Here’s a challenge for you. Without having a shufti at google, name the world’s first production mid-engined car. Not easy, is it? Tell you what, I’ll give you a hint or three: it’s not the Lamborghini Miura, nor is it the Lotus Europa nor even the DeTomaso Vallelunga. Still not got it? Ah well, you’re in very good company, for the car in question nestles in the tall grass of semi-obscurity, its significance recognised by only a few.
But why is this so? Is it an ugly, ill-handling, shabbily finished car that was made in miniscule numbers by a motley crew operating out of a back street workshop? Absolutely not. It was designed and built by a company headed by a man with a Le Mans pedigree (in more ways than one) before being acquired, revised and rebadged by a company that would go on to achieve great things on both road and track. It was fast, pretty and technically advanced.
It was the Bonnet Djet. The brainchild and final automotive creation of René Bonnet. The last of one line and the first of another.
The b in the bonnet
René Bonnet was a gifted French engineer who, in 1938, teamed up with his equally talented compatriot Charles Deutsch to form Deutsch-Bonnet, a small but significant low-volume manufacturer of road and racing cars. D-B (as it was better known) went on to produce a succession of attractive sports cars and enjoy considerable success on the race track, scoring numerous class wins at both Le Mans and Sebring as well as in the Mille Miglia.
In 1961, however, differences of opinion over the choice of running gear and drivetrain configuration resulted in Deutsch and Bonnet going their separate ways. Both men formed new companies: Deutsch went into business as C-D while Bonnet founded Automobiles René Bonnet.
Another french revolution
Bonnet’s vision was for his fledgling company to build a new sports car with a mid-mounted engine. In the meantime, he re-engineered D-B’s Panhard-powered Le Mans coupé to accept Renault running gear. This revised car, together with a new 2 seat version known as the Missile, would help tide his company over until the new car was ready.
The new car broke cover in February 1962, when a sketch of it appeared on the cover of L’Auto-Journal. Later that year, a competition version, bearing the name ‘Djet’, competed at the Le Mans 24 hours. Potential customers for the road version had, however, to wait until the Paris Motor Show that October for its official launch.
It was worth the wait. The car presented to them was a pretty 2 seat coupé with a functional but well-finished interior and a specification that included all-round independent suspension and disc brakes in addition to its fibreglass body and unique drivetrain configuration. Renault supplied the engine and gearbox, the former coming from the Renault 8 and the latter from the Estafette van.
The djet age
Two roadgoing versions of the Djet (so named because René Bonnet believed that French people were unable to properly pronounce ‘Jet’) were announced at launch. These were known, logically enough, as the Djet 1 and Djet 2. Neither model was cheap, with prices starting at 18,000 Francs for the Djet 1.
The main difference between the two roadgoing versions lay in the motive power department, with the Djet 1 having a 65bhp version of the 1108cc Renault engine, and the Djet 2 having a 80bhp, Gordini-tuned version of the same unit. Thanks to light weight and a slippery shape, both models could exceed 100 miles per hour – comfortably so in the case of the Djet 2.
The first road-going Djets were delivered in July, 1963, shortly after that year’s Le Mans 24 hours, in which a modified Djet, known as the Aerodjet, won the Index of Thermal Efficiency. Bonnet believed that success on the race track would boost sales of the Djet, but the company’s focus on racing instead of marketing was counter-productive. This, coupled with the high price of the Djet, resulted in lower than anticipated sales. Money, not plentiful to begin with, became an increasingly serious problem for Bonnet, and by 1964 the company was in severe financial difficulties.
The changing of the guard
Amongst Bonnet’s creditors was Engins Matra, an aerospace and defence company that produced the Djet’s fibreglass body and provided assembly facilities at their factory in Romorantin. In the autumn of 1964, Matra acquired Automobiles René Bonnet and quickly formed a new company, Matra Sports, to take over construction and marketing of the Djet.
Matra made a number of modifications to the design of the Djet, the resulting Matra-Bonnet Djet V and VS models being slightly longer and having a wider track than their predecessors. The production process was also streamlined and the savings passed on to the consumer, with the Djet V carrying a price tag of around 15% less than that of the Djet 1.
Although René Bonnet had been retained as a consultant by Matra Sports, he soon faded from the picture. The Bonnet name was next to disappear, followed eventually by the ‘D’ from the model name – the final production version being known as the Matra Jet 6.
Matra’s marketing was rather more effective than that of Bonnet, and the Jet remained in production until 1967, when it was replaced by the M530, a mid-engined, 2+2 coupé of Matra’s own design.
A total of 1,691 roadgoing Djets and Jets were built between 1962 and 1967, of which just under 1500 were constructed by Matra. One of them, a Djet VS, was presented as a gift to Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. Gagarin was photographed with his Djet in Moscow, but it is not known what became of the car following his death in an air crash in 1968.
The last and the first
The Djet was René Bonnet’s automotive swansong. He never returned to car manufacturing and died in 1983, leaving behind a rich legacy for car enthusiasts who look beyond the mainstream.
For Matra, however, the Djet marked the beginning of a journey which would see them produce three mid-engined sports cars of their own design, become world leaders in fibreglass technology, pioneer the use of hot-dip galvanisation in mass-produced vehicles, turn a Simca 1100 van into the world’s first soft-roader and build the seminal Espace in partnership with Renault before finally calling time on their car manufacturing activities in 2003. Along the way, they would win both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Formula One World Championships and take a hat-trick of outright wins at Le Mans.
Picture sources: Bonhams 1793 Limited, Matra Sports