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Chances are you haven’t heard of Philippe Guédon, but the Frenchman can legitimately claim a place alongside these other respected figures.
Because he has to his credit not one but two vehicles – and arguably a third – that have created new genres of European motor car.
With the Rancho, Guédon pioneered the ‘soft-roader’ SUV. With the Espace he created the multi-configurable MPV or people-carrier.
There’s a case, too, for saying that he was ahead of the curve with the Avantime, in conceiving the first coupé-crossover – albeit one that was MPV-derived rather than spun off from an SUV, such as the subsequent BMW X6 and its ilk.
Dial in two free-thinking sports coupés, the M530 and the Bagheera, and you have to admit that he has a pretty impressive personal portfolio.
This is a product, you can’t help thinking, of his essentially intellectual approach to car design.
Now aged 87, Guédon is a cultured and reflective engineer. In the course of our conversation, we range across architecture, military strategy, surrealist poetry and Dixieland jazz.
This isn’t scattergun discursiveness: Guédon is steely in his focus, but with shafts of left-field insight and quiet humour that make him seem like that favourite uncle who you think is a bit po-faced – until you suddenly discover that in fact he’s really rather fun.
Having spent 10 years as an engineer with Simca, where latterly he was responsible for designing the rear suspension of the Simca 1100, Guédon joined Matra in 1965 after responding to a newspaper advertisement.
He was recruited by Jean-Luc Lagardère, Matra’s dynamic second-in-command, who was to become one of France’s most prominent businessmen.
“At the time I didn’t even know what Matra was,” says Guédon, “but curiosity made me write. I met Lagardère. He was 35 years old and I was 31.
“One doesn’t meet all that many people who are important to one’s life – whether on a personal, professional or sentimental level. I had the intuition that here was someone special, and that we’d do great things together.
“This wasn’t founded on anything logical, because at that time Matra was a small company that worked in the armaments business and whose main product was air-to-air missiles.
“Lagardère decided to employ me in 3 mins 25 secs, because I fitted his criteria – a relatively young engineer who was working in the car industry.
“He conjured a vision of a bright future for me – somewhat poetically, because the design office turned out to be an old garage in Paris. He already had an engineer to look after the competition cars, so he recruited me to look after production vehicles.”
“I discussed our strategy straight away with Lagardère – about what sort of car we should make,” Guédon goes on.
“He wasn’t a car man, at least not then. He asked me to make a proposal. I said, ‘Listen, we’re making racing cars and we’re starting to win on the track. We should do cars that evoke the racing cars in some way.’
“So I suggested that we did cars with a central engine, which was the main characteristic of racing cars, so that there was a sort of architectural continuity between the racing and the road cars.
Secondly, because there were two makes of sports car that were absolutely brilliant – Porsche and Ferrari – we shouldn’t try to compete with these people, with all their skills and history, but instead do sports cars that were simpler and more affordable – something lightweight, using an engine from one of the big manufacturers.”
At that stage Matra was making the Djet, having bankrolled and ultimately taken over the René Bonnet operation. Guédon was not impressed by the little Renault-powered coupé.
“The Djet was a mediocre vehicle – well conceived, but mediocre in execution. It hadn’t been properly developed, and the assembly process was pretty casual.
“My first job was to improve the rear suspension: at full travel it hit the chassis. There was also a problem with the front brakes: on full lock the calipers hit the anti-roll bar and pushed back the pistons, so when you braked there were no brakes. We sorted that, but at the outset the car wasn’t much good.
“Lagardère wanted his own car. So we laid out the Matra M530. After having tried a few possible engines – in particular the Lancia V4 and the BMW in-line ‘four’ – we ended up choosing the Ford V4, for the reason that it was very short and allowed us to do a 2+2.
“The Lancia engine was too dear, as was the BMW unit. We’d have had to put the BMW engine in crossways, which would have meant a new gearbox, and we didn’t have the money for that. So Lagardère said that we’d use the Ford unit – and because Ford had a huge worldwide network we’d get it to sell the car. In the end, though, that didn’t happen.
“The styling was done by an ex-Simca stylist called Jacques Nocher, and was inspired by the Corvette Sting Ray for the rear. Nocher made a 1:10-scale model and we took it to Lagardère in a shoebox. We took the model out of the box, put it in front of him and he said, ‘I want it like that’ – without asking us to change anything.”
“It’s true that, to use the phrase of the marketing people, it was a bit ‘divisive’. There were those who liked it and others who didn’t at all.
“It was the opposite of what the big companies try to do. They want a vehicle that pleases everyone. But I’ve always defended the idea that a small producer should have an image that’s ultimately a bit provocative.
“You have to be different from the others – you have to be distinctive. I like it all the same. Of all the Matra vehicles it’s the one that’s kept the most of its original personality.”
The M530 lasted until 1973. Its replacement, the Bagheera, innovated above all with its three-abreast seating.
Aware of his sales department’s wish for something more than a two-seater, Guédon had been inspired by a journey in a company Ford estate car in which he and his companions had been obliged to travel three-up in the front.
“With the Bagheera we tried to do something that was more consensual,” he says. “Because it was done as a joint venture with Simca, we had to be in agreement on the basic concept of the vehicle.
“It was us who created it, but at Simca they gave their opinion. So we looked for a more conventional shape. We were right, because it was a success: we sold 48,000.
“It was primarily folded sheet steel on the M530, but mostly pressings on the Bagheera. We had advanced a bit in terms of complexity and cost. It allowed us to make more rigid shapes.”
“The Bagheera was the beginning of Automobiles Matra breaking even,” continues Guédon, who became head of design in 1972 and MD in 1983. “At first it sold very well, through the Simca network.
“Then the hot hatches started to arrive. I saw sales falling away and said to Mr Lagardère that we had to find another niche – or else we’d go under. This led to the Rancho.”
“The Rancho was the result of a simple analysis. Trials motorbikes were starting to be fashionable and I’d bought them for my sons. It’s what sociologists call ‘weak signals’ – little evolutions in behaviour that are apparently minor but which announce something.
“I had the feeling this was an idea we could use – making a relatively simple car with a raised ground clearance and big tyres, that wasn’t necessarily four-wheel drive but had plenty of space, so you could go travelling and maybe sleep inside the car.
“We said we were going to do something like a Range Rover, but smaller and more affordable.
“But we had to do it without spending much money. When I presented the idea to Lagardère, he said, ‘Dear Mr Guédon, do what you want, but I can’t give you a penny for it.’
“So we started out with an existing production vehicle, the Simca 1100 pick-up. We took the rolling chassis and the front of the body, and we put on a new rear to give it a sort of ‘go-anywhere’ character. To the astonishment of everyone, while we were having difficulty in selling the Bagheera, the Rancho sold like hot cakes.”
“We had realised something. Rather than being a prisoner of its sporting history, Matra had to be a firm that instead went for gaps in the market and new possibilities, instead of making sports cars or semi-sporting cars.
“The great thing was to position ourselves where the others weren’t… or weren’t yet – not to be a specialist in this sort of vehicle or that sort of vehicle.
“We tried to be a bit like, in military terms, a commando who profits from a hole in the defences of the enemy.”
Meanwhile, however, in 1980 the Bagheera had been replaced by the Murena. Building on the design themes of its predecessor, its principal innovation was in the use of a novel system of hot-dip galvanising to protect its pressed-steel understructure.
“We were in advance of every other car factory in the world. Rolls-Royce, Ferrari, General Motors – everyone came to see our technology.
“In the end, none of them adopted it, for the simple reason that when you dip a structure in a 450º zinc bath it deforms. The distortion is not serious, but you have to be able to make the necessary adjustments when you panel the structure afterwards. It was only feasible for cars with an internal structure and add-on body cladding.
“We made 10,000 Murenas, which was a disappointment. The customers for that sort of vehicle were disappearing – they either bought a Porsche or a saloon.
“The Toyota MR2 sold very poorly in France. I think, too, that the Murena suffered from being a bit ambivalent in character. It was important for Matra to find new architectures rather than make sports cars, when we didn’t have the engines to do them.”
This thinking led to the Espace, created as a follow-up to the Rancho.
“The Rancho we did with very limited means, and I said to Lagardère that if we had more resources we could do a lot better.
“We had noted a demand for cars in which you could go travelling as a family, and perhaps even eat and sleep – there was a vague link with the Volkswagen Kombi.
“The idea came out of a visit to the United States, when I met an engineer who said he went fishing at the weekend with his son in what the Americans called a ‘van’. I went fishing with one of my sons, so there was a sort of symmetry. When I got back I said I’d get a ‘van’, but there weren’t any…”
This was in 1978, and the prototype, based on Alpine/Solara underpinnings, was first offered to Peugeot, just after it had taken over the former Simca operation. Peugeot reluctantly turned down the proposition – out of innate conservatism, but also, says Guédon, because it simply had too much on its plate trying to absorb Chrysler’s crumbling European operations.
Daily output jumped from 45 to 360 Espaces over the years, and the factory was substantially modernised.
“The Espace made us lots of money – lots. The sports cars had brought in relatively modest profits. The divine surprise was the Espace, which became a cash cow. If it hadn’t been for the Espace, Lagardère would have stopped Automobiles Matra sooner – because the image of Matra had been made, and he no longer needed to be building cars.”
The last production Matra was the Avantime, launched in 2001. “It’s another divisive vehicle,” admits Guédon.
“The idea behind it was that people who bought an Espace were generally those who had a family. They’d buy an Espace – maybe two, or even three – and then one fine day the children would fly the nest. But the husband and wife had got into the habit of driving a vehicle with a lot of space inside and a relatively high driving position from which they could enjoy the countryside.
“So we said we’d try to do a coupé, but one that would keep the characteristics of the Espace, to allow us to hang onto Espace customers – or at least a certain number of them. Renault agreed.
“We sent an Espace platform to Giugiaro and he did the first version. But Renault’s design chief, Patrick Le Quément, said that Renault would do the styling.”
The Avantime had a slow start; meanwhile, Renault had taken over production of the Espace.
After a restructure in 2002, Lagardère – by then focused almost exclusively on his burgeoning media interests – pulled the plug on Automobiles Matra the following year, just weeks before his death.
“He had the impression that we’d have to begin again – reinvest in the car company – and I don’t think he was interested any more. So we stopped in 2003. If you listen to people at Renault, who I think are being honest, they say that if we’d persisted with the Avantime, we could have made a success of it.”
During these final years various concept cars were built, and the M72, a part-aluminium, buggy-like vehicle, was close to entering production in 2003.
Guédon went his own way with the collapse of Automobiles Matra, setting up the design consultancy Espace Developments. In 2008 he displayed a three-seater electric car at the Geneva Salon, and of late he has been collaborating with Bolloré on its Bluecar and Bluesummer electric cars – the latter then marketed as the Citroën e-Méhari.
“There are a lot of things that interest me, but I haven’t found anything that equals my passion for cars,” says Guédon. “That’s why I carry on working.”
Portrait: Daniel Denis