A Slice Of French Heritage: My 1983 Matra Murena
Story by Colin Bromley
Photography by Brian Hill
It’s a Matra.
Dominated at Le Mans in the ‘70s? Sir Jackie Stewart drove their Grand Prix cars?
Slight look of recollecting something in the dim and distant past
Screaming V12, makes your ears bleed?
This is a conversation I have often, over and over again. Why? Because I drive a Matra Murena.
I knew I had to have a piece of this company, even if it is a long ways away from those V12 Le Mans monsters. I had idly looked for an earlier Matra Bagheera on and off for years, but they rust badly—the Murena suffers less from this ailment as their monocoque is galvanized, but the car shares the same bonded fiberglass panel construction as its predecessor. So after modifying my target, a couple of years ago I found one for sale here in the UK. I did not even go to see her, instead making one of the larger by-telephone purchases in my life.
At the time I had a TVR Chimera, but due to arthritis in my right ankle—the result of an industrial accident—I could no longer get in and out of it. The Matra being left-hand drive presented far less of a problem. She came along at the right time, as I was facing life without a sports car, a very grim outlook.
When I first got the Murena you could say she was ill, very ill. The engine was totally worn out, but she had been looked after elsewhere; the interior is still original, untouched, as is the paintwork, so she is not concours ready, but a well-loved, original, matching numbers, three-owner car.
I have something of an obsession with taking old dead machines and making them good again, something I inherited from my late father. He was restoring a 1947 Standard 12 when I was a child, but also used to restore clocks and watches. That’s likely why I love mechanical things, from watches to steam locomotives, and everything in between. I like analog, and the ‘80s heralded the end of the mechanical cars; computers were creeping in, taking some of the character out of them.
Back to the Murena. She is a bit loud, she pops and bangs on the overrun and the induction noise is addictive, due in part to the carburetors being right behind your head; driving down the road, suddenly she will spit back out of the carburetors for no discernible reason. She is definitely alive.
As for the road to getting here, though I enjoy mechanical work, I did not tackle the engine rebuild myself. My brother and I removed it and handed it over to Roy Gillard, the UK’s Matra guru. A full strip down showed 7mm missing off the inlet valve lobes on the cam shaft, a bent crank, badly worn bores, a cracked head… the list continued. The advantage of getting an expert involved is that Roy knew where to get parts, very rare for a car like this, and had, gathering dust on a shelf, the last set of oversized pistons in captivity! In addition, the crank was straightened, and a new bespoke camshaft was made. I shall not bore you with further details of what was wrong with it, or the huge expenses in getting it back on the road.
All the performance upgrades are period correct; there is no trick ECU and no fuel injection, but, benefiting from the new hotter cam shaft, twin 45 DHLA carburetors, a stainless four-branch exhaust manifold and a massively lightened flywheel, the engine produces 144bhp and 146lb-ft of torque with a redline of 6000rpm. Not crazy power, but when the machine weighs in at 2,271lbs, it’s more than enough to make for a fun road car, and will surely keep you entertained at road speeds (and one assumes beyond, but I wouldn’t know!). She is geared low and a bit cammy, which proves kind of finicky around town, but in this pickiness I am reminded of the racing brethren in the Matra family.
As for the ride, the car’s quite softly sprung, not very sports car like at all, but typically French. She has double wishbone torsion bar suspension at the front, and semi-trailing arms, with MacPherson struts at the rear. The result is incredibly well balanced, and there is a huge amount of grip from both ends despite the softer demeanor; one can encourage a little understeer if you coast into a corner, but if taken on the power, it just grips and grips.
The steering is an unassisted rack and pinion unit, which is light, direct, and gives all the feedback one could ask for. The brakes are solid discs all round; they are adequate, provide a good firm pedal, and have no noticeable fade even when pushing on along a good country road. Out on an English B road, you have to work at it to get the most out of the little Matra, you have to really drive it, but that doesn’t take much convincing.
I think the car is aesthetically perfect; it is not a 1970s square wedge; the lines still flow instead of break. She looks fast in park: slippery, poised to cut through the air. I find myself walking across the parking lot, admiring my Matra and smiling at the knowledge that I own such a car.