I’m not sure why we haven’t featured the first series Twingo in CC all that much. Perhaps it’s because it was never sold in many markets that provide much CC fodder, such as North America and RHD markets. And on the other hand, in markets where it was sold, it’s still so ubiquitous that it might not feel CC-worthy. But the first Twingo was perhaps the last Renault to be both truly innovative and an unqualified success, so it’s well worth a closer look.
This one was obviously found in France, the Twingo’s homeland. I had forgotten how easy it was to encounter cars of the ‘80s and ‘90s in certain parts of the country. The story of the Twingo is quite a convoluted one, for such a small car. Since the mid-‘70s, Renault went through several gazillion studies, clays and prototypes to get to the final product. Everybody had a shot at the “Very Small Vehicle” (sometimes called Renault 2) that the Régie Nationale wanted to create to take over from the Renault 4 and the Renault 5. Gaston Juchet, Marcello Gandini, Jean-Pierre Ploué, the Matra folks – all tried to fashion a worthy successor, but the project kept stalling.
By 1988, Renault saw they were running out of time. The R4 was on its last legs and the Super 5 was more upmarket and expensive to manufacture than its predecessor, leaving the range dangerously underperforming at the lower end of the market. The Twingo went ahead, though the prototype was heavily revised by Patrick Le Quément, who infused it with a joyful spirit. Le Quément redesigned the face of the car and gave it its iconic smiley face with froggy eyes look that harked back to the Renault 5, but was also a genius PR move away from the boring econobox looks of the Twingo’s main rivals, such as the Peugeot 106, the VW Polo or the Fiat Panda. Ford later took a similar approach with their Ka.
The quirkiness extended to the interior, with pastel green plastic trim and a centrally-mounted digital display that was very innovative for the time (and the price range). Strangely, given this kind of layout, the original Twingo was never produced in RHD form – I’m not quite sure why. It’s a pity I found this Twingo on a rainy day, as it marred my efforts at taking a decent interior shot, but I was confident I could find something suitable from the web.
Here it is. The clown-nose hazard lights button, the colorful seat fabric and the toy-like design of the steering wheel complete the look of the place, which is surprisingly spacious. This car felt like a mini Espace, with a lot of headroom at the front and decent legroom at the back.
Actually, you could choose between legroom and luggage space: the rear seat could slide forward if you needed more of the latter – a cunning trick on such a small car. The front seats could slide forward and be laid flat, turning the Twingo into a very decent twin bed, too.
In marked contrast to the sad colour schemes of most cars of the period (which was not quite as depressing as today’s sliver/white/black tones, but still rather grim), Renault picked four bright colours to make the Twingo stand out even more. For the first few years, those were the only available colours: Ultramarine blue (almost purple), Indian yellow, Coral red and Coriander green. Not only that, but there were no trim levels at all and the only optional extra was a fabric sunroof.
Even the ad campaigns were different. I vividly remember seeing these on TV at the time – unlike other car adverts, the Twingo ones were animated and didn’t bother too much with verisimilitude. The car itself was caricatured to look even more ovoid than in real life, emphasizing the cheap and cheerful nature of the product.
Of course, all this innovation came at a price, and that price was the 55 hp 1.1 litre Cléon Fonte (a.k.a Sierra or C-engine). This versatile OHV 4-cyl. engine, pioneered on the R8 way back in 1962, was also seen on other rear-engined Renaults, René Bonnets and Alpines of the period. Subsequently, it was used in a vast array of front-engined vehicles, in over a dozen variants of displacement from 1.0 to 1.6 litres. The Cléon Fonte was used on Renaults 6, 12, 15, 17, 18, 5, 7, Fuego, 9, 11, Super 5, 19, a few 21s, some 4s and Estafettes, early Clios and Trafics, the DAF 55 and 66, the Volvo 343, the Ford Corcel and (Brazilian) Escort, the VW Gol and nearly all Dacias made from 1971 to 2004, when its career came to an end. For the Twingo, the Cléon was given a catalytic converter and fuel injection to meet the latest EU emissions controls, but other than that, it would have to do for the meantime. Uncharacteristically for a French car, no Diesel version was ever mooted, even though a Diesel version of the Cléon existed.
The lack of any engine or trim options, limited colour schemes and no body variants meant the unit price could be brought down to a very attractive level. This philosophy extended to the unit body, as well as the suspension: at the front, the obvious solution was a MacPherson strut; at the rear, a twist beam axle was engineered to further save weight and provide adequate comfort for a city car. Clever solutions, such as the odd mirror-mounted aerial or the single windshield wiper, as well as the lack of rear doors, allowed for further cost reductions – at the risk of alienating some potential clients, particularly in Southern Europe. The Twingo was to cars what Marmite is to spreads: you either loved it, or you hated it. Fortunately for Renault, it had enough charm and competence to gain a following.
Of course, the Twingo could not remain option-less forever. Special limited editions were soon devised, but they were truly limited in scope (usually just a non-standard body colour and a special seat fabric). Alongside a new colour palette, a genuine option arrived in September 1994 as the “Easy.” In typical French fashion, it was an automatic for folks who still liked shifting gears: no clutch pedal, but a four gear manual. For the domestic market, that was the best of both worlds. Not sure anyone else would have seen the point of it – these kinds of semi-automatics were getting pretty rare by the mid-‘90s, but it had a fair bit of success for a few years. Power locks and windows, which our feature car has, were also added to the options list.
Power steering, a third brake light and airbags were added in 1996; the old Cléon mill was finally pensioned off in 1997 and a genuine automatic transmission appeared, just as the millionth car rolled off the assembly lines at Flins. A thorough facelift, including new body colours with matching bumpers and a revised interior, arrived in 1998. A luxury trim option (with leather seats), an optional 16-valve engine, 14-inch wheels and ABS were added later on, but the fundamental concept was sound enough to carry on being made well into the 2000s. French production stopped in 2007, when the much less attractive Twingo 2 took over, but South American sales continued until 2012.
Although it was aimed at young people, the Twingo turned out to be a hit with retirees and women more than anyone. It didn’t matter much for Renault – they had bet the farm on this little car and they won. Well over two million series 1 Twingos were built and many are still zipping along. Early models like this one are not rare in France, though many are starting to look a little tired. For my money, the original Twingo was the most innovative French car of the ‘90s. I distinctly remember how impressed I was the first time I got to ride in one. It had this Tardis-like quality of being tiny on the outside and feeling very roomy once inside. It was full of novel touches and cool details, down to the sound of the turn signal and the feel of the seats. But more than anything, it had an infectiously positive demeanour, on par with the VW Beetle, the Austin Mini or Renault’s own 4CV.
CC Capsule: 1997 Renault Twingo – Keep France Weird., by Geraldo Solis