An intrinsic part of the history of France in the 20th century, including the First World War, the industrialisation of the motor car, popular movements, the changing lifestyle and travel habits of the French, sporting event highlights, and so on, the Renault brand is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year. It has been involved in the emancipation of an entire country and its story is in some ways similar to our own.By exploring the 50 or so cars that will be exhibited throughout the summer at Autoworld, visitors will be immersed in a period which they themselves experienced or which they will want to share with other generations.To help with this, we have added three topics to the audio guides: the history of the brand, the history of Renault and motor sport.
Renault has had three lives. That of its founder, Louis Renault, that of the nationalised company in the post-war period and that of Renault SA as we know it today. Each stage was marked by an event that forced the manufacturer to adapt to changing needs and new technologies and, above all, to anticipate.
Louis Renault – the early days
In 1898, Louis Renault built, for his personal travel, his first car – the Type A – in a workshop set up behind his parents’ house. A small, single-cylinder car with a De Dion-Bouton engine, it had several characteristics that were remarkable for the time: a tubular chassis, a steering wheel, a three-speed gearbox and universal joint transmission. The bicycle chain had therefore disappeared. The car drove up the famous rue Lepic in Montmartre in full view of inquisitive and admiring onlookers, which, for Louis Renault, opened the way to a large number of orders and a new life as a car manufacturer. That was the beginning of the adventure.The company Renault Frères was founded by Louis, Marcel (who died in 1903 in the dreadful Paris-Madrid race) and Fernand, and was based in Billancourt, in the suburbs of Paris.The first cars were luxury cars, built according to the wishes of the very wealthy customers.
In around 1905-1908, during the Belle Epoque, Renault discovered the taxi market. It won the contract for the taxis in Paris and developed its famous AG1, which is commonly referred to as the Renault taxi, or the Taxi of the Marne. It was considered robust, economical and efficient. In no time, the orders rose from 500 to 1500 taxis per year. Renault then pondered the production method for a single model. “And should we use the same production method as in the United States?”, wondered Louis Renault. He went to America and studied the assembly line model but decided that France was not yet ready for it. Utilitarian cars, intended for his customers’ businesses, were another important market. It was in the mid-1920s that he decided to build more economical cars for a more working-class customer base. He moved into mass production and, to this end, built a new factory in Île Seguin.From that moment, Renault became a multimarket manufacturer, offering solutions for all kinds of customers.During the crisis of the 1930s, the company sought solutions to get through the situation and continued to offer the right car to the right people at the right time. One such solution was the Juvaquatre, which was lighter and therefore cheaper thanks to its monocoque body shell.
The war – the break – the Régie Nationale des Usines Renault
The break came with the war. It was painful: the Renault factories were occupied, Louis Renault died at the end of the war after being accused of collaboration, and the factory was requisitioned and reclaimed by the French government. It became the Régie Nationale des Usines Renault. However, during the occupation, some engineers and technicians who were members of the Resistance worked on what they believed would be the people’s car, a very cheap car. It was a very small car with a very small engine (at that time, the smallest engine in Renault’s history) positioned at the rear because that was cheaper. Launched in October 1946, the 4CV, nicknamed “la motte de beurre” (the lump of butter) because of the yellowish colour of the early models, immediately became the symbol of the first paid holidays.
The second president of the Régie Renault, Pierre Dreyfus, wanted to change the notion of the car and develop it in line with society. He wanted a multipurpose car, for town- and country-dwellers, men and women, work and leisure. With this objective in mind, Renault invented a so-called volume car. The first was the Renault 4 (1961), which had the particular characteristic of a tailgate (a door at the rear). This also meant that if you lifted up the bench seat you could increase the space in the vehicle. The Renault 16 was launched during the Baby Boom era; it was adaptable and suitable for growing families.
1972 saw the birth of the Renault 5 to cope with the petrol crisis; this was an economical city car which only consumed 4l/100km but it was also one of the first cars targeted specifically at young people and women, with rounded shapes that were intended to appeal to those markets.
In the 1980s, with the Espace, Renault made a fundamental contribution to people’s understanding of how society and the family were evolving. It was, so to speak, the transition from the living room to the car space: the seats could be adjusted and the car journey started to become a very different experience. In 1992, the Twingo reconnected with the very small cars and, 20 years later, in 2012, the Zoé brought Renault into the 100% electric era.
Thus, from its earliest beginnings, Renault has continuously adapted to the new lifestyles of French people and made their lives easier.
High-level competition and sport for all
From the Type K (the first Renault car to win a motor race – the Paris-Vienna in 1992) to the F1 racing cars, Renault has always been involved in motor sport at the highest level. And also in motor sport for all, with the 4CV and the famous Renault 8 in the Coupe Gordini, where everyone had to drive the same car and compete on lower budgets.
(article adapted from a video interview with Jean-Louis Loubet, Professor of history at the University of Evry and Renault brand specialist)