French Engines

French Engines of the ’70’s and ’80’s.

I was prompted to write this by a comment my brother made, that the 1972 Monica was designed around a Martin V8. However the Martin was considered too English for a French car (albeit a car designed in London) and it was decreed that a Chrysler V8 should be used. Actually it’s a little more complicated. The Martin engine, originally designed for F1 racing,  was reduced to 2.8 litres to get into the right French tax band but was found then to be too low on power. The Chrysler engine was also easier to service.

Matra Museum Engines 1

I like engines, I need to know what makes a car tick, sorry I mean run. That’s not a joke at Bagheera owners’ expense. My estimation of a wealthy BMW owner dropped through the floor when he didn’t know whether he was chauffering me in a V8 or V12 7 Series. It’s often hard now to glean from a road test whether a car is diesel or petrol let alone further information about the engine.

The real point of this article is to query whether French cars of the ’70’s and ’80’s were the product of the French engines available to power them. My starting point is of course  Matra, a manufacturer almost entirely reliant on the engines available to its major manufacturer partners. A visit to their museum shows just how much trouble Matra went to develop the basic engines available to them including an overhead cam head for the 1442 pushrod engine, turbos, superchargers etc.Unfortunately despite all this work the engines fitted to the Matra sportscars were totally standard.

Visiting France for the first time in 1960, my father’s Jaguar 3.4 Mkll, flown over from Hurn to Cherbourg by Silver City Airways, was a huge contrast to the cars we saw in Brittany. France had taken longer than the UK to recover from the war and the few cars were mainly small and economical, Citroen 2CV’s, Renault 4CV and Dauphin, Panhard PL17, Vespa microcar. Larger cars were mainly Peugeot 403 and of course Citroen DS and ID. Despite the relatively long distances between towns many French workers travelled by moped or Velo Solex.

I’ve ignored engines under 1 litre here for the time with due respect to the wonderful flat twins produced by Citroen and Panhard.

Matra Museum Engine


Citroen’s large engine went back to the introduction of the Light 15 in 1936. The Panhard used an air-cooled flat twin like the 2CV but with a bigger capacity. Citroen bought Panhard and closed down its car manufacturing in the late ’60’s.

In 1971 Citroen introduced the GS, a fabulous car with hydropneumatic suspension and brakes and an all alloy air cooled flat 4 engine. Early cars were 1015cc, later 1220 but power was more than adequate and the exemplary handling and powerful 4 disc brakes made for very fast motoring. The GS is overshadowed by the Alfa Sud in contemporary accounts by motoring journalists but as usual they got it all wrong. I drove mine to Naples and back one year and Grenada and back the next, each time  with 3 passengers and camping gear in great comfort.

Citroen planned a flat 6 for the DS. I believe prototypes were built but in 1973 the Gulf War changed many things, including the tax on large engines in France. The GS, like a Porsche  or Subaru was not at around 30 mpg very economical. Moreover it’s harder to control emissions from a boxer engine so sadly this range of engines had to go. Citroen experimented in 1973 with the Birotor Wankel engine in the GS but of course rotary engines are very thirsty.

So the CX started life with 2.0 and 2.2 litre versions of that Light 15 engine, later bored out to 2.4 and ultimately 2.5. The 2.0 was desperately underpowered by UK standards but once up to speed on a route nationale they were of course fine and made up for the lack of power by being so good in every other way. By 1986 the CX also had a turbo and a diesel turbo alternative. In this final life the pushrod head really didn’t show itself up. The car was an absolute dream and lived through to the introduction of the XM in 1990.

Simca introduced the 1000 in 1961. This rear engine car’s 4 cylinder pushrod engine was used in the 1967 front drive 1100. It’s hard to see it now but the Simca 1100 was a very innovative car in the late 60’s. Coming 8 years after the Mini it predated the VW Golf by 7 years. Although the engine was noisy due to poor oil distribution within the cylinder head it was a very reliable unit and a quietened version continued in use right through to 1993  in the Peugeot 309. But reliable is feint praise when applied to a sports car engine!

Renault’s small engine was the Ventoux which started life in the 1947 4CV. Although a dull old pushrod Jean Redele did take the trouble to modify this engine and his Alpine A110 gained a reputation for both speed and reliability. This same engine was used to similar effect in the Matra Djet.

Peugeot’s large engines at the beginning of the 70’s presumably go back to the 403, I confess to not knowing much about 404’s or 504’s but Peugeot was an early adopter both of fuel injection and diesel engines.

In 1965 Peugeot introduced the 204 with a transverse 1130cc all aluminium OHC engine with replaceable liners. Named the XL3 it sounded promising! It later went into the 304, bored out to 1300cc. This appears to have been a very good car with lively performance.

The 1978 305 inherited the same engine but that seems to have been the end of its life cycle as the 305 was also the first car to use the XU engine.


In 1969 Renault combined with Peugeot to build common engines, and in 1971 were joined by Volvo, although that relationship may only have included the V6.  As far as Peugeot and Renault were concerned this was a meeting of opposites, the staunchly independent family owned Peugeot working with the ‘Regie’, a company owned by the French government from 1940 to 1996. Like most other state-owned manufacturers it lost a lot of money for the tax payer and presumably upset Citroen, Peugeot and Simca by being able to run at a loss for so many years.

The PRV engine was the V6. It was to have been a V8 and even in its current form it  has the 90 degree V configuration better suited to a V8. But clearly axing two cylinders was imperative in the light of the 1973 fuel crisis.

There were many versions of this engine, with Peugeot fitting 24 valve heads for the XM and 605. Twin turbo versions were used in the Renault 25 and Alpine A610 but the most developed engines were used in the Venturi  Atlantique sports car which had its own race series.

The second engine built by the Compagnie Francaise de Mechanique was the Douvrin 1997cc and later 2165cc all alloy overhead cam unit. This is the engine that should have given the French industry the power to succeed throughout Europe but actually seems to have been mainly used by Renault. It was fitted to the Citroen CX where it worked very well, giving the car performance  so lacking from the original 2.0 litre. It was also fitted to the non-turbo Peugeot 505 but apart from these exceptions the fitments are all Renault where it was used up until 1996.

This is the engine that the Murena was designed around. Sadly Renault decreed that Matra could not use the engine because it would compete against the Fuego. Moreover the 505GTi Turbo uses the Murena’s 2.2 engine so perhaps the Douvrin wasn’t so good after all.

Going back to Simca, the smallest French manufacturer was also caught up in politics. Chrysler was buying into European manufacturers in 1967 and merged  Simca in France and Rootes in the UK. Their separate plans for new cars were merged into a single plan for  a new car which could be either powered by a Chrysler V8 or a smaller European unit. This is where the Chrysler 180 power unit comes in. Yet another V8 was of course axed and the Chrysler 180 as a product of Anglo French cooperation had a difficult start in life. The American name was probably a sticking point for most buyers which is why the ancient Anglo-French automotive name of Talbot was brought back by PSA  in 1978.

The history of Chrysler Europe and the 180 in particular is so awful and so complicated that it’s best left alone, but you can read about it here. The 180 engine started as a 1639cc unit in France to get into the right tax band.

The Talbot Tagora – also available with the PRV V6 – had a 2155cc version of the Chrysler 180 engine.  This is the engine used in the Murena and very good it is too. Big, quite lazy but loads of torque and strong – just like one of those V8’s everyone was avoiding using.

PSA. Peugeot bought Citroen in 1976 and in 1978 bought Chrysler’s European interests.1981 saw the introduction of perhaps the most important French engine of the late Twentieth century, the XU.  Originally an all alloy unit with replaceable liners and single or dual overhead cams, the XU was fully modular, capable of being built up as 1.6 or 1.9, petrol or diesel. A truly modern engine, it was as good as any Japanese unit and capable of being tuned for high performance. It was replaced in 1998 by the EW/DW which used some of its components including the crankshaft.

I started writing this article confident in the view that French cars of the 70’s and ’80’s were  saddled with unsuitable engines. Having done some research into the subject I’ve changed my view. Good engines were there but politics or economics made the decisions which denied the right engines to the right cars.

Sadly the same poor judgement has been shown in the recent past. PSA chose to use the DT17 V6 diesel as initially the only engine available in the C6 but also as an option in the C5, 407 and 407 Coupe. While Jaguar and Range Rover owners would not notice the poor CO2 emissions and an engine thirstier than many petrol V6’s , it’s not what you expect from a Citroen or Peugeot and this was reflected in sales.

In my first paragraph I discussed a little known car tested with an even more obscure F1 engine. But what about the U8? Amongst the gems in Romorantin’s  Espace museum is Matra’s own version of a V8 built from two 1442 engines with their crankshafts joined by a chain. They built a special Bagheera around it. Perhaps it ticked too much, oops sorry!

There is a photograph in Matra L’Innovation of Matra’s very own F1 V12 test fitted to a Murena. Perhaps Matra should have taken that installation further…