There is a traditional recipe in France called “pain perdu,” a name that literally translates to “lost bread.” In the old days, it helped families cook a last-minute meal by putting together common ingredients such as sugar, eggs, milk and generally stale bread. The result is a slightly more elaborate version of toast.
Matra engineer Philippe Guédon called the Matra-Simca Rancho “the pain perdu recipe applied to the automobile.” He had a point, the car was a cocktail thrown together using miscellaneous bits and pieces pulled out of the Simca parts bin. Starting with a Simca VF2, a small commercial van, engineers added brakes from the 1100 TI, an 80-horsepower 1.4-liter engine from the 1308 GT and a four-speed manual transmission sourced from the 1307.
Introduced in 1977, the Rancho stood out from the VF2 thanks to rugged features such as plastic cladding on the sides, fog lights integrated into the front bumper, a small bull bar and an impressive roof rack. Most body panels were crafted out of composite materials in an effort to keep the weight as low as possible and to prevent rust.
Matra wanted the Rancho to be a fun leisure vehicle similar to Land Rover’s Range Rover but that sold for a fraction of the price, and on paper the Rancho succeeded admirably: It cost 35,995 francs in 1978 while a Range Rover started at 60,520 francs. In reality, the Rancho could get further down a trail than a regular Simca VF2 thanks to its relatively high ground clearance but it was largely limited by its front-wheel drive setup. Matra built several four-wheel drive prototypes but it never had the money to mass-produce the model. Peugeots’ messy takeover of Chrysler’s European division and the re-christening of the Rancho as a Talbot-Matra product did little to help the matter.
In the early stages of the project, Matra and Simca hoped to build a total of 25,000 Ranchos. By the time production ended in late 1983, 56,457 examples had been built, indicating it was a popular car in spite of its poor off-road capacity.
A look at website howmanyleft.co.uk reveals that just four Matra-Simca / Talbot-Matra Ranchos are left on the road in the United Kingdom. There are likely several hundred still putting around France but official statistics are not available.
The Orange Drawing
Many called the Rancho the answer to the question no one asked but Matra was well ahead of its time and rugged-looking front-wheel drive crossovers with little or no off-road capacity are some the best-selling new cars today. The Rancho also spawned an unlikely successor: The Renault Espace. Matra wanted to replace the Rancho with more spacious vehicle known simply as the “dessin orange,” a name that means “the orange drawing” in French. A life-size model was never built but both the prototype and the background it was drawn on were orange.
The unnamed prototype previewed the overall silhouette of the first-generation Espace but it only had three doors instead of five in order to keep a visual connection with the Rancho. Matra proposed the car be launched as a Talbot but Peugeot turned it down because it thought building the vehicle would cost too much. Matra knocked on Renault’s door and the project quickly spawned the Renault Espace, Europe’s first modern minivan.