My father has always been a fan of Citroen cars – his first car was a 5CV, his last car a ZX. With a couple of Traction Avant, IDs and an AX in between. There had also been a Panhard at some point, I remember it leaving us stranded on our way to the beach when I was a little kid (one of my oldest memories – the final betrayal of the Dyna Z) – and it being replaced by yet another Traction.
For whatever reason, my parents were united by a common dislike of Peugeot and Simca, and, as it was unthinkable for my father to drive a car sold by a foreign brand, Renault was the only other option when they decided that big Citroens were definitely too complex and too expensive to maintain. That’s how we ended up with our first Renault 12.
The Renault 12 was the exact opposite of the big Citroens – a simple, economical car. With an architecture (front wheel drive, longitudinal engine ahead of the front wheels) inaugurated by Renault’s perennial delivery van, the Estafette. Graced by a very conventional 3 box body with a large trunk, it was motivated by a 1.3l version of the Cleon- fonte, Renault’s ubiquitous OHV engine, which looked positively lost in a front compartment that would have been large enough for a V8. At least the car was easy to service. To the universal disdain of the French motoring press, the rear wheels were attached to a pressed steel rigid rear axle, suspended by coil springs (they would have preferred an independent suspension setup, obviously).
My father’s was a white first generation R12 TL that he had bought second hand (I don’t think he ever bought a car new). The R12 TL formed the middle of the range, there was also a simpler R12L, and a marginally nicer R12TS version with a more powerful engine – 64 HP instead of 54). Renault had hoped to replace the already legendary R8 Gordini with a souped up R12 Gordini (blue with white stripes of course), but it never got the same following as its predecessor, or as the R5 Alpine that followed.
A face lifted model was launched in 1975, with a nicer front end, and much more modern dashboard. That was my father’s second R12 after the white R12 was stolen and never recovered, and the first car I had the opportunity to drive after getting my driver’s license. The second gen R12 was better looking, but it was still not very refined, (the engine was economic and energetic but rather loud, the car was nose heavy and under-steered furiously).
Renault’s objective when designing the R12 was to appeal to a large range of buyers in export markets all over the world with a reliable, solid and easy to assemble car, and the goal was reached: it was sold (and very often assembled) in every continent, in excess of 2 million units, not counting another 2 million plus manufactured by Dacia in Romania until the early 2000s. When Ford bought Willys do Brasil in 1967, they inherited the prototype of a R12 derivative almost ready for production, that they brought to the market as the Ford Corcel.
In the US, the Renault 12 was sold from 1971 to 1977, powered by the larger 1.6 aluminum engine of the Renault 16 and fitted with double round headlights. The case is not exceptional – the Renault 12s manufactured for foreign markets were often fitted with better engines and more flattering standard equipment; even the R12s built in Valladolid for the Spanish domestic market were nicer than their French siblings.
The R12’s platform – which was shared with the R15 and R17 sport coupes, was retained for their successors, the R18 saloon and the Fuego Coupe. All in all, more than 7.0 million cars would be built on that platform – not bad for an architecture pioneered by the Estafette of 1959.
I don’t recall anything really remarkable or out of the ordinary with my parents two R12s, they were good cars by their standards and served them well. They were satisfied customers and remained in the Renault fold for a few more years – they bought a R18 when it became available on the second hand market.
The R18 was a much nicer car (inside in particular) but when they bought it I had already left the family nest and I don’t remember having spent much time in it, and I probably never drove it.
Unfortunately, that one (like many other R18s if I remember), developed some brake issues – and a particularly scary close brush with a sign post gave my father a powerful pretext to get rid of it. I had just bought an AX which I suppose – reignited his desire for a Citroen, and made convincing my mother to let him return to his one and true love a bit easier.