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