Five reasons why the Cinq was a benchmark small car
1. Like many significant cars, the 5 was the brainwave of one man; originally created as something of a thought experiment. In 1968, Renault designer Michel Boué sketched the design proposal in his spare time; marking out the now familiar outline superimposed upon a photo of a contemporary Renault 4. Hence the silhouette and unusually tall canopy. Renault design bosses, upon seeing his work, adopted it for production virtually unaltered. Based on the engines and drivetrain of the popular Renault 4/6 models, the R5 is a rare case of inspiration undiluted.
2. The 5 came to define an entire segment. Although the contemporary Fiat 127 predated it by a year, the Renault quickly became the default car in the newly established supermini class. Every mainstream rival benchmarked the top-selling Renault, but nobody came close to rivalling the 5’s popularity or it’s unique charm. It became the best-selling car in France from 1972 to 1986, with over 5.5m cars produced over 14 years; making it France’s most popular car. But its popularity bestrode the entire European market – it even sold in the US.
3. While the rival Fiat 127 also proved hugely popular and ran it a close second in the sales charts, it lacked the packaging, versatility, and sheer across the board competence of the 5. An appeal that transcended demographics, proving more or less classless. While the Fiat had a certain rorty demeanour, the chic Renault embodied deeper qualities all the great French cars possess: superb ride comfort, tenacious roadholding and a friendly, loping character. Furthermore, while the Fiat required two substantial facelifts over it’s production run, the R5 ended its career visually untouched; its styling proving far more durable than its Italian rival.
4. Both the 127 and R5 share a peculiarly tragic arc to their storylines. Michel Boué succumbed to cancer in 1971; never knowing the enormous success awaiting his brainchild. While at Fiat, designer Pio Manzú was killed in a fatal car accident in 1969, two years before the 127 was launched. Both men died tragically young and their deaths robbed their respective marques of gifted designers and the motoring world the promise of further landmark cars.
5. The 5’s replacement – the second generation SuperCinq was based on the floorpan and mechanical package of the larger R9; arriving too late to arrest the rise of it’s true successor – the Peugeot 205. A car that possessed the charm of the Renault, with the added dimension of enhanced driver appeal. The Super 5 was viewed by some as derivative and lacking the original car’s élan. While it continued to sell strongly, customers migrated in their thousands to Peugeot’s Sacre Numero.
Nevertheless, for more than a decade the Renault 5 held its own as the benchmark supermini. In fact, it remains difficult to see exactly where the concept has evolved since. An R5 would still make a practical, useful car today. All significant designs retain a relevance well into old age and in many ways a 5 retains its modernity over 40 years after its birth. Renault has made several good cars over the years – but with the 5, they made a great one. A true design landmark and a worthy epitaph to a gifted designer.