Buying Guide. Seven steps to picking up the finest #Renault-Dauphine
. From £4k buys a smart Volkswagen Beetle alternative. Here’s how. Words MALCOLM MCKAY Photography JULIAN SANDIFORD
The first Dauphines were built at the most automated plant in the world, using mechanical robots and closed-circuit TV – heady stuff for #1956
The model debuted with features as futuristic as Renault’s Flins factory, including all-independent suspension, rackand- pinion steering and unitary construction using extra-thin steel for non-structural panels that kept weight down. It was one of the fi rst cars to have a steering lock and was unusual for a small car in having an automatic choke and, from 1964, disc brakes all-round on the Gordini.
The successor to Renault’s charming post-war #Renault-4CV
, the rear-engined Dauphine aimed to improve on that car’s success with aerodynamic lines, spacious accommodation and luggage capacity for four, a top speed nudging 70mph and outstanding economy. The new car was an instant hit, becoming the fi rst French car to hit 100,000 sales within a year of starting production and ending with a sales total of well in excess of two million, assembled at 14 plants worldwide (including England, and Italy where Alfa Romeo built them).
In Europe it was gradually succeeded by the Renault 4 and 8 from 1961 and production ended in 1967. Elsewhere in the world it soldiered on, production in Argentina only ending in 1970. UK CKD (complete knock-down) assembly at Acton ceased in 1961. Britishbuilt Dauphines had some Lucas electrical components and round rear lights. More than 100,000 were sold new in the UK; few remain but some are still broken to provide spares for Europe’s more plentiful left-hand drive cars. France is home to many specialists (see Need To Know, overleaf), and many parts are sourced from Argentina.
Light and fun to drive, downsides included tail-happy handling and a threespeed gearbox on most models. It’s worth looking out for a car with the optional fourspeed ’box if you want to make reasonably brisk progress, and the Gordini engine tune makes the car noticeably livelier.
Rust is the Dauphine’s biggest enemy. This is in part due to period underseal cracking and in part because of the very thin steel used for non-structural panels – 22/23 gauge panels kept weight down, but rotted through quickly. Steel quality was particularly bad in 1959-1963.
They rot pretty much anywhere, but the most common areas are around the wheelarches, inner and outer wings (top and bottom, front and back), sills, floorpans, chassis rails, outriggers, door bottoms and tops, the sides of the front boot and the base of the front bulkhead. Repair panels are available – for example an A-post corner costs about £22, sills £40 per side and floor triangles £41 for the pair. Getting the panels painted and fitted professionally costs from £2500 to £7500.
The engine was mounted in-line behind the rear wheels. A conventional wet-liner straight-four with three-bearing crank, it was normal to replace the pistons and liners by 50,000 miles, restoring the engine to health and avoiding a rebore. Fortunately, parts are still available, including a piston and barrel set (about £230), a crank bearing set (£60), oil pump (£67), inlet valve set and exhaust valve set (£29 per set).
Having a gear-driven camshaft means there’s no chain to wear out, but the fibre intermediate gear (used to minimise noise) does wear, becoming noisy before it fails. Check the left-hand side of the cylinder block about three inches above the sump for a crack, which can run from front to back and render the engine useless or in need of stitching. The price depends on the severity, but expect to pay at least £180.
The alloy cylinder head means unleaded fuel is not a problem because the standard valve seat inserts can cope.
The Solex carburettor can be bought new if worn for about £146 for the Gordini or £103 for the standard Dauphine. The automatic choke, operating a flap in the manifold, can seize, causing starting and/or running issues. Some owners prefer to convert to manual operation, but no commercial kit is available – it’s a DIY job.
Gearboxes improved over the years, increasing from three to four speeds, with – two, then three, then four synchromesh on the top gears. Check for worn synchros and ease of engagement (though poor engagement may just be down to wear in the linkages).
The optional Ferlac electro-magnetic clutch eliminated the clutch pedal and works well if used with respect – there was still no synchro on first gear. The more it wears, the sharper it gets, so if the change is jerky it may be approaching time for specialist relining. A switch beneath the dash locks it in for bump-starting and for engine braking downhill, but must be switched off immediately after use. It’s extremely durable, but does need careful setting up if it’s gone out of adjustment, and not many people know how to do it. Ferlac clutches are pretty rare, which makes it difficult to give a going rate for these jobs. The unusual spring-loaded gear selector returned to approximately the central position after selecting a gear, which made it difficult for Ferlac owners to know if they were in gear and if so which gear. It was discontinued in 1962 when synchromesh appeared on first gear on three-speed gearboxes; four-speed ’boxes got it in 1964.
The suspension was sophisticated for a small Fifties car, but needs caution. Leaving the road tail-first is always a possibility with swing-axle, rear-wheel drive cars.
Cornering speeds have to be high before the rear end jacks up, but could catch out the unwary especially when driving solo; a full load of passengers and luggage increases total weight by 50 per cent. Renault sought to solve this in late 1959 (mid-1960 in UK production) by halving the rate of the coil springs and adding rubber/air cones to come into effect when laden. Flawed and abandoned for 1962, Aerostable rubber Finding a rust-free example like this is your biggest challenge cones are hard to find in good condition, but a set of springs and dampers costs about £108 per axle. Check front kingpins for wear – a pair costs about £106 plus £25 per kingpin for bushes and seals.
Brakes seize up and need rebuilding on little-used cars. The all-drum brakes work perfectly well, but fade if used hard repeatedly – hence the move to all-discs on Gordinis from 1964. A set of new master and slave cylinders, plus shoes and drums costs about £270, or £640 for master cylinder, front and rear calipers and pads.
Michelin X 135/145SR400 tyres are expensive at about £500 for a full set, but are the best; less costly Toyos, available from North Hants Tyres for £50 each plus delivery, are an acceptable substitute.
ASK AN OWNER
‘I drive it exuberantly and have had few problems’
John Turnell, Sheffield
‘A Dauphine was my first proper car 53 years ago. It was a 1957 semi-auto: I was apprehensive about that, but it was fi ne. ‘I was always nostalgic for the Dauphine – they were so pleasurable to drive. For my retirement my son Ryan and I looked at several but they were expensive and didn’t have MoTs, so Ryan bought a Gordini on eBay for £550. It was rotten, but Ryan rebuilt the engine and I made all the repair panels. Some were difficult to shape and I made the sills in sections then butt-welded them together.
‘Including purchase, the whole thing cost £2500-3000 – plus a lot of hard work. Apart from petrol and insurance, it’s cost nothing to run. I wouldn’t say no to another Dauphine – at 75 years old, restoring keeps me fi t!”
Leonard Kiff, Hertford
‘I worked on a few Dauphines when I was an apprentice in the Sixties. They were lovely cars – streets ahead of British small cars at the time. More recently I almost bought one from a friend in France; that fell through but I saw this one advertised and grabbed it. It had only done 7000 miles from new and had been cocooned in a barn for 35 years. It only needed servicing. Even the original tyres looked like new, but I did change them.
‘It’s very cheap to run – servicing it myself, £50 a year covers it. The most expensive thing apart from the tyres was an original-style 6-volt battery costing £83.
‘I’ve had several classics but I particularly like the Dauphine and have met a really nice group of people through the club.’
Tony Topliss, Grantham ‘I’ve had my 1959 Acton-built Gordini for 22 years. Normally they rust while you watch, but mine’s been OK – the original owner told me he had it Ziebarted from new. I drive it exuberantly and have had very few problems.
‘I look after it myself – I don’t do bodywork, but my father was a mechanic and I learned from him. I have the original Renault tools and I rebuilt the engine with new pistons and liners, a new fi bre timing gear and a new clutch. I don’t need to spend more than £250 a year on it.
‘My wife and I have five Renaults, but still do 1500-2000 miles a year in the Dauphine. It’s a rare model in pale blue with wire wheels, the same as one presented to the Queen when she visited Acton.’
Introduced in February 1956, the Dauphine was an instant hit. North American-market cars had more substantial bumpers and polished alloy rocker covers instead of painted. Performance improved in September 1958 with the addition of vacuum ignition advance and compression raised from 7.25:1 to 7.75:1 (8:1 for USA); economy also improved. Aerostable suspension was introduced in late 1959 (later in the UK) and a four-speed gearbox could be specified at extra cost from early 1961. Standard compression went up to 8:1 for 1962, when Renault also changed from 6-volt to 12-volt electrics. Prices: £1000 for a rusty project, £4000-7000 for a good usable car and £10,000 for one of the best.
Launched in September 1957 (early ’59 in UK), the Gordini had a four-speed gearbox, 7.6:1 compression and special manifolds giving 38bhp @ 5000rpm, plus 5.50/145 instead of 5.20/135 tyres and a claimed 79mph top speed. In April 1961 the Deluxe Gordini was launched in Britain with fully adjustable front seats, whitewall tyres on wheels slotted for brake cooling, brake limiting valve and a fully-lined boot, though the engine used a modified standard ’head instead of a special ’head as before. In #1964
Gordinis got disc brakes all-round and an all-synchro gearbox. Prices: £2000 for a project car, £6000-9000 for a good runner and £15,000 for the ultimate.
From early 1961 Renault France built a Deluxe Dauphine called the Ondine, with optional fourspeed gearbox. Prices as for standard Dauphine.
For 1962 came a homologation special of which at least 1000 would be built. All were left-hand drive with blue side stripes. With 9.2:1 compression, domed pistons, double valve springs, special cam and higher top gear, Renault claimed 55bhp @ 5600rpm and a top speed of 87mph. Prices 20 per cent above #Gordini
From the start Renault offered tuning options that helped Dauphines finish 2/3/4 in class in the 1956 Mille Miglia and win the Tulip Rally, the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally and the 1959 Alpine outright. Today, rarity means there isn’t a wide range of modern tuning kits available. Instead, owners fi t period tuning gear, especially by uprating standard Dauphines to Gordini spec. Very little is available in the UK, so enthusiasts visit French autojumbles to sift through parts.
In period, high compression, special conrods, manifolds and carburettors boosted power to 42bhp and four- and five-speed gearboxes were produced for competition. Doubled-up rear dampers aided handling.
In 1959 Shorrocks offered a supercharger kit that improved 0-50mph acceleration from 24.7sec to 13.8sec and top speed from 66.4mph to 81mph. Ruddspeed conversions featured negative-camber rear wheels and a quick steering rack, dramatically improving handling.
- #1967 #Renault
Engine 845cc, in-line four-cylinder, ohv, single #Solex
Power and torque 30bhp @ 4250rpm – 40bhp @ 5000rpm; 48lb ft @ 3300rpm
Transmission Three-speed (or optional fourspeed) manual, optional #Ferlac
electro-magnetic clutch, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front: independent, coil springs, twin wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, coil springs, swing axles, telescopic dampers. Rubber auxiliary springs front and rear from late 1959
Brakes Hydraulic drums front and rear; discs front and rear from 1964
Length 12ft 11in
Weight 649-662kg (1428-1456lb)
Performance Top speed: 66-74mph;
Fuel consumption 35-50mpg.
Cost new (1959) £716; £848 for Gordini
NEED TO KNOW
Full engine rebuild £1000 (DIY) to £2000 (professional)
Gearbox rebuild £500
Bodyshell rebuild £2500-7500
Full retrim £1500
Who can help?
Renault Owners Club
Renault Classic Car Club
auto4a.com, 0033 5 56 724711
Bretagne Auto Retro
bretagneautoretro.fr, 0033 2 40 914218
0033 2 37 524325
0033 1 64 813100
Neo Retro neoretrofrance.com,
0033 5 55 483858
CAR FOR SALE
1967 Renault Dauphine.
Features 1.8-litre engine with crossflow cylinder head providing 145bhp to 165bhp, full rollcage, FIA-approved seats and fuel tank, alloy dampers. €39,500
Owners opt for period upgrades to give the 845cc straight-four extra zip.
Finding a rust-free example like this is your biggest challenge.
Aerodynamic lines and lively (for the Fifties) performance make the Dauphine an attractive package.
Interior is hard-wearing, but complete carpet sets are available for about £440.
‘It debuted in 1956 with features as futuristic as the robots that built it’
Ryan Turnell is a 4CV owner who encouraged his dad John to fulfil his dream of owning a Dauphine again. Since then Ryan has ended up working on numerous Dauphines.
John Henderson has owned Dauphines for more than 30 years, clearing out former dealers’ stock whenever possible. Those spares came in handy when his own Dauphine recently had its second rebuild.
Alasdair Worsley is Dauphine Registrar for the Renault Owners Club and an expert on the Ferlec clutch, one of which he runs in his 4CV. He also acts as a historic vehicle ambassador for Renault UK.