Buyer’s guide Renault Dauphine. A refined and comfortable small saloon with sporting pretensions, the Dauphine is now a rare sight. Words Malcolm McKay. Photography Will Williams.
retty to look at and entertaining to drive, the Dauphine was a great global success for Renault. It catered for customers who could afford to spend just a little extra to get a car more ‘special’ than the base-model 4CV, and later Renault 4. The tight turning circle, fuel economy, surprisingly spacious four-door interior and large front boot also made Dauphines ideal for use as taxicabs – and an Uber-style launch in London led some black-cab drivers to ram them when they saw them!
Lightweight construction was one of the Dauphine’s secrets, giving it great performance for its size and power – but the very thin steel (22/23-gauge on non-structural panels) rusted through in a few years – or less in severe environments. Poor-quality steel, even more rot-prone than normal, afflicted 1959-’1963 models; Dauphine survival numbers are low because of rust extermination and it should be top of your list of things to check when buying. Ask yourself: is rot present, has it been hidden and, if repaired, has it been done safely and correctly?
Built in the world’s most highly automated car factory of the late 1950s, turning out more than 200,000 examples a year, the Dauphine’s advanced features included an automatic choke, steering-column lock ignition/starter, childproof door locks from 1961 and, on Gordini/ Export models from ’1964, all-disc brakes. From the start, tuning parts were offered by Renault through the Gordini brand, to boost power and offer four-speed or even five-speed gearsets that fitted in the standard three-speed housing – although the tuned engine made the handling distinctly tail-happy. Competition success followed: the Dauphine team finished 2-3-4 in the GT/Special Series class of the 1956 Mille Miglia and Dauphines won the ’1957 Tulip Rally, ’1958 Rallye Monte-Carlo and ’1959 Alpine Rally.
Dauphines were assembled worldwide, including in Acton, London, but poor quality control contributed to the end of assembly there in 1961. Elsewhere production continued for longer, especially in Argentina where it remained into the 1970s; some current parts supply, especially panels, emanates from Argentina. Meanwhile, Renault developed the stylish rear-engined theme with the Floride and Caravelle coupé and convertible, both of which were based on the Dauphine; while even more desirable, they are unfortunately equally rust-prone.
BUYER’S GUIDE Trouble spots
UNDERNEATH Corrosion is the biggest enemy: check sills, floors, chassis rails and outriggers
FRONT/REAR WINGS Both inner and outer wings rot, plus adjacent bulkhead panels
DOORS They corrode from the bottom up, and the top down
ENGINE Check for cracks; new pistons and liners are needed every 50,000 miles or so to keep the motor fresh
ALLOY HEAD Corrosion can cause leaks and overheating, especially if the internal steel pipe has failed
TRIM DAMAGE Materials and parts are in France, unless unique to Acton-built cars
SUSPENSION Check for play, because kingpins can wear if servicing is neglected
The Dauphine was the most fashionable small saloon to be seen in, thanks to attractive styling that concealed the rear engine location.
Look for excessive engine oil leaks and heavy breathing (or knocking) that can indicate the wet-liner ‘four’ is nearing rebuild time: new pistons and liners are still available and easy to change. Check the left side of the block, 3in above the sump, for cracks. The fibre gear in the camshaft drive gets noisy when worn.
Poor performance and economy are usually down to a worn carburettor; units are available, as are parts for the normally reliable automatic choke.
Michelin tyres are excellent but cost more than £100 each; Toyos or Nankangs are cheaper. Brakes seize if rarely used and kingpins wear.
Until ’1962, most cars were three-speed with non-synchro first, so practise your double-declutching. Four-speed gearbox is well worth seeking out.
Seat materials or good used parts can be found at French autojumbles, although not for Acton-built cars; even so, body is more critical than trim.
Low weight helps give the Dauphine lively performance, especially in four-speed models, combined with remarkable economy. The heavy rearward weight bias only makes itself known when the car is thrown around violently, and superb rally performances in period show it could have more advantages than disadvantages.
Find a good one with a four-speed gearbox, and maybe some Gordini fettling, and you’ll have great fun in the Dauphine.
On the road
Low weight and low gearing give the Dauphine a lively feel if the engine is in good fettle; a worn engine and/or carburettor means lacklustre performance (check also for exhaust smoke and oil leaks). The camshaft is driven by a chain of three gears, the middle one fibre to keep noise down – if the gear-train is noisy, the fibre gear is failing. A full engine rebuild shouldn’t cost more than £1500 and parts are readily available, but a cracked block is expensive to repair.
Transmissions improved significantly during production and you have to be a purist to like the original three-speed without synchro on first; four-speeds are much more usable. The optional Ferodo-made Ferlac electro-magnetic clutch is clever and there’s no need to avoid it; club experts know how to set it up. If engagement is abrupt, it needs to be realigned soon. Electrics were 6V until 1962 and are perfectly adequate if kept in good fettle (low-energy LEDs can help), but later cars’ 12V systems are better and cheaper to maintain.
Rubber-cone auxiliary springs (Aerostable suspension) were added in late 1959 on French cars, from mid-1960 on British-built ones, alongside softer coil springs. This was meant to allow compliance for unladen and fully laden conditions (a full load of passengers and luggage weighs half as much again as the car itself), but was not a great success and was abandoned for 1962. The rubber cones are hard to find now, so conversion to standard suspension may be wise.
“When I was 18 my father bought a Dauphine,” recalls Stuart Kitchen. “It was the sexiest thing on wheels at the time, but he sold it after 18 months because my mother couldn’t cope with the nonsynchro first – and it had already started rusting. Eighteen years ago I decided to relive that memory and my wife bid on this one for me at auction. It has led a sheltered life, covering only 46,000 miles in 58 years. It’s never been restored and I had the engine rebuilt just as a precaution at 45k, and had the radiator re-cored because it was running hot. Unfortunately, I now need to replace the original door seals – they went sticky last summer. It’s a 1963 French-built car with four-speed ’box and 12Velectrics: we took it to the 50th-birthday gathering in France.” “My father had to sell our first Dauphine because mymother couldn’t cope with the non-synchro first – and the car was rusting”
MORRIS MINOR 1000 1956-’1971, 847,491 built Greater weight and dated styling but 37bhp 948cc – then, from 1962, 48bhp 1098cc – engines and 12V electrics. Rust is the killer.
Price now £2500-12,500
VW BEETLE 1200 1954-’1964, 7,267,899 built
More torque but no more power from the unburstable air-cooled flat-four, with 6V electrics and a four-speed gearbox.
Price now £5000-20,000
Prices have gone a bit silly in France for verified examples of the rare Rally 1093 model, but Gordinis and regular Dauphines still represent good-value, usable classics – provided you keep on top of the rust bug. Restored cars aren’t as light as originals – they may not be as lively, either. Make sure repairs have been done properly.
FOR Great looking and surprisingly spacious; most parts are available and affordable
AGAINST Rampant rust from new destroyed Dauphine survival rates and still blights many today.
One you can buy
Recorded mileage 9580km
Asking price £14,950
Vendor Michael Horley, East Sussex; tel: 07747 607543
For Very original; may be the find of the decade
Against Needs some detail help (paint, trim, side-window rubbers)
It sounds incredible, but this R1094 (Gordini replacement, but with standard 28bhp engine and four-speed) Dauphine’s odometer appears to be telling the truth. Yes, the speedo drive is broken, but the floor mats and pedal rubbers are almost like new – as is the way it drives.
It was put away in a barn when the owner got a new job in Paris, and sold in 2015 by relatives. The vendor is only letting it go because knee surgery means it’s hard to get in and out.
It’s not perfect, with a couple of dings in the roof over an average older respray, and a few bubbles in the paint here and there, but it is very straight and solid, and apparently rot-free – the sill seams and floors are perfect. The bumper chrome is good, but both of the aluminium side intake vents are lightly dented.
Inside, it’s all good apart from slightly stained headlining and a couple of splits in the passenger seat – the vinyl can be restitched – plus a few repairs at the top of the rear seat. The dash is perfect except for a hole where a radio used to be. It starts easily and the motor settles into a quiet idle with no tappet noise. It drives nicely, with a taut ride and decent synchros backing up that low mileage, and the temperature sits low.
There’s no structural rot, with good sill seams and floors. Engine bay has been refinished, but the speedo is broken. One seat needs to be stitched but the interior is very good.
1955 Dec First production Dauphines built
1956 Feb Dauphine launched
1957 Sep Gordini model added with four-speed gearbox, 36bhp
1958 Sep Compression raised, vacuum advance added: 31bhp, better performance and economy
1959 Sep Aerostable suspension introduced
1960 Nov Four-speed ’box optional on standard, cars (Deluxe Dauphine called Ondine in France)
1961 UKassembly at Acton ends; Gordini Deluxe launched in the UK
1962 Compression raised again, 12 Velectrics, Aerostable and Ferlec dropped, three-speed goes all-synchro; LHD Rally 1093 model with 55bhp @ 5600rpm and 87mph top speed
1964 Gordini gets all-disc brakes and all-synchro four-speed
1967 French production ends
1970 Argentinian production ends
Sold/number built 1955-’1967/2,150,738
Construction steel monocoque
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 845cc ‘four’, with Solex carb
Max power 27bhp @ 4250rpm to 36bhp @ 5000rpm
Max torque 49lb ft @ 2500rpm to 48lb ft @ 3300rpm
Transmission three/four-speed manual, optional Ferlec electric clutch, RWD
Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear swing axles; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes 9in hydraulic drums (10 1/5 in discs for Gordini from 1964)
Length 12ft 11in (3937mm)
Width 5ft (1524mm)
Height 4ft 9in (1441mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 5in (2267mm)
Weight 1428-1456lb (649-662kg)
0-60mph 28-40 secs
Top speed 67-74mph
Price new £689/821 (1960)
CLUBS AND FORUMS
Renault Classic Car Club 01825712916; www.renaultclassiccarclub.com
Renault Owners’ Club www.renaultownersclub.com
Alpine Renault Restoration alpinerenaultrestoration.com
Reno speed www.renospeed.co.uk
4a www.auto4a.com Der Franzose franzose.de
Arnaud Ventoux Pièces piece-alpine-r8.fr Ichard ichard.fr Station50station50.fr
Neo Retro neoretrofrance.com
Melun Retro Passion melun-retro-passion.com
WHAT TO PAY