Curbside Classic: 1966 Renault Caravelle – Drama, Intrigue, A Man Named Exner and Disappointing Sales

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My phone vibrated. It was a text from my brother, with this photo attached. “I’m in Columbus, Ohio, and look what I found!”

“What is it?” I texted back.

“I don’t know; I hoped you’d know!”

He’s not a car nut, but he knows I am. And he knew I’d go digging for answers.

In the mid-1950s Renault wanted to increase its market share in the United States. After talking with its U.S. dealers, Renault came to believe that it would need cars more tailored to American tastes. Moreover, although Volkswagen’s Karmann-Ghia wasn’t selling strongly in the United States, it was getting people into VW showrooms, which boosted Beetle sales–and made a worried Renault wonder if that’s what was keeping buyers out of their U.S. showrooms.

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Renault, which issued their rear-engined Dauphine in 1956, saw that they could do just what Volkswagen did–deliver a sporty car based on their everyday sedan. Like Volkswagen, Renault turned to Ghia to design the body.

At the same time the project was getting off the ground, Ghia was building a relationship with Chrysler through that company’s chief designer, Virgil Exner. Ghia asked Exner to help with the design, presumably to be sure it would strike the right notes with American buyers. Since Ex was all wrapped up with Chrysler, he introduced Ghia to his son, Virgil Exner, Jr., who designed the car based on Ghia’s design parameters.

Having also designed the Volkswagen with which this Renault would compete, Ghia was walking a tight line. Not wanting to sour its relationship with Volkswagen, Ghia turned to designer Pietro Frua and his company to pick up the ball. The waters get muddy at this point – it’s not entirely clear whether Ghia or Frua built this car’s prototypes. In any case, when Frua tried to talk with Renault about the prototypes, Renault wouldn’t respond because of their contract with Ghia, and Ghia wouldn’t respond to Renault because of its relationship with Volkswagen. So Frua took a prototype, which he badged Dauphine GT, to the 1958 Geneva Auto Show, hoping to sell the design to another manufacturer. He got everyone’s attention; by the opening of that year’s Paris auto show, things had been sorted out and the car stood alongside the other Renaults.

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From the start, this car would wear two names: “Caravelle” in English-speaking markets, and “Floride” everywhere else.  In 1959, it went on sale in two body styles: a coupe, and a ragtop with or without a removable hardtop.

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The Floride/Caravelle continued through 1962, when the Dauphine platform was discontinued. Of course, the Dauphine continued to be sold in many markets, but Renault was moving on domestically. The new Renault 8 would provide the underpinnings for the car, which would henceforth be badged “Caravelle” worldwide. The body got some design tweaks, most notably a new hardtop roof line that allowed more headroom for rear-seat passengers. Renault turned to Frua to do the work, but when Frua claimed full credit for the updated design, Ghia got hot about it, things got nasty, lawyers became involved and billable hours ensued.

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But enough about the drama surrounding this car. The Floride/Caravelle saw many mechanical improvements during its lifetime that probably made it more satisfying to drive. While the 1959 base engine delivered but 30 horsepower, by the time production ended in 1968 you could get a 58-hp Caravelle. Disc brakes all around became standard in 1962, and Renault even improved the interior a couple of times to make it more comfortable.

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The last U.S. Caravelles were sold in 1967. After selling only 117,000 of them worldwide, Renault decided that their Karmann-Ghia fighter just wasn’t competitive anymore. Although the K-G went on to become a cult classic, the Caravelle remains pretty much forgotten. But someone in Columbus, Ohio certainly loves this one.