Prototype. Just that one word is enough to spike my interest. Design studies that more often than not were never intended to see production, but were instead exciting concepts of what the future might bring. These one-offs are by their very nature intriguing in a manner that only very few mass-produced cars can ever dream of matching.
In my humble opinion, the grandest era of prototypes is an honour shared between the sixties and the seventies. Design studies were truly given free reins during this period, and the new-found fascination with the wedge resulted in several truly striking designs. Especially the many Italian carrozzeria – or coachbuilders – were particularly active in always coming up with new visions of the future, in an attempt to gain publicity on the international car show arena.
Having set up his own design studio in 1959, Michelotti was keeping rather busy coming up with sharp designs for a wide variety of car manufacturers right from Hino and Prince in Japan to BMW’s life-saving little 700, and not least virtually shaping everything which came out of Triumph for a whole decade. Yet, not wanting to play second fiddle to Pininfarina, Bertone, Vignale and all the rest, he still found time to promote his design studio with the odd prototype as well.
One such Michelotti prototype was the razor-sharp 1971 Matra Laser. It was based on the French Matra M530 which entered production in 1967 as the first fully self-developed Matra after they bought Automobiles René Bonnet in 1964. The M530 utilised a 1.7-litre V4 engine from Ford developing 70hp at first and 75hp from 1969 forward. This lead to adequate performance at best, but while the Matra wasn’t a born sprinter, it was instead praised in period for its build quality, refinement and not least its excellent handling and steering characteristics thanks to the mid-engined layout. The design of the M530 was… well, some would perhaps call it French avant-garde, while others might be less flattering and just call it quirky. While not painstakingly elegant, it did nonetheless have some sort of charm to it.
And then sporting its later silver paintjob – and of course a seventies jumpsuit model!
Michelotti of course retained the whole chassis and drivetrain of the M530, but clothed it in a sharp and right up-to-date wedge-shaped body, so eye-catching that it in my opinion really ought to be every bit as highly regarded as some of those other icon wedges so synonymous of the seventies prototypes. Its pointy nose led to a vast and airy glasshouse and gullwing doors before finishing off in a distinct Kamm tail incorporating a full width boomerang taillight. But Michelotti didn’t settle with just the exterior, as he also thoroughly redesigned the interior with a set of very funky seats which just scream 1970s, and an oval steering wheel fronting a sleek and narrow dashboard. The Matra Laser made its debut sporting a very striking yellowish-gold paint scheme at the 1971 Geneva Motor Show, and then reappeared with a few minor design adjustments and a more subtle silver paintjob at the 1972 Montreal Auto Salon. This is where its headline grabbing career ended, and the one-off became part of an automotive museum collection for many years.
Pictures of the silver Matra Laser courtesy of Rainer Schlegelmilch
ViaRETRO bonus-information: Michelotti was not the only Italian carrozzeria to improve on the quirky Matra M530. Actually, Vignale beat him to it by a full three years, as they also used the mid-engined Matra for a design study of their own. It too debuted at the Geneva Motor Show, but as early as 1968. While not quite as visually striking as Michelotti’s attempt, it was still a pronounced wedge design, and resembled something which could have perhaps seen mass-production – as opposed to the Michelotti design which was clearly intended purely as a show piece. However, Vignale’s Matra M530 Sport ended up also being a one-off prototype, although several design cues eventually made their way to Matra’s successor for the M530 – the Bagheera which was introduced in 1973.