PARIS - Matra Automobile Chairman Philippe Guedon is trying to ensure the future of his company by seeking a model to help replace the Renault Espace.
Matra has built the Espace for Renault since the vehicle was launched in 1984. But Renault will take over production of the minivan after it is redesigned in 2001.
Guedon says Matra needs at least two new vehicle programs to survive. He is also considering a spinoff for Matra Automobile, which is owned by Lagarde Groupe, a French defense electronics and media conglomerate.
The first step has been taken. Last July, Renault agreed that Matra would produce a top-of-the-range successor to the Safrane, code-named D66, that could be ready by spring 2000.
The D66 will have a minivan shape with two doors and four seats.
'We want a high-performance vehicle but also a roomy one,' Guedon said. 'We think that a lot of people who bought minivans because they needed a family car have got used to driving in a high position inside a roomy space, and will not go back to a traditional sedan or coupe when they get older. We are convinced that these drivers will appreciate a new concept.'
The D66 will be assembled at Matra's Romorantin plant, 200km south of Paris.
'It will compensate for 30 to 50 percent of the Espace production,' Guedon said. 'So we lack another vehicle to fill the second half of our plant capacity.'
In 1998, Romorantin will produce a record 68,500 Espaces, topping 1994's total of 67,600 units.
Guedon, along with Jean-Louis Caussin, Matra's executive vice president, are looking for a second vehicle and possibly a second customer.
'We are currently working on four advanced projects,' said Guedon. 'We have proposed our ideas first to Renault. One is a city car, code-named P70. We are discussing ideas with two other European carmakers as well.
'We think there is a big trend toward customized cars and that innovative cars must be based on individual platforms,' said Guedon. 'However, the carmakers now have focused their strategy on three to four universal platforms.'
Guedon and Caussin hope that a deal for a second vehicle will be made in 1999. That would give Matra time to prepare before production of the current Espace ends in late 2001.
Getting a second deal is a must before Guedon could spin-off Matra Automobile. 'A spin-off would be a clever solution to ensure Matra Automobile's continuity,' said Guedon, 65, who will stay on as chairman for three more years.
'Jean-Luc Lagardere (Lagardere Groupe chairman, founder and sole owner of Matra Automobile) would decide what share of capital he would retain,' Guedon said.
Lagardere Groupe is merging its defense operations with French state-owned giant Aerospatiale.
In 1997, Matra reported sales of FF7 billion and net income of FF224 million.