There is a traditional recipe in France called pain perdu, a name which literally translates to “lost bread”. In the old days it helped families cook a last minute meal by putting together the ingredients they had lying around, namely sugar, eggs, butter, milk and often-stale bread. The result is a slightly more elaborate but delicious version of toast.
Philippe Guédon, a Matra engineer, called the Rancho “the pain perdu recipe applied to the automobile.” He had a point: the car was thrown together from miscellaneous bits and pieces from the Simca parts bin. Starting out with a Simca 1100 VF-2 body, designers added brakes from the Simca 1100TI, an engine from the Simca 1308GT and the gearbox from the Simca 1307. The Rancho’s body was built out of polyester and fiberglass, making it fairly light. The designers hoped the end result would be a fun, practical vehicle similar to the Range Rover but accessible to a much wider public thanks to a lower price. In 1978, a new Rancho cost 35,995 francs while a Range Rover could be had in exchange for 60,520 francs. It had all sorts of off-road goodies like plastic body cladding, fog lights with protecting grills, a small bull bar, an impressive roof rack and an available winch, just to name a few.
The engine was the 1308GT's 1,442cc four-cylinder installed transversally. A double-barrel Weber carburetor took care of fuel delivery and the whole unit was good for 80hp running on premium gas. Because of premium’s elevated price, an available option on the Rancho was a lower compression version of the engine that ran on regular gas. This lowered the power output to 78hp.
The 4-speed manual transmission spun the front wheels and the front wheels only, marking the car’s biggest weakness. The car looked capable of climbing up a wall but it was strictly aesthetic. Matra experimented with a four wheel drive Rancho but had no money to develop it past the prototype stage. In the Rancho’s defense, the Grand Raid model featured a limited slip differential and the higher-than-average ground clearance of all Rancho models permitted them to get further down the trail than you would in a standard Simca 1100.
Several trim levels were available throughout the Rancho’s production. The Grand Raid came with more standard off-road equipment including a sump guard, a winch and a trailer hitch. The Rancho X was a more upmarket model featuring a standard tachometer and tinted windows. The AS was for the French market only and had no rear seats in order to qualify it as a company car (company cars were taxed less). Lastly, a convertible version was introduced in 1981 but sales were poor and it disappeared from showrooms the following year. 1981 also marked the addition of two extra rear-facing seats in the trunk. Equipped with these seats the Rancho could carry up to six people, further enhancing the car’s practical side. Due to Simca’s sale from Chrysler to Peugeot the car was rebadged Talbot Matra Rancho in 1982.
The Rancho immediately became a popular car for families who lived in the countryside and/or families that needed the vast cargo space to carry camping gear and the like. It had few competitors on the European market. The more rustic Renault 4 F4 fourgonnette was available until 1988 but had less interior space and appealed to a different market. The 602cc Citroen Acadiane, available until 1987, also catered to a different, less-demanding public. The Renault Express and the Citroen C15 (based on the Renault 5 and the Citroen Visa respectively) both arrived on the market after the Rancho was phased out and were more often than not purchased as panel utility vehicles, not family vehicles.
In the planning stages Simca management hoped to produce 25,000 Ranchos. By the time production ended in late 1983 they had produced 56,457 of them, a clear indication of the favorable reception the public gave to the Rancho despite its lack of off-road ability. While some saw it as the answer to the question no one asked, a look at today’s car market in Europe shows numerous Rancho-like vehicles like the Citroen Berlingo and the Renault Kangoo. The Rancho was seemingly born in the wrong era.
The Rancho also spawned an unlikely successor: the Renault Espace. Matra wanted to replace the Rancho with their prototype of the Espace known as the "dessin orange", which translates to "the orange drawing" in English - both the prototype and the background it was drawn on were orange. It predicted the basic shape of the first Espace but only had three doors instead of five. Peugeot (who controlled Matra at the time) deemed the project too expensive and not promising enough. Determined to take its design to production Matra knocked on Renault’s door and they quickly adopted the project, one that upon its launch in 1984 arguably became the first European minivan and is in its fourth generation today. Peugeot's competitor, the 806, only came ten years later and has never been able to match the Espace's popularity.
The convertible version of the Rancho, availble from 1981 to 1982: