09 February 2014

UNSUNG HEROES: Matra Rancho

A car that was really ahead of its time.



CROSSOVERS. They're all the rage at the moment, and it's common belief that Nissan kick-started the trend with the Qashqai (or the Qash-cow some like to call it). So it'll be said by many that Nissan made the 'first crossover'. In fact, the Japanese were beaten to it. That was because the French got there first nearly 30 years ago. With the Matra Rancho...

When the Rancho was launched in 1977, the popularity of 4x4s and SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) at the time was growing. What many buyers loved about them, was that they were spacious, rugged and versatile cars. Then there was the commanding driving position. Where drivers sit high up, and have a great view of the road ahead. Due to their size and weight, many also liked SUVs for the notion of safety it gave them.

With the growing popularity of SUVs in being the cars that many aspired to own. But for some however, they weren't attainable for some. They weren't cheap to buy, and they're also expensive to run.

This is where the Matra Rancho comes in. On the surface, it looked like a 4x4. With the chunky styling and the raised ground clearance. Like a 4x4, the Rancho was a spacious and versatile car. But it was much more affordable.

Under the skin, the Matra Rancho shared much of the mechanicals and running gear of the Simca 1100. It shared the same floorpan as the 1100, and sat on a stretched platform from the Simca pick up. These mechanicals were tried and tested, and that would have made the car cheaper to develop and build. But it also lowered the costs of running the car for potential buyers.

The Rancho had a clever split opening tailgate. Inspired from the Range Rover and boosted practicality.

Don't be fooled into thinking the Rancho was a car made to climb mountains, because it wasn't. They were two-wheel-drive, and Ranchos were driven through the front wheels. Though they shouldn't have any trouble plodding across a few fields.

It was no Land Rover when it came to the rough stuff. The reality is, that many owners of larger and more expensive SUVs and 4x4s, never adventure off-road in them. That's where the Rancho makes sense.

The motoring press at the time didn't understand the Matra Rancho. It was down to the fact it looked like a car that could go off road, but couldn't. They rated them for being 'spacious, well equipped and fun to drive'. But they were marked down for being two wheel drive, as it 'compromised' the Rancho's off road ability. They missed the point.

However, buyers liked their Ranchos - especially in its native market in France, and in the UK. They liked its rugged looks, spacious and practical interior, and overlooked its limited off-road ability. Many had one as an alternative to the usual estate car of the day. But it was also a car for those who'd like a 4x4 or an SUV, but in a more affordable package.

When new, the Rancho cost around £5,600 (c.1980) in the UK. At that price, it was on par with a Volvo 200-Series and a Citroen CX Safari. That might sound expensive, but bear in mind a Range Rover would have cost around £8,500.

The Matra Rancho had no true rivals, so it had the market to itself. The contemporary Land Rover Series III and the Lada Niva of the time, was a lot more agricultural than the Rancho. But the Land Rover and the Niva in fairness, were also marketed and designed to be family workhorses that could go off road. The Rancho was softer and more civilised than them, but it was also marketed as more of a car for leisure activities.

After the Matra Rancho went out of production, and selling nearly 58,000 examples in 1984. It didn't make a major impact in the world of motoring straight away. Over time though, made its mark in history.

The influence from the Rancho is clearly seen with the original Land Rover Discovery.

As seen with cars that appeared in the following years. The original Land Rover Discovery has a visual resemblence to the Matra Rancho. But being a Land Rover, it was four-wheel-drive and could go off road.

Then there's the likes of the Toyota RAV-4 and the Nissan Qashqai, that could have been inspired from the the Matra Rancho as well. Those are cars that are credited for 'pioneering' the soft-roaders, faux-by-faurs and crossovers niches - which both carry a similar ethos to the Rancho. It's enough to prove the Matra Rancho really was ahead of its time.

Today, Matra Ranchos are a rare a sight on the roads. This is largely down to the fact they weren't well protected against rust. So inevitably, many have rotted away. So if you happen to see one out on the road, it's a blessing, and also a real credit to the owners who keep their Ranchos running.

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