Feature Story

HISTORY OF FRENCH CARS IN US

by Bob Hagin

August 28, 1998

Periodically, I hear rumors that one of the French automakers are toying with the idea of entering the American car market. It's possible that these are simply public relations ploys, since I'm sure that most, if not all, remember past attempts to crack this market.

In years gone by, many French firms have opened up shop here and they've all abandoned it as a bad idea, so here are the French makes that have come and gone:

RENAULT - History records that the first Renault to reach these shores after World War II was the 4CV and that its design was completed by Ferdinand Porsche (designer of the VW Beetle) while he was being held in a French prison as a Nazi collaborator. He was bailed out (ransomed, some say) by his son Ferry, the man who designed and developed the first Porsche. The 4CV was very VW-like with a hint of '40 Plymouth styling thrown in. They appeared here in the late '40s and sold OK, since they were inexpensive and delivered up to 50 MPG. It was superseded in '59 by the Dauphine, a slicked-up version of its predecessor that really caught on here. Renault sold a plethora of models in the U.S. over the years (I had a neat Corvair-like R-8 myself) but its angular "Le Car" could have been called "Le Flop." By the early '80s Renault owned almost half of the floundering American Motors Corporation, and its model 9 and 11 sedans were made here and labeled the Alliance (four-door) and the Encore (two-door). Many owners labeled them the Annoyance, then Renault saw the handwriting on the wall, sold its U.S. holdings to Chrysler in the '80s and stopped marketing cars here.

CITROEN - In there was ever an automobile manufacturer that made cars that seemed unsuitable to the American market, it was Citroen. The first that I remember was the famous Traction Avant (front-wheel-drive) sedan that looked for all the world like a miniature '34 Ford. Students of vintage French movies will recognize it as the low-slung traditional French "cop-car." The car was here sporadically (a friend owned one for a couple of years) and in '49, it was complimented by the bizarre Citroen 2CV, a back-to-basics sedan that looked like the result of the mating of a corrugated tool shed and a VW Beetle. With a two-cylinder, air-cooled, 12 horsepower engine, it became even more "hip" than the VW and today several dozen of them repose in an enclave above Berkeley. Simultaneously, in '55, Citroen made the DS 19 sedan, a low-drag streamlined sedan that featured so many innovations (self-leveling suspension, power disc brakes, "crumple-zone" construction, etc.), it was a car that was ahead of its time. Similar updates followed, but Americans weren't buying such expensive radicalness and Citroen departed our shores in '75.

PEUGEOT - We can't accuse Peugeot of being a Johnny-come-lately: the company produced its first four vehicles 99 years ago. Official importation of the Peugeot into the U.S. began in 1958 and the first model to come in was the 403, a somewhat bulbous Americanized sedan that sported a four-cylinder engine, a roomy interior and a worm-gear differential. I mention the last item only because as a mechanic, I never figured out how to set one up. The company also imported a close-coupled convertible coupe that TV aficionados of the old "Colombo" mystery series will recognize as the smoking "beater" that star Peter Falk used as personal transportation. The 403 was followed by the 404 (naturally), the 504 and 505 and a smaller front-drive 405 in '89. But even very clever TV advertising couldn't pump up sales in the U.S in the face of the Japanese Juggernaut and Peugeot returned home in '91.

SIMCA - Originally little more than an Italian Fiat with a different badge, Simcas took on a definite French flavor in the '50s. When they began to arrive in this country in any numbers (around '50, as I recall), they were well-received. Its Aronde sedan was light, stylish and nimble - although no ball of fire - but it was its Sport 8 convertible that was the star. The May 1950 edition of Road & Track featured it in its Salon section, and Motor Trend that same year and month enthused over it as the most chic car on the market. The initial popularity of Simca faded rather quickly as the name and production facilities in France passed through several ownerships over the years. And although its last car, the 1100/1118/1204, was a good seller in France, it was just another small, front-drive econobox here. The company fell into the clutches of Chrysler in the mid-'70s and things went from bad to worse. Chrysler eventually sold the whole shebang to the Peugeot-Citroen conglomerate and in '81, the name too disappeared.

PANHARD - The Panhard that was first brought into this country, the Dyna, was a curious little aerodynamic sedan that was quite roomy and technically very advanced. It was made almost entirely of aluminum and its two-cylinder, 42 horsepower, air-cooled engine drove the front wheels. It showed up in small numbers in the early '50s, but it didn't make much of an impact on the American market since it was too radical for the time and not many of the established imported car dealers took up the franchise. A friend, Glenn St.Louis, became a dealer and sold two or three of them to "lunatic fringe" foreign car enthusiasts before the marque disappeared here a few years later.

There were other French makes that were brought into this country in those early days. Alpine, Bugatti, Delahaye, Facel-Vega, Hotchkiss and Talbot-Lago are the ones that come to mind but they were, for the most part, exotics that were never fodder for major showrooms.

It's doubtful that the French auto industry will make another attempt at the American market. Like French food served to Americans, French autos are an acquired taste.

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