It’s easy to forget that the Renault 5 wasn’t always called “Le Car”. It was introduced in the US in 1976 as just the Renault 5, and then in 1977, re-named as Le Car. Since none of these sport the distinctive Le Car graphics on their sides, we can be quite sure these are 1976 models, being hauled by a Convoy Freightliner and one of their shop-built lightweight trailers.
Here’s proof (in case it’s needed):
It always amazed/stupefied/disappointed me that cars so well regarded in Europe (Renault, Peugeot Alfa-Romero to name a few) did so badly in the USA.
I agree. I do know lack of a robust dealer network, along with service departments and parts availability was an issue. I don’t know if metric measurements versus our SAE had a hand in it or not, but probably that did cause more than one mechanic to not want to work on the European cars, due to needing different tools. Also, it is often cited that the European marques had very specific service intervals and requirements, ones that US models did not adhere to so strictly, causing US owners to not keep up on required service, leading to more failures. I Think the Beetle did so well just because it was easy to service, and with air cooling and few automatics installed, there was very little to break down or need repair or keep on such a strict maintenance schedule.
But one simple point that I do remember, and it has stuck with me. The European imports, and especially the Japanese imports, were a lot more narrow in the passenger compartments. Tighter. Less shoulder room, less width for hips. I believe that the Japanese imports had this due to rules in Japan that limited the width of domestic cars, and they did not engineer a wider model for US consumption until the 1980s, IIRC. The Europeans may have had similar issues, with smaller cars for narrow European city streets in mind rather than the wide open roads of the USA. And Americans are really touchy (pardon the pun) about sitting close to one another. We have a cultural inclination to spread out as far as we can, looking for that proverbial elbow room that lead to our idea of Manifest Destiny and the move west to open spaces. When one could get an American car cheaper, with more room, and more mechanics able to easily work on them with their more forgiving maintenance schedules, of course the imports did not do so well.
That thing about width (and the associated hip and shoulder room) is what led to the AMC Pacer, which had the width and height of a traditional American car but not the length. AMC thought this would be a winning combination in the economy segment, even though the combination of a 4.2 liter six and all the extra frontal area of a tall, wide car were not conducive to actual fuel economy.
Unfortuantely, AMC designed it around a GM Wankel with no plan B which left them to shoehorn in the straight 6, which in turn blunted the vaunted front-compartment roominess with a large doghouse
You’re right about the VW Beetle. It has one frequent service requirement which strongly affects engine life: valve adjustment every 3000 miles, or as required by your driving style. People who didn’t do this would say their engine “burned up”.
I was in Paris last summer and I still saw a handful of these “LeCars” driving around…a bit rough but true survivors. An aside, an aunt and an old girlfriend had Renault Alliances…they weren’t bad little cars.
I’ve always wondered about the R5’s bad rep. I owned and loved an R8, and worked on Dauphines. I knew that they were better than VWs, and more reliable than VWs, in most ways except dealer service. I’ve never been in an R5, so have no way of judging whether it was intrinsically bad, or just the same problem as the earlier Renaults.
Not surprisingly, I have a theory:
In the late 70s, when Renault was buying in to AMC, Renault was the most popular brand in Europe. How could they possibly outsell VW?
In my archive are a number of annual Consumer Reports auto issues, with reliability tables. The R10, R16 and R12 are all represented, with decent reliability reported. The early R5s also show decent reliability.
It could be influence from a small sample size, but it seems that, if that were the case, there would be wide, random, variations from year to year or model to model.
Or, maybe it was management? VWs got dramatically worse when Piëch was running the show. GM products got dramatically worse when Roger Smith was at the helm. Bernard Hanon was empire building at Renault in the late 70s, busy buying into AMC, Mack truck, a producer of industrial robots and who knows what else. Besse was brought in to clean up the loss making mess Hanon had created.
Here’s a clue to the downfall of Renault: Hanon has a degree in economics, ie, a beancounter. He became head of the Renault car division in 76, just as Renault reliability declined.
Renaults were way better than any (watercooled) VW. Only the strike-happy french workforce “saved” VW. This and the fact that Audi took over control of Volkswagen. When I began my career at a large autosupplier in the late 80s, all VW key positions were staffed by Audi engineers. It hasn’t changed since.
I have an Austrian auto magazine somewhere from the early ’80s where they performed an extended test on a Renault 9(Alliance in the US) and then tore it down to individual parts. Based on how many parts were past their useful life after a given number of kilometers, they said it was the worst car they’d ever tested in a nation that had access to Soviet stuff.
The Renault 5 Le Cars struggled in the US partly because they had tiny old engines that didn’t respond well to our limits on emissions and the heat that emissions controls added to under-hood conditions, but I don’t think they had the same level of engineering issues that the 9 and 11 did, including what was then the largest recall over dangerous heater cores.
VW definitely hasn’t ever gotten the hang of water-cooling, but their US offerings in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t struggle as much as Renault’s to pass emissions without self-destructing or getting overrun by traffic because their engine design was newer, more powerful, and easier to keep cool.
I like your theory.
Back in the sixties and seventies in Australia, Renault was a common make. They’d risen to popularity after the war. 750s, Dauphines, 8s, 10s, 12s, common as dirt. Nobody would raise an eyebrow at you buying one, except maybe a 16. That was perhaps a bit too unusual. They were locally assembled, and mechanics seemed used to them. Maybe too used to them…
My cousin had a 12, which was a nightmare. It kept breaking down, to the point of Glenda’s Renault being a family joke. Maybe hers was a bad one, but the RACV mechanic actually cheered when he brought the truck to haul it away to the wrecking yard. He’d had a gutful of being called out to fix the blasted thing!
Several things went wrong for Renault in the seventies here. Spotty quality, as I’ve shown, for one. Word gets around. Secondly, changing Aussie government policies and tactics meant the end of local assembly. Thirdly, their approach to our emission laws seemed half-baked (as were quite a few imports, to be fair). And the dollar went strange, meaning the imported 18 which was nominally equivalent to the 12 sold at something like double the 12’s price, and had to be ‘positioned’ as a prestige car – this when Aussies werew used to them being the cheap family car! And of course Japanese cars were rising in popularity – and they all seemed to be of uniform quality, and reliable.
What’s that – strike one, two, three, four five…..?
Renault has tried several times to revive their fortunes here, but to no avail. You almost never see one – like maybe once every few years. Maybe it’s different in the capital cities. Meanwhile, subject to all the same external forces, Peugeot has gone from strength to strength.
Must be something specific to the company, like (mis-)management. Like you said.
There is still a square headlight LeCar buzzing around central Maine. The 3 lug wheels were a big topic of discussion when these were new. It put a lot of people off. Never mind the fact that the wheels stayed on just as good as on any other car.
I may be the only U.S. based former LeCar owner on this site. 1. I had forgotten that the R5 was ever sold here as the R5. I vividly remember the LeCar ads, most of which had an attractive female hanging out the sunroof with the car seemingly in motion. 2. The drive train on these things was pretty solid. Very little problem. Brakes, air conditioning (dealer added), and general body/interior quality were not even Vega/Pinto quality. Lots of issues. Still, it was worth owning, because here I am writing about it, almost 40 years later.
I may be the only U.S. based former LeCar owner on this site.
I can’t remember where Renault got the brakes, but they gave me grief too, master cylinder and proportioning valve. The Marchal alternator decided it didn’t like it’s voltage regulator. The irritating thing is the regulator on those alternators was designed to be user replaceable, mounted externally on the back of the alternator. Ten minutes with a screwdriver would change it out, but no-one carried the regulator by itself.
Of course, in comparison to my 70 Cougar, it wasn’t bad. Only had 48K on the Cougar, but I’d replaced the ball joints, tierod ends, master cylinder, bendix and would have been stung for a new starter had an independent shop not done an inexpensive workaround for what was really a trivial problem with the starter.
The Renault, like the Cougar, averaged 1 repair per year, vs the monthly trips to the shop for my 78 Merc Zephyr.
What really disappointed was how fast mine rusted. I was used to cars rusting through in 6-8 years. I had a coworker whose 76 Accord rusted through on the top of both front fenders in 4 years, and Fiat was notorious for using cheap, Russian, steel that rusted fast. But it was still a disappointment to see my Renault dissolve. I saw mine, a couple years after I traded it in on my Mazda. It was 7 years old at the time, and I don’t know what was holding the front fenders on.
Reliability table in the 78 issue of CR: bodywork and electrics “slightly better than average”
The 82 reliability table. There was a lot of big three stuff that was a lot worse at that time. I wonder if the cooling problems had their root in the same idiot mechanic issue that cause my overheating problems:
The R5 cooling system has a couple high points in it that are higher than the radiator, so Renault installed T fittings with a bleeder screw that could be removed to bleed the air out of the system. The correct way to bleed the system is to unhitch the bungee cord around the coolant tank and elevate the tank like an IV bottle to pressurize the system. I had two episodes of mechanics not doing it right. One forgot to put the bleeder screw back in after bleeding the system, so all the coolant leaked out, and the other didn’t bleed the system at all.
Then came the Alliance, developed entirely under Hanon, and dependent on AMC dealerships for service, dealerships that would really rather be working on Ramblers.
Reading over several owner’s surveys and extended use tests, the cars started out fine, but their opinions of AMC dealers were far less rosy. One of the AMC styling guys still shows up at the local AMC meet each year. He mentioned that, when his wife’s Pacer was totaled, he bought an Encore. The Encore was fine, he had it 8 years. But then, he bought it at Coon Brothers, which had been a very successful metro Detroit AMC dealer since before there was dirt. The entire difference in Frank’s Renault experience could be because Coon Brothers did what it took to provide a good owner experience.
S aabs were every bit as bad as I remember them! The R5 would have fallen within the general reliability level of anything decent but not a Honda or Toyota at the time. The R9 was as bad in Europe as it was in the US though.
Wow, my 68 Cougar never had any issues in it’s life. While I replaced the suspension it was 30 years old. The original starter is still on the car and the power disc booster was done by Booster Dewey in 2010.
The rust you mention of the Accord doesn’t surprise me as they didn’t do anything to protect the inside of the panel. Even here in California, when I saw rust on top of any fender/rear quarter it was coming from the inside first.
Yep, I went through an alternator too. I remember the replacement was rebuilt by Lucas. The clutch was the final straw. It was more than it was worth to fix it. After 5 years, the rust wasn’t that bad. Dashboard plastics and that horn, turn signal switch, awful. Now, I wish I could get a set of those front seats to replace the ones in my Honda Fit. Oh my, so much better. Upholstery was flimsy, but, so comfortable.
Yep, I went through an alternator too. I remember the replacement was rebuilt by Lucas.
Put in by the Renault dealer, or an independent shop? Indy shop replaced my alternator, with a Lucas. I swore off the AMC dealer after the brake episode: the writeup guy was giving me this big song and dance about how both front calipers were frozen, I had to have them replaced immediately, the car was unsafe to drive…yadda, yadda, yadda…the guy was lying through his teeth, the calipers were fine.
Really horrible dealers were a thing with Renaults. I read a long term, one year, test report on an Alliance. The magazine hadn’t had any trouble with the car, but they would go to another state for service, before ever taking a car to *that* AMC dealer again. The AMC dealer they were using was dualed with Chevy, so the Alliance was a redheaded stepchild model from a redheaded stepchild brand, vs the Chevies the shop wanted to work on.
I wonder if those really horrible dealers’ mechanics resented having to work on a car which was so mechanically different to the bread-and-butter Detroit-type cars? Not to mention dealing with the parts supply.
Nope, you’re definitely not. I had a red ‘82 for a couple years. Really liked it, and have written about it here earlier. Mine didn’t have any serious rust, despite spending its life in northern Indiana. It was a far better car in many ways than the ‘83 Escort I bought new.
The interior did feel cheap, although the seats were comfortable, and no car this small had any right to ride as well as this one did. Never failed to start, and loved the manual choke- it just worked. The steering column was a bit bus like, but all the important switchgear could be reached with hands still on the wheel. Only the radio and climate controls required a reach. The vertical radio was a hoot!
My high school buddies family owned the local Renault store, but even that couldn’t make the clutch replacement affordable enough when the time came.
I had one too. It was my first new car. A square headlight model with a sunroof. Outside of a bad tank of gas that congealed in the carb, never a lick of trouble. Comfortable seats and a ride better than anything with that short a wheelbase had any right to. I remember driving it from Portland to Reno with my soon to be wife without issues – other than ending up wide awake after coming around a bend near Paisley and encountering a group of deer on the road. Good Brakes! Oh, and the time I bought a queen size waterbed and brought it home (parts were sticking out the sunroof).
Good times, good car.
Had an 8 foot extension ladder sticking out of mine, more than once.
I had my head sticking out of that sunroof.
Because of the design of the sunroof, it added over an inch of headroom. I didn’t fit in an R5 without a sunroof. I didn’t really have legroom with the stock steering wheel either. Put a 13″ BWA aftermarket wheel on it, which sat on top of a 3″ high hub adapter, then I could get my legs under the wheel. The BWA wheel had a second advantage. When I made a left turn, with the stock wheel, my right knuckle would bump the wiper switch, and the wipers would make a wipe. The BWA wheel was farther away from the housing that held all the steering column levers, so my knuckle no longer bumped the wiper switch.
You folks that never had an R5 with a sunroof, eat your heart out at how huge it is. It worked better than a/c. I would come out of the office, flip the roof open, and all the hot air would go out of the car in a moment.
Not my car, but shows how huge the roof opened up.
Oh no you’re not! I had a 1980, and (until it rusted right out from under me!) I loved it, manual choke and all. It never let me down. Never an engine or transmission issue, and oil changes were so easy I did them myself (I’m a fairly slight woman, and not otherwise accustomed to working on cars). True, it was no powerhouse (though I did get a speeding ticket in it once), but it got around fast enough for me, and it was great for getting through the snow on some particularly nasty Midwestern winter days. I drove from Iowa to Texas and back in it,enjoying every mile because it had some of the most comfortable seats I’ve ever sat in. I definitely felt I got my money’s worth, and I’ll always remember it with a smile.
I have driven a R5 Turbo 2. Mid engine pocket rocket. And what maybe 200 of them leaked onto our shores thru private importers?
To me these evoke a bit of the Honda Civic 3rd generation, at least as to space utilization, although the Civic had it all over the Renault as to reliability.
I have fond childhood memories of the R5. My grandparents bought a new bright…very bright..green with baby diaper interior 1977 Le Car (though I could swear it still said R5 GTL on the back). They had rented one in France during a month long vacation and fell in love with its comfort and nimble handling. Prior to the R5, my grandmother was the captain of a 1972 Buick LeSabre land yacht, quite the change moving to the diminutive Renault. She never looked back and loved the little R5. Granted, I was a child, but I don’t remember them having many problems with it other than sub-par dealer service and glued in rear quarter windows than fell out…more than once. The R5 was replaced in 1981 by the just released R18i. I took many trips with them in the backseat of the 18. They held on to it until about 1990. Based on their positive experience with both the R5 and R18, my mom replaced her 1981 Corolla with a slightly used 1983 Alliance. Though comfortable and nice looking, that poor car was a gutless piece of junk!
Indeed, I thought they were always Le Car. But once again, we learn.
And a very informative ad -details of the tyres, gearbox, suspension, steering, brakes, wheelbase but no the 4 cylinder 1.4 litre engine….
Living down here in the mountains of Mexico I see a lot of Renaults from R4’s, R5’s, R12’s all the way up to many modern Renaults. Of the modern vehicles I really like the Kangoo van. Mexico allows many cars into the country that you will never see in the US. Suzuki is still available here as well as Seats and Skodas, Peugeot’s are also all around. Living in a town that will celebrate it’s 500th anniversary next year means that the streets are narrow and driving a large pickup will involve backing and filling to get around a regular corner. For myself, I prefer to use my motorcycle when I am in the village (the oldest part of the town).
I am from Toronto but in the 70s and 80s I spent a lot of time in Montréal. For a long time small cars have sold better in Quebec than in the rest of Canada. This is possibly due to higher gas prices, but also a more European atmosphere. The Renault 5 was extremely popular there, especially among certain groups. I am a long term runner and one of my favoured routes in Montréal was through the University of Montréal. I had a game where I would count the cars parked in each block and calculate the percentage of Renault 5s. It was often more than 50%.