Curbside Classic: Renault R10 – When Being A Better Volkswagen Isn’t Good Enough

[Curbside photos by Cohorts BeWo86 and Kurtzos]

For such a small car, the story of the Renault R10 is huge. No other car so perfectly epitomizes the enormous ups and downs of the Great First US  Import Boom, and how the VW Beetle came to dominate the market. The Renault and VW shared similar origins and basic configuration, going all the way back to the early years after WW2. But the paths the two cars then took were decidedly different, especially in regard to the US. The lessons learned from the failure of Renault to successfully compete in the US with a car that was “better” than the VW in almost every objective parameter was one that other manufacturers either learned from, or not, at their peril.

The R10 was the last of a line of compact rear-engined Renaults that started with the 4CV in 1947. Its conception story is rather complicated, but there is little doubt that the engineers who designed it during the war for the expected post-war austerity period were influenced by Porsche’s KdF Wagen (VW). Right after the war, Ferdinand Porsche was obligated to consult with Renault on the 4CV design, as part of a war reparations scheme. But by that time, the 4CV was nearing production-ready status, and there wasn’t much need for Porsche’s input. But as a “thank you”, he did get arrested by the French on trumped-up war crime charges after the last consultation, and was jailed for twenty months. Whoops; now we’re already oversteering from the R10 story’s intended course. Crank in some reverse lock…as I said, the two share more than rear-engines and swing axles: a complicated history.

The 4CV was a bit cozy and modest in some respects. That resulted in the Dauphine, a somewhat enlarged and modernized 4CV-derivative that arrived in 1956. The 4CVs little water-cooled 747cc four was enlarged to 845 cc, with power ratings of 19-32 hp. The Dauphine, which was the direct predecessor to the R8 and R10, had a meteoric rise in sales during the Great US Import Boom. In 1958, it actually outsold the Beetle in 11 states, and seemed to be a genuine threat to it. Its sales peaked at over 100k units in 1959. But its fragility and lack of dealer support quickly caught up with it, and when the Import Boom turned Bust in 1960, Dauphine sales evaporated in a reddish cloud of iron oxide.

Renault had not developed a quality dealer network like VW did in the US during the fifties. That, combined with the intrinsically greater delicacy of the Dauphine’s design, were its two major shortcomings. The pattern was set in the fifties, and Renault never could break out of that, until they finally bought AMC specifically for its dealer network (not the aging lineup of cars from Kenosha).

The biggest single engineering difference between the VW and Renaults was their respective approach to engine design. The Renault units were quite similar to other post-war European small-car engines: small displacement, but with a relatively high peak specific output, which maximized their efficiency as well as taxes (in Europe). Like the similar Fiat engines, these motors needed to rev, and they buzzed along at near-redline (or above) on America’s high-speed highways and interstates. In Europe in the fifties, most roads were still old-school, speeds were lower, car maintenance schedules were taken more seriously, and most importantly, cars just weren’t driven anywhere near as much as in the US: conditions were very different.

In contrast, the lazy VW engine was always relatively larger in displacement, and was tuned well below its theoretical potential. In German, that approach was called Drosselmotor or “throttled engine”, which allowed it to run at its low engine peak for long periods of time without bad effects. It was difficult to hurt a VW engine from driving technique alone, and a properly maintained new engine was typically good for up to 100k miles, unheard of in a small European car, and competitive with American cars. It was the equivalent of the low-stressed flat head engines that were still so common in the US in the fifties. This, combined with Volkswagen’s excellent all-round construction and material quality and its superb dealer support made the critical difference.

The next development was the R8 of 1962. It shared the Dauphine’s platform, but had a boxier, hence roomier body and a Corvair-inspired front end. Under the rear hood, a new 956 cc engine made 44 hp. Perhaps the biggest news was a four-wheel disk brake system, highly advanced and unusual for the times on any car, never mind an economy car. The R8 was a very attractive and highly competitive car in many respects, but in the US, it was fighting a huge uphill battle. Dauphine memories were longer lasting than the actual cars. Yet Renault slogged on.

It’s not very relevant to our primary story, but we’d be remiss in not pointing out the superb sporting potential of this package, when the proper attention was bestowed on it. The R8 Gordini made a whopping 100hp in its final form (from a mere 1255cc), and was quite the giant killer, and a happy Porsche hunter. The Gordini had a storied career in Rally and other motorsports. Something akin to the Corvair Spyder or Corsa of Europe, but much more fully developed.

The R10 arrived in 1965, with very little to differentiate itself from the R8 except a longer nose. This did make the front luggage compartment more useful, another area it had to clearly distinguish itself against the Beetle.

Despite some clever advertisements, the R10 never really broke out of its cracked mold in the US. The Beetle went from strength to strength all during the sixties, leaving the R10 in its wake. But let’s take a closer look at the two, as of 1967.

In 1967, Car and Driver did a comparison of the two, which was also a chance to test the new-for ’67 1500 cc VW engine and its wider rear track (and the usual other little improvements).  The blurb at the top of this picture pretty much sums it up. The Renault was roomier and more comfortable, both in its ride and seats, had vastly better brakes, more trunk space, better visibility, and was more enjoyable to drive, despite actually being a bit slower than the 53 horse 1500cc Volks (the Beetle now did the 0-60 in a fairly decent 17 seconds). The R10′s  1100 cc engine was rated at 50 hp. Did any of that matter?

 

But you already know what the qualities Americans were looking for in 1967 when they bought close to a half-million Beetles. Its superb build and reliability reputation made it the overwhelming winner in the sales stats, despite being the loser in the test. Volkswagen’s path was the right one, in terms of what folks were looking for, transportation-wise. At least back in the day when one had to make such compromises. The very next year, the Corolla appeared and quickly vaulted to the number two import spot (which was then held by the Opel Kadett).

The R10 turned out to be a bit of a disappointment in Europe too. The market was shifting quickly away from rear-engined cars to more practical fwd cars, and the Peugeot 204 showed the way, as well as Renault’s own hatchback R4 and R6. Production ended in 1971, except in Spain, where it was made through 1976.  That’s where both of these Cohort R10s were shot.

The R10 was replaced by the fwd R12, itself the basis for a whole number of off-shoots.  But it certainly didn’t solve any problems that Renault had in the US; if anything, it was a bigger disaster than the R10. And it certainly wouldn’t have fared well against a comparison with the VW Golf. But that’s another chapter in the sad Renault story.