Motoring journalists said it wasn't rugged enough, but buyers loved this hunky French fancy, says Keith Adams

Right now, off-roaders (also known, amusingly, as Sports Utility Vehicles - SUVs) are hot property. There's a whiff of political incorrectness about them, but millions of buyers still want them, seduced by the curious delights of rugged bumpers and increased ride height, even if they don't want to take them off-road. If only they weren't so heavy and expensive to fuel.

Way back in 1977 the clever people at a little-known builder of specialist cars, Matra, stumbled across the answer to that 21st-century question - how to make the SUV socially responsible. Matra, one of France's few small-scale specialist producers, came to the attention of the automotive world by climbing into bed with Simca in 1973 to produce the mid-engined three-seater Bagheera sportscar.

It combined mainstream mechanics and pretty wedge styling to produce a baby Lamborghini Urraco for people with less than deep pockets. It wasn't a huge success, but it did appeal to those who liked to look good and not to drive too fast.

Shored up by the financial security offered by Simca's parent company, Chrysler, Matra embarked on its next project - a car that would prove even more innovative than the Bagheera. Matra's designers had noticed the sales success of the Range Rover - a strong seller despite its thirsty V8 engine - and reasoned that there should be a market for a new car with all the looks of the Range Rover and a fraction of the running costs.

Matra decided to base its new car, codenamed P12, on the Simca 1100 VF3 panel-van. The oily bits were tried and tested, and keeping close to the donor vehicle would drive down costs. What mattered was that it looked the part.

Although it was closely based on the Simca van, the glassy Rancho conversion had a style all of its own. Most of the rear body was made from a glass-fibre-clad steel frame, and large windows were added to complement the split tailgate. The addition of chunky plastic bumpers and cladding down the sides, spotlights, roof bars, raised suspension and a set of funky alloy wheels gave the new car a tough, rough, purposeful stance. The Rancho possessed off-road attitude without the baggage, and the lack of four-wheel drive wouldn't matter to the chic Parisiennes whom Matra reckoned would buy it.

This was a unique product and Chrysler executives were excited by its prospects. Here we had a faux off-roader that proved extremely useful on-road - and was perfect for the fuel-conscious Seventies. Rancho shrugged off the urban cut-and-thrust, and the needs of a large family were catered for thanks to the enormous boot, and plenty of sprawling room in the rear (the back seat was 10cm higher than the front seats). You could even specify an extra row of rear-facing seats.

When it was launched in the UK in May 1978, buyers clamoured for the Rancho. Painfully trendy, it was the summer's must-have car, and it clearly chimed with the needs of countless city-dwellers. The magazines weren't so sure, and road-testers duly criticised it for a lack of off-road ability compared with truck-like price-rivals such as the Lada Niva and Daihatsu Fourtrak.

However, the public understood the product far more than hard-bitten professionals - and in its short lifetime 56,700 Ranchos found eager buyers.

Matra didn't rest on its laurels, and even though Chrysler dropped out in 1978, a new relationship with Peugeot started well. The fact that the Rancho was by far the most profitable car in Chrysler Europe's range helped things no end.

But with the impending death of the Simca 1100, Matra needed something new. During 1980, Project P18 emerged as the Rancho's replacement - much larger in size and based on the Talbot Solara floorpan. Peugeot decided to turn down its option on the new car, and Renault jumped in, fully understanding the significance of the Espace - Europe's first people carrier. Matra's relationship with Peugeot would deteriorate as a result.

The Rancho lasted until 1984, and survived a couple of name-changes. Problems surfaced rather quickly - most notably the almost total lack of rust-resistance and its hit-and-miss build quality. Hard use would see even young examples fall to pieces - and today so few survive that it's a real treat to see one on the roads.

If you do find one for sale, think about it seriously - how many classics are as useful as a Rancho? The loading bay is big enough for a grand piano, and its performance is strong enough to keep up with the flow. Driving one, you'll also be smug in the knowledge that your SUV is a lot more cost-effective than the modern alternative, and when the green lobby begins to exert its pressure on off-roaders, your hunky alternative will be immune.

Sometimes you have to look to the past to be able to see the future.

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