matra will be the Avantime, a monospace-coupe (today we would say a Crossover) which had a mixed success. In total, more than a million cars were produced in Romorantin, including about 800,000 Espace. The Matra Automobiles design office also designed many concept cars, either for internal research projects or for other manufacturers. They are always characterized by innovations and original concepts, often far ahead of their time. Those who want to know more about the history of the brand and its models will find several references on the Internet and numerous books.
Get in the museum’s collections
It is the whole industrial and sporting history that you will discover in the Matra Museum. The exhibition is mainly based on the heritage of the Matra brand, now owned by the Lagardère Group. Apart from a beautiful Hispano-Suiza and a few motorbikes, the museum presents cars built or powered by Matra.
However, each year the museum also opens up to other brands through a temporary exhibition. In 2022, the theme is Rally Legends, with about fifteen stars of this discipline.
In the garden, a single-seater welcomes you. Don’t worry, it’s not a real race car exposed to the elements, but a funny construction made mainly of tubes and cans! In front of the reception, look up to see 2 authentic hoods of Matra cars that won at Le Mans. If the one of the N°11, signed by the winners of 1973, has remained “in its juice” and shows the stigmata of the race, the N°15 of 1972 has “unfortunately” been cleaned.
First visual shock with the spectacular Espace F1, presented in 1994 for the 10th anniversary of the Espace. If from the outside, this vehicle has the look of a bodybuilt and lowered Espace, the entrails of the beast shelter a carbon chassis, and especially a V10 RS5 of F1 which propelled the Williams FW15C, world champion 1993 with Alain Prost. It is mainly Alain who had the chance to drive it during presentations and promotional operations, carrying up to 3 privileged passengers. With a top speed of 300km/h, the machine was not stingy with sensations!
The Matra Museum also exhibits the unique Matra MS 84, a 4-wheel drive F1 attempt developed for the 1969 season. In the end, the car only made a few races, and was abandoned following progress on tires and aerodynamics. Having narrowly escaped destruction, it was rebuilt from the available documentation using the original transmission. Finished in 2020 for a car collector, it is currently presented at the Matra Museum.
Also at the entrance, 2 examples of “private” sports versions of production Matra cars with a Bagheera rally car and a Rally Cross Murena.
Divided into several thematic areas, the Matra Museum offers a very pleasant tour. The visitor can thus easily linger on his favorite themes. The cars are well presented with detailed and bilingual explanatory cards. Moreover, several documentary points allow to discover different aspects of the history of the Matra brand.
The “Espace” zone
The Espace was imagined and designed by Matra, and then presented to manufacturers for industrialization and marketing. Matra thinks that the commercial potential exceeds its own capacities. Renault adopts the project, which will then be finalized and produced by Matra for the first 3 generations. One can see that the commercial model is very close to the initial concept, but that Matra had already envisaged a compact version of the monospace. The museum presents in particular a phase 2 model in midnight blue, the 500,000th Espace produced, signed by all the Matra collaborators but also by the drivers who have marked the sporting history of the brand. Another Phase 2 model, an Espace Quadra, a 4-wheel drive version which aimed to increase safety. The saga ends with the last Espace Phase 3 model to come out of the Romorantin factory, as Renault took over the production of the 4th generation. The Avantime is also logically presented in this room, since it was intended to replace the Espace on the Matra production lines. Like the Espace, it was imagined and designed by Matra and then proposed to Renault. The Avantime was not a great commercial success, but it testifies to the permanent spirit of innovation of the brand.
The “Production” area
A vast space is dedicated to the cars produced under the Matra brand, since the first Djet which were René Bonnet rebadged following the takeover of the company by Matra. We find the series of small sports coupes produced in Romorantin with the 530 (which bears the same number as the star missile of Matra’s armaments division) in its various versions, the Bagheera and Murena. These last ones, always with central engine and retractable headlights, have the particularity to propose 3 seats in front of each other, solution considered more relevant than a strict 2 seats or an uncomfortable (for the rear passengers) 2+2. These beautiful coupes probably lacked more powerful engines to compete with other big names in sports cars. The Bagheera U8 could have been that rival to Porsche. The model on display is a rolling prototype equipped with an 8-cylinder U-shaped engine (see Engines section for more details). The body is also modified to accommodate the engine and the gearbox.
Change of style with the Rancho, a family car, a leisure vehicle with an adventurous look. Another interpretation of the crossover before its time. More than 50,000 units were produced alongside the Bagheera and Murena. All these models are also characterized by composite bodies, as will later be the Espace produced by Matra.
2 other unique cars stand out here: the Matra 530 painted by the artist Sonya Delaunay. It was a pre-production model, sold for the benefit of the Foundation for Medical Research, a good combination of marketing and charity. It was later bought by Matra. Another nugget is the 530 “Vignale”, named after the Italian coachbuilder who designed this beautiful body. Unique model, it was offered by its owner to the city of Romorantin to be exposed in the Matra museum.
As mentioned above, the history of Matra in competition was short but very rich. The brand has distinguished itself in the 2 categories of its time, the single-seaters of Formula 1, 2 and 3, and the endurance races with the category of sports Prototypes.
From F3 to F1
The first “racing” area in the museum is a line of 3 single-seaters illustrating the motto of Jean-Luc Lagardère, the charismatic boss of Matra: “Formula 3 to learn, Formula 2 to get used to, and Formula 1 to win”. So, one after the other in this line was the F3 MS 1, the very first Matra Sport which won in Reims on July 1, 1965 in the hands of Jean-Pierre Beltoise, only a few weeks after its first race appearance. Then the MS 5 of F2, here a car driven by Graham Hill, recognizable by the stripes around the radiator grille in the image of his helmet. And finally, an MS 11/12 from F1. The car presented here is a chassis that raced in 1968, then was modified to receive and test the new V12 MS12. In the Matra museum, you can approach these cars as it is rarely possible to do, especially in modern competitions. You can touch with your eyes (be careful, not with your hands) the immense progress made in the design of these single-seaters.
We climb a few steps to reach the top of the Matra epic in competition, on the right the single-seaters, on the left the endurance prototypes.
The 3 international categories of single-seaters of the 1960s/70s are represented, with the F3, F2 and F1. We naturally linger on the F1 cars that have done a lot for the glory of the brand. First of all, the MS 80 which won the 1969 F1 world championship with Jackie Stewart. The car is signed by the legendary Scottish driver. Matra also won that year the F1 manufacturers championship. In 1970, Matra uses only the V12 in F1, mounted in the new MS 120 presented here, and which won several podiums from its first year. Last F1 car stamped Matra, the MS 120 D ran in 1972 driven by Chris Amon, talented but unlucky, in particular in the Grand Prix of France on the circuit of Charade (Clermont-Ferrand) of which he still holds the record of the lap. Last F1 presented, the Ligier JS 9 which ran in 1978 powered by the V12 Matra. Remember that at this time, PSA had bought Chrysler Europe and that the engine was “rebadged” Talbot.
Ligier will win several Grand Prix with the V12 Matra. At the back of this space, what the Matra museum calls the Rocket: a Ligier JS17 hull with the V6 Turbo developed by Matra (see Engines chapter), a set that was supposed to give birth to an F1 car for the 1983 season, but which was never finalized.
Next to the single-seaters, a 1955 DB Le Mans makes the link with both the endurance cars section, and the beginnings of Matra’s sporting history. Indeed, DB was a sports brand founded by Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet, the latter creating his own brand after his separation with Charles Deutsch. Panels detail this history as well as the DB barquette of 1955 which is presented after a beautiful restoration. On the way to the endurance cars’ pole, we pass in front of a showcase representing in miniature all the winning cars of the 24 Hours of Le Mans since the beginning, reproduced in their race livery. Interesting to see at a glance the evolution of the bodywork over the years. A few steps further on, a drawing made on the spot during the 1973 victory showing the Matra rooster knocking down the Ferrari horse, some accounts settled with humor!
The Matra endurance prototypes are all there or almost, from the MS 620 with BRM engine to the last MS 680. Only the MS 640 is missing, as the only one built had been destroyed during private tests in a spectacular accident that almost cost Henri Pescarolo his life. The 620 presents a certain similarity of line wanted with the 530 of road. From the MS 650 onwards, these are open protos which, in addition to the same Bleu de France color, have a certain family resemblance. It is very rare to be able to admire such a concentration from so close!
The MS 650 on display is the one that won the Tour de France Auto 1970, driven by Jean-Pierre Beltoise. The car had been modified and registered to run this race mixing road liaison, rally specials and track events. The comfort was basic, a box had been fitted in the left deck so that Jean Todt (co-driver) could store his cards and notebooks! Matra will win it again in 1971.
The MS 660, MS 670 and MS 680 will participate in the 3 editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans won by Matra. But it is the MS 670 which will win the laurels 3 years in a row, each time in the hands of Henri Pescarolo, associated with Gérard Larrousse in 1973 and 1974. The MS 670 will evolve in version B, then in version C prepared in 1974 for the 1000 km races of the manufacturers championship that Matra will win by having won 8 of the 9 races in the program. The Museum presents a MS 660 having run at Le Mans in 1972 and a MS 670C.
The engines room
In a long room on the side, in a subdued light atmosphere, is the engine exhibition room, the “Jewelry” as it is called at the Museum. And it is true that the engines on display can easily be compared to pieces of jewelry. Like valuable jewels, the engines are presented in glass cases. If the base of the engines is the same, 12 cylinders, 3 liters, the evolutions were numerous through the different evolutions. Used in F1 and Sport Prototypes by Matra, Ligier or Shadow between 1968 and 1982, the V12 Matra will go from 390hp to 535hp, its maximum revolving speed will increase by nearly 30% and it will get significantly lighter.
Here again, it is rare to be able to admire this kind of engine so closely and to detail its evolutions, external at least. The work on the exhausts is particularly spectacular.
The engine aisle also features a Flat-12 that never raced, but which shows that Matra’s engine department explored several avenues.
Probably unknown to most enthusiasts, the latest engine developed is a turbocharged V6 designed to meet the new F1 regulations. Developed in conjunction with Ligier to equip its F1 cars, this MS 82 was to be financed by Peugeot (the Ligiers were officially Ligier Talbot), but the financial difficulties of the PSA group and a “business conflict” between Peugeot and Matra put an end to the project. Later, the agreements with Renault for the construction of the Espace will definitively bury this engine, Renault having developed its own V6 Turbo. Of course, there was no question of supplying it to another F1 team (discussions were very advanced with Williams).
In addition to the competition engines, the engine room also presents a prototype of 4-cylinder in line using some solutions from the V12. The idea was to use it to motorize the Bagheera, but a production engine existing at Simca will be preferred. Next to it, the U8 combining two in-line 4-cylinders (hence the name U8) which could have equipped a more powerful version of the Bagheera. With 2.6l and 160 horsepower, the idea was promising and seemed a good economic approach compared to a new engine study. Unfortunately, its consumption (20l/100km) at the time of the oil crisis of 1974 and the explosion of the price of gasoline, as well as a price finally high because of the modifications to be made to the car, had reason for this project.
The visit of this room is done with the sound of the V12. If the sound level is naturally much more measured than a full speed passage on a race track, this music worthy of the jewels presented completes perfectly the atmosphere of this room.
Going down to the basement, we enter the Concepts space of the Matra museum. We immediately come across a spectacular car, the Espider Sbarro (famous Swiss coachbuilder), a cooperation between the Sbarro design school, Matra and Renault. The Espider is a 4 doors/5 seats spider, without windshield, based on Espace III V6. It was presented at the opening of the 1998 Le Mans 24 Hours.
The Concepts area then presents more than twenty concept cars or prototypes developed by the Matra design office. These may be fairly advanced concepts designed in-house or for third-party manufacturers. Depending on the objective, they may be sketches, models, running protos, or even vehicles that are almost ready for production.
This is for example the case of the M25, which could have been a pure sensation machine, accelerating very strongly. Or the M72, a light, simple and practical vehicle. Sporty, minimalist, urban, minivan… the panel of studies was limitless! You can also see that Matra worked on several variations of the Espace.
By exploring this room, you will discover shapes and ideas that will later be found on vehicles from other manufacturers. For example, the P54 will certainly remind you of the 1st generation Citroën Picasso.
Video and iconography
Between the spaces of the museum, small photo or video documentaries present complementary aspects of the history of the brand. What I would call the “Hall of Fame” introduces the great actors of the history, managers, engineers and drivers, those who forged the legend of the company.
All you have to do now is discover all these beauties by yourself! You will find all the practical information for the visit of the Matra Museum, address, prices and opening hours on the presentation page of the museum. Click on the button below to access it!