A couple months ago, I posted about the Citroën Méhari, a rather brilliant little plastic-bodied thing that was based on the 2CV and had a great deal of success in its day. Today, let’s take a condescending gander at Renault’s efforts at aping Citroën (once again) with the Rodéo.
When the Méhari came out in 1968, Renault thought they were well prepared with the Renault 4 Plein Air, which they launched at the same time. This proved to be direly misguided: whereas the Citroën sold very well from the get-go, Renault barely shifted 700 of its Plein Airs in three years. The market had spoken, and it had said “Merde !” to Renault’s half-arsed leisure car. But Renault were not going to let that be the end of it.
The Renault 4 had managed to outsell the Citroën 2CV (which it blatantly copied also, but in a far more competent way) by the mid-‘60s, but Renault were having trouble doing the same thing with other Citroën creations. The Citroën Dyane, essentially a mild update of the 2CV, was something of a disappointment in the marketplace – it never did fulfil its intended objective to replace the 2CV, which outlived it handily. Renault’s similar effort, the Renault 6, was an even worse offender in many ways, with its gawky styling and high cost. But at least the R6 had a few good points compared to the 602cc Dyane, such as a peppier engine and more comfy seats. Over 1.5 million R6s were made from 1968 to 1986, thanks to Renault’s many assembly lines in European and South American markets. The Dyane managed over 1.4 million from 1967 to 1983. Pretty much a tie in the “upscale cheap saloon derivative” segment, then. Things would be different in the “plastic leisure / utilitarian derivative” segment, though.
The Méhari’s success caught the number one French automaker by surprise. There were few good options available – so Renault simply commissioned the plastics firm Ateliers de construction du Livradois (ACL) to make a fiberglass copy of the Méhari based on the R4 van’s platform. Initially, the car went on sale in 1970 as the ACL Rodéo 4 (round headlights and 850cc (34 HP) engine) and, from 1972, as the ACL Rodéo 6 (square headlights and 1.1 litre (41 HP) engine); by 1976, Renault integrated the model in their range and slapped the Vasarely lozenge on the grille.
Just like the Méhari, the Renault used their saloons’ dash and steering wheel for their plastic leisure / utility car, along with the funky dash-mounted gearstick Citroën had pioneered on the 2CV. The original seats were nowhere near as inviting as the ones seen on this example though, negating one of the R6’s comparative advantages.
The esthetics of such vehicles is a secondary concern, but the Rodéo was universally panned for its crude and squarish lines, just as the R6 had been upon its launch back in 1968. Again, the copy was below par the original, which at least managed to look pleasant and fun. The Rodéo 6’s squared-off bug eyes are especially unappealing, as are the blacked-out grille and headlamp surrounds, and the squared-off wheel openings make the whole car look like it was designed on an etch-a-sketch. This is a strong contender for the ugliest European car of the ‘70s in my book (and there is plenty of competition).
It seems even Renault acknowledged that the Rodéo could use a bit of a facelift, which they did in 1979, grafting a R14-esque front end to the contraption (along with the Renault 5’s 1.3 litre engine); in 1981, the two models were merged into one, simply called Rodéo, which carried on until 1987 – the very same year that the Méhari went out of production. All told, about 60,000 Rodéos were made – half as much as the Citroën.
Not that it was a bad car in all respect – as a light commercial vehicle or as a beachside runabout, it was perfect. One could even order, for a hefty premium, the Sinpar 4×4 version for even more off-roadability. Again, this was merely mirroring the Citroën – and just like the original, the Renault failed to sell in any significant numbers.
There are still a few of these around in France, as exemplified by this one I snapped in Paris over the summer. They are easy to keep on the road and many still work for a living. But these do not inspire the same amount of devotion as the Méhari. Copycats will usually do that…