Vive la révolution! Renault 5 Régie’s baby and 120 years of watersheds. This year, Renault celebrates its 120th anniversary. So Octane travels to France to uncover the charms of La Régie’s revolutionary baby: the Renault 5. Photography Andy Morgan. Words Glen Waddington.
120 YEARS OF RENAULT
Pottering about rural France, it’s easy to be won over by the charms of this coquettish little Renault 5. It’s demure yet sassy in its navy blue paint, which makes for a classy colour combo with the stretchy tan cloth interior. These days it looks so slender, too, especially when you spy a new Clio hulking nearby. And its pert angularity is French chic made metal. Makes you feel like an extra in a Jean-Luc Godard film.
It’s fair to say that, with 956cc and 43bhp, the R5 is not the most obviously exciting car ever to have featured in the pages of Octane. But it’s far from the least significant. As a metaphor for the 120-year history of Renault, it’s possibly even more appropriate than the R4 it followed. Renault itself suggests that the brand has been forged by values expressed through models that combine automotive passion, exploration, family, work and play – and emancipation. And the R5 not only espouses liberté and égalité to the core of its little monocoque body, but adds a dose of sisterhood to fraternité. That’s right. The R5 was La Régie’s response to the feminist movement. A world car for the ladies.
It sounds appallingly sexist now, of course: why would anyone define a car by the gender of its intended buyer? Yet in the late 1960s, when the R5 was conceived, society had been undergoing rapid change. Change that was needed. French women had earned the right to vote only after World War Two; married women could work only with their husband’s permission until 1965, and they hadn’t even been allowed to open their own bank accounts. The student protests and general strikes of May 1968 – half a century ago as Octane goes to press – caused a cultural, social and moral turning point in the history of the country. And rather than reacting to market demand, Renault saw itself as accelerating the social revolution, much as it had before with the launch of the baby 4CV to motorise the French masses, and subsequent voitures à vivre (‘cars for living’), as the utilitarian R4 and more comfort-orientated R16 were known (see respectively).
People were on the move in France, as many upped sticks from rural villages and settled into city suburbs. Increasingly, there were two incomes per household. Equally, those newly affluent yet scattered families needed a second car. And, in 1972, Renault introduced one aimed at working women and young mums.
‘The R5 was Renault’s crowning achievement,’ says French social historian Jean-Pierre Loubet. Echoing that movement from the countryside, we’ve parked our R5, for now, and gathered at Renault Classic in Flins, a few miles west of Paris, finding ourselves in a corner of Renault’s parts factory at which the gems of its heritage collection are housed. And we’ve paused right by a 1973 Renault 5, one of the oldest survivors, resplendent in bright orange paint with a matching shiny vinyl interior. ‘Renault’s chairman Pierre Dreyfus declared that he wanted “a car for the young”. They didn’t want to live like mum and dad. They wanted a car of their own. Especially young women. He wanted it to be fun,’ continues Loubet.
‘Women wanted a car with rounded edges, a softer style, and Michel Boué’s first drawings defined its silhouette.’ Early advertising for the R5 capitalised to the full on the expressive nature of the headlamps – and that distinctive nose was there from the start. So was the dramatically sloping tail, but what didn’t survive were full-length tail-lights that would have stretched from roofline down to bumper, though the bumpers themselves were a significant investment. Made from glassfibre-reinforced polyester and developed in partnership with Rhône-Poulenc, they would resist impacts up to 7km/h: a world-first. And from a styling point of view, they meant no sharp, metallic edges hanging off the body, front or rear.
Although it’s a few inches shorter, the R5 took the R4 as its mechanical basis, which means a longitudinal four-cylinder overhead-valve engine (only 782cc in basic form) set behind the front axle with the gearbox ahead of it, driving the front wheels. Suspension was soft and long in travel, sprung by torsion bars, though structurally the R5 differed in that its three-door body was a monocoque: the R4 had a separate platform chassis. And it was so sleek by comparison, with a drag coefficient of 0.37, very good for the era and truly excellent for such a short car – only 18 inches longer than a Mini. Sadly, Boué died just a year before his baby went into production. He’d begun the sketches for it in his spare time.
This was a pioneering car, heralding the arrival of the modern supermini along with the hatchback version of the Fiat 127, which turned up the same year, well ahead of rivals from Ford and Volkswagen. While a more grown-up five-door version was launched in 1979, the R5 was deliberately launched as a three-door – Renault’s first; even the gnat-like 4CV had four passenger doors.
‘It was a family-friendly design,’ says Loubet, ‘with a child compartment in the back. Mothers could put their children in the back seat and they would feel safe. And the boot had exactly the same capacity as a supermarket trolley. The R5 was perfect for suburban life, exactly aligned to societal changes.’
And Renault had long been in touch with the needs and desires of its market. Louis Renault might best have been described as a technology enthusiast rather than an engineer but, in the early days of motoring, he built himself a car. It was tiny, powered by a single-cylinder 1.75hp De Dion-Bouton engine, yet it was innovative in its lightweight tubular chassis and three-speed gearbox with shaft-drive, rather than chains. And it was stoic enough that Renault used it to prove a point. He chose one of Paris’s steepest streets, Rue Lepic, which leads up to Montmartre, where the famous Basilica de Sacré Coeur surveys the whole city from a hilltop. And so, on Christmas Eve 1898, his Type A voiturette made the climb from bottom to top without pause – quite a feat by the standards of the day. He took orders for 12 more straight away.
Louis Renault was only 21 years old, and his fledgling company grew from the grounds of his family’s home in the wealthy enclave of Boulogne-sur-Seine, just outside Paris. It was incorporated in 1899 as Société Renault Frères with his brothers Marcel and Fernand, whose business skills had already been proven in the family’s textile empire. Louis was the creative one.
The company grew quickly, but so did its products. Louis Renault was friendly with many of his customers, wealthy people who didn’t only want personal transport but also to show off in the process, and the march upmarket was typified at first by the 1908 AX with its 1.0-litre twin-cylinder, then only three years later by the astonishing 40CV, with a straight-six of up to 9.1 litres!
Yet there was pragmatism, too. In the Great Depression, Louis Renault declared: ‘I want a normal car.’ One that could help with economic recovery, not only for Renault but for its workers and supply chain: the company needed a car that would sell in numbers. And in 1931 the Primaquatre arrived, weighing 1000kg, with four doors and four seats, selling on the promise that its owner would ‘experience the joy of driving at speed while remaining within a budget’.
Renault’s factories were repurposed for the German war effort during occupation, and Louis Renault was imprisoned in 1945 for his collaboration, so the company was nationalised and reborn, with Pierre Lefaucheux in charge of the Régie Nationale des Usines Renault until his death in 1955. Under him it grew again, developing the tiny 4CV for urban dwellers, which weighed just 460kg and was powered by a 760cc ‘four’, rear-mounted to keep costs down. It was the first French car to sell more than a million units, with production during its 14-year career growing from 300 to 1000 cars per day, making Renault Europe’s biggest manufacturer of the time.
Other, more conservative rear-engined cars followed, production volumes grew yet further, and the next revolution was Pierre Dreyfus’s R4, a single-volume socalled ‘blue jeans’ car that capitalised on new French employment laws that granted paid holidays for workers: here was a car they could use to the maximum in their leisure time. Thus arrived what has since been called the world’s first hatchback, and it was Renault’s first front-wheel- drive car, a layout it has stuck to resolutely since. Yet the R4 was such a utilitarian device that it was equally suited to tradesmen and farmers. A more upmarket option arrived with the R16. And then came the R5…
The little blue car is waiting outside. Yep, it’s small, yet it feels less so inside – a reminder that 40-plus years ago we did without bulky safety aids and infotainment systems. It’s the same story in the luggage bay, which would easily hold a couple of suitcases.
There’s a familiar buzz from under the bonnet as the overhead-valve four fires, ever-present though not loud, physically smooth and with a friendly note. You shift gears through a floor-mounted lever that operates the ’box via cables: it’s vague and knuckly, yet ultra-quick when you’re on the move, which makes it a fair trade-off from the precise yet slow shift of the R4-inherited umbrella handle of early cars. That disappeared after just over a year, and made way for an air-vent in the dash.
The dash itself is a piece of modernist industrial design: simple yet stylish, with a straight-edged moulded binnacle ahead of the driver, containing speedo and fuel gauges plus a couple of switches (there’s little for them to operate), while the rest of the front bulkhead is covered in neat, ribbed, padded vinyl.
This isn’t a quick car, but it’s torquey and willing, making full use of its 45lb ft and well able to cruise comfortably at 60mph on Routes Nationales, though you probably wouldn’t fancy pushing it harder on the autoroute for long. It’s the ride that leaves a lasting impression, anyway. Few cars have ever matched the loping gait of the first-generation R5, which soothes its way along the road, softly sprung yet deftly damped, and while it rolls to an obvious degree in corners, the angle to which it leans is reached progressively and predictably. It’s a mollifying combination of charms that quickly wins you over, and brings back to mind something Jean-Pierre Loubet had said earlier: ‘This car is not about the driver.’ Indeed. And yet to drive it is still to love it.
Tech and photos
‘FEW CARS EVER MATCHED THE LOPING GAIT OF THE FIRST-GENERATION R5, WHICH SOOTHES ITS WAY ALONG THE ROAD’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1977 Renault 5TL
Engine 956cc four-cylinder, OHV, single carburettor
Max Power 43bhp @ 5500rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 45lb ft @ 3500rpm / DIN nett
Transmission Four-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: double wishbones, longitudinal torsion bars, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: trailing arms, transverse torsion bars, telescopic dampers.
Brakes Discs front, drums rear
Top speed 87mph
Facing page Engine is longitudinally mounted with the gearbox ahead of it, which releases space to stow the spare wheel; interior is simple, and features a neat instrument binnacle.
Left and right R5’s characterful shape was so recognisable that the second-generation ‘Supercinque’ of 1985 kept its essence intact; corner hard and you’ll have the car on its (minimalist) doorhandles.
In 120 years, Renault has come full-circle. Here’s how / IMAGES RENAULT COMMUNICATION
1898-1903 Type A voiturette
A bench seat, 273cc single-cylinder engine and very little else. An instant success that laid the foundation for Renault’s rapid growth.
1905-1910 Taxi de la Marne
Renault won the contract to build Paris’s taxis; the Type AG won its ‘Marne’ epithet when the fleet was requisitioned for World War One transportation.
Variously the French President’s daily driver, the 1925 Monte Carlo Rally winner, and a 24-hour speed record holder, with 7.5- or 9.1-litre engines.
Inspired by the Opel Olympia and conceived to attract new customers to the Renault brand, by being cheaper. Tough and simple.
Renault’s Beetle rival, dreamed up during the closing stages of World War Two. Tiny, lightweight, hugely popular; the car that put France on wheels.
The ‘World’s first hatchback’ was really a small estate, designed to make the most of leisure time for France’s newly mobile merchant classes.
1964-1969 R8 Gordini
French Racing Blue paint, white stripes, twin carbs and a crossflow head turned this boxy rear-engined saloon into a sporting icon.
Renault’s groundbreaking ‘executive’ car was a pragmatic device with a flexible hatchback design, brisk performance and fabulous comfort.
As dull as the R16 was interesting, but designed to be simple and robust so it could be sold – and built – anywhere. Truly put Renault on the map.
The archetypal supermini in its original form, and Renault has never topped it since. Few inexpensive cars have ever been so charismatic.
1977 RS01 F1 car
Renault’s first attempt at F1 wasn’t hugely successful, but it paved the way for today’s team. And Renault powered Mansell to Championship victory in ’1992.
1980 R5 Maxi Turbo
Take an R5, get Gandini to redesign its tail and stuff a 158bhp turbo engine under it. Then have Jean Ragnotti win the Monte in one.
Conceived and developed by Matra, made real by Renault as a plastic-skinned seven-seater: surely the ultimate expression of voiture à vivre.
Espace made small: Patrick le Quément developed a simple yet chic ‘one-box’ city car, in essence the earliest R5 reborn for the late 20th Century.
1996-1999 Renault Sport Spider
French Elise rival (with optional windscreen) was the first car to be badged Renault Sport, kicking off a plethora of brilliant hot hatches.
Back to the beginning: like the Type A voiturette, a tiny two-seater with ultra-lightweight construction – only this time it’s battery-powered.