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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

November 13, 1998

Recently the European automotive community has been making quite a big deal out of the 100th birthday of the French Renault company. Renault is being lauded for having outstanding sales records world-wide and for having fresh, innovative products coming up. I'm glad that they didn't ask for my opinion, since I don't have very fond memories of the years that Renault was in the American market after World War II.

Actually, it isn't that the Renaults imported here in the late '40s and '50s were bad cars, it's just that they were totally unsuitable to American tastes and needs of the day. But it was later when Renault went into a partnership with the American Motors Corporation (AMC) that things really turned sour.

But the company has been in business for 100 years now so it must be doing lots of things right.

Louis Renault was only 21 when he developed the first car to bear his name in 1898. He had purchased a new De Dion-Bouton motorized tricycle and decided that four wheels would be superior to three. In the early days it wasn't certain that "automobiles" would have four rather than three wheels. He put a pair in the back and developed a drive train that consisted of a sliding-gear transmission with a "direct" drive in third that drove through a driveshaft into a wheel-speed differential system. That system is basically the same one used on most rear-drive, front-engined cars of today.

According to reports, when Renault first exhibited his four-wheeler to friends on Christmas Day 100 years ago, a dozen of them were so impressed that they forced monetary deposits on him to build copies for them. The family business was engaged in the manufacture of buttons and drapes, so enough money was put up by his brothers to get Louis into the auto making business.

By the time World War I rolled over Europe 15 years later, Renault was the foremost motor vehicle manufacturer in Europe and was exporting cars all over the world, including the U.S. He had also became the hero in France by developing a lightweight tank that helped the Allies defeat Germany.

Unfortunately, he didn't maintain that image 21 years later, when his gigantic manufacturing facilities started producing arms and machinery for Hitler. After the Germans were forced out of France, he was tried for collaborating with the Nazis, convicted and sent to prison late in 1944. He died there a month later and the French government took over his industrial empire.

During the war, Renault had been working on an advanced small rear-engined sedan, the 4CV, to counter Hitler's "people's car," the Volkswagen. Renault's design was incomplete at his death and another French internee was coerced into finishing it while he was serving his prison term. Ironically, Renault's 4CV was finalized by Ferdinand Porsche, the father of the VW Bug. .

That 4CV is the car that first introduced Americans to the Renault name. It was small (88-inch wheelbase) and its 750 cc rear-mounted engine only put out 20 horsepower and for a while, it was sold here, but in small numbers. Renault ads of the period billed it as "...the world's most advanced design.," and in displays I've found in ancient copies of Motor Trend, the list price was given at $1295 at a time when the also-popular VW Bug was going for $200 more.

The things that I remember best about the 4CV is that it would flip easily but was built strong enough to sustain little damage. A friend, Mario Suraci, had one and rolled in several times one day in a mud flat in Oakland. He drove it home, pulled out the front and rear seats, washed it out with a garden hose, polished out the few scratches and motored on until he sold it some months later.

The 4CV was followed in this country by the upscale Renault Dauphine which was a bit larger and sported a body design that was more suited to American eyes. Although it was sold here in relatively large numbers, it couldn't stand up to "normal" American driving techniques and the banks were forced to repossess thousands of Dauphines that were hors d'combat.

The company was determined to make a "presence" here and in 1977, it bought into the Mack truck building company. In 1979 it also bought an interest in the floundering AMC and began the production and marketing here of the front-drive Renault 9 sedan which was Americanized with the name Alliance. But domestic construction and workmanship on the car was indifferent and many of its design features were flawed. As I recall, the water pump design was so bad that wags in the business modified the name of the Alliance, calling it the Annoyance.

The financially troubled Renault sold its share of AMC to Chrysler in 1987 (Lee Iacocca lusted after the lucrative Jeep name, which AMC owned), left the country and hasn't has been heard of until now. Trade papers hint that perhaps Renault will try it again in the U.S.

Which points up the fact that Renault doesn't seem to learn very fast or very well.