BEFORE 1957 AFTER 2002
Walter or “Walt” as he is known in this small coastal community brings a varied and extraordinary history and passion for competition driving.
Walt’s enthusiasm for cars had its roots in his father’s passion for the first and finest automobiles available on the east coast for his dealership in Bethesda, Maryland. He got his hands on: MG-TCs, MG-TFs, Jaguar 120s, Austin-Healey 1004 and various automobiles like them. It was his passion that rubbed off on Walt and fired his love of British, French and Italian automobile engineering.
Walt had the good fortune to be stationed in France after coming home from the Korean War in the early fifties. He was a military advisor to the detachment in Fontainebleau, France, just south of Paris, with the Supreme Allied Command. Walt was on the General’s personal staff and after he performed required military duties found he had a lot of leisure time on his hands. It was during this leisure time that Walt’s love of automobiles began to smolder and be began buying some automobiles and decided to start driver’s school at the famous Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry, outside of Paris, France, a great place to learn the art of driving.
Some of the cars Walt purchased and raced in Paris an around France, and also one time in Germany and Italy, were a 1956 Austin Healey 100M, which today is very rare and difficult to find. Walt, also had a 1955 Aston-Martin, which was a race car and was a DB 2/4. (The DB is often confused with a Deutsch-Bonnet, but DB stands for David Brown, who is the builder.
After finishing driver’s school Walt drove some automobiles at the Autodrome de Linas which was located at Montlhéry. Montlhéry is a quaint little historical town with a race track of three kilometers, it is a high banked oval and has a road course which twists and turns and then comes back into the oval. People like Jaguar set some records there running day and night with the Jaguar sedan for Castor Motor Oil and even the little DB-Panhard with Rene´ Bonnet as the builder and driver.
Having raced fine automobiles like the Aston, Austin Healey, and the Jaguar in France and going to LeMans with the Panhard Coupe and the Alfa. Walt participated in various races until his tour of duty was up in France and he returned to the United States. He enjoyed driving the Bugatti Circuit.
During his time in France he met Amédée Gordini, the name behind Renault Gordini, as well as many other famous people of that period. Gordini built very specialized engines from the basic Renault, something like Carlo Abarth, with the Fiat of Italy.
Leaving Paris with much regret Walt headed back to the United States and landed in Texas. In Texas there were people such as Mr. Carol Shelby, Jim Hall, Hap Sharp, and Val Strogi racing at Eagle Mountain., which is located between Dallas and Fort Worth. There Walt bummed a ride in an Alfa-Giulietta sprint car and he was off to the races again.
After experiencing the excitement and romance of racing there came a break that lasted quite some time due to business and employment. The break from any driving kept the flame low, but inside it still burned. Walt never lost his enthusiasm, but he wasn’t able to compete as he had in Europe and for a short time in Texas.
Moving to the northeast, he was able to purchase an Alfa of his own and had one race at Bridgehampton with that car. The flame was fanned and Walt started covering various races like, Watkins Glen, Cumberland, Bridgehampton (At that time it was New Hampshire.), Briar, Vineland, New Jersey. The time was the early sixties.
In 1966, Walt was forced to join the Sports Car Club of America if he wanted to compete. He needed a physical, a driver’s suit and a helmet. Helmets had changed from his earlier days of racing. They no longer resembled a cycle helmet with leather on the sides and goggles, now they resembled the helmets being worn by the astronauts traveling into outer space. Things were changing rapidly although his Alfa was a lot of fun, Walt wanted something more interesting.
Walt contacted Howard Hanna, who had been a national champion many times with the Deutsch Bonnet, he understood that Hanna had purchased from Bonnet the 1962 D’Jet, which had a tubular chassis and a double overhead cam Gordini engine. It had a mid engine and a dual caliber front disc brake, a very interesting coupe. Of course Hanna was racing that himself. He told Walt the Deutsch Bonnet’s were to be no more, because in the winter of 1961 the DB, Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet, severed their partnership and went their separate ways in racing.
René Bonnet cars with the Renault Gordini engines did pretty well, but the Panhard CD, standing for Charles Deutsch went on to win the Index in 1962.
In 1966 Hanna had a new Matra-Bonnet 20059 Howard/Morrow/Walt, drove the car in March at Sebring. Walt, was driving on his F.I.A. license since Sebring is an International race, but still needed to attend SCCA driver's school if he wanted to drive other races through out the United States. Although Walt only had a few hours in the driver's seat, he wanted to buy the car after Sebring, which he did. In June of 1966 the 20059 belonged to Walt. The engine had been gone over 100 percent and it got all new brakes and tires.
So Walt with the Sports Car Club of America demanding he attend driver’s school, and having just bought the Matra Bonnet D’Jet5S, headed off to driver's school. To Walt his car had all he desired, a mid-engine, disc brakes on all four wheels, four shocks in the back and roll up windows. It was comfortable, weather proof and he knew immediately he wanted to run it. He wanted to drive the car that till this day remains in his blood. At driver’s school he won overall class and the driver’s school race with the Matra D’Jet5S.
After driving school it was on to Vineland, New Jersey, where the Matra D’Jet and Walt participated in the four hour endurance race. They finished 11th overall out of 30 automobiles such as; Corvettes, Alfas, Lola T-70, Porsches and Stingrays, they were required to do 162 laps—Walt did 177. Their Index was 1.092 with a Matra Bonnet D’Jet5S and a co-driver.
His next outing was Marlboro Speedway in Marlboro, Maryland, which has now been replaced by houses. It was at this point Walt decided to write to Mr. Zenker of Matra Sports in Paris. He needed materials for an auto show he planned to do in New Jersey. He was not looking for financing, since he was not a factory sponsored vehicle, but he wanted promotional materials about the Matra D’Jet 5S. Walt received the items he requested and did well at the auto show. He continued to get publicity and newspaper articles, which he has kept along with pictures and magazines.
On the Grand Prix circuit of Watkins-Glen Walt had taken pole position in the G production, which is where the car was placed even though it was a little heavy for G. At several races Mr. Hanna drove the René Bonnet, a lighter car and at that time, the twin cam was out of the car and he had a regular Gordini 1108 cc hemispherical head engine init, which is the same engine that was in the D’Jet5S, the Matra Bonnet with the Weber Carboration.
By now racing was a passion and Walt with his Matra D’Jet5S made their way to Reading Road Races, Summit Point in West Virginia, and the Matra D’Jet5S was accumulating quite a few trophies and races to its credit.
It was at this point that Walt was approached by Renault in New Jersey and asked if he would race in competition with a Lotus-Europa, Renault would decide the color scheme, help with some engines and gear boxes, which they did. So the Matra was put in moth balls and Walt prepared to race a Lotus-Europa with the Renault R-16 engine in it. From there he went to all the same tracks as he did with the D’Jet.
Walt was contacted by a Frenchman in Ohio who desired to purchase the Matra D’Jet and he sold his beloved car. The car resumed racing at such tracks as Nelson’s Ledges in mid-Ohio. It finally met its fate at Elkhart Lake when it flipped over. The owner who had purchased the car passed away, not due to racing, and Walt was able to reclaim his beloved car along with two other D’Jet Matra Bonnet cars.
By now names such as Deutsch Bonnet (DB) were forgotten names in this country. Matra was making a name for itself with Jackie Stewart as the driver winning the Formula 1 championship at the Glen.
In 1973 on a trip Walt made to France a lot of things had changed , it had become modern. There were a few parts places, but not many. The highlight of his trip was his visit to Champigny, a little suburb outside of Paris where he visited René Bonnet. Walt felt Bonnet deserved more credit then he got in the automobile manufacturing of small aerodynamic coupes, as well as, all out competition roadsters. Walt had brought with him an 8” x 10” photograph of the René Bonnet he had purchased from Howard Hanna and Bonnet was overwhelmed that the car still existed, because it is a very unique automobile.
Bonnet was semi-retired when Walt visited him in 1973, he was a Lancia Audi NSU dealer and still using his logo with the checkered flag and the French flag, crossing with the Réne Bonnet. He had been decorated by Charles DeGaulle, as well as the president of Italy for his manufacturing abilities. Walt felt René Bonnet had finally been recognized for his talents in Manufacturing and his small car Index of Performance.
When Walt talks about his René Bonnet and his days of racing he is transformed back to a gentler time, but a time when the fire of racing filled his soul a fire that remains in his heart. The passion for racing is replaced by the passion for the car that took him to the heights of excitement and fulfillment. His love of racing is still there, but his love for his René Bonnet D’Jet car can never be quieted or smothered. He desires to find others with that same passion for these fine cars with so much heart and soul in their engines.
Interview by: Sandra
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