Along with such cars as the Volkswagen Beetle, Morris Minor and Fiat 500, the Dauphine pioneered the modern continental economy car. Renault marketed variants of the Dauphine, including a sport model, the Gordini, a luxury version, the Ondine, the 1093 factory racing model, and the Caravelle/Floride, a Dauphine-based two-door convertible.
As Louis Renault's successor, and as Renault's chairman, Pierre Lefaucheux had continued to defy the postwar French Ministry of Industrial Production — which had wanted to convert Renault solely to truck manufacture. Lefaucheux instead had seen Renault's survival in automobile rather than truck manufacture, and had achieved considerable success with the 4CV, with over 500,000 produced by 1954. The Dauphine was born during a conversation with Lefaucheux and engineer Picardy Fernand, when the two agreed that while the 4CV was appropriate in its postwar context, French consumers would soon need a car appropriate for their increasing standard of living.
Internally known as "Project 109" the Dauphine's engineering began in 1949 with engineers Fernand Picardy, Robert Barthaud and Jacques Ousset managing the project.
A 1951 survey conducted by Renault indicated design parameters of a car with a top speed of 110 km/h (68 mph), seating for four passengers and fuel consumption of less than 7 L/100 km (40 mpg-imp; 34 mpg-US). The survey indicated that women held stronger opinions about a car's colors than the car itself. Engineers spent the next five years developing the Dauphine. Within the first year, designers had created a ⅛th scale clay model, studied the model's aerodynamics, built a full scale clay model, studied wood interior mockups of the seating, instrument panel, and steering column — and built the first prototype in metal.
Having largely finalized the exterior design, testing of the prototype began at Renault's facilities at Lardy, France — by secrecy of night, on July 24, 1952.
Using new laboratories and new specially designed tracks, engineers measured maximum speed, acceleration, braking and fuel consumption as well as handling, heating and ventilation, ride, noise levels — and parts durability. Engineers tested parts by subjecting them to twisting and vibration stresses, and then redesigning the parts for manufacture.
By August 1953, head engineer Picardy had an almond green prototype delivered to Madrid for dry condition testing — ultimately experiencing only five flat tires and a generator failure after 2,200 km (1,400 mi). Subsequently, Lefaucheux ordered engineers to test a Dauphine prototype directly against a Volkswagen Beetle. The engineers determined that noise levels were too high, interior ventilation and door sealing were inadequate and most importantly, the engine capacity was insufficient at only four CV (748 cc). The four-cylinder engine was redesigned to increase its capacity to 845 cc by increasing the bore to 58 mm — giving the car a new informal designation, the 5CV. By 1954, a second series of prototypes incorporated updates, using the older prototypes for crash testing. Lefaucheux followed the testing carefully — often meeting with his engineers for night testing to ensure secrecy — but did not live to see the Dauphine enter production. He was killed in an automobile accident on February 11, 1955, when he lost control of his Renault Frégate on an icy road and was struck on the head — by his unsecured luggage as the car rolled over. The Flins factory was renamed in his honor, and he was succeeded on the project by Pierre Dreyfus.
By the end of testing, drivers had road tested prototypes in real world conditions including dry weather and dusty condition testing in Madrid, engine testing in Bayonne, cold testing at the Arctic Circle in Norway, suspension testing in Sicily, weatherseal testing in then-Yugoslavia — with more than two-million kilometers of road and track testing.
In December 1955, Pierre Bonin (director of the Flins Renault Factory) and Fernand Picard presented the first example to leave the factory to Pierre Dreyfus, who'd taken over the project after the death of Pierre Lefaucheux.
Renault first officially revealed the model's existence to the press through L’Auto Journal and L’Action Automobile et Touristique in November 1955 — referring to it simply by its unofficial model designation "the 5CV". Advance press preview testing began on February 4, 1956, under the direction of Renault press secretary Robert Sicot, with six Dauphines shipped to Corsica. Journalists were free to drive anywhere on the island, while under contract not to release publication before March 1, 1956.
The Dauphine debuted on March 6, 1956 at Paris' Palais de Chaillot with over twenty thousand people attending, two days before its official introduction at the 1956 Salon International de l'Auto in Geneva.
In addition to its internal project number, Project 109, the prototype had been called by its unofficial model designation, the "5CV" and Lefaucheux, Renault's chairman, often simply called it L' machine de Flins (the Flins machine), referring to the Flins factory where Renault would ultimately initiate its production.
Renault considered the name Corvette for its new model, but to avoid a conflict with the recently launched Chevrolet Corvette instead chose a name that reinforced the importance of the project's predecessor, the 4CV, to France's postwar industrial rebirth. The final name was attributed to a dinner conversation at the l'auberge de Port-Royal, chaired by Picardy Fernand, where either Jean-Richard Deshaies or Marcel Wiriath said "the 4CV is the Queen, the new arrival can only be the Dauphine. Dauphine in this case, loosely translates to heiress or successor to the throne — Dauphine being the feminine form of the French feudal title of Dauphin, from the Latin delphinus. Ironically, both Robert Opron and Flaminio Bertoni of Citroën had wanted to name the Citroën Ami6 the Dauphine, though by that time, Renault had registered the name.
At introduction, the Dauphine was positioned in the marketplace between the concurrently manufactured 4CV, and the much larger Frégate. The new model following the 4CV's rear-engine, four-door sedan in a three-box format while providing greater room and power — and pioneering a new focus for Renault on interior and exterior color and design.
The Dauphine used a version of the 4CV's water-cooled Ventoux engine with power increased from 760 cc to 845 cc and 19–32 hp (14–24 kW). According to Road & Track, the Dauphine accelerated from 0–110 km/h (0–68 mph) in 32 seconds. Engine cooling was facilitated by air intakes behind each rear door and a vented rear fascia.
Heavier and 12 in (300 mm) longer than its predecessor, the 4-door body featured monocoque construction with "a pair of perimeter-shaped longitudinal box sections and substantial cross-bracing", but without the 4CV's rear-hinged suicide doors.
Swing axle suspension characteristics: : camber change on bumps, jacking on rebound Transmissions: Renault offered a three speed manual transmission for the Dauphine, with synchronizers on 2nd and 3rd gear. In October 1961 synchromesh was provided for the 1st gear. There was also the option of automatic transmission beginning in 1957 with an electromagnetically operated Ferlec clutch and no separate clutch pedal — similar to Volkswagen's Autostick. Unlike the VW transmission's floor-mounted stickshift, the Renault's transmission was controlled by three dash-mounted buttons.
Renault Dauphine Drive Layout Suspension: Front suspension was conventional coil-spring/wishbone layout with an anti-roll bar and rack-and-pinion steering, on a detachable front cross member. Rear suspension was a high-pivot swing axle with concentric coil-spring/telescopic dampers sitting atop the swing tubes which Renault called trumpet casings. With the exception of the trunnion arms in the transaxle housing, there was no fore-aft 'location' of the rear suspension. The pressed engine/transaxle/suspension mounting member was detachable from the main body structure. 61% of the Dauphine's weight was carried by the rear wheels.
The rear swing axle design, which unless ameliorated by any of several options, can allow rear tires to undergo large camber changes during fast cornering, leading to oversteer — a dynamically unstable condition where a vehicle can lose control and spin. Renault relied on a front anti-roll bar as well as tire pressure differential to eliminate oversteer characteristics — low front and high rear tire pressure — and induce understeer. The tire pressure differential strategy offered the disadvantage that owners and mechanics could inadvertently but easily re-introduce oversteer characteristics by over-inflating the front tires. In 1960, Renault revised the suspension with the addition of extra rubber springs up front and auxiliary air spring units (mounted inboard of the conventional coils) at the rear — marketing the system as Aerostable — and giving the rear wheels a small degree of negative camber and increased cornering grip.
Engine configuration: Speaking about the Dauphine's rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, Renault's Fernand Picard said in a paper he delivered in 1957 that the car was part of a rear-engine trend led by Volkswagen, Fiat and Renault whereby the rear drive/rear engine configuration had increased from 2.6% of continental western Europe's car production in 1946 to 26.6% in 1956. The United Kingdom auto industry, which had also managed largely to avoid the front-engine/front-wheel-drive trend of the 1930s, was excluded from Picard's figures.
Styling and Interior
The Dauphine used a three-box design of the ponton genre, with cargo volume forward and engine volume rearward.
Overall, Dauphine styling was a scaled down version of the Renault Frégate, itself a classic three-box design of the ponton genre. Renault received styling assistance for the Dauphine at the request of Pierre Lefaucheux in June 1953 from Luigi Segre of Carrozzeria Ghia, especially with integrating the engine's air intake at the rear doors.
The Dauphine had a front-hinged trunklid, which housed the headlights and opened to a seven-cubic-foot trunk. The spare tire was carried horizontally under the front of the car, behind an operable panel below the bumper. The interior featured adjustable front bucket seats and a rear bench seat, a heater, painted dash matching the exterior, twin courtesy lamps, a white steering wheel, rear bypassing (vs. roll down) windows, twin horns (town and country) selectable by the driver and twin open bins on the dashboard in lieu of gloveboxes. Exterior finishes included a range of pastel colors. Subsequent to its introduction, and as a promotion for both companies (and an early instance of co-branding), Renault worked with Jacques Arpels of the prominent jewelers Van Cleef and Arpels to turn a Dauphine dashboard into a work of art.
Marrot at Renault Main article: Paule Marrot In 1950, the president of General Motors (GM) had visited Renault, noting the cars' drab colors, inside and out.According to their own 1951 Survey, Renault's studies had shown that women held stronger opinions on the colors of a car than the actual choice of a particular model. Coincidentally, well-known Parisian textile artist Paule Marrot (1902–1987) had written Renault's chairman, Pierre Lefaucheux, giving her opinion that the cars of postwar Paris were a uniformly somber parade — and wondering whether an artist could not help find fresh, vibrant colors.
Marrot had attended Paris' prestigious L’école des Arts Décoratifs, had won a gold medal in 1925 at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes and had received a 1928 Prix Blumenthal.
Convinced of her value to the project, Pierre Lefaucheux made her a member of the Dauphine team — "to rid Renault of their stuffy image. After decades of being dipped in various shades of black and grey, car bodies [would be] painted in happy pastels."
Working with four others and after setting up a new test laboratory to measure fabric wear as well as paint wear and uniformity, Marrot proposed new body and interior colors. The new paint colors contrasted with the colors from the competition, the Peugeot 203 and Simca Aronde, including bright colors with names including Rouge Montijo, Jaune Bahamas, Bleu Hoggar and Blanc Réja. Marrot and her team then developed complementary interior fabrics for the seats and door panels, turning to Paris' large textile houses. Marrot also designed the Dauphine's emblem, with three dolphins over a crown, which would adorn the Dauphine's steering wheel and hood throughout its production.
Later in life, Marrot went on to win the French Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor), and Marrot's textiles were later licensed by companies as diverse as Nike and Hayden-Harnett.
Renault offered the Ondine with a 4-speed transmission, from 1960 to 1962. Renault offered the Gordini with a 4-speed transmission, 4-wheel disc brakes, and increased horsepower, performance tuned by Amédée Gordini to 37 hp (27.2 kW). Renault offered a limited edition of 2,140 a homologated factory racing model called the 1093, which were similarly tuned to 55 hp (41 kW) and featured a twin-barrel carburettor, rear track rods, four-speed manual transmission and tachometer, had a top speed of 140 km/h (87 mph), and were produced in 1962 and 1963 — all with white paint and two thin blue stripes running front to back along the hood, roof and trunk.
Renault manufactured the Dauphine at its Flins factory, with a car leaving the assembly line every 20–30 seconds — and with engines from the company's headquarters factory on Île Seguin in Billancourt, Paris. The highly automated Billancourt site could produce an engine every 28 seconds.
The Dauphine was also manufactured worldwide: Argentina: Industrias Kaiser Argentina produced 97,209 units of IKA Dauphine and Gordinis. Dauphine (1960–1966), Gordini (1962–1970) Renault 850 (1967–1970) Brazil: The Dauphine was also produced under license by Willys-Overland, between 1959 and 1968, in the following versions: Dauphine: 23,887 units (1959–1965); "Gordini" 41,052 units (1962–1968); "Renault 1093": 721 units (1963–1965); "Teimoso" (simplified model, without accessories): 8,967 units (1965–1967). A total of 74,627 units was produced in Brazil.
Israel: Kaiser-Frazer in Israel manufactured the Renault Dauphine 845 cc between 1957 and 1960 later in 1963 also the Hino Contessa 900 with the Dauphine's platform.
Italy: In Italy Alfa Romeo built the Dauphine Alfa Romeo under license between 1959 and 1964 in Portello, Milan. Differences with the French model are: electricity (Magneti-Marelli) 12 Volts, special lights, and the logo "Dauphine Alfa Romeo" or "Ondine Alfa Romeo".
New Zealand: Dauphines were assembled under contract to W R Smallbone Ltd by Todd Motors' Petone plant from 1961 to 1967, according to Mark Webster's book Assembly. This lists 1964 output at 199 units, 384 in 1965, 354 in 1966 and 233 in 1967. Renault assembly shifted in 1967 to Campbell Industries in Thames and Campbell Motors took over the franchise in 1968. Campbell's also assembled the Hino Contessa from 1966 to 1968. When Renault assembly began in Australia in the late 1960s, Campbell's supplied jigs. Japan: In Japan, the Hino MotorsHino Contessa 900 used the Dauphine's platform under license.
Spain: In Spain, Renault's subsidiary F.A.S.A built Dauphine FASA between 1958-1967 (125,912 units).
United States: The Dauphine was the base vehicle for the electric Henney Kilowatt. Among the aftermarket options for the Dauphine was a supercharger from United States company Judson Research & Mfg. Co.; this sold in 1958 for US$165, and was designed to be installed in about two hours without any chassis or body modifications.
By the early 1960s, Renault's sought to avoid the single-model-culture that had nearly destroyed Volkswagen, accelerating the development of the Dauphine's successor, the R8, which supplemented the Dauphine in 1962. Renault celebrated the end of Dauphine production with a limited edition of 1000 models. The last of the base-model Dauphines was produced in December 1966 and the last Gordini models were made in 1968.
In 1956, according to a retrospective in The Independent, when the Dauphine debuted "it proved an almost instant success across the globe: the new coachwork was deemed highly elegant, the price was low, and the Dauphine's overall size was still suitable for congested Parisian streets."
In 1957, the US motoring weekly, The Motor, called the Dauphine the "prettiest little four-seater in the world".
In June 1957, Popular Science gave a phonetic tip on how to pronounce the car's name as Renno DOUGH-feen, saying "the car feels and acts like a Detroit product, despite the caboose engine" and adding "Nimble, it reaches 50mph in 19 seconds. It darts through traffic like a beagle after a cottontail." By 1958, Popular Science had both good and bad to report, saying "It has a host of exquisite touches, you can lock the steering wheel with the ignition key, an ideal frustration for thieves. Choking is automatic. The engine, for its size, is one of Europe's best. Driver visibility is good. The ride is soft, the cornering excellent. Overall maneuverability may be tops among the more popular imports. The owners manual is the most complete." On the negative side, the magazine said "Yet the Dauphine incorporates a bag of annoyances peculiar to itself. On the car tested, too much reach was required in moving the transmission-mounted shift lever. There was inadequate toe clearance above the pedals. In an anxiety to shrink the body, the maker intrudes the wheel wells into the front compartment. Passengers have to stoop and squat to get in. The doors lack hold-opens. The transmission whines. Too-liberal use of plastics cheapens an otherwise attractive interior and inclusion of two-toned horns for town and country is — for the U.S.A. — pure caprice. But the real fault of this car is low power and too-ambitious transmission and axle ratios. Above 40 mph the remarkably quiet little engine begins sighing over its chores. It has a marked reluctance for passing at highway speeds. Will Paris please synchronize that first gear?"
In 1962, Road & Track tested the Dauphine Gordini and called it peevish, with a top speed of 80 mph (130 km/h) and a 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time of 22.3 seconds.
In 1969, Motor Trend said "There is nothing in the handling at normal speeds to indicate that the engine is stowed in the rear but push up to some high-speed cornering and the rear end becomes quite skittish, requiring skilled control of an oversteer condition that presents itself."
A retrospective in The Evening Chronicle noted the Dauphine's propensity to rust if not given careful attention, saying also a Dauphine "has to be treated with a lot of respect because it was one of the true pioneers of the modern continental car."
In July 2010, Jonathan Burnette, a Texas mechanic set out to drive his 1959 Dauphine to Alaska and back, saying he "I've driven these cars all over the country, many, many times, and I've never had that much trouble at all. A lot of people don't like this car, so it's kind of like the underdog."
In 1966, a Renault press statement said Dauphine production passed the million mark in just four years — more quickly than any other car manufactured in Europe.
In the United Kingdom, the Dauphine was one of the first imported cars to sell in large numbers, in a market formerly dominated by British manufacturers and local subsidiaries of American manufacturers.
A total of 2,150,738 Dauphines were produced in its production run of 10 years.
A 1958 Time article said: "The car that has come up fastest in the US market in the past year is Renault's Dauphine. A snub-nosed 32-hp Sedan, it is low-priced, economical and small enough to shoehorn into a small parking space." The same article said "The Dauphine is already outselling Volkswagen in eleven U.S. states, including Texas. So brisk is demand that Renault and the French Line have formed a new shipping company CAT (Compagnie d'Affrètement et de Transport). with six freighters that ferry up to 1,060 Dauphines each across the Atlantic. To serve the U.S. buyer, Renault in just 18 months has also built a nationwide network of 16 U.S. distributors and 410 dealers."
After initial success in the U.S. market, the Dauphine began to suffer. An internal agent, Bernard Hanon (who would later become chairman of Renault), conducted a thorough market study that signaled trouble — sending his report to the director of Renault Inc. in New York. The director filed the report without acting on it — the report was found years later by envoys from corporate headquarters in Billancourt. The damage had already been done; thousands of unordered Dauphines sat at ports worldwide, decaying. The damage to Renault was immense; and Régie Renault faced the first serious crisis in its history. By October 1960, a slump hit imported cars in the US, and Time said "In August the U.S. imported 50% fewer French cars than in July, and for the first six months of the year imports ran 33% below the rate for the same period in 1959. Two ships loaded with Renault Dauphines were turned back in mid-Atlantic because the docks in New York were already overcrowded with unsold Dauphines."
In the U.S., Renault sold 28,000 Dauphines in 1957, 57,000 in 1958 and 102,000 in 1959 — falling to 12,106 by 1966.
A 2008 retrospective article in The Independent said "as soon as the US market had come to grips with the Dauphine's swing-axle manners and useless acceleration, they were pole-axed by its abysmal corrosion record. It would take only one New York winter of driving on salt-strewn roads to give a Dauphine front wings that resembled net curtains."
In 1967, in debut U.S. magazine advertising for the Dauphine's successor, Renault said: "Our earlier cars were not fully prepared to meet the demands of America... More than a fair share of things went wrong with our cars. Less than a fair share of our dealers were equipped to deal with what went wrong," describing the Dauphine's replacement as "The Renault for people who swore they would never buy another one."
In a 2000 survey Car Talk named the Dauphine the 9th Worst Car Of The Millennium, calling it "truly unencumbered by the engineering process" — albeit in a survey where Tom Magliozzi called the voters "a self-selecting bunch of wackos, most of whom are really aggravated by a bad experience with one of the cars".
In 2007, Time with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Neil named the Dauphine one of the 50 Worst Cars of All Time, calling it "the most ineffective bit of French engineering since the Maginot Line" and saying that it could actually be heard rusting