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This car created the “Supermini” class of cars which were bigger than the Mini and smaller than a compact and it went on to be so popular that it was the best selling car in France every year from 1972 to 1986, with over 5 million sold in France alone. Its an incredible little car and the Turbo 2 version became a rally icon. So let’s grab a baguette, make your cafe and lets ponder over this incredible French icon.
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Renault had become a major global player in the car market after World War Two thanks to Pierre Lefaucheux’s leadership bringing about cars like the 4CV against the governments wishes and the Dauphine which was incredibly successful, even in the US. However since then Renault had trouble competing in the US and would pull out of the US market completely, but not before one last attempt with the Renault 5.
In 1971, one of Renault’s designers started working in his spare time on a new car. Michel Boué worked on a prototype, called the R5, until one day the executives of the company saw the design and were so impressed that they immediately put it into formal development. Renault was one of the few companies that had the foresight to see the global oil crisis coming, as it did in 1973, and they wanted a small fuel efficient car which had a wider appeal than the British Leyland’s Mini at the time.
This car also had the hatchback design which was still new at the time, Renault had invented the hatchback with the R16 in 1965 and when the Renault 5 launched in 1972 it came three years before the VW Polo and four years before the Ford Fiesta. It truly was the first super-mini which is a huge sector of the market today, although SUV’s are quickly cannibalizing that market too.
Sadly Michel Boué, the designer of the car, would not live to see the success of this car as he died of cancer in 1971 just months before it’s release.
The production version had a few differences from Michel Boué’s initial prototype, although it kept the steep sloped rear hatchback design, the lights were moved down from their placement on the C-Pillar itself as the Renault executives didn’t like the look. This look would later become very popular on the Fiat Punto and the Volvo 850 Estate, many years later.
Unlike most cars in the US and elsewhere, this car used a modern monocoque structure which made the car lighter than rivals which would be helpful during the 1973 oil crisis and also improve its drive. The car overall was not a stunningly beautiful sports car but its look is simple and refined, meaning it was neither beautiful nor ugly, it is a timeless style which is good, that sells cars.
This car made its name as a city car by being one of the first cars with Plastic (polyester and glass fibre) bumpers which meant you didn’t have to worry about parking the car and scratching the paint when you were heading out to Paris for an evening at the Moulin Rouge. Although the longitudinally mounted engine sat far back under the hood, it was surprisingly spacious inside.
It also had a drag coefficient of only 0.37 which was much better than basically all of its rivals in Europe and across the pond, where the next lowest found was around 0.45. This again helped the car sell a massive amount of cars in France when the oil crisis hit.
ENGINE & PERFORMANCE
The new car was available with a tonne of engine options at the time ranging from a 798 cc inline 4, to the R5 Turbo, which had a 1335 cc turbo engine which was so good, I’m going to leave it as a topic for another day.
The standard 798 cc engine in the car was longitudinally mounted in the front bay, but the engine was mounted behind the gearbox which is still a very strange design but Renault seemed to love it. This plucky little motor was able to produce an incredible 34 BHP and 38 lb-ft of torque, giving it a top speed of 75 mph however it would take you quite a while to get there, given it’s 0-60 time of 26 seconds.
This engine was mated with a four speed manual which was absolutely adequate, however the 1.2 and 1.3 liter engines which came in the 80’s could be found with an automatic gearbox. Interestingly the early models of the car had the gear knob mounted on the dashboard, which is a terrible idea, so I called it interesting.
This car was released to incredibly success in France, selling 5.2 million units during its 14 year run in that country alone, it also was exported across europe with another 300,000 sold, making it one of Renault’s best selling cars.
One fact that I still don’t understand is that even though it was perfect for the US market during the 1973 oil crisis it was a market flop in the US, where it was branded “Le Car”, which is weird because the French for car is “voiture”, but anyways. It was distributed there by AMC and sold so absolutely terribly that Renault decided not to enter the US market again.
At a later date I will discuss the R5 Turbo 2, which was a rally demon designed by Marcello Gandini himself but for today, lets just give the Renault 5 its due, it truly is a god amongst cars.
Let me know what you think of the Renault 5 in the comments below.