On The Outside Looking In: French Cars In America

The roll of call of great French cars is almost the same as the roll call of French cars that have failed to generate anything but legends of unreliability and weirdness in North America.

Not on sale in the US, the facelifted Peugeot 208.
Not on sale in the US, the facelifted Peugeot 208.

The DS, the SM, the 604, the Renault 5 (known as “Le Car”) and the Peugeot 405. Yes, French cars have not been a great success in North America but a dedicated group of automobile enthusiasts still have a fascination for them.

The leading site for news of cars North Americans can’t buy if they live in North American is French Cars in America. The site carries articles about developments among the French marques plus pages on matters more historical. Ahead of PSA, FCIA gives the DS label its own site subdivision. The question about why French cars aren’t sold in N America is answered here.

Citroen’s withdrawal from the market is put down to the effects of the oil crisis in the 70s and the enactment of laws that illegalised key elements of Citroen’s designs. Renault (entangled with AMC) and Peugeot’s withdrawal in the 80s resulted from severe market conditions, some politics and probably poor product quality. Their more complex case is outlined rather better than I can summarise at FCIA so I suggest you click on the link.

Peugeot’s case is also explained here at Curbside Classics: “By the early ’90s, Peugeot was sinking steadily in the U.S. Despite the 405’s good looks and performance–particularly in the Mi16 version–there just weren’t many takers. In 1990, sales of 405s and 505s totalled a mere 4,261 vehicles. After an even more dismal 1991 output of 2,240 405s and 505 wagons (the 505 sedan was discontinued in the U.S. after 1990), the marque withdrew from North America in July 1991.” What a shame the 406 never made it to the US as that was a robust and comfortable car that could have competed well with the Accord and the Passat.

Also not sold in the US. Image from Peugeot UK
Also not sold in the US. Image from Peugeot UK

These days the technical and styling differences between US and European cars are much smaller than they were in the period when French cars began their withdrawal from the N American market. The essentially conservative German brands have thrived (Volkswagen lags there though) and American cars have always been sold in Europe though fully localised by GM and Ford.

The very American style of Cadillac has not been successful in Europe and the very European style of French car has not gone down well in N America. Part of this is due to form and appearance: Cadillacs are adapted to an environment of wide roads, cheaper fuel and a willingness of the customers to tolerate ostentation. French cars in their essence have majored on lightness and unusual engineering. The lightness (meaning a lack of robustness) has not suited the harsh road conditions of the US. The idiosyncratic engineering has not worn well with Americans who are, at heart, a pragmatic people.

While Ferrari’s cars are fragile and expensive, they have a market that can tolerate this whereas French cars lived at price points where mundane matters of economy mattered to their customers, even if they may have been better educated and better paid than average. Even with a professor’s salary, there are only so many trips to the mechanic that can be accepted.

1989 Citroen CX: from a particularly daft story in Car & Driver. Otherwise a great site though.
1989 Citroen CX: from a particularly daft story in Car & Driver. Otherwise a great site though.

Where are French cars in now in relation to the N American market? There are no firm plans for any of the three to re-enter the US and Canadian market. China and the developing world provide enough business for the firms to allow the tricky N American market to be left untried. Renault Canada is concerned with marketing rental cars for travellers to Europe. Peugeot Canada sells scooters. However, Renault does sell plenty of Nissans in the US so with that brand managing reasonably well, it would make no sense to try and add Renault’s range to the mix.

The best way to deal with the US market is to produce locally and as the French brands have had a rough time in the US, investing in factories as the Germans and Japanese have done is an expensive bet that would be best made with a track record of solid and steady sales. The French lost that foundation in the 60s, 70s and 80s and trying now would be a huge risk lasting decades.

We could also ask what the USP would be of PSA and Renault cars now that the engineering differences are so small between US and European cars. What would Renault bring to the US market that would tempt fickle American buyers?  The same goes for Peugeot. Without a clear answer to this question, French cars will remain a special interest.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

2 thoughts on “On The Outside Looking In: French Cars In America”

  1. Poor Citroen certainly suffered from US legislation more than most. Headlamp design disfigured the fronts of both DS and SM. Fixed bumper heights could not be achieved by a parked Citroen that sank several inches. Self centering steering countered the need to park on San Francisco hills with wheels turned into the curb.

    It’s strange really because if you look at the soft, easy-going nature of the archetypical 60s Yank Tank, then a V6 engined CX would have been its logical successor, not a hard riding Audi. French cars actually had a lot of features that could have endeared them to a nation needing to travel in comfort down endless Arizona highways – except, of course, reliability.

    I like the sound of French Cars In America. There is something pure and noble about writing about cars you can’t actually buy. I understand that to a degree having championed the Corvette in the past, defending it against glib attacks on UK sites, though it is a car I never expect to own or even drive.

  2. I recall reading about plans for the newly established DS brand to (re-)enter the US market. But that might just be marketing noise.

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