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Car Feature. The #Renault-Fuego was a GT with style. Jamie Grigg first saw the Fuego as a student in high school, but he didn’t fall in love until serving a Mormon mission in Argentina in the mid-1980s. That South American nation, it turns out, is a hotbed for Fuego enthusiasts. “They continued to build the Fuego in Argentina into the ’90s. Renault moved all the tooling down to Argentina, and they continued to build it,” Jamie says.
His Fuego came from Maine. “A collector had it. They had a lot of French cars in a storage facility,” he recalls. “It was the exact car that I wanted, the year, the colour, the roof, it had everything that I wanted. And that’s why I bought it.
“I redid everything. I took it down to its unit body shell. I did a full restoration on it, except that the interior was in such good shape, it still has the original upholstery. But everything else was refinished in some way, with many, many new parts that were sourced from a variety of countries.” Membership in the Club Renault Fuego in Buenos Aires proved to be a big help. “They were more than happy to help me. And they were astonished that I had a Fuego!” he laughs. “They thought that was the funniest thing. They thought we [in the U.S.] were all about Camaros and Mustangs, and that was it.”
GT à la Mode In the 1980s, the Fuego was Renault’s best chance at winning a place in Americans’ hearts. Words and photography by David LaChance.
”French cars are quirky and sexy — it’s kind of hard to describe. I can’t think of a single French car maker that doesn’t have some kind of great design to its credit”
You have to admire the automakers of France for their self-confidence. Any stylist worth his Rapidograph can draw a car that will make jaws drop, but only a lucky few will see such designs actually make it to market. Those who toil for a French automaker have traditionally had a better chance than most. Over the years, Citroën has made that kind of audacity its calling card, putting a succession of daring designs into production. And, in the Eighties, the directors of Régie Nationale des Usines Renault were willing to prove that they, too, were brave enough to venture beyond the usual.
Renault already had a history of creating stylish, sporty coupes with family-sedan underpinnings; the 15 and 17 coupes of 1971 had sprouted from the mid-range 12 sedan, launched in 1969. When the 12 was shunted aside by the new 18 sedan in 1980, the 15 and 17 were retired, too, to be replaced by a sporty version of the 18. Rather than a number, the new model got a name: Fuego, Spanish for fire.
The overall shape was somewhat bulbous, the line rising from a low, windcheating nose to a roof tall enough to provide adequate headroom for two rear-seat passengers. The enormous rear window doubled as a hatchback, similar to that of the earlier Porsche 924. The side windows were panoramic, extending low enough to interrupt the gently bowed, ribbed plastic bands that were the car’s most memorable detail. The whole package boasted a drag coefficient factor of 0.34, then the slipperiest in the Renault range.
If you’re thinking that the whole exercise sounds very Citroën-like, with its emphasis on aerodynamics and distinctive styling, you’re not wrong. The styling of the Fuego is credited to Michel Jardin, a self-taught stylist whose first work was an updating of the Renault 12. But his boss, the man responsible for overseeing all of Renault’s styling efforts, was none other than #Robert-Opron , the author of Citröen’s SM, GS and Citroen CX.
Opron had cleaned out his desk at Citröen after that automaker’s 1974 bankruptcy and forced merger with Peugeot, and had found a home with #Renault the following year. He remained there for a decade, overseeing a redesign of the Alpine A310, as well as the creation of the Fuego and the later Renault 9 and 11 — best known over here as the Alliance and Encore, offspring of Renault’s dalliance with American Motors.
Today, the design of the Fuego is seen as polarizing, although the automotive journalists of the day welcomed its distinctiveness. LJK Setright found it to be “not only roomy and aerodynamically efficient, but… also beautiful,” while Road & Track called it “a fascinating shape, and, as we found while driving one of the first Fuegos around Southern California, one that attracts a lot of attention and favorable comment.” Fuegos finally began arriving in the U.S. in 1982, after Renault’s takeover of AMC, and these differed slightly from their European counterparts, losing their flush headlamps and gaining impact bumpers with redesigned plastic covers. Still, it was generally agreed that federalization hadn’t ruined the car’s looks.
Beneath the surface, the Fuego did not stray far from the parent 18. Power was from the all-aluminum, OHV J-type inlinefour, designed and built by Compagnie Française de Mécanique, a joint venture between Renault and PSA. (Often referred to as the Douvrin engine, the J-type, like its cousin, the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6, was manufactured in Douvrin, France.) The front wheels were driven through a four- or five-speed manual gearbox, depending on the model, with an automatic transmission offered as an option.
The suspension, too, was from the 18, consisting of front control arms and coil springs and a rigid axle with trailing arms in the rear, but tweaked to provide sportier handling. Firmer coil spring and shock rates and anti-roll bars front and rear reduced the usual front-drive understeer to a respectable level, and provided excellent straight-line stability.
In Europe, the Fuego was offered in a half-dozen different configurations, with gas engines ranging in displacement from 1.3-liters to 2.0-liters and a 2.1-liter turbodiesel, a something-for-everyone approach that helped it become the continent’s bestselling coupe. When exports to the U.S. began, the range would be trimmed to two powertrains: the base Fuego’s fuel-injected four of 1,647 cc, making 82 horsepower; and the Fuego Turbo’s boosted, intercooled four of 1,565 cc pumping out 107 horsepower. (Remember those cheesy “Turbo Zone” ads? No? Just as well.)
The Fuego turned out to be well suited to American needs, even if it hadn’t been designed with Americans in mind. Car and Driver’s Jean Jennings (then Lindamood) called it “one of our French favorites,” while her colleague Larry Griffin called it “the first Renault that I’ve really, really liked.” Reviewers appreciated the generous interior space, excellent steering, willing engine and confidence-inspiring handling. “It does all the good things that a sports coupe should do and throws in some real packaging talent as well,” Griffin wrote. “How is America going to be able to handle this? A terrific Renault, for gosh sakes!”
Renault priced the Fuego at $8,495, throwing in power steering, radial tires, a five-speed gearbox and AM/FM stereo and tinted glass at no extra charge. The Fuego Turbo was $10,704, with air conditioning, alloy wheels and TRX radials included. The Turbo was $1,500 cheaper than the Audi Coupe, as well as a half-second quicker to 60 MPH, and got markedly better gas mileage, too, 27.5 MPG versus the German car’s 22.5.
What followed after the Fuego’s U.S. introduction was a period of neglect. Distracted by the launch of its breadand- butter cars, the Alliance and Encore, Renault would not turn its attention to the Fuego until 1984. But when it did, the changes were substantial. The biggest improvement was beneath the hood, where the milquetoast 1.6-liter four made way for a 2.2-liter version of the more modern OHC 2-liter that Renault had been offering in Europe. Also used in the flagship Renault 25 (the basis for the Eagle Premier and Dodge Monaco over here), the fuel-injected 2.2 made nine more horsepower than the 82 of the 1.6, and boasted a healthy 40 percent increase in torque, from 86 to 120-lb.ft. at 3,500 RPM.
The 2.2 had a number of tricks up its sleeve, including a chain-driven overhead camshaft, a cross-flow head with hemispherical combustion chambers, a ramtuned intake manifold, and the latest Bosch LU-Jetronic fuel injection, the U standing for United States. Now, the normally aspirated Fuego could hit 60 MPH within 0.6 seconds of the Turbo, and come within a tenth of a second of its quarter-mile time. A taller final drive, 3.10:1 versus the earlier 4.12:1, helped increase fuel economy and reduce engine noise at high speeds.
The revised car also featured a new instrument panel, a satisfying array of five no-nonsense gauges set against a matte black background. Heater and ventilation controls were made easier to use, too. Renault left its most chic interior trims on the rack, instead Malibuizing its coupe with the usual velour, carpeting and vinyl. Even with all of these improvements, the sticker price of the Fuego 2.2 rose by just $300, to $8,995. Buyers had little reason to shell out an additional $2,400 for the only slightly better performance of the Fuego Turbo, which Renault still saw fit to leave in the lineup. Reviewers applauded the changes. Would the Fuego, at last, become the sales success they had predicted?
Short answer: No. Breakdowns by model are not available, but the sales of all Renaults in the U.S. (excluding the Franco- American Motors models) skidded from 37,702 in 1982 to 33,229 in 1983, 12,243 in 1984 and 7,025 in 1985, the year the last Fuego emerged from the Maubeuge plant in France. (Renault would stop exporting cars to the U.S. after 1986, and would withdraw from the U.S. market in 1988, after selling its share in AMC to Chrysler.) Fuego production exceeded 226,000, with 15,000 of those sent to the U.S., according to the manufacturer’s best guess.
In the ensuing 30 years, the Fuego has become an endangered species on our shores. You’d be hard pressed to find one in any condition, let alone one that’s as pristine as Jamie Grigg’s 1985 2.2. Jamie, of Pfafftown, North Carolina, bought his car five years ago from a collector in Maine, and carried out a full restoration. We first met him on the show field of the Carlisle Import Kit & Replicar Nationals in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
No story about the Fuego would be complete without an acknowledgement of all of the criticisms hurled in the car’s direction — and its reputation has only worsened as it has become more invisible, which leads to the suspicion that many of its most vehement critics have never seen one. Electrical failures, overheating woes and engine-bay fires are all blots on the Fuego’s record, which has led to it being an easy pick for “worst car ever” lists. (The fact that it’s French surely doesn’t help.)
Jamie knows that the car has its detractors, but he seldom encounters them faceto- face. “I’m six-foot-five, so they may be a little intimidated,” he quips. “I always laugh at the people who giggle at me and my car at the car shows. They say things like, ‘Those always caught fire, they were pieces of junk.’ Well, I’ve got an almost 200,000-mile Fuego. It’s all in how you take care of it.
“They had some issues with the car, Renault did or AMC did, and I think people kind of gave up on them,” he continues. “But those who were meticulous and took good care of them, those are the ones that are surviving.” There’s another kind of survivor, the car that was simply left to sit. “People just were afraid of them or whatever. They lost all their value, and other cars at the time were more appealing than this, I guess.”
Jamie finds the Fuego to be more comfortable GT than sports car. “It looks sporty, but the driveabilty of it is very French, soft, very comfortable. It’s not driving your-couch comfortable like a Citröen or a Peugeot is, it’s a little bit sporty. But you can still tell that it’s more of a grand touring car than a sports car. It doesn’t have the tight cornering and turning and those sorts of things,” he notes. “But it drives very well, it tracks very well, and at higher speeds it does well. I’ve never had it over 85; I probably could, but I’ve never pushed it. I’ve never been hard on the car since I rebuilt the motor. It feels good when you drive it; it’s like you’re in a small car with a mid-sized car ride.” The only drawbacks, he notes, are the noise of the wind buffeting on the enormous cloth sunroof, and the typically ’80s creaky plastic interior. A former Citröen DS21 Pallas owner, and current owner of three Renaults (another Fuego, in rough shape, and a 10 that’s undergoing restoration), Jamie is an unabashed admirer of French cars. Why?
“Quirkiness and style,” he quickly replies. “I think that they have a Space Age kind of look, especially the Citröens. French cars are quirky and sexy — it’s kind of hard to describe. I’m not necessarily as attracted to their reliability as I am to their design. I can’t think of a single French car maker that doesn’t have some kind of great design to its credit.
“I don’t know if it’s the culture of the French engineers, but they seemed to really put a lot of thought into it,” he continues. “Instead of a car being a necessity and just something that you would drive day to day, they really made their cars appealing, no matter what [market segment] it was. Whether it was a common family car or a sports car or what have you, it always had some different kind of engineering, a different style, that was really attractive to me.” As first-hand memories of French cars grow more faint every day in the U.S., we’re lucky to have examples like Jamie’s Fuego to remind us of how appealing French design could be.
TECH DATA #1985 RENAULT FUEGO
Engine OHV inline four, aluminum block and cylinder head
Displacement 2,164-cc (132-cu.in)
Horsepower @ RPM 91 @ 4,000
Torque @ RPM 123-lb.ft. @ 2,500
Compression ratio 8.7:1
Induction #Bosch-LU-Jetronic #Bosch fuel injection
Gearbox Five-speed manual, overdrive fifth
0-60 MPH 10.6 seconds
¼ mile ET 17.5 seconds @ 79 MPH
Top speed 109 MPH
Overall length 176.8 inches
Overall width 66.6 inches
Overall height 50.5 inches
Wheelbase 96.1 inches
Shipping weight 2,480 pounds
The 2.2-liter OHC four, introduced for 1984, made more torque than the turbocharged 1.6-liter four in the costlier Fuego Turbo. Still, U.S. sales dwindled.
Complete instrumentation, including a 120- MPH speedometer, and a five-speed gearbox were standard equipment; the full-width sunroof and sports steering wheel were options. The hatchback added versatility.
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