Curbside Classic: 1963 Renault Dauphine Gordini – You Can’t Please Everyone

Renault almost managed it. They built on their home-grown Beetle, the 4CV, and turned it into a larger, more ambitious and user-friendly car – not just for France, but for the world. And the world was receptive. The Dauphine was assembled in several European countries, but also in Latin America, Australia, Israel and North Africa. They sold these everywhere. Even in the US. And that’s where the ship went off the rails, as they (don’t) say.

But we’ll get to that in a minute. This is the first proper CC on this rather important model, so let’s first take a look at what we’re dealing with here. Renault emerged from the Second World War in tatters. The company founder and CEO, Louis Renault, had been accused of outright collaboration with the German occupant and died in prison in extremely dubious circumstances in late 1944, the Billancourt works had suffered bomb damage and most of the prewar car range was deemed incompatible with the new economic climate. In short, things were looking pretty bleak.

But there was a silver lining called the 4CV, which had been developed in secret during the Occupation – a completely new car with a completely new engine located behind the rear wheels. It was an immediate hit, the first French car to break the million unit mark. Not resting on their laurels, Renault got to work on what was to become the Dauphine, using the 4CV as their starting point, in 1951.

Renault were immediately aware that one of the 4CV’s issues was its diminutive size. A bit more elbow room and cargo space was a luxury Renault customers could afford. So the new car would be a bit bigger, keeping the four-door philosophy (two door sedans never were all that popular in France) and the rear engine layout. Initial prototypes even kept the front suicide doors, but the overall shape of the car, as seen on this 1952 prototype, was definitely more contemporary than its predecessor’s. Fernand Picard, who headed the project, even brought in Ghia as a consultant to further refine the car’s looks. The side air intakes, for example, were finalized thanks to their input.

One of the last details Renault figured out was the name, interestingly. The word Dauphine means “heiress to the throne” (cars are feminine, in French) and they only gave it that moniker in late 1954, when they reckoned that it would be the daughter of the “Queen of sales” the 4CV. The Gordini connection was not on the cards yet, but it would be inextricably linked to Renault before long.

The first cars were coming out of Renault’s new Flins factory by December 1955, ahead of a March 1956 launch disconnected with the traditional big European car shows. Renault thought this would make the car stand out even more, and they weren’t wrong. Initial Dauphines had the same star-shaped wheels that the 4CVs sported, but those were traded for sturdier full rims before the end of the year.

Nothing in the Dauphine was all that revolutionary. The water-cooled 4-cyl. engine had grown to 845cc producing a whopping 30hp (gross) and mated to the same 3-speed gearbox (no synchro on 1st) seen in the 4CV. All-independent coil suspension was naturally a part of the design, including the very period-correct high-pivot swing axle rear end – a source of some interesting roadholding quirks for the uninitiated. The frunk space was made considerably bigger than in the puny 4CV and the spare wheel was stored in a nifty tray underneath, right behind the license plate housing.

But with 30 measly horses pulling 630kg, the Dauphine was a bit lethargic. It so happened that, in late 1956, Amedeo (or Amedée) Gordini was in the process of winding down his own race car concern, which was in deep in the red. Renault struck a deal with the beleaguered entrepreneur (and highly rated engineer) to work his magic on the Dauphine for a nice sum of money – enough to save his small company. We see Mr Gordini emerging from a brand new Dauphine here in 1957 after a hard day’s testing.

The Dauphine Gordini, boasting 10 extra hp, a 4-speed gearbox (still with no synchro on 1st) and a touch of extra brightwork, would be launched at the 1957 Paris Motor Show. A sports car it was not, but the added power did make for a compelling sales argument. Unfortunately, the suspension remained as committed as before to flipping the car over, but that would be addressed (somewhat) at a later date.

Dauphine sales took off very quickly, and not just in its country of birth. Already by 1958, Renault were churning out over 1000 Dauphines per day, just under half of which were destined for export. The British market was catered for, of course – Renault had struck a major PR coup by gifting a Dauphine for Queen Elizabeth II when she and Prince Philip toured the factory (in a Frégate convertible) in April 1957. The advent of the Gordini only increased British appetites for the little car.

But Renault could not supply the whole world from their French factories or overseas subsidiaries, important though they were. Deals were struck with foreign carmakers to assemble and market Dauphines locally. In Italy, Alfa Romeo had no small car to offer. By 1958, they could sell Dauphines. They sold so many in fact that Fiat had to resort to getting the Italian state to temporarily start taxing vehicles according to body length as opposed to engine size.

In Argentina, the Dauphine was produced by Kaiser. Some were also assembled by the Israeli arm of that firm, prior to switching to the seemingly related (but actually not) Hino 900.

The Dauphine also took hold in Brazil, being made by Willys-Overland alongside the Aero and various flavours of Jeep. A strange foretaste of the AMC-Renault tie-up that was to come a couple of decades later?

North American Dauphines were not made locally, though. Those were shipped over from Renault’s French factories directly, from MY 1957. They were slightly “federalized” with larger headlights and bumper overriders, but otherwise remained pretty much identical to the Dauphines seen elsewhere. Initially, things were going great: the four-door body was more user-friendly than the Beetle’s (Renault’s avowed rival, here and everywhere) and so much more modern.

US sales skyrocketed from 28,000 units in 1957 to over 100,000 by 1960. Volkswagen were feeling the heat. But Renault had bitten off more than they could chew, growing their dealer network haphazardly and not keeping tabs on the central office in New York, which was poorly managed.  Parts stocks were virtually inexistant, but more cars were being shipped every day even as demand suddenly dropped like a stone.

There were several reasons for this, including some of Renault’s own making. For instance, the car’s rather primitive 6-volt electrics were not designed so that main beam headlights were used in city driving – French urban drivers commonly used the tiny parking lights in those days, which the battery could handle at slower speeds. City driving with main beams on was a surefire way to have a dead battery within days, but that’s the way folks drove in the US, and Renault failed to account for that. Additionally, rust protection was inexistant and build quality, given how production had increased, went from acceptable in 1957 to awful three years later.

This, on top of the dodgy dealership network and the shortage of available parts meant that US consumers soured on the Dauphine very quickly. Renault soon found themselves having to repatriate boatloads of unsold and rusting cars, retrofitting them to European spec and giving them a touch of paint to sell them anywhere they could. The French marque’s reputation in the US never really recovered – it even contaminated other French carmakers.

It’s a great pity, as the car arguably got better in the ‘60s. Famed engineer J.A. Grégoire, formerly with Hotchkiss, devised the Aérostable suspension to try and tame the Dauphine’s fidgety road manners. From late 1960 onwards, nearly all cars were so equipped, and it did help keep the car from visiting ditches quite so frequently. But then, so did keeping a 40kg sandbag in the front trunk.

The Dauphine Gordini disappeared from the range in 1961 when Renault created the Ondine, a short-lived “Dauphine deluxe.” For a couple of years, the Ondine Gordini was the range-topper, but the original name was a better seller, both at home and abroad, so the Dauphine Gordini returned for 1963. By this time, the pastel interiors of the earlier cars was starting to darken quite a bit, but remained cheerful on the whole.

Unlike the front passengers, rear occupants had to make do with sliding windows – still a fairly common cost-saving device on cheaper European cars at the time. Speaking of which, let’s have a look at the Dauphine Gordini’s competition.

The first thing that one might note is that only the French cars in this table have four doors. The other salient fact is that almost all of these cars, especially the domestic rivals, are in base trim – except the Renault, which is in its fanciest one. The Dauphine was a lot of car for not much money, a formula that served Renault very well over the years.

It’s also true that, by 1963, the Dauphine was getting on a bit. Renault had launched both the larger rear-engined R8 and the smaller FWD R4 by this time. The last big improvement came for MY 1964 in the form of disc brakes all around, but the model was clearly on the wane after that. The Gordini eventually became the last one standing, soldering on until production was moved over to Brissonneau & Lotz for 1967. The last cars were made in December of that year, but some overseas assembly lines kept the model alive into MY 1970.

Unlike the R8 and R12 that came later, the Dauphine Gordini never had any pretence of being a true sports saloon. But Renault did do a super-spicy Dauphine, based on a number of the aforementioned US rejects, called the 1093. Launched in late 1961, it had 55hp (and a bunch of other mods) to propel it to a number of rallying podiums. Only about 2000 were made over a couple of model years, but their legend looms large.

The last item on the menu would be the specials. The issue with rear-engined cars of the water-cooled kind is that wagons are structurally impractical – a cardinal sin for such a body style, so Renault never bothered. What they did do was to get Pietro Frua to devise a sexy Dauphine-based coupé and convertible called the Floride (1959-63), which evolved into the R8-based Caravelle. That family of derivatives will have its own CC in due course, so we’ll skip to true one-offs.

Frua had authored a more rotund Dauphine back in late 1956 (top left); Allemano’s effort, also dated from 1956 (top right) was more modern-looking. That coachbuilder made a few additional designs on smaller Renault and Alpine chassis throughout the ‘50s, perhaps some with Dauphine bones. As soon as the Dauphine hit the streets, Chapron (bottom right) saw a chance to make a coupé (dubbed “Mouette”) and a cabriolet (“Racing”) for a handful of clients who still could afford such luxuries. Demand dried up once Renault produced their in-house Floride, of course. Last but certainly not least, a very novel Michelotti coupé (bottom left) using a substantially modified Alfa-made Dauphine base was created in 1962; my pick of this lot for its sheer oddity.

That’s all I think I can squeeze out from the little Dauphine for CC today. Over two million of these imperfect yet strangely endearing machines were sold throughout the globe, including a substantial contingent (about 10% of total production?) in North America. But the Beetle could not be removed from its throne by this putative French heiress.


Related posts:

Vintage Renault Brochure: Ghosts Of Dauphine’s Past, by Rich Baron

CC Kids: Louis D. – Embarrassed To Be Seen With The Renault Dauphine?, by CC Kid

Vintage Dealer Postcards: Mr. Transportation Renault – And A Couple Of Other Renault Dealers When The Dauphine Was Hot, by PN