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Matra M530 LX (1973)

15/05/2013 05:39 |  Comments: 

Editor-in-chief

The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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A car like this is a rarer sight than a clean-handed politician. Even in countries where it was sold at all; in others, it’s virtually non-existent. Tough old car fans with stubby fingers, dirty nails, wrinkly eyes and technical encyclopaedias in their heads stare when they spot one.

When I first heard that after a lengthy rebirth process this car would be back in traffic soon, I was dying to write an article about it. Now, as things stand now, it's about the last thing I am willing to do. I could rave for hours about this car before; to me it was worth more to see it in life than to find a private sex album of Julia Roberts in a dirty flea market. But all my petrol-headed colleagues stared at me with bleak eyes when I started explaining them what I stumbled on.

Those who aren't too much into old cars started asking whether it was a Matra-Simca or a Matra-Rancho. Those who are more in the know inquired whether it was a Murena or a Bagheera. Nope, none of you pushed the right button, guys. This is an M530 LX, the car with the second unluckiest name in car history after the Chevy Nova.

Why was the Nova name unlucky?

Chevrolet couldn't have found a worse name for a car which was also destined for sales in South America. You know, in those regions people tend to speak Spanish or Portuguese. And in those languages ‘no va' means ‘no go'. No wonder that the model became a sales flop.

But when I showed the pictures of the car, their heads started getting purple and dark patches appeared under their armpits. “What, what, what is thaaaat...?! It is hilarious!” And I think you, dear reader, better do the same: please click on any picture and leaf through the pictures in the gallery. If you're still not interested (don't think there's a chance), then try to imagine a smoggy, shabby big city in East Europe in the middle of the 70's, where all the cars are vomit-coloured Ladas, Skodas and Trabants. Now put this very car in the picture. Not a bad sight, isn't it? Had you been there, you wouldn't have known which one to stare at – the M530 or the UFO that had landed on the other side of the street.

Well, nine year-old Zsolti (that was me) didn't have to choose, because UFO's weren't allowed to roam the skies of Communist countries', so sitting on the back seat of my father's two-stroke Wartburg 353 de Luxe – famous for being able to pull a 10-metre blue smoke cloud behind it, when accelerating – I only saw the Matra.

The year might have been 1977; the wheels of our Honecker-wonder car were still treading cobblestones, and that road received an asphalt cover years before 1980. So this unbelievable sports car just sped by us towards the Margaret Bridge. I was shouting like a little devil, because, by then, I've already seen a B&W picture of a car like that in Autó-Motor, Hungary's only car magazine. At the time my car craze was defined by such extremities as the Zaporozhets (horrible Russian cheapo car) and the Fiat 850 Sport Coupe (one of the most expensive cars you could buy in Hungary at the time, that could somehow give an illusion of almost being a Ferrari with just 52 PS). Looking at it from that safe distance a car like the Matra M530 LX faded in with Porsches, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and Bizzarinis.

Since then I have learned that the Matra M530 LX was more of a fake diamond than a silver bracelet. It had its engine from a Ford – a 1.7-litre pushrod out of contemporary Taunuses and Capris. All of its other parts had been sourced from a wide scope of vehicles. Even when new, it must have been like those American cars in Cuba which have Nissan Patrol engines, Lada gearboxes, Kia suspension elements and various parts of household appliances installed in them.

Never mind the absence of the two overhead camshafts, the 8000 rpm rev range, don't shed a tear for the missing tubular frame, because this car as a whole is not bad at all. It has an engine in the middle, you can take out the targa roof, the cockpit gives enough space for 2+2 passengers, and you also get pop-up headlights and a plastic body like the one on a Corvette. The basics may be simple, but the outcome is awesome.

Sometimes you could see interesting Western cars in the traffic at that time. The Italians arrived with Alfas and twin-cam Fiats to pick up Hungarian chicks (there have been songs written about that phenomenon). The West-Germans were scorching down the one and only highway – the M7 – to Lake Balaton with their big Opels, doing 160 kph, to meet their relatives coming from East Germany. And the Dutch were already famous globe-trotters in those times, although I don't remember their cars too well, only the black licence plates and the round caravans. Is it because they all came with Daf 66 Variomatics? But even amongst those, a car like this Matra, with its unbelievably authentic, Hungarian PZ licence plates (dating from 1977) had an impact on me like a burning bush in the desert for Moses.

Later I saw that Matra in the traffic a few more times, it used to be one of the attractions of the Budapest comings and goings. Each time it had become more and more dilapidated, even strangled. The last time I spotted it running was in the beginning of the 80's. By that time it was dragging itself at a speed of about 20 kph in the outmost lane of the Budapest Ring . I could hear that some of its cylinders were not working, blue smoke was pouring from its twin tailpipes in the style of a T72 tank putting on the smoke-screen trick.

I saw it once more on the back of a recovery truck a few years later, missing much of its trim, and later it was lying forlorn and discarded in a gloomy used car yard at the outskirts of Budapest, albeit with an eye-watering price tag behind the windscreen.

Then it disappeared completely.

How on earth did this car end up in Hungary?

This Matra was originally sold to its first owner in Italy, and a few years later it was involved in a heavy accident in Hungary. Such broken cars were almost all sold at a central auction site in Röppentyű Street, Budapest, but this one didn't make it there. It was bought by Ferenc Kőszegi on the spot – he was the director of the company that operated the government-owned breakdown truck service by the way. He was also the person who had it repaired and used the car in the oncoming years. The papers wrote about him and his car, which became sort of an urban legend in Budapest. He passed the Matra on in the beginning of the 80's.

Fast forward the VHS to sometime to the mid-90's. An unknown guy calls me, saying he's found and rebuilt a car called Matra. He'd left offers-making notes on it for years, and as a reward, after a time he was allowed to meet the owner who wasn't too shy to set a price on that piece of red junk. Attila Kemény, the witty car repairsman, classic car restorer and present owner was nearly smothered by the news, but somehow he scraped the 3000 Euros together. Upon hearing this, for some unknown reason, this vivid picture of a toothless, unshaven Matra-owner sprang to my mind, who was dancing barefoot on hot embers with a half-empty, 21 year-old bottle of Lagavulin whisky in his hand, shrieking – “Victory, victory!” That horrible wreck may have been worth the third of that money then.

Immense optimism was needed from here on. Each and every body panel – all of them plastic – was broken, cracked, many of the smaller ones lost. The engine in the car was only similar to the original, but of lesser spec. Each and every piece of the trim – decals, bumpers, switches, rubber seals – was missing, decayed to oblivion or beyond repair. The suspension had more loose joints in it than Michael Jackson in his heyday. The interior would have been alright for a pigsty, but nothing above that. The hulk was incredibly rusty. Cooling system – MIA. Braking system? What is that? And to add to the horror, the car went through the hands of six or seven dreamy, or on the contrary, greedy owners, and not one of them signed an official paper to document these changes of ownership. Attila had to go back ten years to find the last person in the car's papers. And when he bought the car, he could only hope that the man was still alive. The whole story was an utter mess.

Four years of struggle, indebtedness, a huge crisis in his private life, endless hunting for parts followed. Luckily, Attila's movie wasn't directed by David Lynch, although often it pretty much seemed like that, because there came a happy end in a true style of C rated American movies; tears of joy flowed like pink rivers at the end. Good to report on a case like that.

When I was invited to drive and take photos of the finished car, I had butterflies in my stomach. You know, it's like when a tourist goes to New York for the first time in his life and heads to Times Square right away to see that blistering inferno of neon lights, to become part of the real action at least once in his measly life. So he goes there, walks into a computer shop under the most colourful running ad just to get ripped off with a used laptop on dead batteries by a Serbian computer dealer for three times the price it would have cost him at home.

Saving a Matra M530

This Matra has the four-cylinder, 1.7-litre engine of the sportiest Taunus TS in it, but its clutch bell was modified for the M530, just as its timing cover due to the different cooling system. Instead of the worn and non-fitting 1.5-litre lump, the Ford-specialist Lézinger found an engine for Attila which fitted the car. Of course, that was in need of a complete overhaul. The seats were made by a company called Kárpit – for quite a hefty sum – all other work in the cabin was carried out by the owner. The steel-tub chassis had to be built up from ashes, and without a schematic diagram the electric wiring was redesigned and remodelled by a friend, László Rogán for free.

There was only one workshop in Hungary that could be entrusted with the remaking of the plastic panels. This was expected to be a very sensitive part of the project, because these panels are all curvy, and to many of them no samples existed at all for copying. Although plastic-shaping is not outstandingly expensive, this car is so complicated, and so many panels had to be made that in the end this turned out to be one of the costliest issues. And – to Attila's horror – lots of sections originally manufactured as separate pieces now were made in one piece. Now the front wings and the frame of the windshield are a single unit, as is the complete rear end of the car. If anything breaks, out comes the grinder - cut, snap, scratch the head, swear.

In the meantime Attila dismantled the suspension, and took a long look at each piece. And he realized he had no idea how he would find a replacement for them. Weeks of search followed in the storage facilities of a big, local parts shop in Budakalász. The universal joints (in the half-shafts) came from the Lada Niva, the ball joints in the suspension from the Opel Kadett B, lots of parts were found to be compatible with the Citroen Jumper and J5 vans. The rear wheel bearings are the same as the Trabant's (we're in Hungary, don't forget), the hubcaps of the Dacia fit perfectly and look convincing, the parts of the steering box and the rear brakes are interchangeable with the MGB's. This is total insanity.

What seemed to be a minor remark at first, later proved to be the greatest asset during the refurbishment process: the original vendor of the car mentioned a German Matra-guru, a certain Thomas Marek. When he found himself totally stuck with the project, Attila took to the road, drove to Germany to visit Thomas. He returned home with unbelievably precious infos, ideas, a load of magazines and a huge box full of irreplaceable parts, like the alternator, ignition parts, lights, and other trivia.

With this shove, he set out to complete the car finally. The labels were made by a sign painter after photographs in the magazines Attila had; the badge on the front of the car was copied from a key ring bought at a filling station. The toughest part to make was the chromed stripe running along the rear edge of the car, which was originally cast from brass, but the numerous corrosion holes in it had to be filled up so that it could be rechromed. Not an easy task, there were about ten reruns... To legalize the car was the icing on the cake: it took a ludicrous eight months.

Is the car precious? To Attila, you bet it is.

I didn't want to find out that the Matra was the equivalent of an automotive Times Square. Will it be like driving a home-made buggy propelled with an engine dug out of the backyard? Will it give any sense of speed? Will I fit in it? I've seen lots of small-series cars made around the turn of the 60's and 70's in my life, and, excluding a small handful, many of them ranked between the utterly terrible and the sheer frightening.

As far as I know, this Matra didn't hit the jackpot in sales in its glory years; it used to be a hugely reluctant seller even compared to the later Bagheera and Murena models which weren't blockbusters either. I thought of just taking the pictures, and then running away, because I didn't want my childhood dreams to be shattered. The dream, which I now saw with adults' eyes, had straddling wheels with funnily narrow tyres, a beautifully curving rear windscreen putting Renault Fuego's to shame and the gaping, fish-like mouth of a 1996 Ford Mondeo.

I felt a bit uneasy. When we – the car and I – met the last time, we both were much younger. The car had red paint, alloy wheels, it was equal, or even superior, to a Porsche, and of course, the biggest car I drove until then was a go-kart with pedals. I still had hair and rose-tinted spectacles. Since that time I have driven small Porsches, big Porsches, old Porsches and new Porsches, open ones and closed ones. And I also gathered some knowledge on what car designers meant by a ‘rigid' body structure in the early 70's. A pasta con pomodoro ‘al dente' in a better downtown restaurant in Naples has more torsional stiffness than those cars did.

The drama was cancelled, and in fact, the car turned out to be a hoot to drive, in spite of its chaotic refurbishment and stormy history. That V4 engine, which is so unwilling and limps so badly in contemporary Fords, here emits a nervous, fascinating, and hoarse grunt as the revs rise, and it shoves the car so eagerly when you press the accelerator that you'd think there is a hot-blooded, albeit a bit de-tuned race lump a few inches from your ears. The steering is a bit on the heavy side, but it's precise and communicates well with your fingers, and the narrow rubber on the wheels clings to the asphalt much better than one would think.

Of course, the mid-engine layout robs space from the interior, so those rear seats are just for show, or to carry a really small dog around, but I have to admit this setup is still the best for quick motoring on a twisty road. The brakes are strong, and those front seats, which look a bit as if they were lifted from a hotel lobby in an early Alain Delon cop movie, grab your body properly and are comfortable enough.

There are some shortcomings, but none of them severe. One of these is the vague gearshift, the other the suspension which is harsh. But nothing rattles, and even if you take the roof panels out (they can be stowed in the rear boot, alas, it's a French car after all), you would be hard pressed to notice any wobble. This certainly is one of the tougher open-top bodies from those times. Well then, is it a Porsche-equivalent? Of course not. But it is a viable and exciting alternative to a Fiat X1/9, and it really is in another world from an MGB. But you'll have a hard time to find an M530 to buy, especially one as sorted as this one.

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