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
The only criticism one could possibly lay at the Twingo would be not featuring larger 1.4-1.6-litre engines, in theory Renault could have continued producing the 1.4 Cléon Fonte (or earlier on even enlarged it to 1.6-litres) alongside the 1.2-litre version for a bit longer though doubt a 1.4 Turbo could have lasted during the 1990s.
While the Renault Energy / E-Type engine could not fit into the Twingo due to its hemispherical cylinder head and front exhaust being too large to accommodate, which necessitated Renault developing the D-Type / DiET engine. It would be interesting to know whether the Renault K-Type engine (an evolution of the Energy that in turn was derived from the Cléon Fonte) could easily slot into the Twingo’s engine bay.
Have seen the Twingo been the recipient of engine swaps ranging from the 1.4 Turbo Cléon Fonte found in the Renault 5 (and Renault 11) to a 1.7 Turbo Renault F-Type (see video) typically found in the Volvo 480 (and Volvo 440/460), which would open the possibility a 1.4-1.6-litre K-Type engined Twingo was possible though it would depend on whether it also carries over the same elements that prevented the Energy / E-Type engine from fitting into the car to begin with. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q84zlXGCBVE
I find the original Twingo so charming. It’s a wonder it stayed LHD; could emissions standards played a part in RHD countries? Regardless, it was a brilliant tool for the job, and is very desirable to these eyes, even today.
I remember riding in one of these in 2005 and how utterly impressed I was. In my mind I had always filed them away under unremarkable cheap car. But this one, the ultra lux “Initiale Paris” version with the later DOHC engine and large cloth top had more interior space than our W201 baby Mercer and was far more sumptuously appointed. No wonder these things were a major hit during their time. They are still around on the streets of Berlin in numbers large enough that I don’t even make a mental note when I see one.
The Twingo is one of those cars that only comes along once (maybe twice) in a generation. I remember knowing all about when it debuted, and when backpacking across Europe in the mid-90’s we stopped at the dealer (or factory showroom/pavilion I guess it was) on the Champs in Paris and checked it out. And then bought a Twingo fridge magnet and some other stuff while there. The magnet we still have somewhere which begs the question as to which manufacturer with which car could actually make and sell such an item when the car was new, such was the appeal.
Hugely appealing and perfect for the time, place, and populace, it never took itself so seriously and apparently made not just driving fun, but also just thinking about the car.
The lack of pretension within a car’s mission seems to be that universal draw people gravitate towards in those rare wonders; the substance in turn becomes the style, and it’s hard to argue against sheer functionality regardless of price point if the relative merits are there. Twingo has it in spades; cheap, useful and efficient with the bonus of quirky design. Few cars can pull off quirky and honest, yet this one does.
When I visited Paris in ’99, these were absolutely everywhere, I’d say at least 1 in 10 cars was a Twingo. All in bright, Skittles colors, with bumps & scrapes all over them. Cheap, cheerful & chic, they were the right city car at the right time for Europe.
i never new these existed until i visited paris in the summer of 2009. i was immediately taken by the design. i love the optimistic minimalism. door handle. don’t need one. gas cap door. why would you? paint the bumpers. don’t bother.
Renault thought the Twingo would have a limited shelf life and therefore did not invest in a right hand drive version or a more modern engine initially.
LeQuement to the CEO Raymond Levy the biggest risk Renault could take was taking no risk at all .
At a pre introduction for loyal Renault customers, 60% hated the Twingo, but 40% wanted to know when they could buy one. That 40% was the highest percentage ever for a Renault that had to be introduced,
The original design for the Twingo is the Polish FSM Beskit 106, this car was developed in 1983 to become the successor for the Polski Fiat 126, however there were not enough funds to develop the car.
In 1993 the patents were expired and Renault clearly used the FSM as the basis for the new ‘monospace’
The reason why the antenna is fitted to the left hand wing mirror comes from a discussion between Renault supplier Valeo (Cibie Marchal Ducellier) and Renault.
The roof mounted antenna was too expensive so to cut costs they moved it to the mirror so a shorter antenna wire was needed.
My wife still drives a pampered 2004 Twingo Initiale Paris quick-shift, with a staggering 43000 kilometers on the odo.We’ll never sell it, Je suis Twingo !
Here an earlier prototype.
I remember the first time I saw one of these in AutoMotor und Sport (or some other Euro mag), I thought they looked so happy. As opposed to contemporary cars that look like in Bob Lutz’s famous observation “like angry appliances”.
This car, along with the Fiat Coupe and the Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth Neon were smaller cars that I would have liked to own, but obviously difficult to get the Renault and Fiat in the US. IMO, it’s sort of a shame these didn’t make it to NA, it would have been nice to break the hegemony of the UJC design and gotten a different flavor here.
QUOTE FROM THE CARBODY DESIGN WEBSITE (Not by me )
” The Beskid 106 was created by a design team led by engineer Wiesla
Wiatrak. Following the final blueprints (1981-1982), the first prototype was completed in 1983.
Its most original feature was the aerodynamic body with a monovolume shape. It was designed by Krzysztof Meissner, from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, and underwent extensive wind-tunnel testing that resulted in a very low drag coefficient of 0.29.
Political and economic reasons prevented serial production. Government officials ordered all the seven prototypes to be destroyed. The engineers disobeyed them, and today the Beskid can be viewed at the Museum of Technology at the Warsaw Pałac Kultury i Nauki.
The novel monospace body was patented, but BOSMAL had no funds for the extention of the patent. When Renault launched the Twingo, more than 10 years later, the Polish patent had already expired. The similarities with the Twingo caused the Beskid 106 to be nicknamed the “Polish Twingo”. – end of quote.
Enclosed the picture of the Beskid
A flock of Beskids
A striking familiarity !
Such a missed opportunity for FSM !
It is interesting to compare the earlier Beskid prototype with the later prototypes, the FSM Beskid 1760 in particular resembles a slightly LWB Fiat Cinquecento with elements of the Citroen AX amongst other things.
It is possible the later Beskid prototype was in fact derived from the Fiat Cinquecento if the latter is any indication. IMHO the Beskid/Cinquecento variants including more conventional looking hatchbacks are an improvement over the existing “van-like” Cinquecento.
Thanks for the extra digging Rammstein. I couldn’t include all this in my piece, it would have made it a bit too long, but it’s true that the Twingo has some Polish in it.
The Gandini prototype is also worth looking at. It was rejected due to its projected cost, but has even more FSM than Ploué’s effort.
My 77 year young mother just left here, she wanted her son to check the oil and coolant level on her 1999 puke greenish/yellow Twingo. With the Twingomatic, as Renault called the auto back then. She makes maybe 2000 miles a year with it, and would not part with it for a new car. Oh, I also adjusted tire pressure for her while she was here….
Super, a post on the Twingo! Oh no, written by Pr. T87, he will shot it down!
As he did with some other cars I like (Salmson 2300S, Citroen LN, etc…).
But no, this one get a nice review. Thanks, because, in my opinion, it was a great car!
We bought a new one in 96 or 97. When we told the sales guy we wanted the LPG option, he said it did not exist, but after few minutes looking through some paper files, and typing on the keyboard, he acknowledged he might take the order, possibly.
We had to wait a few weeks / months (I can’t remember) to take delivery of a nice spanish built black Twingo with the (opening!) glass roof. The car looked great in the almost posh Paris eastern suburban area where we had our flat. We were yuppies / Bobos ( = bourgeois-boehème) / Shikimikis then! No way I could have kept my moody Citroen CX 2500 GTI there!
The car was great in town, the inside space was amazing. The Ikea runs were a pleasure. Passenger behind the driver, right hand side seats lowered, you could move a lot flat packed furniture, infortunately no pictures are left of those trips. And useful as some king of ambulance too. When my girl-friend broke her ankle, she could travel on the rear rhd side seat with her plastered leg flat on the lowered front seat.
It was great on the road too, provided you were not too much in a hurry. You had to be cautious with those brakes though. Our car drove us from Paris to Portugal, Paris to Spain, spent some time in Hamburg, from there drove to further holidays in Sweden (those europeans, always off…).
With the LPG option, the petrol tank was kept so the car could run on either source of energy. The range was great. We realised that LPG filling stations were rare in Europe. Furthermore, the system was different in every country, we had to buy an adaptor to refill in Germany. In Holland it may have been yet another norm (think of the many cell phones charger norms then). It was also for us the first car without spare wheel as the LPG tank took its space (and more) and this was a source of great anxiety!
We drove 120 k km (80 k miles) before we resold it, a baby was coming and we could not face the loading and unloading a baby seat so far at the back of the car, from the front door.
And it was a Renault: we did not had any important problems, but a lot of small ones, and we were not confident the car would age well.
The concept was great, but they could have donne a bit better, with a slightly higher car, the sitting could have been a little more upright, this would have given more inner room as the Fiat Punto had just (re)discovered. Also the rhd front pillar gave a dead angle, a bit dangerous entering the roundabouts.
The car was replaced by a Citroen C3 X-TR, a nice car, but half as clever.
I had spent my first driving year at the wheel of a very rusted Renault 4CV, and the Twingo was its real successor.
Please excuse this too long and unrequested mini-COAL episode, without pictures because the negatives are in some box, in some room, somewhere.
Hello Froggy, i don’t know about others, but I’m always glad to hear from actual owners of these vehicles. Thanks for sharing your experiences!
Glad you liked the post, Monsieur Grenouille. And thanks a million for that series 1 Twingo mini- COAL, je n’en demandais pas tant !
Seeing you had a CX before, you may well have a pleasant surprise yet again very soon on CC…
I have memories of hiring these a couple of times in France, and being completely won over. In some ways, this is the closest thing to a 1990 take on the original Issigonis Mini – literally a Tardis, with a similar style and appeal, great for town use and better than you might have expected out of town, and using many existing engineering features and a quick styling job..
Why bother buying a Clio? Only because the Clio was RHD and clearly filled the chic, stylish, sophisticated slot that the 5 took in 1972.
I remember seeing Renault leaflets in showrooms answering the FAQ they got after every summer holiday season “Why can’t I buy a Twingo in the UK?”, which included asking people to wait for the second generation.
I’m under the impression that quite a few of these made it to the UK in spite of the steering wheel being on the wrong side.
I can only find one for sale on ebay today – but it is a nice one.
So is it pronounced “twin-goh”, or “twin-gah”, or “twing (like swing)-oh” or “twine-goh”, or???
I’ve always heard it as “twing (like swing) – oh”….
I had an early Twingo with the original interior – my IKEA wagon, because even boxes 240cm long would fit into it with all doors closed. Anything that didn’t could stick out of the huge fabric sunroof. The thing actually handled too after a fashion – I enjoyed thrashing the nuts off it on country roads even though the “Iron Cléon” was pretty wheezy and unrefined. Aero was good as it ran vey stably and quietly at around 90mph. But nicest was to open that roof and poodle about enjoying the great ride in true French small car fashion. Unfortunately the replacements for this generation went away from the original 1 box concept, which introduced Renault’s design revival under LeQuement.
Great little cars that are still fondly remembered………
I miss the cheap and cheerful sort of car, like this and the neon and the Nissan Pao and s cargo. Nowadays economy cars are more refined and mature, but they are boring and staid. Why not the jolly colours and adventurous styling and fun touches? Why not more retro pop cars? Why do versas and fits and yarises have to be so dull?
The now discontinued Fiat 500 was available in a huge variety of colors. In addition, the Chevy Spark had a pretty decent palette along with the smaller Fords.
It appears the colors didn’t help sales, however.
This is a better Mini; it has all the same quirky charm and superb space utilization, and made the ultimate city car, but updated for the 90s.
I started traveling to Taiwan regularly for business starting in 1997. I remember a period when the first gen Twingo’s were quite common sights, at least in Taipei. Very distinctive and appealing to my American eyes. By my last visit in 2011, they were all gone … along with most other French cars.
Oh, at times the conservatism of this country aggravates me. (Actually, it does often, but that’s a digression). That and the bloody French, who wouldn’t make a righty version of this.
I would have absolutely loved one of these. I would have hugged it and squeezed and brushed all its furs the right way, and it would be my Friend, it would.
Marmite is execrable, but as an Aussie, I do love Vegemite, and I would have spread the Twingoid love to the….300 people here who might’ve also bought one.
I am a sucker for small and roomy – it is arguable Honda did this shape first with the 3rd gen Civic 2-door, an equally sweet design – but it’s also the styling that gets me. It’s not the cutsey-pie aspect – something unbearable in life let alone cars – but the verve. Behold, the box, but the box made somehow lovely.
Am I wrong in thinking that many cues from this then appeared on many other Regies, the (kind-of) oversized doors, the interior themes, the hatch details? There’s lots about the later Scenic I owned that is here. (For honesty, I should add that that Scenic was a great car, and also the worst I’ve ever owned as a consumer – and my worstness was not unique – which just might account for still-low take-up of Renaults here, but I’ll draw a veil of conservatism over that inconvenient truth).
Fellow Aussie here.
I have been to Germany 3 times. Each time, I keep an eye out for Twingo’s. Especially 1993-1996 cars. Germans tend to treat them like Toyotas, sadly. Lots of them are beaten and rattling. But I love them all. There is something so youthfully perfect about them. And talking to people who know them, it turns out they are as reliable as any Nissan from that era.
So, its a car you can keep for a long time because it is so many things you need.
I really want to believe that hte red hazard button goes ‘squeak!’, when pressed.
Whether it’s due to these being well-built (the simplicity probably helps) or well-loved, you still see a ton of these around in the Netherlands, it seems more than its competitors and definitely more than any other Renault this age. Though the first-gen Scenic is also a bit of a roach.