Renault long played the understudy to the leading role of innovator taken by Citroen. From the 1930s to the late 1980s, Citroen undisputedly was the leader in technical innovation and style and while Peugeot stuck steadily to its sensible knitting in the role of France’s Mercedes, Renault lived in Citroen’s shadow.
The cars were often modern, but never as technically challenging as Citroen. The range featured some all time greats and some less prominent designs, and were almost always better than the conservative products of Britain, for example. Renault challenged us, but with a more accessible nature those not technically ambitious or cautious about operating a more complex product. Renault weren’t keeping it simple but were making it easy, and that included the model naming policy.
Driving in France is, and even more was, an opportunity for a great game. Every long journey could be turned into an opportunity to play one of the car spotters’ favourite games, and it could be played on a solo journey or en familie. This, then, is the CC Guide to “Renault Bingo”. “Cut Out and Keep”, if you wish.
Naming any model within a marque structure is clearly not easy. Should you use a name, an alpha numeric code or a number? Some names work (Thunderbird, Interceptor), some work better in some places than others (Nova?), or does a name take over from the brand (Cortina, Taurus, Mini)? Does a number represent the position of the car in the range (88 and 98, 304 and 504, 80 and 100)? Or does it denote something more explicit, such as the logical number schemes used by BMW (and shamelessly aped by Rover) or Volvo (the number of cylinders and doors). Maybe an alphanumeric works best; Mercedes’ system had some logic, though this is now being diluted (and CLA220d could almost be a mobile phone or an industrial generator) or perhaps just it’s easiest to go for an unfathomable alphabet soup, as used by Lincoln?
Maybe Renault had the answer – an ostensibly simple system, just using numbers with just three simple rules. The larger the number in the current range, the larger the car; no number to be repeated on different cars; and a new model will have a larger number than its predecessor. Two of these were broken, one just once – the exceptions which proved the rules if you like.
So, get your card ready, and I’ll call them out. For ease, I’m going to account for them in numerical order, as it seems easier than chronological, size or type order.
Renault 3, 1961-62
The Renault 3, from 1961 to 1963, was an austerely decontented, low cost version of the Renault 4, and introduced alongside it. The biggest visual differentiation was the lack of the rear quarter side window, a feature shared with the 4 if the popular option of a window was not taken. Power came from a 603cc version of the 4’s 747 cc engine.
Renault 4, 1961-1992
Prior to the 1961, Renault has used either a number based on the nominal horsepower such as 4CV, or a model name such as Dauphine or Fregate. But the Renault 4 (with the 3) ushered in a new era, and in more ways than the naming policy. The Renault 3 and 4 (initially known as the R3 and R4) were not only the first Renaults to take the new naming policy, but they were also the first front wheel drive Renaults, and arguably the first hatchbacks as well.
The more well known, longer lasting and numerous is the 4, where the name linked to a nominal 4 horsepower. This was a four cylinder water cooled engine, mounted longitudinally, with the transmission, initially 3 speed and then 4 speed from 1968, mounted ahead of it, Audi style. The gearchange was controlled by the now famous umbrella like lever sprouting from the central portion of the dash, with the linkage going directly over the engine.
There were two other significant features on the 4 – it had a traditional chassis (body on frame) construction rather than a monocoque (unitary) construction. Ostensibly, this was to reduce weight and assembly costs. It also opened more options for assembly in overseas markets in from kits, and with regional variations. This South American example is one of those.
The other was the torsion bar suspension, working transversely at the rear and longitudinally at the front. The consequence of this was the famous asymmetric wheelbase, being some 2” longer on the right than the left, at 96 in against 94 inches. Overall length was 12 feet, and weight around 1500lb.
Over the years, power grew with engine size, to 845cc in 1963 and then 956cc or even 1108cc in 1978. A four speed gearbox with synchromesh came in 1968. Renault offered a van version as well, with an unusual two part rear door, of which the upper part hinged from the roof. Many of these vans are still in use and show the origins of modern compact French vans very clearly.
The interior was, I was going to say made more luxurious, actually made a bit less austere although the cramped driving position never changed. The seats folded and were sometimes removable, 2CV style.
In many ways, you can see the 4 as being a Citroen 2CV for the 1960s, rather than the 1940s, with a bit more power, more refinement and more practicality. It is also the most commercially successful French car ever, by sales volume, with some 8 million built around the world from Mexico to Slovenia to Australia from 1961 to 1992, and is still an easy catch in France.
Renault 5, 1972-1984
The Renault 5 is one of the more famous and well known cars on your Bingo Card, and arguably an all time great, and whilst it set the standard for a stylish supermini for the 1970s, it had quite humble beginnings.
Although you can’t see it, there’s a lot of Renault 4 in the 5, as this car was at one time planned to replace the 4. The engine and transmission were carried over, as were the front and rear suspension. This time, though, Renault opted for a more conventional monocoque. The wheelbase was still asymmetric, though, 94.6 inches on the left and 95.8 on the right, due to the same transverse torsion bars. To add some context, this is longer than the wheelbase of a 1974 Golf or 1980 Ford Escort
That relatively long wheelbase had advantages though – it allowed designer Michel Boué to style a car with a more elegant profile than many competitors, it helped the ride and it defined a more spacious interior than some of its contemporaries.
The 5 had an almost accidental birth, with Boué’s drawings being adopted and the requirement built around them, rather than the other way round. The polyester bumpers cum valances were a novelty, and ideal for France, where touch parking is available as a university course (probably).
The first cars, and all basic models for the French market, had the famous umbrella gearchange, which was actually a lot better than you might expect.
The engine range went from 782cc and 956cc at launch in 1972. This was a car that was sold on style, to go with most of the Renault 4’s practicality and comfort, not speed. Engines subsequently included a 1.3 litre in 1974 and then 1.4 litre from 1976 for the sports Alpine, known as the Gordini in some markets. This had 92 bhp, in the compact 5, and was the first of a series of French (Renault, Peugeot and Citroen) compact hot hatches, smaller than the Golf, but well able to keep a Golf GTi driver on his toes.
In 1978, Renault offered a five door version using the doors from the Renault 7, within the same silhouette and wheelbase.
There was also a heavily revised interior, which looked more expensive but lost some of the early 70s simplicity. Note the engine intrusion.
There a few unexpected diversions in the 5’s story. From the success of the 5 Alpine, came the 5 Turbo. Looking from the front like a 5 that was chewing a very large mouthful, this car had a 1.4 litre heavily turbocharged to produce some 160bhp, still mounted longitudinally but behind the driver, taking the rear seat and luggage space.
A completely different wishbone rear suspension taken from the Renault Alpine A310, extra wide front and rear tracks and aluminium body panels completed the car, which was essentially intended to compete in the international rally scene. The interior was quite different, and quite something, with one of my favourite steering wheels, ever.
Perhaps, you could consider it the Mini Cooper S for the 70s, but also something that experienced drivers of Porsche 911s respected for its wet weather cornering behaviour. It had some success in rallying, but came onto to the scene just as the Audi Quattro was getting into gear.
Of course, it is also well known and remembered as the Renault Le Car, sold in North America from 1976, aiming to join in the economy car market. It came with the 1.3 litre engine, 5 mph bumpers and was supported by a fun advertising campaign. It had some tough competition – the Civic CVCC was a few percent cheaper, the Starlet and Chevette were more widely available. The AMC-Renault tie -up, which started as a distribution agreement, helped, but from this distance it looks like the car was probably too different, too small and, well, too French, to truly break into America.
But it was one of the great European cars of the 1970s, succeeding as a basic car with a piece of style in its home market, and an affordable piece of modern, European design in markets like the UK.
Renault 5 (Super Cinq) 1984-1996
Music producers talk about the difficult second album. The motor industry has that issue too.
By the early 1980s, the Renault 5 was starting to lag, on space and performance, and the competition was getting stronger. Renault’s response was a combination of the Renault 9’s drive train, and a new style by Marcello Gandini, the stylist with the Lamborghini Countach on his résumé.
Gandini skilfully reworked the original ideas to create a much more modern but still definitely Renault 5, without carrying anything over. Design cues such as the tall rear lights and vent assembly, the recessed door handles, polyester bumper and valance were all recognisable, but also there is a loss of the earlier car’s raduised edges in favour of some 80s sharper edges and flatter surfaces. Successful, if derivative, and something that did not age as well as the original.
The powertrains were all different, with a transverse engine and end on gearbox across the range. I have spoken before on CC about how design concepts and vehicle configurations converged from the 1960s to the 1980s and 1990s, , and this is a classic case. The engines themselves were carried over, starting at 956cc as an entry level, then a 1.1 litre and 1.4 litre. Four and five speed gearboxes featured, as well an automatic, with varying power outputs. 1.7 litre versions were also offered in luxury trim packs and small volumes. Significant elements of these powertrains were shared with the 9 and 11 (AMC Alliance and Encore)
The wheelbase was no longer asymmetric, but the five door version did have a 2 inch longer wheelbase than the three door and the car was significantly wider than the original 5 as well.
Naming the car was perhaps an issue for Renault. By 1984, there were no gaps in sequence in which to logically position it, and the styling was (deliberately) derived from the 1972 car, so the 5 name was used again, though often referred to as Super Cinq (Super 5). It remained Renault’s main supermini until 1990, when the first Clio was introduced, a car that did in 1990 almost exactly what the 1972 Renault 5 had done, appealing as an affordable sub-compact at home and as a piece of fashionable, modern design elsewhere.
The Super Cinq was not a bad car by any means, but it was constantly in the shadow of its predecessor, and unfairly therefore has less recognition. Objectively, that may not be correct, but it happens, just as Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge is always in the shadow of Tubular Bells.
Renault 6, 1968-1986
If the Renault 4 was Renault’s take on the Citroen 2CV, then the 6 was Renault’s take on the Citroen Dyane. Essentially, the same mix, with many shared components, clothed in more modern styling, and sold at a higher price. If we were talking about Ford, the 6 would have replaced the 4.
It came to the market in 1968 with the 845cc from the 4, and from 1970 a 1.1 litre 4 cylinder, familiar from the older, rear engined Renault 8. The configuration was still a longitudinal engine with the gearbox ahead of it, with the consequently inevitable umbrella gearchange through the dash and over the engine, and torsion bar rear suspension giving a classic soft French ride with plenty of roll. The wheelbase was still asymmetric.
The styling was much more modern than the 4, with some hints of the 16 in the window shapes and surrounds, but arguably it lacked the personality of the 4 and the style of the 5, and was out lived by both. Arguably, by 1980, Europe was able to afford cars that were not all about practicality above all else.
Production lasted until 1980 in France, and until 1986 in Spain and Argentina, with some variations on engine sizes to meet local taxation requirements.
Renault 7, also known as Renault Siete, 1974-1984
The Renault is an unusual Renault, for a variety of reasons. It was never built in France, or even sold there officially, it was a nominally conservative saloon against a grain of hatchbacks and was actually built by FASA, Renault’s partner in the Spanish market. FASA, later FASA-Renault as Renault increased its shareholding, assembled many models for the Spanish market, access to which was limited by political factors for many years. Ford, BMC, Chrysler and Fiat all had similar relationships with Spanish businesses
The 7 was a four door saloon derivative of the original 5, and was first drawn by Michel Boué in 1969, rather than being developed later. In addition to the boot, Boué used four doors exclusively, and to differentiate it from the 5, specified more conventional steel bumpers and a revised front grille. There was a different, if similar, interior as well.
The car was revised in 1979, with different lights front and rear, and new dash. The big news then, though, was the use of the Siete’s doors for the five door Renault 5 hatch, for the rest of the Europe.
The car was replaced in 1982 by the Renault 9, but over 160,000 were built. And finally, last August, I saw one.
Renault 8, 1962-1974
The best known Renaults of the 1960s are perhaps cars like the 4 and 16, but the rear engined Renaults were a strong seller right through from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. The 8 and later, longer 10, were the final examples.
The 8 was essentially a derivative of the Renault Dauphine, which replaced the first post-war Renault the 4CV. Work on the Dauphine started in 1949 and that car came to market in 1956, and was replaced by the 8 in 1962.
The 8 though was structurally a reskin of the 1956 car, albeit with a new engine. Unusually, it had four wheel disc brakes from launch, though Spanish assembled versions had drums, for cost reasons.
The style, distinctive, boxy and a lot more commodious than the Dauphine, was by Philippe Charbonneaux, and was developed in record time after earlier efforts had proved unsuccessful. Style wise, it has also been linked to a still born Alfa Romeo project, known as the Tipo 103 which was a front engined, front wheel drive saloon.
Power came from a 956cc, 44 bhp four cylinder, with three speed gearbox. Later versions extended up to 1.1 litre with a four speed gearbox. This version was known as the 8 Major and had a smarter interior.
The peak of the 8 was the Gordini, with 90 bhp, twin Solex carburettors and white stripes on blue paintwork as a default. Later 8 Gordinis went to 1255cc and 99 bhp. There was also a semi-automatic version, with a three speed manual gearbox controlled by push buttons on the dash and an electro-mechanical mechanism.
The 8 was also assembled by Alfa Romeo, for the Italian market. Some 41,000 were built in Italy, following on from 70,000 Dauphines.
Renault had significant rally success with the 8, and the Gordini version set the pattern for the mainstream Renaults that followed.
Production in France lasted until 1971 and sales until 1973, when the combination of the Renault 5 and Renault 12 closed its space in the market from either end, and continued until 1976 in Spain. It was also produced in Bulgaria, Romania and in Africa.
Renault 9, 1981-1989
The Renault 9 may be better known to many Curbivores as the Renault Alliance. It was a perfectly credible, if mildly anonymous, four door saloon, styled by Robert Opron, with an interior by Richard Teague, as a more conservative response to the public reaction to the 14, which this car partly replaced. It also occupied the space previously taken by the Renault 12, which had been officially replaced by the 18 and consequently moved upmarket. Renault were gently aligning their range with their European competitiors more clearly.
It also therefore breaks one the three rules – the 14 was replaced by a car with a lower number. In their defence,, Renault might point out that when spoken, 9 (or neuf) sounds very close to neuve or new.
Technically, Renault were moving to conform in other ways. The engine (1.1 or 1.4 litre initially, later also 1.7 litre) was now transversely mounted driving an end on four or five speed gearbox, and the suspension was also more consistent with other manufacturers, with MacPherson struts at the front. Renault were going rational, and clearly aiming for a wider market across the world for this car than the 14 had been able to achieve. The weakest link was possibly the engine, which was a derivative of the now aging OHV Cleon engine first seen in the Renault 8 twenty years earlier.
There were some other innovations in the car as well: the front seats were mounted not on side rails but on a central pedestal runner, so leaving substantially more foot room for rear passengers, and the rear suspension featured concentric torsion bars and trailing arms, and avoided the wheelbase mismatch.
AMC uniquely offered two door saloons and convertibles, which never made it to Europe, and no one was ever able to buy an estate version, perhaps surprisingly.
There two gentle facelifts of the Renault version over the years, with revised grilles and lights, and tweaked interiors, but as is so often the case, the later cars lost the cleanliness of design that the earlier cars had.
Production in France lasted until 1989, though production in South America and Turkey continued until 2000, with other cosmetic changes, of varying levels of visual success. The mechanical layout became a basis for later Renaults, notably the second generation 5 or Super Cinq, which used the drivetrain almost entirely, and the 19 and 21.
Renault 10, 1965-1974
You could make a case (indeed I have done) that if the Renault 8 was a France’s Beetle, then the Renault 10 was France’s Super Beetle. That comparison is a bit quick and easy, as the 8 and 10 did not form the totality of Renault’s range as the Beetle did VW’s, and the 10 did not supersede the 8 but ran alongside it from 1965 to 1971.
The commonality of the centre section was obvious; the differences were limited to a longer and restyled front boot (trunk) and rear bonnet, and a larger 1.1 litre four cylinder engine. Nominally it replaced the 8 Major and in some markets was known as the 10 Major; in some others the car was sold as the Renault 1100.
There were interior differences, too, with a smarter dash, and there was no Gordini version of the 10. The engine in the 10 came from the Caravelle or Floride sports car, although that car was based directly on the earlier Renault Dauphine.
In 1970, the 1.3 litre engine from the new Renault 12 was fitted in a detuned form, to create the Renault 10-1300. French production of the 10 and 8 ceased in 1971, Renault-FASA continued until 1973, with some sales in France as well as Spain.
Renault 11, 1983-1989
If the Renault 9 was the Jetta, then this was the Golf, albeit arriving second.
This was a 9 with a hatchback and a different front grille, featuring what now look like late 1980s Audi front lights and much closer in style to the Alliance. The hatchback itself was an all glass bubble, similar to that on the 1980 Fuego and later the Renault 25, and perhaps aping the Porsche 924, a bit. Robert Opron was again the designer, so maybe it was aping the Citroen SM. The 9 got the same front end in 1985 and both cars received a new front end, with a blank, rather than slotted, grille and larger one piece headlights in 1987.
The 11 came in 1983, two years after the 9, and brought with it the first electronic instrument panel and voice synthesiser in Europe, something that fitted well with some of Renault’s other user interface innovations on the period, like the remote control lock (brilliantly known as le plip) and the steering column mounted radio controls.
Engines were the same 1.1, 1.4 and 1.7 litre four cylinder petrol and 1.6 litre diesel as the 9, including the 115 bhp 1.4 litre Turbo.
These cars may not have been as competitive with the Golf as Renault hoped, but they were able to hold their own with many, including contemporary Ford Escorts and Opel Kadetts/Vauxhall Astras.
Renault 12, 1969-1980
The progression from Renault 10 to Renault 12 can be seen as part of the sequence of variation, conformity, and convergence, I mentioned earlier. It was also an element in Renault’s international plans, as it was the basis for the Brazilian Ford Corcel and Del Ray, which Ford inherited when the Brazilian operations of Willys-Overland, who were planning to build the car in Brazil in partnership with Renault, were subsumed by the Blue Oval.
The 12 was a more conservative and conforming car then many contemporary French cars, not just Renaults. It was a familiar enough looking four door, three box saloon, or estate, had a front mounted longitudinally mounted engine with a four speed gearbox, and a rigid rear axle suspended by coil springs.
The gearbox was mounted behind the engine, enabling a conventional floor mounted change. On early cars, the handbrake was the under dash umbrella type, by then very unusual in Europe and probably unique in the class.
It was not an adventurously engineered or novel car; if you want a quick and slightly unfair comparison, this was the French equivalent of the conservative Morris Marina, compared to the Renault 14 as the French Austin Allegro.
The usual myriad of trim options was available, but all the mainstream versions had the same 1289cc four cylinder engine, though with some variations in tune. A commodious and practical estate version was also offered, as well as panel van (sedan delivery) version of the estate.
The sporty 12TS, with high back seats was the performance highlight for most markets, though a 12 Gordini was offered in France, with a 1565 cc engine from the Renault 16. This was a car with 115 mph capability, and it came in strong colours with the obligatory stripes. The hot hatch concept, before hot hatches, and without a hatch, but with a credibility and an established following in France.
Just as retired Fiats ended up behind the Iron Curtain as Ladas and Zastavas, the Renault 12 had a long second life in Romania as the Dacia 1300. Production, in various forms of saloon, estate, van and pick up started in 1969 under licence from Renault, initially from CKD kits, and continued up to 2004. The Romanians were able to offer a two door Sport version and even a five door hatchback version as well, over the years.
Indeed the relationship which had led to the Dacia 1300 ultimately led to Renault buying the Dacia organisation in 1999 and Dacia becoming Renault’s budget brand in Europe, with cars built in Romania and India.
Renault 14, 1976-1983
I suggested that the Renault 12 was perhaps France’s Morris Marina, maybe a little unkindly, and that the Renault 14 was France’s Austin Allegro. To be fair, only odd ball styling linked the 14 and dumpy Austin, as underneath it the Renault was truly of its time, and class competitive. No square steering wheels here.
The 14, produced from 1976 to 1983, was the first Renault to feature a transverse engine and in another novel twist, shared this with the Peugeot 104. Indeed, it was essentially a Peugeot engine, and like the 104 it was mounted at an angle of 72 degrees with the spare wheel stored above it. The engine dated back to a joint venture agreement between Peugeot and Renault established in the mid 1960s, and with the larger Douvrin 2.7 litre V6 used on the Renault 30, Peugeot 604 and Volvo 264, the only results of that relationship.
The 14 was aimed into exactly the same spot and in a very similar concept as the VW Golf, which arrived two years earlier. A five door (always and in contrast to the variation the Golf and Jetta offered) hatchback, using a four cylinder OHC transverse engine with the four speed gearbox underneath, BMC Mini style, with torsion bar suspension, so it had also the Renault wheelbase variation. The style was definitely a departure for Renault, and whilst contemporary, was also polarising and not timeless. Personally, I’m quite happy with it, but records suggest many aren’t or weren’t.
Somewhat strangely, at least from this distance, Renault advertised car as La poire or the pear, based on the shape, apparently. The market reaction was not great, as the corrosion issues were becoming known and the car became known in some circles as the rotten pear. Add to that that la poire is also a French slang term for the gullible, and you can see that this should really have gone into the copywriter’s waste basket
The 14 was only ever available as a 5 door hatchback, with no diesel engine or automatic options and only a limited petrol engine choice, and you sense Renault’s heart wasn’t really in it.
The car was built in northern France, and had one gentle facelift in 1980, with revised indicators being the highlight. There were 1.2 litre 60 bhp and 1.4 litre in 60 bhp and 70 bhp versions and models included the TS (sport, 1.4 litre, five speed gearbox) and GTL (economy, low compression 1.4 litre, higher gearing) variants as well. Almost a million were built in seven years, and perhaps 200 survive in France. You’re more likely to see one like this beige car (one of the first series), than like the white second series example above.
There are fewer than 20 in the UK, for which we can blame the car’s susceptibility to corrosion. And a certain amount of apathy, which is probably undeserved.
Renault 15, 1971-1979
The Renault 15, launched in 1971, was closely related to other cars – the 17 which was an upscale version of the 15, and the Renault 12. This was a classic, salon to coupe, Falcon to Mustang, Cortina to Capri, Beetle to Karmann Ghia re-body.
The basic 15 came with the same 1289cc four cylinder engine as the 12, mounted in the same longitudinal position ahead of the wheels with the gearbox behind. The styling was completely different though, with perhaps as much 70s style as any European car – up there with Leyland Princess, Triumph TR7 and Fiat Strada for visual impact. The strong trapezoidal shape, the up turned bumper, the effective end capping of the bonnet, the way the rear bumper blends into the body (innovative for 1971), the strong colours, the big windows. There were no visual links to the 12.
The 15 was also available with the 1565cc four cylinder engine from the Renault 16 – indeed this engine was common to the most expensive 15 and least expensive 17. This model had around 90 bhp, and was good for just over 100 mph.
In Europe, the key competition was from the Ford Capri and the VW Scirocco, as well as the Opel Manta and the Fiat 124 Coupe. The 15 was a hatchback, although the rear seat did not fold down, limiting any inherent advantage.
Production continued until 1979, and the 15 never made it to North America. The replacement was the Renault Fuego, another Robert Opron styled car with a bubble rear hatch.
Renault 16, 1965-1980
Is this the greatest mid-size (for Europe) family car ever built? No doubt the CC Commentariat will have some opinions, but it has to be a candidate.
The Renault 16 (also known as the R16) was launched in 1965, and can clearly claim origination rights for the family size hatchback, with five doors and a folding rear seat. Aside from the longitudinal engine, it is a format that is still one of the most common in the market and which has been transferred to other baselines, such as the midsize crossover. Imitation came quite quickly, with the (smaller) Simca 1100 in 1967 and the Austin Maxi in 1969 being the first out of the blocks.
The car came to market as Renault’s largest car, with a wheelbase of 104 in on the right and 107 in on the left, on a car just 167in long. The long wheelbase, long travel and soft riding French car template was definitely present again. The difference in wheelbase was down to the transverse torsion bars, again. The engine was a brand new, aluminium four cylinder, initially with 1470cc, driving the gearbox which was mounted head of it.
Consequently, a floor mounted gear shift was not going to be easy, so a column change was used, one of the last in Europe, and certainly the last sold in Europe, for a manual transmission.
Initially this was a four speed but the ultimate 16, the 1973 16TX, had a five speed gearbox. Compared with the Maxi’s awkward gearchange, this may have looked anachronistic but was an absolute revelation in terms of usability.
The power unit grew other the years, first to 1565 cc and 83 bhp and ultimately to 1647cc and 93bhp for the 1973 16TX. France doesn’t really do Broughams, but with a five speed gearbox, tinted and electric windows, central locking, rear wiper and alloy wheels, as well as optional leather and air conditioning, the 16TX got close.
Ten years in, the 16 was still a credible competitor in the sector. Factor in the classic French ability to cross country without slowing much for corners, as long you can accept the roll, and you can see the appeal, and the lack of justification for any more power. The ride of the 16 was also truly exceptional. In many ways, this car performed as you might expect a smaller Citroen DS to do.
The 16 served right through to 1979, and was arguably still competitive then. Perhaps its closest competitor by then was the Chrysler Alpine/SIMCA 1307/3108, which had some of the French car attributes of comfort and surprisingly adept road manners, but lost out on interior space and refinement. The 1981 Vauxhall Cavalier/Opel Ascona C or VW Passat B2 would have been tougher nuts though, but both show the Renault’s influence, as did the Ford Sierra.
Perhaps the greatest car on this list, and sadly so rare now, even in France.
Renault 17, 1971-1979
As previously noted, the 17 was the upscale version of the 15. Still based on the underpinnings of the 12 saloon, it featured the engines from the larger Renault 16, of 1565 cc or 1647 cc. These were mounted ahead of the gearbox, rather than behind it as on the 16, and in higher states of tune.
The 17 (known as the 177 in Italy where 17 is unlucky) was visually different to the 15, with a more aggressive twin headlamp layout, frameless doors and very stylised slatted rear quarters. Style wise, it was French, with more than a hint of 70s Detroit flamboyance, and all the better for it, to stand out from the sea of Ford Capris waiting at the lights. The North American spec bumpers here don’t do it any favours, though.
The top of the range 17TS and Gordini had 108bhp and could do 112 mph; in 1971 that was serious bragging rights in the playground over a 1.6 litre Capri or Cortina GT, even if you weren’t quite sure how to pronounce the name.
The last one I saw was on a low loader on a British motorway, with an unregistered Range Rover for company; on the road, I cannot remember, either in the UK or Europe. One of my 70s favourites.
Renault 18, 1978-1989
To some people, the Renault 18 was a dull and very ordinary car. At first glance, it could have been a modern car from just about any leading European manufacturer, perhaps even Japanese except for the calm styling.
Look a little more closely, and the Renault genes are there still. The engine was longitudinally mounted, the gear box behind it and the engine sizes started at 1.4 litre, a little smaller than an equivalent Ford or Opel/Vauxhall. At its core, it was rebodied Renault 12, albeit moved gently upmarket.
The engine range was key to this movement. The 12 came as a 1.3 litre but the 18 came as 1.4 litre and 1.6 litre, from the Renault 16 and 17. The car came to market in 1978, the estate followed in 1979, and a 2.0 litre diesel in 1980.
Four and five speed manual gearboxes were offered, depending on date and model, and an automatic was available on both 1.4 and 1.6 litre cars. Certain markets, notably South America, also had an option of 2.0 litre engines.
Although the 18 looked conservative, and well in step with cars like the Ford Cortina/Taunus, Opel Ascona/Vauxhall Cavalier, Fiat Mirafiori and Morris Marina and Ital, the front wheel drive gave it a distinct difference, and one that fitted well with the long travel suspension France has been so good at for so long. The spacious wheel arches added to that, as did the three stud wheels.
Variations followed, with different markets getting many specific tweaks. American markets got the usual uncovered headlights, the estate was sold as the Renault 18i Sportwagon and Europe got something called the 18 American with two tone paint, alloy wheels and a plush interior trim.
The highlight for Europe was the 1980 18 turbo, with a turbocharged 1565 cc engine, rated at 110 bhp, improved suspension, sports interior and some of the best alloy wheels I can recall. This car also shared an interior with the Renault Fuego coupe.
Here, then, was a car that competed more closely with the format set by market leaders outside France, and fitted in well with a new generation of Renaults. It was perhaps the first Renault to truly conform to a market standard, was better than many in its class and was sometimes overlooked and underrated.
And sadly, many are now like this.
Renault 19, 1986-1996
The 19 was Renault’s second attempt at a true Golf competitor, succeeding the 9 and 11 (Alliance and Encore), and also the last Renault to bear a number.
Launched in 1988, it came with 1.2, 1.4 and 1.7 litre transverse engines, end on gearbox, usually five speeds or a three speed automatic. The 1.2 litre and base model 1.4 litre used the old OHV Cleon engine from the 9 and 11, but the smarter 1.4 and 1.7 litre cars used a brand new overhead cam engine, known as the Energy range (who says the Japanese have an unique take on odd names?), and the cars were badged accordingly.
The styling was by Guigaro, although Renault did not admit this immediately, which carried over a development of the rear hatch bubble from the 11. Suspension was by MacPherson struts and a torsion beam rear axle, with front disc and rear drum brakes. This was a pretty typical specification for such a car in Europe at the time.
To meet varying buyer choices and preferences, Renault offered three door and five door hatches and a four door saloon, initially known as the 19 Chamade, which used the rear doors of the five door hatch.
There was also a Cabrio version from 1991, built by Karmann of Germany,
Renault developed a very credible Golf GTi competitor in the 19 16V (also known as the 16S in Francophone markets), using a 1.8 litre 135 bhp engine, allowing 130 mph performance.
The 19 16V, in saloon form, was the basis for a reasonably successful saloon racing car in the British Touring Car Championship (known as the BTBCC), competing with similar race modified cars from many makes, and an integral part of Saturday TV viewing for many for several years. Just in 1993, Ford, Vauxhall, Toyota, Peugeot, Nissan and Mazda lined up alongside Renault. The next year, Volvo joined in too, with the 850 estate. Great fun was had by all.
These were mine – a 1990 1.4 GTS hatch, with the five speed gearbox. It may not have a been a sports car, but it was well able to provide a comfortable solution to a long journey, and handled better than you might expect a softly sprung Renault to do. The cooling system was a bit doubtful, though. After a coming a poor second against a Volvo 740 estate, I replaced it with a 1993 Series 2 RN1.4i, which did 137,000 miles quite happily.
Space wise, the 19 was more than a match for a contemporary VW Golf or Ford Escort, having a lengthy 100 inch wheelbase and a huge boot.
In 1994, Renault refreshed the front and rear with the predictable new head and taillights, and for left hand drive markets, a new dashboard. Fuel injection, power steering and other additional equipment spread across the range, with the effect that the car was significantly better equipped than a comparably priced Ford. Features like Renault’s Plip remote central locking, electric sunroofs and steering column radio controls were available relatively low down the range.
This car has another important place in Renault’s history – the platform was carried over to the 1996 Renault Megane, and thereby the basis for the first generation Renault Scenic, the first compact monospace/MPV/minivan.The 19 also carried Renault’s flag in the 1990’s diesel boom, with a 1.7 litre turbo-diesel showing how diesel did not have to slow, but could also provide the more powerful and performance oriented option within the range.
Arguably underrated, against the Ford Escort and Opel/Vauxhall Astra, Austin Maestro and Fiat Tipo, if not the Golf or the Rover 200 (R8), production ran to 1996 in France and to 2000 in Turkey and Argentina, and it is a common sight still across Europe.
Renault 20, 1975-1983
The Renault 20 was the four cylinder derivative of the earlier Renault 30. The Renault 30, which we get to later, was a large step upmarket for Renault, taking the company into hitherto uncharted territory. It fitted a lot better into the range once the 20 was introduced, later the same year.
In principle and in the model range, the 20 replaced the 16, using a combination of the engine from the top of the line 16TX and the body of the 30, a combination of modest engine and larger body that worked well for many manufacturers. Think of the Opel Rekord and Opel Commodore or the Ford Granada and Taunus ranges for example.
The issue the 20 had was that it was substantially bigger than the 16 – it was 12 inches longer, 4 inches wider and 600lb heavier. It was also an unambiguous derivative of the Renault 30, presented just 8 months earlier as Renault’s new executive car.
The first cars came with the 1647 cc, 90 bhp engine from the 16TX but the larger body of the 20 led to much lower power to weight ratios and early models would not get much past 90 mph. Renault, you feel, sensed something was not right, as the 16 was kept on alongside its nominated replacement for a full five years.
The car was gently, if unremarkably, developed. A much needed 2.0 litre engine was added in July 1977, as the 20TS, with 109 bhp and smarter trim, addressing another issue on the early cars. This grew to a 2.2 litre, 115 bhp for the 20TX in 1980, and the 1.6 litre cars were discontinued. All engines were mounted longitudinally, with the gearbox behind and driving the front wheels, usually through a four speed or later a five speed gearbox. Automatics were available, but take up pretty low.
Style wise, the 20 can best be described as plain, with little of the flair or originality that the 16, for example, had. A basic 20L was a pretty Spartan place to be. Again, we see the Renault of the late 1970s not wanting to stand out like the company did in the 1960s or the early 1970s.
Perhaps the best comparison point for the Renault 20 is the Austin Ambassador, a hatchback derivative of the BL Princess, another car which was arguably too plain, frequently underpowered and focused on space and comfort, not excitement. The 20 was more successful, but arguably did not replace the 16 in the eyes of the French, and many others. It sold pretty well, but not on any emotional factors. Buyers choosing under those influences bought a Citroen CX, launched just a year earlier.
And they didn’t have to cope with upside down door handles, as the first cars had
Renault 21, 1986-1994
This account has shown how the later Bingo Years were the period of growing conformity to Euro-norms for Renault, and the 21 is another part of that trail. Here was a car that was directly competing with the VW Passat, Ford Sierra, Peugeot 405 and a host of others.
Spacious four door saloons, very spacious estates, a (slightly later) hatchback, Giugiaro styling, a range of 1.7, 2.0 and 2.1 litre petrol engines, petrol or diesel, five speed gearboxes, a clear range of trims and features, a halo 21 Turbo model – all the factors you’d expect.
And a model range that had four differing wheelbases, depending on the body and engine chosen. The 1.7 litre (and later 1.4 and 1.6 litre versions produced in Turkey, Portugal and South America) had transverse engines with end on gearboxes, essentially the drive train of the 1. 7 litre versions of the Renault 19 and 11, and a wheelbase of 105.7 inches.
The 2.0 and 2.1 litre versions had longitudinal engines with gearboxes behind, in the same manner as the as the 18 and 20, had a wheelbase of 102.4 inches. Overall length was exactly the same; the only visual difference was the location of the front wheel arch, which took some practice to call out accurately.
The first variant was the four door saloon, with rather angular and arguably nose heavy Guigaro styling.
This was followed quickly by the equally polarising estate, sold as the Nevada in many markets and Savannah in the UK, where the state of Nevada had reserved rights to the name. The estate was longer in wheelbase than the saloon, by almost 6 inches, giving wheelbase of 110.6 inches and 108.3 inches for the transversely and longitudinally engined cars.
More visibly apparent was that the extra length gave either a truly class leading luggage capacity, on a par with a Volvo 240 or Citroen CX estate, or the possibility of the factory option of a third row of seat, suitable for two, probably children. France has a long history, from the Peugeot 403 onwards of providing seven (or more, if you didn’t worry about seat belts) seat estate cars, and the 21 was the last one, as the concept was superseded by the MPVs/minivans.
In 1991, Renault did the obvious and added a hatchback option to the range, based on the saloon models, and matching them closely in terms of models, options and equipment. Looks are always subjective, but the long nose was emphasised by the shorter tail. There was also a Turbo version of the transverse engined car, with a full leather interior and wheelbase just a few millimetres off the two wheel drive car. So, actually, six wheelbase options…
The 21 made it to North America, first as the Renault and then as the Eagle Medallion. The cars were imported from France, with the 2.2 litre longitudinally mounted engines and five speed manual or three speed automatic transmissions. It was offered as a saloon and as a station wagon in both 5 and 7 seater forms. Sales lasted for just three model years, from 1988 to 1990, partly for reasons linked to Chrysler’s takeover of AMC and the obligation to purchase a fixed quantity of the larger Eagle Premier model.
Production in France ended in 1995, and in 1996 in other countries, notably Turkey, Argentina and Columbia.
Now a rare sight outside France, and in definite beater and banger territory. Still seen as a daily driver in France, though, and you suspect it will be for some years to come.
Renault 25, 1983-1992
This was perhaps the last attempt at a distinctive large French car until the Citroen DS5 of 2011.
The 25 replaced the 30 and the 20, hence the name sitting in the middle and breaching one of the naming guidelines Renault had established, and it inherited many of those cars’ features.
It was powered by either a 2.0 or 2.2 litre four cylinder engine or the Douvrin (Peugeot-Renault-Volvo) V6 in 2.9 or 2.5 Turbo litre forms, all mounted ahead of the front wheels driving through a five speed manual or three speed manual gearbox. The cars were all hatchbacks, with another iteration of the glass rear bubble hatch by Robert Opron, and an interior by Marcello Gandini.
Of course, diesel engines were available, and the 2.1 litre turbo diesel is probably the engine of the majority of survivors, along with a manual gearbox. The automatic gearboxes are notoriously fragile, apparently.
There was one, substantial, facelift in 1988, which either significantly modernised the car or removed most of its character, depending on your point of view. That character was strongly linked to a plush interior and soft ride – this was not a BMW 5 series or even an Opel Commodore with a French accent but another comfortable, spacious and practical car.
One notable user was French President François Mitterrand, whose official car was a 25 Limousine, with a 9 inch stretch in the wheelbase, and an armoured conversion, which apparently included fuel injectors under the B pillars to act as flame throwers to deter rioters. Just in case.
The 25 begat the Eagle Premier, as AMC and then Chrysler Americanised the 25 for North America, with a different, four door saloon body designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, an AMC interior, some changes to the suspension and AMC engines , and which was built in Bramalea.
To keep up with the volume Renault required Chrysler to build, Chrysler added a Dodge Monaco version. You can infer that it probably never truly met expectations, and the styling may not have helped. Bland but with some odd proportions seems to be the impression.
Premier and Monaco production ended in December 1991, although there was some commonality carried over into the Eagle Vision and other Chrysler LH derivatives.
The 25 itself retired in 1992, and was replaced by the entirely forgettable Renault Safrane.
Renault 30, 1975-1984
As mentioned, this was car that took Renault upmarket for the first time since the end of WW2. Renault wanted to go upmarket and gain some of the larger car, higher margin sales Ford, for example, were taking with the Granada or Opel with the Commodore.
If the Renault 20 was aimed at the Peugeot 504, may be the 30 was aiming at something closer to a Rover 3500.
The 30 was a practical, slightly anonymous hatch back body over a front wheel drive format, with the PRV 2.7 litre V6 mounted ahead of the front wheels in Renault’s favoured style, driving a four speed gearbox or three speed automatic, with all round disc brakes.
The interior came with all the luxuries 1975 could offer – electric windows, central locking, and a sunroof. For many markets, Renault fitted a wood veneer (unusually for a French brand) dash and majored on plush trim materials.
Suspension was double wishbone at the front, single wishbone at the back with anti-roll (sway) bars. The car had 131 bhp and performance was not that great – 115 mph was nominally available but it took some time to get there, and economy was no more than 24mpg. The consensus seems to be that it was a cruiser, not a sprinter, but that suits France.
The later, 1980, 30 TX had fuel injection and a five speed manual gearbox option, and the interior fully refreshed, in a full 1980s style and finish.
Production ended in 1983, and the 20 and 30 family was succeeded by the 25. But there is an undeniable appeal to this combination of French chassis design, almost aping Citroen in comfort, with an interior that is a close as Renault got to the 70s take on the Brougham, and as about as far from the Renault 3 as France would ever go.
The Renault range, from 1963 to 1988, can be seen as a clear example of the convergence in format and execution in the European market. During those years, VW moved from air cooled engines, Fiat from rear engines, BMC/BL from gearbox in the sump front wheel drive and hydrolastic suspension, Ford and Opel/Vauxhall from very traditional rear drive layouts, and with Renault developed, as we have seen, to the front engine, front drive layout, often with a transverse engine with an end on gearbox, strut front and twist beam rear suspension, predominantly hatchbacks up to 1600/2000 cc. Renault thereby have given us an almost text book study of this, and an entry into the social, economic and political changes in that period.
However, the end of the numbers does not mean Renault has ceased to innovate and challenge, or dare to be different. As the number cars ended, the MPV/minivan/monospace Espace and Scenic rose to define those market spaces in Europe, and Renault gave us perhaps the best 1990s take on the original Mini with the first generation of the Twingo. Now, more than 20 years after the number cars were retired, Renault is Europe’s leader in pure electric vehicles, with the Zoe, Fluence and delightfully different Twizy.
And you can still play the game. Bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape and cuisses de grenouilles for the winner!