Matra’s Project 551 was an evolution of the very successful Matra - Simca Bagheera. This mid-engined sports car had sold extremely well in Europe, but suffered from a lack of power, the largest engine only being an 84bhp 1442cc Simca unit. Matra’s solution was to employ the larger power units now available in the Talbot Simca range; the 1592cc unit used in the Solara and the 2155cc unit used in the Tagora executive car.
The Murena, as the new Matra was called, boasted a galvanised chassis to counter another criticism of the Bagheera, namely its propensity to rust. The Murena was the first mass produced car to undergo this treatment. The striking glass fibre body was then bonded to the chassis. Thanks to the sleek bodywork, the Murena had a drag coefficient of only 0.32, ground breaking at the time of the model’s launch.
A 1.6 Murena was shown at the Paris Motor Show in October 1980, but it was 1981 before supplies reached Talbot dealers. Representatives of the world’s motoring press were invited to Morocco in February 1981 to examine and drive the car. Included in the party was the late LKJ Setright from CAR magazine, a great fan of the Bagheera. He was even more enthusiastic about the Murena, writing a piece for the magazine titled “Murena the marvellous”. The car looked stunning, but cleverly used a number of Peugeot Talbot components besides the two power plants which helped to keep costs down. The front suspension and steering rack came from the Horizon, the five speed gearbox from the Citroen CX and the door handles from the Peugeot 505. The car boasted disc brakes all round and the 2.2 model could reach 122 mph. UK journalists wondered if the Murena would be imported and sold in Great Britain, but Talbot decided that demand would be insufficient.
The Murena was available in a number of European markets besides France; Belgium, Holland, Germany and Italy but it never achieved the sales success of the Bagheera. Partly this was down to the recession of 1981/82; at a time of economic uncertainty a new sports car, no matter how good, was not high on people’s requirements. The poor image the Talbot marque had around the same time did not help. As Peugeot began to consider abandoning the revived Talbot name, little effort was put into marketing the Murena, which was only available in a limited number of Talbot dealers. In 1983 Peugeot decided to dispose of their interest in Matra to Renault, but before production of the Murena ceased, a high performance version of the 2.2 model, called the Murena S was introduced. The engine was tuned to produce 140 bhp using two Solex twin choke carburettors. Top speed was 130 mph. Total production of all Murena models was 10,680 cars.
While never officially sold in the UK, a number of Murenas were imported in the 1980s and a good few remain today. Do try one if you have the chance.