(first posted 3/12/2014) France is justifiably famous for good food, good wine, great scenery and (outside of Paris at least) a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere and pace of life. One aspect that always pleases is that some of best of these are also amongst the least glamorous and thus, cheaper options. The best food is from small local markets; a small restaurant in a village or by the main road will often be just as good as someplace charging twice the price, and there is no need to buy from anywhere other than a local producer or cooperative to find an excellent wine. French cars are similar: the smallest, cheapest ones are often the best, and the Renault 5 is a prime example. Indeed, apart from the Citroën DS, CX and SM, it is hard to recall a truly memorable large or six-cylinder French car of the last 50 years.
The 5 has gone down in popular history as one of the most influential cars of the 1970s. It is recognised as one of the first superminis: cars larger than a Mini but smaller than a Ford Escort, Fiat 128, VW Beetle or Opel Kadett; almost always with a hatchback, usually two doors and front-wheel drive.
Arguably, the Italians were first out of the blocks in 1969 with the Autobianchi A112, and the 1971 Fiat 127, which was built on the same mechanical base. For comparison’s sake, Issigonis’s Mini was 120 inches long on a 80-inch wheelbase; the Autobianchi was 127 inches long on an 80-inch wheelbase; the Fiat, 142 inches long on an 87-inch wheelbase; and the Renault, 139 inches long on a 95-inch wheelbase.
The key conceptual differences between Mini and the Italian duo involved their hatchbacks, increased rear passenger and boot space, and their gearboxes, which were mounted on the end of the transverse engine, rather than underneath, as on the Issigonis cars. Interestingly, although the Autobianchi had a hatchback, the original versions of the Fiat didn’t, having a conventional boot lid instead despite two-box styling. They also had (very unusual in Europe) a transverse leaf spring rear suspension.
When the Renault 5 came to the European market in 1972, it offered something every manufacturer in that market segment has sought since: a small car with instant style appeal. This advantage was evident very early in its life, to the extent that the car’s role was refined before it was even launched. The car was originally intended to replace the Renault 4, itself effectively Renault’s response to the Citroën 2CV, but instead wound up being pitched as a funky, slightly upmarket alternative.
According to legend, Renault managers saw the design by Michel Boué drawn over a photograph of the Renault 4 and determined to produce the car pretty much there and then.
That was in 1968, before the A112 and 127 were available. The original expectation had been for a five-door car to supplant the Renault 4 and sell alongside the more modern-looking Renault 6, but a three-door body style was chosen instead, highlighting the 5’s unique position in the company’s lineup.
Renault’s head of product planning, and later Chairman, Bernard Hanon, championed the 5 from 1968, being among the first to see how it could benefit from its styling, as well as from its size and practicality, in a way that the Fiat and Autobianchi did not. Indeed, no other 1970s supermini had anything approaching its charm–perhaps the next car in this area of the market to do so was the 2000 BMW Mini, albeit at a considerably higher price point.
Despite sharing mechanicals with the humble Renault 4, the 5’s appeal to younger buyers was substantially greater, something of which Renault was well aware and accordingly made much of in its advertising and marketing.
The key differences between the 5 and its competition were a direct result of the car’s origins. Not only did it have a long wheelbase, it also inherited an unusual longitudinal drivetrain layout, with the gearbox mounted ahead of the engine. Even taking into account this driver’s petite size, it’s clear that packaging was one of the Renault’s many strong suits.
The first series interior is, to me at least, a wonderful example of 1970s style, with an original treatment of the dash facing, a simple instrument package cut into it, and a large window area giving plenty of light and visibility. The rear seat also folded down, making the 5 a surprisingly practical load carrier, as well as a comfortable way to carry four people.
Its unique layout left the car with room to store the spare wheel under the bonnet and also with a classic French umbrella gear lever sprouting from the dash, just like in a 2CV or Renault 4, as the gear linkage went over the engine.
This was moved to a conventional position, on export specification cars at least, by 1974. Look closely at the interior shots and you can see the bulkhead swelling out around the engine, limiting the location of the radio to an unusual vertical position.
The engines were established units, coming from the Renault 4 and 6 as well as the older, rear-engined Renault 8 and 10, and ranging from 850cc to 1300cc. Later, Renault offered a 1400cc version and also an optional automatic gearbox. The suspension, as we see here, was in line with the company’s standard practice, with longitudinal torsion bars and double-wishbones up front, and staggered transverse torsion bars in the rear (with a slightly longer wheelbase on the right side), acting on trailing arms. In the best French tradition, very long suspension travel and excellent damping ensured comfort rivaling that of larger cars as well as stable handling, despite significant body roll.
In 1979, Renault added a five-door version with a new interior, which traded the original model’s simplicity for some perceived plushness. At this time, Renault also offered a deliberately high geared version, known as the GTL, often fitted with very deep polyester mouldings all around. The 5 was incidentally the first car to have polyester bumpers. In dispensing with the original door releases, formed by an indentation on the quarter panel, the new five-door sacrificed one of the car’s most distinctive styling cues as a necessary concession to its expanding role as family transportation. The three-door, of course, retained its signature door releases, leading my mum-in-law to buy a five-door instead!
Otherwise, the car was left untouched: the simple, elegant and thoroughly clean and fuss-free lines remained modern throughout its long life.
Quickly, and totally, the 5 became the fashionable small car to have, with advertising like this only reinforcing the image. In the UK, as the country joined the European Union (or Common Market, as we called it then) in 1973, and BL offered nothing to directly compete (the Mini was much smaller, the Allegro larger and lacking the style, to say the least), the Renault 5 became, ahead of the FIAT 127, Peugeot 104 and later, the VW Polo, the small car of choice for those willing to move away from the established UK brands.
Even the 1976 Ford Fiesta could not challenge it for style and image; Chrysler Europe never had a competitor; Vauxhall-Opel had nothing, other than the conservative and sturdy Chevette and KadettCity, until the Nova and Corsa were offered in 1983.
The Renault 5 went to North America as well. After a suggestion that it should be badged “Frog” to take on from the VW Rabbit, Renault opted instead to badge it “Le Car,” which at once played up its French nature and allowed some humour in the advertising. Renault retired it from the USA in 1981 and, in partnership with AMC, replaced it with the Renault Alliance and Encore, cars sized much more to North American tastes and, of course, assembled in Kenosha.
Some markets, notably Spain, also got a four-door saloon version, which was known as the Renault 7–these are now a very rare sight anywhere. Such small saloons are still offered by Renault, Citroën, Peugeot and FIAT in certain southern and eastern European markets and are based on cars like the more familiar Clio, C4, 207 and Punto hatchbacks.
I’ll let you decide if the three-box styling worked as well as the hatchback shape.
The 5 had a great motorsport career too, though the rally car was a very different beast. The R5 Turbo was mid-engined, using the familiar 1400cc pushrod four-cylinder, and won the Monte Carlo rally in 1981, part of the World Rally Championship, on its first outing. However, it was soon outgunned by the four-wheel drive Audi Quattro. The distinctive styling changes for the mid-engined car were by Marcello Gandini and the car became the first of a consistent series of Renault hot hatchbacks, today based around the Renault Clio. The most extreme version so far has been a mid-engined Clio with a 3.0 litre V6 and somewhat challenging road behaviour, especially in the wet.
For those after a more sane experience, Renault continued a tradition by offering the 5 in Alpine/Gordini form, beginning in 1976. This less famous–but still capable–sporting edition was one of the first performance hatches in production, initially powered by a cross-flow version of the 1.4, making 92 horsepower. For the last two years, it was also fortified with a turbocharger, giving it 110 horsepower and a 110 mph top speed.
The Alpine/Gordini was gone for 1985, when the original 5 was replaced by what was promoted as the Supercinq (Super 5) by Renault. These completely new cars shared much with their Renault 9 and 11 (Alliance and Encore) siblings, including their transverse engines and MacPherson struts. As with the R5 Turbo, styling was by Gandini (who also penned the aforementioned Autobianchi) and was essentially an update of the original. As so often is the case, the sequel failed to match the subjective expectations of the audience, even if objectively, it was a better car for 1985.
The hot hatches, such as this (front-engined) 5GT Turbo, continued and the Supercinq remained Renault’s supermini competitor until 1991, when it was replaced in western Europe by the Clio and the smaller Twingo.
The featured cars are both post 1979 5-door models, and remained in daily use in southwest France as of last summer. Earlier examples are still around in smaller numbers as well.
The parking in the bush is typical of what you might see in many places in France; this car is fine, don’t worry. Without any doubt whatsoever, the 5 is one of France’s great cars which, like the bread and wine that share its national origin, prove that the finer things in life are not always the most expensive.