Believe it or not, there was a time when the French automobile industry was the most technologically advanced in the world, the largest producer of automobiles in the world, and the largest exporter of cars to the United States. That of course, was circa-1900, and my, did things change in the ensuing years.
The American auto industry soon overtook the French in volume, mass-market production methods, and overall product value — critical areas which allowed the American automobile industry to grow and thrive, and areas the French were never able to quite master on a global scale. It wasn’t that French automakers were inferior per se, as in fact, in many ways through the years they were consistently building some of the most innovative and technologically-advanced vehicles in the world.
The problem was, heavy investment on costly, cutting-edge technology-laden cars took the focus away from improving and adding value to existing bread-and-butter models, doubling down on quality, and upgrading and streamlining their production capabilities while lowering production costs. The domestic French market and the European market are different stories for for another time, but in North America, while French automakers had a few significant models over the years, they never found a stable, lasting foothold.
At least in the modern era, the most promising venture for a French automaker in North America came in the early 1980s, in the form of the Renault-AMC partnership. This partnership started in 1978, with a plan fro the joint production and distribution of cars and trucks, and led to Renault investing in the struggling AMC’s operations, buying a 22.5% minority stake in AMC in 1979. Renault ultimately bailed out the near-bankrupt American Motors Corporation in 1980, gaining a controlling 47.5% interest in the American automaker.
This paved the way for a new wave of Renault-based passenger cars sold through AMC’s dealer networks, giving the American automaker much needed replacements for its aging and fragmented lineup of small vehicles. Arriving at a time when fuel prices were expected to skyrocket, Renault’s modern and efficient subcompacts and compacts seemed like the perfect opportunity for both Renault and AMC to find success, enabling Renault to eventually offer a full-line of cars in North America to complement AMC’s Jeep division of SUVs and trucks.
The first all-new products of this venture was a family of subcompact vehicles based on the Renault 9 and 11. Introduced in mid-1982 as 1983 models, the “Alliance” 2-door and 4-door sedans were joined the following year by the “Encore” 3-door and 5-door hatchbacks. Although engines, transmissions, and components of the vehicles’ novel-for-the-class four-wheel independent suspension came from France, the Alliance and Encore were assembled in AMC’s Kenosha, Wisconsin plant and comprised of 72% U.S. materials, allowing them to be classified as domestic automobiles in the U.S. Both were sold under the Renault brand in North America, which was perceived to have a higher brand equity, though press and marketing materials also included the American Motors name.
At the time of its launch, the Alliance received numerous acclaim and awards, including Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 1983. Heavy praise went to its low price of around $6,500, its fuel efficiency and light weight of around 2,000 lbs. (the lightest car produced in the U.S.). The Alliance was also applauded for its spacious and comfortable interior that featured superior materials to competitors, and innovative technologies such as a single-rail front seat track to enhance rear leg room.
Initial sales of Renault’s subcompact range were strong, resulting in AMC’s first profit since 1979. The future looked bright for both automakers, but this ray of light would quickly fade. By the mid-1980s, fuel prices had subsided to decade lows, prompting a decreased demand in small cars as more Americans began buying larger cars again. While still important and relevant, increased competition in the subcompact segment only highlighted the Alliance/Encore’s shortcomings, chiefly inconsistent build quality and anemic power, especially with the common option of air conditioning and/or automatic transmission.
Renault attempted to address the latter in 1985 by adding both a larger and more powerful 1.7-liter SOHC I4 with a 5-speed manual as available equipment. The bigger news for 1985, however, came in the form of the Alliance convertible, which was introduced in attempt to bring new excitement and appeal to the lineup, with hopes of turning around declining sales.
Developed with the expertise of American Sunroof Corporation (ASC), the Alliance convertible was still fully-assembled in-house alongside regular Alliances in AMC’s Kenosha, WI plant — a rarity among convertibles in the 1980s, which were usually “converted” by outside companies, such as ASC. In lieu of a solid hardtop, and B- and C-pillars, some 232 lbs. of numerous structural reinforcement brackets and cross members were added to the body for increased torsional rigidity.
Its cloth top was power operated, though it first required manual release of its locking latches, as well as manual unzipping of its plastic rear window midway through the lowering, and manual installation of the boot cover once lowered, making the process somewhat cumbersome.
As with other Alliances, power even with the 1.7-liter was lacking, with meager acceleration and achievable speeds. On the other hand, ride quality were praised as being at the top of the class, yet it came at the expense of handling due to its soft suspension and small wheels. Although it was the least expensive convertible on the market at the time of its launch, the Alliance convertible, unsurprisingly, did little to turn around falling sales and profits for AMC and Renault in the North American market. The story would be similar for the high-performance version of the Alliance introduced for 1987, the GTA.
Generally a competitive entry in most respects, the Alliance was at its core, a subcompact economy car, offering little visual flair or driving excitement (with the exception of the GTA). With low fuel prices and a fairly stable economy, this simply was not the type of vehicle Americans were lining up to buy.
Larger models in the form of the midsize Medallion and full size Premier (both above) were being readied by Renault, but the automaker was in a state of financial and political turmoil in its home country. Following massive layoffs and plant closures, its chairman, Georges Besse, was assassinated by a military extremist group. Faced with the ever-mounting cost and the uncertainty of its return-on-investment of the AMC venture, Renault sought to focus on its domestic operations and divest itself of AMC.
The highly equitable Jeep brand made finding a buyer relatively easy, and on March 9, 1987, Renault officially sold its 46.1% of AMC’s outstanding shares to Chrysler for roughly $1.5 Billion, with Chrysler proceeding to purchase remaining shares. As the ownership of Jeep and acquisition of AMC’s state-of-the-art Bramalea Assembly plant in Brampton, Ontario were the primary motives in this purchase, Chrysler saw little benefit in the continued production and sale of Renault’s line of passenger cars, especially as the automaker was already selling more cars under more brands than it needed to. Contractual obligations as part of the purchase and sales agreement bound Chrysler to producing Renault’s all-new Premier sedan, but the Alliance and every other non-Jeep vehicle of the former American Motors Corporation were hastily put out to pasture, and not given Encore performances under Chrysler.
Featured car photographed in Hingham, Massachusetts – February 2018
Top-down CC images by Robadr from the CC Cohort