The Matra Djet, introduced in 1962 to be sold in 1963. This beat the DeTomaso Vallelunga to market by 12 months or so, slotting in a full 3 years before the better known Lotus Europa, thus having the honor of being the world’s first mid-engined road car!
I’m going to do a few brief posts about the history of Matra. Because cheap mid-engined cars are cool, and French cars are weird, and I need something to do. Also car content on Oppo can’t hurt. This is part two. (Part one is here).
It’s sort of cute in a way, or endearing maybe. I think the Vallelunga is certainly prettier, better proportioned. That said, only 60 of those were built, all with DeTomaso’s Crippling Quality Issues™ as standard, while 1698 Djets were produced in total (198 as René Bonnet, 1495 as Matra). The little Djet has the prestige, the volume, and the Gallic charm.
I am going to keep it simple and refer to the car as the Djet, a name so chosen because it was assumed the French could not pronounce “jet” properly, and will make no attempt at getting the naming spot on. The car was also officially sold as: René Bonnet Djet, Matra Bonnet Djet, Matra Sports Djet, Matra Sports Jet, and had a number of variants from 1 to 6, sometimes named with Roman numerals, sometimes not, and sometimes with an S. ‘Tis not important, a Djet is a Jet is a Djet.
Those who have been paying attention since my last post will note that this spells the end proper for the René Bonnet name. Even as the cars were sold with René Bonnet badges, the Djet was only ever produced in Matra’s factory in Romorantin, some 200km South of the DB factory in Champigny-sur-Marne. By 1964 when Matra took over due to declining funds and Djet sales falling short of expectations, production of the earlier DB cars (Missile et al) ceased at the DB factory and the René Bonnet name was effectively discontinued. After the Djet’s revival as a Matra it pulled modest sales, enough to inspire Matra to continue automotive development, and continue the mid-engined dream.
The car was not so very different to its predecessors, sticking to the concept of a light steel chassis of modest dimensions, fibreglass body, and a Renault engine, though of course mounted amidships. It did have 4 disc brakes, and relatively advanced independent suspension, perhaps a necessity to keep those twitchy mid-engine tendencies at bay. Performance was modest, though it’s difficult to quote numbers as there was such a range of engine choices for the car over its lifespan. They were all around 1-1.3 litres with 50-80kW, the fastest could do 200km/hr, and was also the heaviest at a porky 740kg. I’m sure it was a laugh, and probably a handful too if you consider all the years of expertise building mid-engined road cars that didn’t go into the Djet. All cars were 2-seaters, some had removable sun-roof-targa-top-things.
The roof itself is a funny thing. It’s one of those that sits sort of on top of the car like a hat, never meeting the window lines. Sort of like the TVR T350T. It is manually removed and can live in the boot at the rear. I’ve read it was only installed on 12 Djets, but so many in photos have the sunroof, I suspect it was many more. Curiously, to keep the back window from blowing out with the roof off there are little props you can use to keep the boot partially open while driving. Maybe Matra should’ve stuck to sorting out the packaging of the newfangled midship arrangement, and left the targa roof for their next car.
Curiously I took this photo and posted it on Oppo in 2016! I had no idea what I was looking at at the time, who’d have thought I’d be here in 2020 in lockdown in my apartment writing about it. And yes, there are Djets still running around in Australia, America, Japan as well as Europe. The car may be old, small, and built in few numbers, but it has survived.
I have to pay a little tribute to this car. Sure, rear-engined road cars existed, and if they didn’t get to the mid-engined thing someone else would have. But they did. And having the engine in the rear is much the same as having it in the front in a way - it’s done at the expense of handling, to optimize interior dimensions. Bringing the engine within the wheelbase, and in the ideal position aft of driver, is a move that compromises interior dimensions in the pursuit of optimal handling characteristics. It tells of commitment to a certain type of driving experience in a way that no Miata or Mustang can. It’s an idea that was never huge, and not always available for the masses, but it’s one that has stuck firmly with us ‘til 2020 and beyond. Thanks, little Djet.
Our next stop will be the Matra 530, the first car designed solely by Matra, with no smaller helping of mid-engined-targa-topped goodness. Adieu!