Curbside Classic: 1967 Matra Djet V S – One For The Road

I’m calling this “Oddball French Coupé Week” – French because, well, *Gallic shrug*. Coupé – not “coop” if you please – because two doors. And oddball because, for once, we will eschew the Big Trois (Peugeot, Renault and Citroën). Because first impressions matter, the first entry is the oddest of them all, the Matra Djet.

What we have here is a revolution in sports cars: the first mid-engined automobile for road use. It’s also the first car to bear the Matra name, but it wasn’t born that way. The Djet story is a tad tortuous, so hold on to your bérets and let’s dive in.

I went through a lot of this story in my European Deadly Sins post on Matra, so the short version is that, in 1961, René Bonnet and Charles Deutsch agreed to part ways and dissolve their DB sports car marque. Bonnet basically took the concern over and renamed it Automobiles René Bonnet, while Deutsch went to work for Panhard, who were DB’s engine source throughout the ’50s.

Bonnet continued production of the legacy DB Le Mans, a small plastic-bodied FWD convertible, but he also immediately switched to Renault engines and initiated work on a completely new mid-engined sports prototype. Said prototype, designed by Bonnet himself and his chief engineer Jacques Hubert, featured a heavily modified Renault engine and both open and closed body variants and started racing in May 1962. At the Paris Motor Show a few months later, René Bonnet displayed the coupé, now named Djet, and announced his intention to produce a detuned road-legal version of it for MY 1963.

And indeed, Djets began to trickle out of Bonnet’s small Champigny works, making it the first mid-engined road car (of the post WW1 era, at any rate). It was soon available in several states of tune: the base model Djet I had the 1.1 litre Renault Gordini 4-cyl. providing 65hp (SAE), followed by the Djet II, with 80hp. Then came the special-order cars: the rally-spec Djet III featured a smaller 996cc engine, similar to the sports prototype cars, but detuned to 82hp, while the race-spec Djet IV had a DOHC head (with either the 1-litre or the 1.1) and produced at least 100hp. The top speed for the Djet I was claimed to be 175kph, but Djet IVs could reach 220kph.

The first Djets featured a tubular structure, just like the racers, but a cheaper steel backbone chassis was developed for the road cars by 1963. Prices were pretty steep, especially compared to cars with much larger engines made by far more established carmakers, but that goes with the territory. To better illustrate this point, I will shamelessly recycle the comparison table I made for my Matra post here.

The Djet subscribed to the same philosophy as Abarth, Alpine, Lotus and Panhard: reduced weight, smaller engine and sophisticated aerodynamics were the name of the game. But there were other ways to reach high speeds for that price – and in greater comfort, too.

Comfort – or rather lack thereof – was one of the main issues that critics and clients leveled at the early Djets. The mid-engine design meant that the seats were not only impossible to adjust, but also far too upright, making long journeys a chore. Furthermore, the cabin was very noisy, always rather hot and quite cramped.

René Bonnet’s amateurish leadership and decision-making skills, coupled with the Djet’s unfortunate lack of racing success, spelled trouble for the company in very short order. By mid-1964, Bonnet was looking for a buyer, and he found one in his main shareholder, the Matra conglomerate. Matra dabbled in many different fields, particularly guided missiles, aircraft engines and satellites, but leapt at the idea of entering the car-making business, becoming full owners of Automobiles René Bonnet in October 1964.

For MY 1965, the Djets were renamed Matra-Bonnet and the legacy FWD cabriolets were pensioned off. The Djet was soon given a pretty thorough redesign, which included a longer rear end with a single-piece horizontal bumper, as well as a wider track. This was known as the Djet V – corresponding to the Djet I. The Djet II was renamed Djet V S, its engine now producing 90hp (SAE). For 1966, with René Bonnet now completely out of the picture, the Matra logo was stuck on the front end and a Deluxe version with a one-piece front bumper and improved cabin design was added to the range.

Our feature car has this improved interior, with leather seats and (cheap-looking) wood paneling, but it’s not a Deluxe. Perhaps this could be ordered as an option on the V S. These were pretty much handmade to order anyway.

One of the last big external changes, implemented in late 1966 for all MY 1967 cars, was a new vent design for the rear hatch with Matra emblems. Around that time, the Djet also lost its “D” (which René Bonnet had insisted upon, fearing that the French public would not pronounce the word correctly otherwise) and became the Jet, though this change apparently took place a bit later during that model year. For 1967, Matra also introduced a final variant dubbed Jet 6, featuring the new 105hp 1255cc engine used in the R8 Gordini.

The folks at Matra were a very efficient sort, and they made the best of the car they had to work with. This was reflected in the constant improvement of the Djet throughout the years, but also in a notable increase in sales: Bonnet had only managed to produce 200 units in two years before handing over control to Matra. The new owners managed to manufacture about 1500 of the little cars from late 1964 to 1967, the final deliveries taking place in early 1968.

Matra would keep the best features of the Djet for their upcoming M530 model, launched in the spring of 1967. Like its predecessor, the M530 was mid-engined, plastic-bodied and featuring a (somewhat simplified) all-independent coil-sprung suspension, but for the engine, Matra picked a completely different – and foreign! – solution in the form of the Ford Taunus V4. They also went to Cosworth and BRM for their race cars. That certainly caused a few eyebrows to be raised, but it was typical Matra: politics be damned, what counted was the end product.

What Matra saw in the Djet was a means to sprout a new automotive branch, which would serve them well for close to 40 years. On the other hand, their rather abrupt takeover (and a strict, ten-year non-compete agreement) meant that the car’s creator, René Bonnet, found himself almost destitute, losing his business, then his home and finally his health. You can’t make an omelette without breaking some backs.

Bonnet eventually got better and found his feet again, but aside from attending the 24 Hours of Le Mans every year, he would no longer be involved in the automotive world. He passed away aged 79 in 1983 while driving his car, just a year before Matra quit manufacturing their mid-engined coupé, by then called the Murena. This Djet certainly had one heck of a long afterburn.


Related post:


Automotive History: French Deadly Sins (M.C. Escher Edition, Part 3) – The Meandering Matra, by T87