Matra-Sports was founded in October 1964, where they took over the remains of the racing company of Rene Bonnet, to whom Matra had been delivering glassfibre bodywork (for the beautiful D'Jet)Jean Luc Legardere pronounced that Matra would "use the coming decade to master motorracing - and win the World Championship for constructors" - so was the plan.
The M610-LotusMatra's first prototype - called M610 - was an uprated D'Jet, mainly constructed as a testbench. It was powered by a Lotus twincam 1600cc engine - but what a car this must have been. The 'standard' 1100 Djet-6 was good for over 200km/h, so this one must have been a rocket.
This rest of text is based on my translation of the book "Matra - La Puissence et la Glorie" by Frederic Lagorce, which is the main reason for the somewhat funny english at times :-)
For their next prototype - the M620 - Matra partnered with the british engine constructor BRM. BRM's 1500cc V8 engine (which had powered Graham Hill towards his Formula-One World-Champion title in 1962) was developed into a 2 litre version.
The first public presentation of the M620-BRM on a race-track, was on the Mans circuit in April 1966
The car was not entered in the endurance races with expectations of spectacular results, but rather as a kind of test bench for development. This way, 1966 was the year where Matra got accustomed with endurance racing.
For the pre-tests at Le Mans in 1967, Matra brought a 620 (Chassis #02) equipped with a 4,7 liter Ford engine - of the same type as the one that powered the GT40's to the spectacular victory at "Le Mans" the year before.
This Ford-powered Matra 620 stayed a test model, and was never used in actual racing.
In 1967, Matra introduced the M630 - with a tubular
chassis, inspired by the 620. The M630 was characterised by distinct
and brutal lines, with dramatically dropping front wings, which revealed
enormous air-intakes to the vertically mounted radiators just in front
of the rear wheels. This car is one of my favourites - I guess because it
is closed, adn as such could be though of as a "real" car ;-)
Despite these difficult beginnings, Matra took on the projects with great
enthusiasm - their own engine, the Ferrari inspired Matra
V12, destined for Formula-1 as well as for the prototypes, was in the
making (but not ready yet) - so they mounted an american Ford engine in
a M630, to gather experience on how the chassis responded to such powers.
The Matra-Ford was raced for the first time in the "Coupes
de Paris" at Montlhery in September 1967 (with no success), but at
the "100 kilometers of Paris" 1967, Henri Pescarolo excited the
Parisian population by leading in the rain - in front of Jacky Ickx's Mirage
and Jo Schlessers Ford Mark-II. The 630 didn't finish the race, but it
brilliantly demonstrated that the chassis handled well with a big calibre
The M630 - Matra-V12
In 1968 the Matra V12 was presented to the public.. The M630 Chassis #3 was redesigned, to be equipped with the new engine, and the "1000 kilometres of Spa" was the first race for this "all-French" car.
This picture was taken by me at he Goodwood Festival of Speed in 1996 -
showing the M630 from he Matra Museum, equipped with this first version
of the V12 (recognizable by the angled air-intake pipes; - later versions
had them rearranged into two parallel lines on top, allowing for the invention
of the air-vent box, which Matra pioneered in Formula-1.
At "Le Mans" in 1968, the GT40 of John Wyer, driven by Pedro Rodriguez & Lucien Bianchithe was unbeatable, but in third place you found Henri Pescarolo in the 630-V12. He fought his way through a terrible night in the rain, without windscreen-wipers! - hunting the remarkable Giunti Alfa Romeo 33. Eight hours before finish, the Italian car was delayed for 20 minutes in the pits and the M630 was running in second place(!). But then a flat tyre forced it into the pits, where a shortcircuit (and a small fire) finished the car.
The 630 was the training ground - and stepping stone for Matra, to enter the even higher levels of performance. Old and heavy, the 630 cleared the scene, to allow for more modern concepts.
For the "24 Hours of Le Mans" in 1969, Matra ordered the aerodynamic engineer Robert Choulet to produce a very sleek coupé - specially designed for the track. Due to his earlier work with Charles Deutsch, Choulet gave the Matra 640 a familiar look to that of the Peugeot CD : very rounded shapes, with smooth wheel-arches (and partly covered rear wheels) - and vertical fins at the rear. The chassis of the 640 didn't distinguish itself much from the 650 however: tubular steel structure, original suspension with horizontal dampers in the front.
The 16 April, Matra brought its 640 to the Sarthe circuit. Henri Pescarolo took it to the track to warm up the engine... At the first kilometres in the Hunaudières the car took off, and was pulverised - miraculously Pescarolo was pulled out alive - although he was severely burned.French engineer Patrick Bourdon who had Robert Choulet as instructor during his final engineering training in 1970, has supplied me with Robert Choulet's view on the accident:
Apparently Robert Choulet was (at the time) very annoyed with Henri Pescarolo, whom he regarded as having destroyed 'his' car, by taking it to full-throttle, rather than progressively building up speed.
Choulet's explanation for the accident was that not the front of the car, but simply the top of the doors was flexing, turning them into small airfoils, which produced sufficient lift to remove what was left of the traction - hereby causing the crash. According to Choulet, had only Pescarolo followed his instruction to build up speed progressively, the fault would have been detected, and eradicated, and the accident would never have happened.
It doesn't change too much of the story though, - the car was able to
do so high speeds than the smallest aerodynamic problems could have fatal
consequences. - something on the car flexed a little too much, causing
havoc with the aerodynamic properties, and thereby the crash.
The 640 was not rebuilt, and the project was forgotten.
The M650 was introduced at "Le Mans" 1969 where it was recognisable by its long tail and slim body, with wheels fixed by a single large bolt. Beltoise and Piers Courage classified fourth, behind the Ford GT40 of Jacky Ickx and the Porsche 908 of Hans Hermann, which was only barely slower, and the second GT40 of John Wyer. Despite a weight handicap of 120 kg, the Matra practically played even with the 908.
At Zeltweg, Servoz-Gavin ruled over the 908 and the 917's, before stupidly waisting the situation.
At the 1000 kilometres of Paris, victory was finally alottet to the 650 "barquette".
For "Le Mans" in 1970, Matra entered a single new model, lighter and more aerodynamic - retaining the general architecture - the M660. However, in this period Matra focused all their energy on Formula-1 (after their F1 World Championship in 1969, with Jackie Stewart driving the Matra-Tyrrell-Ford, they really wanted a Matra powered F1 winner)
In 1972, the M660 was slightly modified and became the M660C - the suspension travel length was slightly reduced, whereas the body was slightly redesigned sround eat and cockpit, to make it conform to the new regulations. This year, Matra totally withdrew from all but "Le Mans" in endurance racing/world championship. The M660C - driven by Jabouille and Hobbs - played only a secondary role, as the three new M670 dominated and won the "24 Hours" - but 11/2 hours before finish, the M660 actually was in 3'rd place when the gearbox blocked itself beyond repair.
In 1972, Matra had as mentioned above, again given priority to Formula-1 - and
cut down their participation in endurance-racing to just "Le Mans".
Hereby, Matra let the game open for Ferrari, armed with the 312PB (boxer) in the
World Championship. It was with this knowledge of the title being almost
in house anyway, that Ferrari abandoned "Le Mans", a week before the
race. Faced to the opposition of three Alfa Romeo 33 TT3 and two Lola T280,
Matra found themselves in the favourite position, with four cars enrolled - specially constructed and designed to the "Le Mans" race :
It was thus not surprising that the Matra M670's (with the numbers 14 and 15 on the bonnet) were in the lead. However not without drama: while in the lead, Howden Ganley passed slowly in the Hunaudières... - He had been surprised by a violent thunderstorm with dry-weather tires mounted, and was then hit by the Corvette of Marie-Claude Beaumont. The engine-cover was ripped open, and the rear suspension rearranged. Ganley managed anyway to continue to the pits and finished second. The Matra-Simca MS670 #15 piloted by H.Pescarolo and G.Hill took the first place.
In 1973 Matra withdrew from Formula-1 - and were thereby totally focused on the World Champion title for constructors - and in particular the "24 hours of Le Mans"
In 1973 and 1974 the M670 was victorious again - as the MS670B of H.Pescarolo & G.Larrousse won both years, thereby establishing Matra's "hat-trick" of 3 consecutive wins at Le-Mans.
In 1974 Matra developed the M670 into a even more aerodynamic version, the M680. It was raced the "24 hours of Le Mans" 1974, but it retired with engine problems.
In December 1974, however, Matra withdrew from motorsport, as their objective was to win, - not to stay on top; (quoting Jean Luc Legardère). and besides, it was now excactly 10 years since they entered motorsports, where they declared that they would invest 10 years to win the World Championship - which they did; - in fact they obtained some 125 victories - one Formula One championship, World Championship in the endurance races, and 3 consecutive wins at "Le Mans" - the race over all races in France.
Today Matra have a museum displaying their range of cars, and a number of cars are privately owned - both categories are frequently raced (for fun) at historic racing events - such as the glorious Goodwood Festival of Speed in the south of England each summer. For those who haven't experienced the absolutely terrifying noise produced by a Matra V12, you should go there! ... you will never forget it. Unfortunately (but understandably), these historic cars are driven gently today - ie keeping the revs below 8000-9000, whereas in their time they would scream all the way up to 11500. I have a small collection of sounds here , but it really must be experienced in real life. Not even modern Formula-1 can compete (on the sound ;-) ).