Foundation and early years (1898–1918)
The Renault corporation was founded in 1899 as Société Renault Frères by Louis Renault and his brothers Marcel and Fernand. Louis was a bright, aspiring young engineer who had already designed and built several models before teaming up with his brothers, who had honed their business skills working for their father's textiles firm. While Louis handled design and production, Marcel and Fernand handled company management.
The first Renault car, the Renault Voiturette 1CV was sold to a friend of Louis' father after giving him a test ride on 24 December 1898. The client was so impressed with the way the tiny car ran and how it climbed the streets that he bought it.
The brothers recognised the publicity that could be obtained for their vehicles by participation in motor racing and Renault made itself known through achieving instant success in the first city-to-city races held in Switzerland resulting in rapid expansion for the company. Both Louis and Marcel Renault raced company vehicles, but Marcel was killed in an accident during the 1903 Paris-Madrid race. Although Louis Renault never raced again, his company remained very involved, including Ferenc Szisz winning the first Grand Prix motor racing event in a Renault AK 90CV in 1906. Louis was to take full control of the company as the only remaining brother in 1906 when Fernand retired for health reasons.
The Renault reputation for innovation was fostered from very early on. At the time, cars were very much luxury items, and the price of the smallest Renaults available being 3000 francs reflected this; an amount it would take ten years for the average worker at the time to earn. In 1905 the company introduced mass-production techniques, and Taylorism in 1913. As well as cars, Renault manufactured taxis, buses and commercial cargo vehicles in the pre-war years, and during World War I (1914–18) branched out into ammunition, military airplanes and vehicles such as the revolutionary Renault FT-17 tank. The company's military designs were so successful that Renault himself was awarded the Legion of Honour for his company's contributions to the war. The company also exported their engines overseas to American auto manufacturers for use in such automobiles as the GJG which used a Renault 26 hp or 40 hp four-cylinder engine.
Between the world wars (1919–38)
Louis Renault enlarged the scope of his company after 1918, producing agricultural and industrial machinery. However, Renault struggled to compete with the increasingly popular small, affordable "people's cars", while problems with the stock market and the workforce also adversely affected the company's growth. Renault also had to find a way to distribute its vehicles more efficiently. In 1920, he signed one of its first distribution contracts with Gustave Gueudet, an entrepreneur from northern France.
The pre-First World War cars had a distinctive front shape caused by positioning the radiator behind the engine to give a so-called "coalscuttle" bonnet. This continued through the 1920s and it was not until 1930 that all models had the radiator at the front. The bonnet badge changed from circular to the familiar and continuing diamond shape in 1925. Renault models were introduced at the Paris Motor Show which was held in September or October of the year. This has led to a slight confusion as to vehicle identification. For example a "1927" model was mostly produced in 1928.
Renault produced a range of cars from small to very large. For example in 1928 which was the year when Renault produced 45,809 cars the range of 7 models started with a 6cv, a 10cv, the Monasix, 15cv, the Vivasix, the 18/22cv and the 40cv. There was a range of factory bodies, of up to 8 styles, and the larger chassis were available to coachbuilders. The number of a model produced varied with size. The smaller were the most popular with the least produced being the 18/24cv. The most expensive factory body style in each range was the closed car. Roadsters and tourers (torpedoes) were the cheapest.
The London operation was very important to Renault in 1928. The UK market was quite large and from there "colonial" modified vehicles were dispatched. Lifted suspensions, enhanced cooling and special bodies were common on vehicles sold to the colonies. Exports to the USA by 1928 had almost reduced to zero from their high point prior to WW1 when to ship back a Grand Renault or similar high class European manufactured car was common. A NM 40cv Tourer had a USA list price of over $4,600 being about the same as a V12 Cadillac Tourer. Closed 7-seat limousines started at $6,000 which was more expensive than a Cadillac V16 Limousine.
The whole range was conservatively engineered and built. The newly introduced 1927 Vivasix, model PG1, was sold as the "executive sports" model. Lighter weight factory steel bodies powered by a 3180 cc six-cylinder motor provided a formula that went through to the Second World War.
The "de Grand Luxe Renaults", that is any with over 12-foot (3.7 m) wheelbase, were produced in very small numbers in two major types – six- and eight-cylinder. The 1927 six-cylinder Grand Renault models NM, PI and PZ introduced the new three spring rear suspension that considerably aided road holding that was needed as with some body styles over 90 mph (140 km/h) was possible. The 8-cylinder Reinastella was introduced in 1929. This model led on to a range culminating in the 1939 Suprastella. Coachbuilders included Kellner, Labourdette, J.Rothschild et Fils and Renault bodies. Closed car Renault bodies were often trimmed and interior wood work completed by Rothschild.
Renault also introduced in 1928 an upgraded specification to the larger cars designated "Stella". Vivastella's and Grand Renaults had upgraded interior fittings and had a small star fitted above the front hood Renault diamond. This proved to be a winning marketing differentiator and in the 1930s all cars changed to the Stella suffix from the previous two alpha character model identifiers.
The Grand Renaults were built using a considerable amount of aluminium. Engines, brakes, transmissions, floor and running boards and all external body panels were aluminium. Of the few that were built, many went to scrap to aid the war effort.
World War II and aftermath (1939–44)
After the French capitulation in 1940, Louis Renault refused to produce tanks for Nazi Germany, which took control of his factories. He produced lorries for the German occupiers instead. On 3 March 1942, the RAF launched 235 low-level bombers at the Billancourt plant, the largest number of aircraft aimed at a single target during the war. 460 tons of bombs were dropped on the plant and the surrounding area, causing extensive damage to the plant along with heavy civilian casualties. Renault resolved to rebuild the factory as quickly as possible, but a further heavy bombardment a year later, on 4 April, this time delivered by the Americans, caused further damage, as did subsequent allied bombardments on 3 and 15 September 1943.
A few weeks after the Liberation of Paris, at the start of September 1944, the factory gates at Renault’s Billancourt plant reopened. Operations restarted only very slowly, in an atmosphere poisoned by plotting and political conspiracy, undertaken in the name of popular justice. Back in 1936 the Billancourt factory had been at the heart of violent political and industrial unrest that had surfaced in France under Leon Blum’s Popular Front government: although the political jostling and violence that followed the liberation was ostensibly a backlash from the rivalries between capitalist collaboration and communist resistance, many of the scores being settled actually predated the German invasion. Responding to the chaotic situation at Renault, on 27 September 1944 a meeting of the Council of (the provisional government's) Ministers took place under de Gaulle’s presidency. Postwar European politics had quickly become polarised between communists and anti-communists, and in France De Gaulle was keen to resist Communist Party attempts to monopolise the political dividends available to resistance heroes: politically Billancourt was a communist stronghold. The government decided to “requisition” the Renault factories. A week later, on 4 October Pierre Lefaucheux, a resistance leader with a background in engineering and top-level management, was appointed provisional administrator of the firm, assuming his responsibilities at once.
Meanwhile the provisional government accused Louis Renault of collaborating with the Germans. In the frenzied atmosphere of those early post-liberation days, with many wild accusations against him, but believing himself innocent of the crimes of collaboration, Renault was advised by his lawyers not to flee the country, but to present himself to a judge. He presented himself to Judge Marcel Martin, on 22 September 1944. Louis Renault was arrested on 23 September 1944, like several other French auto-industry leaders at the time. He was incarcerated at Fresnes prison where he died On 24 October 1944 under unclear circumstances, while awaiting trial.
On 1 January 1945, by decree of General Charles de Gaulle based on the untried accusations of collaboration, the company was expropriated from Louis Renault posthumously and on 16 January 1945 it was formally nationalised as Régie Nationale des Usines Renault. Renault's were the only factories permanently expropriated by the French government.
Postwar resurgence (1945–71)
Under the leadership of Pierre Lefaucheux, Renault experienced both a commercial resurgence as well as labor unrest – that was ultimately to continue into the 1980s.
In secrecy during the war, Louis Renault had developed the rear engine 4CV which was subsequently launched under Lefacheux in 1946. Renault debuted its flagship model, the largely conventional 2-litre 4-cylinder Renault Frégate (1951–1960), shortly thereafter. The 4CV proved itself a capable rival for cars such as the Morris Minor and Volkswagen Beetle; its sales of more than half a million ensured its production until 1961.
After the success of the 4CV, Lefacheux continued to defy the postwar French Ministry of Industrial Production, which had wanted to convert Renault solely to truck manufacture, by directing the development of its successor. He oversaw the prototyping of the Dauphine (until his death) – enlisting the help of artist Paule Marrot in pioneering the company's textile and color division.
The Dauphine sold extremely well as the company expanded production and sales further abroad, including Africa and North America. The Dauphine sold well initially in the US, where it subsequently became outdated against increased competition, including from the country's nascent domestic compacts such as the Chevrolet Corvair.
Renault subsequently launched two cars which became very successful – the Renault 4 (1961–1992), a practical competitor for the likes of the Citroën 2CV, and Renault 8. The larger rear-engined Renault 10 followed the success of the R8, and was the last of the rear-engined Renaults. The company achieved success with the more modern and more upmarket Renault 16, a pioneering hatchback launched in 1966, followed by the smaller Renault 6.
Modern era (1972–1980)
The company's compact and economical Renault 5 model, launched in 1972, was another success, particularly in the wake of the 1973 energy crisis. Soon after, the four-door Renault 12 model slotted into the Renault range between the Renault 6 and Renault 16, and introduced a new styling theme. Throughout the 1970s the R4, R5, R6, R12, R15, R16 and R17 maintained Renault's production with further new models launched including the Renault 18 and Renault 20.
Endangered like all of the motor industry by the energy crisis, during the mid seventies the already expansive company diversified further into other industries and continued to expand globally, including into South East Asia. The energy crisis also provoked Renault's attempt to reconquer the North American market; despite the Dauphine's success in the United States in the late 1950s, and an unsuccessful car-assembly project in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, Quebec, (1964–72), Renault as a stand-alone brand, began to disappear from North America at the end of the '70s.
Throughout the decades Renault developed a collaborative partnership with Nash Motors Rambler and its successor American Motors Corporation (AMC). From 1962 to 1967, Renault assembled complete knock down (CKD) kits of the Rambler Classic sedans in its factory in Belgium. Renault did not have large or luxury cars in its product line and the "Rambler Renault" would be aimed as an alternative to the Mercedes-Benz "Fintail" cars. Later, Renault would continue to make and sell a hybrid of AMC's Rambler American and Rambler Classic called the Renault Torino in Argentina (sold through IKA-Renault). Renault partnered with AMC on other projects, such as development of a rotary concept engine in the late 60s.
This was one of a series of collaborative ventures undertaken by Renault in the late 1960s and 1970s, as the company established subsidiaries in Eastern Europe, most notably Dacia in Romania, and South America (many of which remain active to the present day) and forged technological cooperation agreements with Volvo and Peugeot (for instance, for the development of the PRV V6 engine, which was used in Renault 30, Peugeot 604, and Volvo 260 in the late 1970s.).
In the mid 1960s an Australian arm, Renault Australia, was set up in Heidelberg, Melbourne, the company would produce and assemble models from the R8, R10, R12, R16, sporty R15, R17 coupe's to the R18 and R20, soon the company would close in 1981. Renault Australia did not just concentrate on Renaults, they also built and marketed Peugeots as well. From 1977, they assembled Ford Cortina station wagons under contract- the loss of this contract led to the closure of the factory.
In North America, Renault formed a partnership with American Motors, lending AMC operating capital and buying a small percentage of the company in late 1979. Jeep was keeping AMC afloat until new products, particularly the XJ Cherokee, could be launched. When the bottom fell out of the 4×4 truck market in early 1980 AMC was in danger of going bankrupt. To protect its investment, Renault bailed AMC out with a big cash influx – at the price of a controlling interest in the company of 47.5%. Renault quickly replaced some top AMC executives with their own people.
The Renault–AMC partnership also resulted in the marketing of Jeep vehicles in Europe. Some consider the Jeep XJ Cherokee as a joint AMC/Renault project since some early sketches of the XJ series were made in collaboration by Renault and AMC engineers (AMC insisted that the XJ Cherokee was designed by AMC personnel; however, a former Renault engineer designed the Quadra-Link front suspension for the XJ series). The Jeep also used wheels and seats from Renault. Part of AMC's overall strategy when the partnership was first discussed was to save manufacturing cost by using Renault sourced parts when practical, and some engineering expertise. This led to the improvement of the venerable AMC in-line six – a Renault/Bendix based port electronic fuel injection system (usually called Renix) that transformed it into a modern, competitive powerplant with a jump from 110 hp (82 kW) to 177 hp (132 kW) with less displacement (from 4.2L to 4.0L).
The Renault-AMC marketing effort in passenger cars was not as successful compared to the popularity for Jeep vehicles. This was because by the time the Renault range was ready to become established in the American market, the second energy crisis was over, taking with it much of the trend for economical, compact cars. One exception was the Renault Alliance (an Americanized version of the Renault 9), which debuted for the 1983 model year. Assembled at AMC's plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Alliance received Motor Trend's domestic Car of The Year award in 1983. The Alliance's 72% U.S. content allowed it to qualify as a domestic vehicle, making it the first car with a foreign nameplate to win the award since the magazine established a separate Import Car of The Year prize in 1976. (In 2000, Motor Trend did away with separate awards for domestic and imported vehicles.)
Renault sold some interesting models in the U.S. in the 1980s, especially the simple-looking but fun Renault Alliance GTA and GTA convertible – an automatic-top convertible with a 2.0 L engine – big for a car of its class; and the ahead-of-its-time Renault Fuego coupe. The Alliance was followed by the Encore (U.S. version of the Renault 11), an Alliance-based hatchback. In 1982 Renault become the second European automaker to build cars in the United States, after Volkswagen. However, Renault's Wisconsin-built and imported models quickly became the target of customer complaints for poor quality, and sales plummeted.
Eventually, Renault sold AMC to Chrysler in 1987 after the assassination of Renault’s chairman, Georges Besse. The Renault Medallion (Renault 21 in Europe) sedan and wagon was sold from 1987 to 1989 through Jeep-Eagle dealerships. Jeep-Eagle was the new division Chrysler created out of the former American Motors. However, Renault products were no longer imported into the United States after 1989. A completely new full-sized 4-door sedan, the Eagle Premier, was developed during the partnership between AMC and Renault. The Premier design, as well as its state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Bramalea, Ontario, Canada, were the starting point for the sleek LH sedans such as the Eagle Vision and Chrysler 300M.
In the late seventies and early eighties Renault increased its involvement in motorsport, with novel inventions such as turbochargers in their Formula One cars. The company's road car designs were revolutionary also – the Renault Espace was one of the first minivans and was to remain the most well-known minivan in Europe for at least the next two decades. The second-generation Renault 5, the European Car of the Year-winning Renault 9, and the most luxurious Renault yet, the 25 were all released in the early 1980s, building Renault's reputation, but at the same time the company suffered from poor product quality which reflected badly in the image of the brand and the ill-fated Renault 14 is seen by many as the culmination of these problems in the early 1980s.
Although its cars were somewhat successful both on the road and on the track, including the 1984 launch the Espace – Europe's first multi-purpose vehicle – Renault was losing a billion francs a month and reported a deficit of 12.5 billion in 1984. The government intervened and Georges Besse was installed as chairman; he set about cutting costs dramatically, selling off many of Renault's non-core assets, withdrawing almost entirely from motorsports, and laying off many employees. This succeeded in halving the deficit by 1986, but he was murdered by the communist terrorist group Action Directe in November 1986. He was replaced by Raymond Lévy, who continued along the same lines as Besse, slimming down the company considerably with the result that by the end of 1987 the company was more or less financially stable.
A revitalised Renault launched several successful new cars in the early 1990s, including the successful 5 replacement, the Clio in 1990. The Clio is the first new model of a generation which will see the numeric models replaced by new cars with traditional nameplates. Other important launched included the second-generation Espace and the innovative Twingo in 1992. In the mid-1990s the successor to the R19, the Renault Mégane, was the first car ever to achieve a 4-star rating, the highest at the time, in EuroNCAP crash test in passenger safety.
Renault introduced the turbo engine to Formula One when they debuted their first car, the Renault RS01 at Silverstone in 1977 and the Renault team continued until 1986.
In the 1950s the Renault Dauphine won several international rallies, including the 1956 Mille Miglia and the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally. The Renault 5 Turbo won the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally.
From 1983 to 1984, Renault sponsored an Unlimited hydroplane in the United States. Owned by Jerry Schoenith and driven by E. Milner Irvin, the Miss Renault was powered by a turbocharged Allison V-1710 piston engine. Miss Renault won the 1983 World Championship race in Houston, Texas.
Renault in the UK
The first popular Renault motor vehicles to achieve sustained sales success in the United Kingdom were the R5 mini-car and R18, both of which attained six-digit sales figures during the late 1970s and early 1980s, although they failed to achieve anything like the volumes of established carmakers Ford, Vauxhall and Austin Rover.
Renault cars have performed well in the European Car of the Year awards. The Clio is the only car since the prize's conception in 1964 to win the award twice.
- 1966: Renault 16
- 1982: Renault 9
The Renault 12 (1970), Renault 5 (1973), Renault 20 (1976), and Renault 25 (1985) have all achieved runners-up in spot in the competition.
Marketing and branding
The Renault diamond logo has been through many iterations since it first was used in 1925. To modernize its image, Renault asked Victor Vasarely to design its new logo in 1972. Vasarely had already worked in the advertising world and he placed his graphic talents at the service of the brand. The transformed logo maintained the diamond shape but gained cleaner, more dynamic and angular lines. A seventies design that has since been revised to reflect the new more rounded lines of the brand’s styling cues. The current diamond badge has been in use since 1992, though the Renault brand logo was updated in 2007 when a square of yellow and the word Renault was added to form a new logo for print and web use. The yellow first appeared in the diamond badge of 1946 when Renault was nationalised.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Renault's European advertising made extensive use of Robert Palmer's song "Johnny and Mary". The earlier television advertisements used Palmer's original version, while a range of special recordings in different styles were produced during the 1990s; most famously Martin Taylor's acoustic interpretation which he released on his album Spirit of Django. Taylor recorded many alternate versions for Renault; the last being in 1998 for the launch of the all-new Renault Clio.
Renault sponsored and was heavily featured in Le Visionarium a time-travel film at Disneyland Paris.
The original French pronunciation of Renault is [ʁəˈno]. In the United Kingdom it is commonly pronounced /ˈrɛnoʊ/. When its cars were exported to the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, the name was commonly pronounced /rɨˈnɔːlt/ to and by the American public, and the Americanized pronunciation continues in common usage, though the original French-influenced /rɨˈnoʊ/ has gained over recent years.
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