Matra Automobile, the French coachbuilder that developed Europe's first full-size minivan, the Renault Espace, is looking for a buyer.
Matra's owner, conglomerate Lagardère SCA, has asked the French investment bank Natexis to sell the company by the summer. Matra needs a cash-rich buyer.
'Matra's management is willing to take a stake, but this won't be enough,' said Bernard Labet, Matra's deputy managing director.
Matra's position within Lagardère's portfolio - which ranges from media to defense contractors - has been in doubt since October 2000. That's when Arnaud Lagardère succeeded his father Jean-Luc as the head of the group and suggested that automobiles no longer fit the company's strategic aims.
Starting next year, Matra will stop building the Espace minivan it created in 1984 for Renault, its only client. The fourth-generation Espace will be built in Renault's Sandouville plant in Normandy, France, along the Vel Satis and Laguna II.
The loss of the Espace will leave Matra with only one product, the Renault Avantime. But Avantime sales have so far been slow. Under its contract with Renault, of which Lagardère group is a shareholder, Matra will build the Avantime through 2005.
In 2001, Matra sales fell 3.6 percent to E1.14 billion. Operating profits declined 7 percent to E66 million.
Matra is counting heavily on the M72, a tiny leisure car that it plans to launch next spring in France. Renault dealers and an undisclosed retailer will market the vehicles.
At 3240mm long and 1560mm wide, the M72 will come in two versions. One will have a 20hp engine, meaning that 16-year-olds will be able to drive it legally because it qualifies as a quadricycle. A second version with a 50hp engine will be classified as a car, but it still has to meet required safety standards. The M72 will sell for between E6,500 and E7,000.
Matra is also in talks with Malaysian automaker Petronas to build 10,000 taxis based on the Espace chassis for export to Malaysia.
Experts say buyers for specialty car builders such as Matra are scarce.
'It's a very cyclical business,' said Philip Wylie, automotive director at PricewaterhouseCoopers Corporate Finance. 'Those companies live and die by the orders of big manufacturers.'
l Renault relaunches Avantime, Page 6.