Curbside Classics: 1977 Renault 17 and 1980 Renault 18 – An Appeal To The People Of France (With A Nod To General de Gaulle)

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I recently returned from a holiday in south-west France, and note again that one of the pleasures of travel is seeing how different countries handle their heritage: What is considered suitable for preservation and what is allowed to age or decay peacefully.

For example, the UK looks after its stately homes and old castles pretty well, with a lot of public access and informed guides and visitor information, partly because of the relatively recent social changes leading to the changes in use of these buildings, and because they are often in the care of one of two national organisations. In France, such buildings (normally named as a chateaux or palais) are more likely to much more sparsely furnished, if at all, assuming they have a roof, and almost certainly in some form of private ownership.

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Thinking CC, Britain is pretty well equipped with motor museums, compared with France, which has, as far as I know, has fewer major museum and collections, the remarkable Cité de l’Automobile (formerly the Musée National de l’Automobile de Mulhouse) excepted.

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France though, especially in rural areas, has a very different attitude to older cars that have reached the end of their daily service lives. In Britain, it is very likely, almost certain, that such a car would be entrusted to the local recycling facility, and ultimately broken for spares and then the shell crushed. In France, it may well be entrusted to a much more informal local scrap facility, and allowed to gently decay and to be used a spares source. Or just allowed to gently decay.

The consequence of this is that you will see sights like this Renault 17 sitting against the fence of a small scrap yard,

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or of this Renault 18 estate sitting in a barn.

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The Renault 17 was a coupe derivative of the (often underrated) Renault 12 saloon, although fitted with the 1565cc from the Renault 16. The similar Renault 15 had the 1289cc engine from the Renault 12, but with a less dramatic rear window style and more modest twin rectangular headlamps.

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Both cars had fully integrated bumpers and door handles recessed  in apertures in the trailing edge of the door, in a way associated with the later Renault 5, and the 17 had frameless door and side windows as well. Style wise, to me at least, few cars say 1970s more than a brightly coloured Renault 17, which is a good thing, obviously; I much prefer the style of this car to the Ford Capri or original Opel Manta, for example.

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The cars were marketed from 1971 to 1979, as a replacement for the Floride/Caravelle, in a similar way that the Karmann Ghia was replaced by the Scirocco a few years later. There was one revision to replace a chrome bonnet and grille trim with a body coloured one in 1976. The featured car has the later one, so I’ll call it as a 1977 (and be proved wrong by the CC Commentariat).

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Looking back over the last 60 or so years of popular volume cars from Europe, we can identify an industrial trend for each decade – the 50s were the years of rebuilding, and recovery of national pride and industrial strengths, the 60s were the heyday of variety (FWD, RWD or rear engine?), the 70s were variety competing with conformity (FWD but how?), the 80s were convergence (towards transverse engine FWD), the 90s conformity (and some very bland styling) and the 00s were the decade of globalisation.

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The Renault 18 fits this pattern, as Renault’s range converged towards something that much more closely matched in 1980, say, Ford or GM Opel than it had a decade before, and Ford and GM converged towards Renault as well. The 18 was the replacement for the 12 saloon and was based n the same platform, and itself spawned the replacement for the 15 and 17 in the Fuego (CC here). It was, to many but not for us at CC, a pretty ordinary front wheel drive saloon and later estate, with 1.4 to 2.2 litre petrol or diesel engines, four or five speed gearboxes and the usual French soft suspension, and 3 lugs on each wheel. It may well sound, and have been, fairly unremarkable, but it sold over two million copies in Europe and North America in nine years. Mostly in the former.

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The Renault 18 four door sedan was sold in the US by AMC dealers as the 18i (for injection) in 1981 and 1982, and as the Sportwagon from 1981 to 1986. fitted with the usual fuel injection and emissions equipment, big bumpers, uncovered lamps, and in this case, two tone-paint on the saloons. Some of these specification made its way to the European cars, as well as a market sector first 1.6 litre turbocharged version, known as the 18 Turbo.

This estate version is one of the first generation of 18s, so I’m going to call at a 1980 (and no doubt be wrong again).

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Whether either is recoverable is debatable to say the least; however, it would great if they could be. In two weeks in France, I saw only one Renault 17, not one Renault 15, and only one other Renault 18. For the first time in more than 25 years of visiting France, I did not see a Renault 16 “in the wild”. And don’t ask about the Renault 14 – I last saw a moving one about five years ago

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Or as General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French from 1940 to 1944 and President of France from 1959 to 1969 might have said:

“But has the last word been said? Must these cars disappear? Is the decay final? No! Whatever happens, the flame of the French motor heritage must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished!”