How the oddball Matra Rancho invented the crossover

It certainly looked like an off-roader, with its split tailgate, plastic roof rack, wheelarch extensions and large spotlights. With the fuel crisis of 1973 fresh in its mind, it knew that it needed to look beyond sports cars to secure its future. For Matra, this meant access to an extensive distribution network, as well as a bountiful supply of spare parts. The Simca-Matra-Chrysler-Peugeot-Talbot story is long, complicated and too convoluted for this ode to the Rancho, but a little knowledge is enough to understand where the faux off-roader came from, how it developed, and what led to its demise. You can blame the lack of aerodynamics and the relatively high kerb weight for the Rancho’s failure to return decent economy. The roof rack was Matra’s attempt to mask the step from the front half to the rear section, while the wheelarch extensions, side mouldings and big bumpers provided protection from swinging shopping bags on the streets of Paris and Chelsea. ‘Built for you to spread your wings,’ proclaimed the launch brochure, but while Matra was occasionally guilty of promoting off-road skills it just didn’t possess, it knew that fashion and image would sell the Rancho. Manufacturers were beginning to cotton on to the lifestyle benefits of a 4×4, but the Rancho stood alone in a field offering space, practicality and the option of seven seats. Alongside the Tagora, Alpine, Solara, Horizon and Sunbeam, the Rancho sticks out like an eccentric French exchange student in a room of sombre-suited sixth-formers. The Rancho story is one of overcoming adversity, forging ahead in a non-existence market, dealing with multiple management changes and a somewhat cynical press. It’s intended for well-heeled Europeans who want the rugged look and feel of an off-roader for practical or social reasons,’ wrote Car and Driver in 1980. ‘It is a con trick, nothing more than a sheep in wolf’s clothing,’ said Motor in 1978, before admitting that it looked better than a Range Rover – quite a surprise, coming from a UK title – and had a sharp image. Sadly, Britain wasn’t offered the special editions, such as the more rugged Grand Raid of 1980, the well-appointed Rancho X, the metallic black Midnight, or the very lifestyle Découvrable. Whatever your thoughts on the Rancho, that quirky ‘off-roader’ you pushed along the living room carpet was as relevant and beautiful as the Countach and GTO you had pinned to your bedroom wall. Pass that Matchbox Superkings or Corgi model to your young offspring – the Rancho legacy needs to be kept alive.