The Rene Bonnet Djet —the “D” is silent—is the creation of designer René Bonnet, co-founder of Deutsch-Bonnet. Unveiled in 1962, it was the world’s first mid-engine production car. It’s also so obscure that people frequently forget it exists, instead dubbing the Porsche 550 Spyder of the Fifties the first mid-engine production car. However, the German automaker made only 90 550s, and all were intended as race cars, not series production road cars. A dedicated road vehicle, the Djet was nonetheless spartan like a competition car. In 1966, Autosport described the Djet as basically a Formula 3 car for the road. There’s not much to it: steel backbone chassis, double wishbones, fiberglass body, 145/R-15 front and 155/R-15 rear Michelin XAS tires, a four-cylinder from the Renault 8, and a four-speed transaxle from a Renault van. Automobiles René Bonnet built early Djets, with Matra, then mostly known for making missiles, supplying bodywork. Matra bought out Bonnet in 1964 and brought out the Djet V in 1965. That’s what appears here, on loan from Nashville’s Lane Motor Museum.
This story originally appeared in Volume 14 of Road & Track.
It’s easy to mistake the Djet for the rear-engine Alpine A110, unless you’re sitting in it. The engine is right there behind you, isolated only by a carpeted bulkhead and minimal heat shielding. It’s similar in layout to a Porsche Cayman, where the engine resides within a box right in the middle of the car, underneath a large hatch, with no real separation between the cockpit and trunk. Unlike a Cayman, the whole car shakes when it’s running. Noise, vibration, and harshness? Check.
We took the Djet out to the Natchez Trace Parkway south of Nashville—a smooth, gently curving road that doesn’t go anywhere. And it was a revelation. René Bonnet and Matra got the mid-engine thing right straightaway. You don’t so much steer the car through corners as ease it, so instinctive is its handling. And the whole time, there’s fabulous intake honk filling the cabin. Skinny tires and little weight over the front mean the steering is very light, and while at first it seems vague, acclimation comes quickly. The car feels like a proto-Cayman in the way it inspires confidence in the driver. The chassis is phenomenal.
This Djet was the base model, with 70 hp from its lightly modified Renault engine. An available Djet V S got Gordini upgrades for 94 hp. Seventy is plenty, given that the Djet only weighs around 1500 pounds. Redline is, uh, unmarked, so I took the Djet to just 5500 rpm, and it had no trouble maintaining a good pace, even passing slower traffic on the freeway. The gearbox is surprisingly precise for an ancient mid-engine car, though second is difficult to find and, when you get there, easy to grind. There’s enough torque to stick with third and fourth once you’re up and moving. Heel-and-toe is impossible, as the pedals are floor hinged, offset to the right, and mismatched in height.
The unusually tall ride height provides for a lot of suspension travel, so the car is supple and unperturbed by midcorner bumps and undulations in the road. It rides with a sophistication that rivals many of today’s mid-engine sports cars. Period reviews of the Djet were glowing (this is the first time Road & Track has reviewed one). In total, fewer than 1700 were built, which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t make them that rare. Mercedes built fewer Gullwings. So how come nobody knows about the Djet?
Perhaps it just wasn’t much of a thing outside France. This was the era when the “global car”—one car for all, or at least lots of markets—was a new idea, and the Djet was never sold in the United States. Then there’s Matra itself. The company had huge success in formula and sports-car racing, but it abandoned motorsport in 1974. By the Eighties, it was designing and building cars for Renault, notably the Espace minivan.
After the Djet, more mid-engine sports cars followed—greats like the Lamborghini Miura and the Ferrari 308, beloved near greats like the Lotus Europa and the De Tomaso Pantera, big sellers like the Porsche 914 and the Fiat X1/9, and even the Pontiac Fiero. The Matra Djet showed the better way forward.