Theme : Economy – More Is Less

We remember Renault’s 5GTL, an interesting take on an economy car.

Renault 5 GTL
The 1973 oil crisis hit the motor industry hard. Fuel consumption had always been a selling point, but now it became a crucial one, especially in France where petrol was highly taxed. The traditional French economy car had the smallest engine possible, The 2CV started with 425cc, working up to 602cc. Renault’s answer to the 2CV was the 4, which carried over the small capacity, four cylinder Ventoux engine from the rear engined 4CV. When the first ‘supermini’, the Renault 5, was introduced, beneath the skin it was much the same as the 4, with the base engine having just 782cc.

All these cars were relatively economical since, with small bores everywhere, there is only so much fuel you can push through a system, but when the engines were stretched at higher speeds, consumption could drop significantly. So was Renault’s 1976 response to the need to produce a more economical 5 to downsize the engine? No, instead it took the apparently contrary step of fitting a significantly bigger engine. By the standards of the time, the 1289 cc engine of the Renault 5 GTL was certainly large for such a car, even the Mini-Cooper made do with 1275cc, but it only produced 42 bhp against the Mini’s 76 bhp or, by closer comparison, the 54 bhp of the otherwise identical unit fitted into the Renault 12..

I ran a GTL for 3 years. It was reasonably equipped for the times, though by no means lavish, and it introduced another first to complement its revolutionary plastic bumpers, polyester side protection panels. Disregarding the wheelarch rusting, the inconvenient mounting of the engine with its timing chains against the bulkhead and its frail nylon upholstery, it was a fine car. It was hard used, taking me across Europe to Budapest one snowy January and carting around building materials. What it didn’t do was impress me with its fuel consumption.

Back then, cars were more likely to be honed primarily for their home markets. The 5GTL was probably optimised to give the best rating it could under France’s complex fiscal horsepower calculations, and it was aimed for leisurely cruising down French N roads at the then relatively recently introduced 90 kph maximum. In this it excelled, if driven by someone who wanted to save their money, yet not sacrifice their comfort since the fine ride made the GTL a perfectly civilised car. With small valves and carburetor jets, the engine was no racer but it was unstressed, sounding far more grown-up than its smaller 4 cylinder cousins, yet alone Citroen’s characterful, yet noisy, twin. In fact, a Citroen twin had been my own previous car, so I’d become adept at making the best of a low powered engine.

But, of course, my approach of ‘making the best’ was not how it was meant to be driven, What I probably wanted was its pricier, 1.4 litre, 92 bhp Alpine (Gordini) sibling, and in its absence I approached my Renault as I would that early hot hatch. I pushed it relentlessly when accelerating and, despite far better drivers than I, such as the rally driver Roger Clark, pointing out that brakes (and going sideways in his case) were a better way of slowing than going through the gears, in that brake pads were cheaper and easier to replace than gearboxes, I’ve never got out of the habit of slowing through the gears. I suspect this was not how the GTL was optimised so, although by no means disastrous, my petrol bills were not as low as I thought they’d be.


More on the Renault 5 here and here.

11 thoughts on “Theme : Economy – More Is Less”

  1. Nice memories of a car I remember quite fondly from my childhood.

    Your piece shows once more that a great part of fuel economy is depending on the driver who has to make appropriate use of the saving concepts the car makers are offering. I think what you experienced with the R5 is in a way similar to what we have today with downsized turbo engines. While they might perform excellently in a standardised cycle and at relatively low speeds, they might become quite thirsty if pushed over alpine passes or German Autobahns.

    As I am a driver who strives to achieve low consumption figures, I realized that I had to adapt to each new car for quite some time to get the consumption figures down (speaking in litres per 100 km, not mpg). This was more pronounced as there was always some concept change involved: carburettor to injection/turbo, manual to automatic, among others.

    1. Yes, I was thinking about the Twinair Fiats when I was writing that. But I suspect that the Renault’s quoted consumption figures were far more attainable by many drivers who drove in a more restrained way (than I did) than are the Fiat’s.

    2. Oh, and Simon. I’m pleased (humbled?) to hear about your resource-conscious driving style. Both, because it underlines that we are a broad church at DTW, but more selfishly because I can think of it as offset to my wastefulness! I hope you don’t mind.

    3. Don’t count on me to compensate your CO2 footprint, Sean! After all, we’re talking about a gas-guzzling three-litre, two-ton, automatic dinosaur, so economy is a relative concept. I’m in the 27 mpg range.
      And while I enjoy quiet, undisturbed, soft driving on my routine commutes (which account for well over 90% of my driving), I don’t mind flooring the accelerator and using all hydractive resources for a pleasant ride on curvy roads.

  2. We had a 5 in the family. It broke down fabulously on a driving holiday in France. I got to spend three days in a town in Brittany. The Twingo makes no attempt to flaunt its parsimony. Designers seem disinclined to advertise efficiency perhaps because customers don’t appreciate it much.

  3. As Simon suggests in his introduction, there is the suggestion that fuel saving is something you only need to do if you can’t afford otherwise. It’s a lower orders variant on the apocryphal Rolls Royce salesman “Sir, if you need to ask about the fuel consumption, then you can’t afford the car”. I’m a hypocrite in that I acknowledge both the personal and altruistic advantages of saving fuel, yet make little attempt to do so.

    Writing about the 5 makes me realise quite how much ‘better’ cars are generally. “Yes, the 5 rusted, broke down and the seats ripped, but it was a great little car” might sound ridiculous to a young driver’s ears.

  4. Saving money is not my primary driver for an economical driving style (although the effect is welcome, of course!). I wouldn’t drive 80 or 90 to save fuel (and force lorry drivers to overtake me) when there is a 120 km/h speed limit.
    I rather see it as a kind of sport. I’m quite an anorak when it comes to numbers and I like calculating and optimising stuff. But most important, my experience is that I’m much more relaxed after a quiet, fuel saving drive. Trying to speed up on the highway (while still remaining in the vicinity of the speed limits) commands much more attention, it results in a more tiring drive, higher fuel bills and time savings of a few seconds.
    Of course, a C6 very much supports this kind of travelling; I’d certainly adopt a different style in an Elise.

  5. Renault also did a larger engined 1.7l GTX (IIRC) that returned quite good real world fuel economy – large(r) engine, light body, low stress.

    1. I may have seen one of these. Did it have special red and black colouring? With a 1.7 in a body weighing so little it must have gone like slippery lightning. Imagine living with one of those in rural France back then. That must have been rather fine.

  6. I wasn’t so lucky with my first new car – the GTL in a mid blue. I liked the heavily bolstered seats which mitigated the immense body roll somewhat. Mine rusted at the A pillars, had fuel line problems in Switzerland and a failed alternator in Kent. I finally got rid of it when it repeatedly would switch off the engine on the motorway. A subsequent mark 1 Polo was a revelation in build quality and reliability.

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