Theme : Benchmarks -The Renault 5 in Five Easy Pieces

Five reasons why the Cinq was a benchmark small car

Every living room should have one. 1972 Renault 5 - image via curbsideclassic
Every living room should have one. 1972 Renault 5 – image via curbsideclassics

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. 

I predict a riot – Image via centerblog

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.

The R5 became a ubiquitous piece of European street furniture - image via imcdb
As much a piece of street furniture as a Paris Metro sign – image via imcdb

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.

R5 designer
R5 designer, Michel Boué with his magnum opus – image via Car Design News

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.

More of the same - the SuperCinq - image via caradisiac
Lost in translation – the SuperCinq – image via caradisiac

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Theme : Benchmarks -The Renault 5 in Five Easy Pieces”

  1. It’s still a fine looking car which shared that same classlessness with the Mini. Having recommended them to others I had a secondhand 5GTL in the early 80s and drove it across Europe to Budapest one snowy January. I used it as a workhorse, once loading it with so many quarry tiles that the rear suspension lost all movement. I also drove it too quickly too often. All this it tolerated with no complaint. It rusted above the rear wheelarches, there was the usual problem with the French nylon upholstery velour of the time wearing through indecently soon and squeezing the mechanicals from the boxy 4 into the more compact 5 made working on certain parts of the engine a pain. But otherwise I can’t think of a thing to say against it.

  2. Mention too of the original dashboard design.

    The quality detailing would be totally unacceptable today, but it complemented the car well and did its job perfectly.

  3. Please correct me if i am wrong – but i think it is the first car with plastik bumpers that a part of the body design – not just added to it as the normal chrome bumpers.

    1. Yes Markus I suppose one could split hairs and look at the body coloured bumpers of the 1968 Pontiac GTO, but though today it’s not so apparent, the Renault 5’s body construction was revolutionary in its way replacing a set of fiddly elements with a single durable moulding.

    2. Quite right. The designers saw that lots of bits could be replaced at a stroke with one thing made of a new material. And! They developer a form language for this too. Smart. Amazingly separate bumpers were still being used 15 years later on newer cars.

  4. This is a great spot. I think that the 5 is something of a forgotten, or at least overlooked, icon/ benchmark. It had a heck of a lot of charm, a lovely, proper French ride, and perfect design. If only it had been built like a Golf …

  5. I like that first image of the 5 in an apartment. It looks completely at home. Coincidentally, the 5 always reminded me of a Pod from Kubrick’s 2001 – not in design detail, just …… well, it just did. So here it is in a similar situation.

  6. “If only…” sounds like the perfect summary for the last 40 years-or-so of french motoring history, doesn’t it?

    1. Hmm, the Peugeot 205 has a very good protection against rust. There were still a lot of them on the streets here in Germany.

  7. The 5 had rust traps – the rear arches, as already mentioned, and the rear floorpan were two – but it was made from reasonable steel. just not galvanised. And it’s not as if Golf 1s, for example, are in abundance these days. It’s odd to recount now that 40 years ago, if you saw rust appearing on a 4 year old car, you might be a bit disappointed, but you weren’t surprised.

  8. Peugeot did a good job rust proofing the 205. I had one for a few years and by the time it departed at 12 years showed no sign of wearing out. It rattled a bit but otherwise looked robust.

  9. Perhaps if Renault had held their nerve and continued with the 5 theme through successive iterations, it would have become a totem like the Golf is now.

    Speaking of rust, the 5 was by no means the worst in that regard. My family owned a 5GTL, which turned to ferrous oxide a great deal less enthusiastically than our previous Fiat 126 and subsequent 127. 5’s tended to rust in odd places. In addition to the areas already mentioned, ours rotted at the rear leading edge of the roof and around the tailgate hinges.

    Having had first hand experience of a succession of Fiat 127’s, the 5 was a far nicer car. The Fiat rolled less in corners, handled in a more ‘sporting’ manner and had more direct steering. By just about every other useful metric however, the Renault was superior.

    1. As mentioned, the Renault suffered from lack of rustproofing, and a disinclination for body engineers to analyse potential water traps, but no more than most cars did back then. Fiats, though I’m disinclined to be seen as a commie-basher, did certainly have the additional problem of Soviet Steel.

      My memories of a hired Fiat 127 are very, very slight, suggesting it was a far less rounded car than the 5.

  10. “Perhaps if Renault had held their nerve and continued with the 5 theme through successive iterations, it would have become a totem like the Golf is now,” wrote Eoin. Exactly. Instead they changed tack every seven years. I think Renault suffer the curse of Modernisn: it must be different, we must revolutionise at every opportunity. Sometimes you have to, when you back is against the wall but after a few goes there is nothing left to revolutionise. Citroen´s innovation was sensible but bold. I don´t think it was done for it´s own sake. Often the cleverest thing to do is to do as little as possible. I reveal my inherent conservatism, don´t I?

  11. Interesting article – I didn’t know that the Fiat 127 was born an orphan too! I have a 1982 R5 which is still used as a daily driver – it’s a joy to drive. Remarkable how little true progress there’s been since Boue reimagined how a small car should look.

    1. Thanks for popping by. My family had an ’84 R5 for a while. It did very well but my father was really a saloon-car driver. Recent viewings of R5s allowed me to see its pure industrial design language.

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