Welcome to the Inaugural Car of the day post!
In the upcoming weeks I will be writing about one car every day. Each week will have a different theme in which the cars are linked, with an attempt to cover the weird and obscure mostly (but also talking about some of the cars I love and loathe the most). As not to give myself a coronary, some posts will be smaller than others but the aim is to talk about as many cars as possible. I hope you enjoy and please send any stories and feedback to my email, I really look forward to hearing for you.
So, anyway, the first week’s subject is all about French midships. A mid-engined configuration is usually associated with Italian supercars, but in road legal form it was actually born in France. Now, most of the cars on the list may not be as outrageous or flamboyant as their Italian cousins. They are, however, not any less interesting.
Where better to start the week than the beginning, with the original mid engined Missile? The beautiful and very Gallic Djet. This revolutionary baby sportscar was the brainchild of racing driver and constructor extraordinaire René Bonnet.
Bonnet, due to musical differences, had just made himself a free agent in 1961 after breaking up his company Deutsch-Bonnet. Bonnet did a Robbie Williams and went solo.
To make his new venture a success, he really needed a car that would be a hit and blow people away in a way the mainstream manufacturers couldn’t. René, being a very capable mechanic, decided to build the Holy Grail of sports cars, a car which a lot of companies promised at the time but could not provide. A racing car for the road.
As this was the sixties, the cars that were winning F1 were already going midengined and soon the cars battling at the top tier of Le Mans would be too. It seemingly was the future and so it was decided the Djet (the D being added to help the French say Jet) would have to be Mid engined.Yuri Gagarin the first man in Space with an automotive Originator
When the Djet launched in 1962, it was not only the engine being located where the kids should sit that made it revolutionary, the car was very advanced in other areas as well for the time. The Bonnet had disk brakes on all 4 wheels which were all fully independently sprung. This set up meant you could get the most out of the measly power the old souped up Renault unit could muster (Gordini engines came later). Performance was magnifique! With a near perfect weight distribution of 48 front to 52 rear and only 660kg to move along, nothing really at the time could touch the French missile on the twisty stuff. Reviews were great too. Many have compared the car to an old Lotus, but one that works more of the time.
However, like many low volume independents, the Djet was not immune to the odd niggle and fault. Firstly, cooling pipes to the engine ran from the front radiator via the cabin, which quickly turned the car into one fast sauna. Luckily a few cars were equipped with a sun roof, but those cars managed to blow out the rear windows. Secondly, the gearbox was from a very unsporty van and mounted so far back the linkage had to communicate by post, which isn’t brilliant for a car with sporting pretensions. But finally, and most crucially in digging the grave, it was impossibly difficult for René to build them. Sadly he stretched himself way too far and it was not too long before the Djet’s production issues finally caught up with Bonnet and his suppliers soon grew tired of his shenanigans. One supplier though was quite impressed with the little rocket and decided to give René an offer he literally could not refuse.
Matra offered to waive all debts in 1964 to be able to build the Djet and its sister car the Missile without Bonnet getting in the way. A crushing end to a promising French Chapman’s car building dream, Bonnet sadly died in a car accident 20 years later having never built a car again. Matra though had far greater fortunes once they improved the design using ex Simca engineer Philippe Guédon’s expertise and eventually replaced it with the weird, slow and inexplicably still mid engined quasi four seater family beach buggy thing, the M530.
Later came the beautiful but rusty Bagheera and ending with the Murena which came so close to attaining Matra’s true potential, if it could have just had the 180 horsepower 16v engine it always needed. Eventually Matra’s automotive outlet died with the brilliant but misunderstood Avantime but not before reaching a production high with the Espace, which as we know had one very cool mid engined variant. The F1.
The Djet then, I feel, is worthy of the first car of the day and should be celebrated as a risk which worked out well for pretty much everyone involved, bar its creator. Not a perfect car, but definitely an interesting one.
Monday: Matra Djet
Tuesday: Ligier JS2