Rocket Science. Matra’s dazzling Djet. An overlooked alternative to an Alpine. French missile-maker Matra began its stellar trajectory as a motor manufacturer and race-car builder by buying up the novel René Bonnet Djet, as Jon Pressnell explains. Photography Tony Baker.
If you wanted a small French-built sports car in the early-to-mid 1960s, you didn’t have much choice. Indeed, a visitor to the 1964 Paris Salon had only a solitary option if he didn’t want one of Jean Rédélé’s Alpines: he could take a gamble on a Renault-powered coupé that had been kicking around for a couple of years, and was being sold under the banner of a firm better known for military hardware. The Matra- Bonnet Djet – as it was briefly called – was a revised version of the René Bonnet Djet that had first been seen as a prototype at Le Mans in 1962.
Clockwise, from main: Djet outside the former Matra factory, long tail has a Perspex rear window; airintake grille is an alloy casting; Simca 1000 lamp; emblem on vents came in for 1967; spare in front, with fuel tank and rad. Inset below: Aérodjet, Le Mans 1963. Inset right, original Djet had a shorter tail.
Any thought that the Matra might be nothing more than a poor backyard substitute for the emblematic competition-bred Alpine berlinettes is swiftly quashed when you see one of these rare GRP-bodied two-seaters close up. Yes, they sit a bit high on their 15in wheels, but there’s a pareddown elegance to the long-nosed lines with their sharply tucked-in lower body and drawn-out bubble-backed tail. The details are minimalist but pleasing, too. They include Simca 1000 taillights, a simple stainless rear bumper, a thin moulded front bumper with rubber over-riders behind it, on the Luxe versions, and on late cars ornamental vents incorporating the Matra motif on either side of the engine cover. The 1968 example of Laurent Corset looks particularly effective with its smooth and lustrous red coachwork, which is probably better than when it was new. Corset – who restored the car himself – is a glassfibre expert at Matra heritage specialist EPAF.
The interior sends out a similar message. It’s clearly that of a limited-production machine: there’s not an item of tailo r-made moulded plastic in sight, but everything is crisply designed and neatly executed. The dashboard might be a plain-grain expanse of flat teak, with exposed screws, but the controls – featuring a full set of R8 Gordini dials – are well disposed and include a comprehensively stocked centre console.
Clockwise: Moto-Lita standard on Luxe; R8 unit now has Weber carb; Matra handles with poise; straps for engine cover; Renault fittings on neat door card.
Yet there’s something far more fundamental about the Matra’s make-up than its agreeable lines and workmanlike interior. The key thing is that the car was the world’s first production-line vehicle to have a race-bred mid-engined configuration. It thus put clear blue water between it and the rear-engined Alpines – or the front-drive DBs from which it indirectly sprung.
The car emerged from the disintegration of the partnership between DB creators Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet, formalised when Bonnet signed a deal with Renault in January 1962. Deutsch was happy to stay with Panhard, but it seems clear that Bonnet regarded the air-cooled flat-twin as nearing the end of its development life. One imagines that he also did not see much of a future being allied to a Panhard business that seemed to be dying on its feet as a car-maker.
While all this was bubbling to the surface, in November 1961 production of the Panhard-based DB Le Mans moved to a factory in Romorantin, near Orléans, that had once been a centre for the production of army uniforms and blankets. The move was financed by a property firm affiliated to Matra, which at the same time created a plastics company on the same site, to mould the GRP bodies for the cars. Matra founder Marcel Chassagny had become friendly with Bonnet, and it would be Matra money that would keep the latter afloat after the split with Deutsch.
Soon after the separation, the Le Mans – then sold as a René Bonnet – was given a new chassis and a Renault engine, as a prelude to being redesigned for 1963 using an R4 platform and renamed the Missile; limited production would continue for roughly two more years. Meanwhile, the former partners continued their involvement in competition, and they worked like dervishes to prepare cars for 1962’s Le Mans. Amusingly, the prototypes for both the CD-Panhard and the rival René Bonnet Djet were built at the same time, in the same workshops, by France’s principal glassfibre specialist, Chappe et Gessalin.
After less than six months of breakneck work two Djet prototypes were ready in June, for the race – having unsurprisingly missed the April practice sessions. Following on from the midengined DB-Panhard campaigned at Le Mans in 1961, the cars used a centrally mounted R8 unit, set well forward and with a gearbox from the front-drive Estafette van behind it. The running gear, including tubular front wishbones, was mounted in a tube spaceframe to which the body was bonded – a time-consuming process that added rigidity but which was hardly suitable for series production. One car retired, but the other finished 17th out of 18 and came second in the Index of Performance. It was an encouraging start for the new marque, which duly exhibited a roadgoing Djet at the 1962 Paris Salon.
After 17 tube-framed examples had been built, basically for competition, production of road cars began in July 1963, with the cars having a separate tubular-backbone chassis with square-tube extensions, to which the body was bolted. The twin-wishbone rear went to four coilovers and a complete R8 traverse was welded in place at the front – along with the Renault’s coil-and-wishbone front set-up, controlled by an anti-roll bar. Two models were offered: a Djet I with a lightly tuned 1108cc R8 engine delivering 70bhp (SAE) and a Djet II (of which few would be made) with a Gordini-tweaked 85bhp motor. You could also order one of two 996cc competition ‘specials’, a hemi-head Djet III and a twin-cam Djet IV, both still with the bonded-in tubular body structure.
Manufacture was hesitant, with output averaging less than one car a day, not helped by the design continuing to evolve. The facilities were rudimentary and quality was patchy. The dealer network was skeletal and the car was sometimes sold via outlets that were little more than filling stations. More crucially, it soon became clear that Bonnet was struggling. Meanwhile, in 1963, an ambitious young electrical engineer by the name of Jean-Luc Lagardère had joined Matra as managing director under Chassagny. Lagardère wanted to diversify the business and give it a more public face. He judged that becoming a car maker and engaging in motorsport would achieve both aims. The obvious shortcut was on his doorstep, in the shape of the Bonnet operation, which by then was in hock to Matra, but had competition pedigree behind it and a technically advanced road car already in production. In October 1964, Matra took over Automobiles René Bonnet, folding it into a new firm, Matra-Sports.
With just 198 Djets having been made by Bonnet, the revised car was shown at the 1964 Paris Salon, with 100 improvements – many having been initiated by Bonnet’s son Claude. The most obvious were that the rear was lengthened to increase luggage space and that the front and rear tracks were widened, by10cm and 8cm respectively, to improve grip. Pronounced wheelarch flares indicated the increased track, while other changes included a full-width rear bumper, a larger, rectangular front intake, and air scoops for the front brakes. With 48:52 weight distribution, a claimed Cd of 0.28 and a dry weight of just 615kg (1356lb), the renamed Matra-Bonnet Djet V promised much, especially in ‘S’ form. Following the announcement of the original 1108cc R8 Gordini at the same show, the ‘S’ used its hemi-head engine with twin dualchoke Solex carbs, and delivered a handy 94bhp. The price of a Djet V had been slashed, too, in early 1965, from FFr19,800 to FFr17,500.
For 1966 the cars became Matras pure and simple, and were called Jet rather than Djet. At the same time the better-equipped Luxe model joined the range, a removable roof panel (stowing in the back) became an option and prices were further reduced. Sales took off. After 366 cars were made in 1965 – and just 28 as Matra- Bonnets at the end of 1964 – output in 1966 hit 810 units. This was the car’s golden year. Despite the introduction of a 105bhp Jet 6 with the enlarged 1255cc R8 Gordini engine, to replace the 5S (Roman numerals also disappearing at the same time), in 1967 just 271 Jets would be produced.
THE WHOLE CAR FEELS MORE PLANTED AND SECURE THAN ITS REARENGINED ALPINE RIVAL
In fact, the model had fulfilled its purpose. It had only ever been intended as a stepping stone to an all-new Matra. In early 1965, Lagardère had engaged ex-Simca engineer Philippe Guédon to head Matra’s automotive operations, with a brief to begin the development of a more practical machine aimed at a younger and less-specialist market. In March 1967, the edgily styled Fordpowered M530 was announced. After the 271 Jets made in 1967, a final 17 would be built in 1968, the last in July. With 1492 produced by Matra, it hadn’t been a bad run, and it had served as a useful apprenticeship in car manufacture.
The Jet had been praised for its roadholding, performance and economy. It had been criticised, however, for difficult access, a compromised driving position, a cabin poorly insulated from the noise and heat, plus the engine’s oil and petrol smells, and its poor steering response at high speed. It came across, said one French motoring paper, as being a praiseworthy but somewhat amateur effort – and that wasn’t good enough.
So where does that leave the Jet today? Slotting behind the Moto-Lita wheel isn’t that awkward, and if shorter drivers could usefully be sitting a bit higher, at least they are well supported in the comfy fixed-back buckets. Bigger blokes might find things a bit tight. The door panels incorporate neat map pockets, there is a padded grey headlining, and the cant rails are tidily trimmed, while equipment includes fresh-air dash nozzles and variable-speed wipers.
As you pull away, you discover a tolerant clutch and an agreeable gearchange. With a metallic short-throw action, the lever slots in clunkily but easily; there’s a feeling of mechanical linkages working, rather than of any well-oiled precision, but you won’t fluff a change so long as you depress the clutch fully. The engine is immediately intrusive, right behind your ears, despite the insulating material sandwiched between the two skins of the carpeted glassfibre engine cover.
Corset has fitted a twin-choke 40mm Weber carb in place of the 32mm Zenith and it runs without an air-cleaner, so there’s more of a robust soundtrack than on a regular Jet V. Even allowing for this, the Matra is never going to be calmly refined. Still, the five-main-bearing engine is smoothly flexible, and in no way temperamental, pulling strongly from low speeds in third and being adequately long-legged in fourth. There’s a lot to be said for this sort of mild tune, with the 1108cc alloy-head unit in this instance pushing out about 75bhp. Apparently the Gordiniengined versions suffer from poor drivability, as well as a higher noise level in the cockpit.
The ride is unyielding over poor surfaces, which send crashes through the structure, but otherwise the car’s composure is exemplary. The steering is smooth and relatively quick, with more heft to it than on a comparable Alpine, and the whole car feels more planted and secure than its rear-engined rival, while cornering with the fat-free accuracy you’d expect from that subtle rearwards bias. All this suggests that over-enthusiastic driving is less likely to land you in trouble, and was surely the ace in the Jet’s pack when it was new. Rounding out the picture are the alldisc brakes: with no servo, they have a short but progressive action and a nicely firm pedal.
A longer time with the car would doubtless reveal those road-test niggles, but the Jet pretty much hits the spot for someone wanting a sporting car with eminently acceptable performance and fine handling. It’s a tempting proposition for an individual not wanting to go down the Alpine route, or who is scared by the prices the Rédélé cars command. I can understand those accusations of amateurism, but they seem misplaced. In fact, I rather fell for the trim, tidily presented and elegantly lightweight little Matra.
Thanks to Dany Chamfrault and Christophe Gonny, Espace Automobiles Matra museum.