The Matra Rancho is the motoring equivalent of a hyena: odd-looking, opportunistic and occasionally spotted. Like the Hyena it was a successful scavenger, picking up the customers the expensive Range Rover had left behind. The formula of combining durability and comfort on the road with the promise of adventure off it created a whole new subspecies of car: the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). So while the Rancho has rusted into relative obscurity, its impact on the car industry deserves to be remembered: for not only did it blaze a trail for the fastest growing class of vehicle today but its surprising success inspired its maker to design one of the most significant cars in recent history.
As with many motoring milestones, the Rancho was inspired by a wish to compete with a rival at a fraction of the cost. Though compromise is often considered a sign of weakness, in practice it is how most people operate most efficiently and comfortably, and therefore it is a virtue they often seek in their car. For instance, on the release of the Range Rover in 1970, many motorists coveted its fusion of off-road ability, sophistication and comfort but sought to compromise on the price. This presented an opportunity for rival manufacturer Chrysler Europe, which sought to develop a utility vehicle that provided practicality while promising adventure.
Simca and Matra, two marques under the Chrysler stable, were given the brief and instructed to keep production costs down, by borrowing parts from existing models. The popular Simca saloon was the donor for the front cabin, interior, engine and chassis. Added to this was a fibreglass and polyester estate car style rear, designed by Matra. To complete the transformation from stunted saloon to spacey SUV, moulded black wheel arches and door panels were added to give the Rancho a distinctive and rugged look, along with the addition of two spot lights on the grille. It was, if you'll excuse yet another Mammalian metaphor, a sheep in wolf's clothing.
Chrysler's confidence was justified when the Rancho generated great public interest at its launch in 1977, clearly demonstrating the public appetite for something more exciting than the solid but stilted saloons that dominated the market. To the adventurous of spirit, the Rancho offered a lifestyle choice, a world of excitement and exploration not constrained by roads or red lights. The marketing campaign cleverly exploited this, showing the Rancho by a lake laden with canoes, or on a foray along a forest trail. In an attempt to provide some substance to this rugged reputation, a bumper mounted winch was offered with some models and much was made of the fact that the split tailgate offered the intrepid owner protection from the rain while loading luggage for a weekend away in the wild.
However, SUVs have always been something of a fraud, appealing to the imagination and in the process hoodwinking the intellect, and the pioneering Rancho was no different. For despite its baulk and bluster, it was only two-wheel drive and had no genuine off-road ability. It wasn't any more adept in mud or mire than an average car. But that didn't matter, for it looked like it might be. Chrysler had called the bluff of any owners genuinely looking to put it through its off-piste paces. The most treacherous terrain most Ranchos encountered was a gravel drive.
When Chrysler withdrew from Europe in 1978, the Rancho was re-marketed under the Talbot marque. Retailing at £5,670 (Dh32,292), it was expensive for the day but £4,000 less than the Range Rover, its only real rival. In reality, it competed with estates such as the Volvo 240, a reliable but hardly pulse-racing alternative. Production ran until 1984 by which time the production target of 20,000 had almost been trebled. Given its low production costs and high retail price, it was one of the most profitable cars on the road. It was certainly a far greater sum than the sum of its parts.
While its off-road promise was something of an illusion, its practicality made it an asset in day-to-day city life, with a large load space and 145kph performance. Several years into production it was offered with an additional row of seats, enabling it to carry seven passengers. This inspired Matra to design another milestone model that was introduced in 1984, just as the Rancho was phased out. It was a car that could carry a family of seven in comfort, one of the most innovative designs of the modern era. Though you may not have heard of the Rancho you will be familiar with its successor, the first MPV, the Renault Espace.