Vintage ads are at their best when they include both period-specific graphics and an obscure product that’s all but forgotten. This ad has both. I’m not sure what stands out more here… the awkward line-drawing of a contortionist, or the photo of the equally awkward-looking Renault van. But let’s concentrate on the van, because this isn’t just any Renault van; it’s a US-market Hi-Boy, complete with a fiberglass bubble top.
The Hi-Boy and its lower-roofed sibling the Petit-Panel were the US versions of Renault’s Estafette, which was produced from 1959 to 1980, primarily as cargo vans but also in pickup, passenger van, and camper van versions. While common in France during previous decades (around 500,000 were produced), their US presence was, shall we say, slightly less. I have not come across any data indicating just how many of these vans were imported to the States, or precisely when, but Renault marketed them here in 1960 and ’61, and the Contortionist ad was a piece of that effort.
1960 had promised to be a heady year for Renault’s American operations – the French company occupied a strong second place in a growing imported car field, and sales had grown quickly after the 1958 recession, led by the bargain-priced Dauphine and later joined by the sporty Caravelle. Renault’s vans first appeared in American showrooms under such an optimistic outlook, but the good times did not last. Imports took a beating in 1960, from both changing market preferences and competition from domestic compacts, and Renault’s US sales fell by 23% that year.
It appears that the Petit-Panel (shown in the ad above) and Hi-Boy were sold Stateside in 1960 and ’61, though those vans sold in ’61 may well have been the previous year’s leftovers. Regardless, they were quickly gone, and forgotten about. Which is a shame because these vehicles did have some innovative features. For example, these were Renault’s first front-wheel drive offerings, a setup that resulted in a flat cargo floor and low loading height.
Also of note was that the driver’s door slid back (rather than swinging out). The above image shows a French-market Estafette variant, the Zone Bleue, designed specifically for Paris’s Blue Zone central area, which had stringent requirements for the size of vehicles that could park on its streets. In the United States, where space wasn’t nearly at such a premium, the Renault’s excellent maneuverability was undoubtedly less of a selling point.
The Hi-Boy’s most distinctive feature was the reason for its name – a fiberglass bubble top that extended the van’s height by 12 inches (this version was called the Fourgon Surélevé in its native land). Interestingly, fiberglass high-top conversion vans would become popular in the US in the late 1960s and 1970s – but even a half-century after our featured ad was published, it was still rare to see cargo vans in which an average-sized person could comfortably stand.
Renault, meanwhile, boasted that a 6 ft. tall individual could “stand up straight without hitting his head” inside of a Hi-Boy. That may have been a bit of an exaggeration because this interior height is listed at 72” (exactly 6 ft.), but still, their point is well understood. However, this didn’t translate to sales success – the fact that Renault pulled their vans out of the US market shortly after their debut likely illustrates that sales fell far below expectations. Many reasons could explain this poor showing, such as the state of the overall import market at the time, or that the Hi-Boy’s 32-hp, 845-cc engine was a bit underpowered for American tastes. Or, dare I say, that people may have found the design somewhat… frumpy. Or… maybe just folks liked imitating contortionists.
But Renault’s US van-selling experience did leave behind some enjoyable ads. And it’s entirely plausible that more people will comment on this article than ever bought US Hi-Boys when new.
Renault Estafette: Sold In The US As The “Hi Boy” Paul Niedermeyer