Middle Class – 1986 Renault 21

There’s nothing terribly exciting about this class of ’86 Renault, but does that mean there’s nothing to say?

1986 Renault 21. Image: Auto Evolution
1986 Renault 21. Image: Auto Evolution

Some cars arrive with a flourish and leave a lasting legacy in their wake – for good or ill. Others live out more self-effacing lives then die without a whisper. Today we profile one of the quiet ones that simply went about its job until such time as its maker chose to replace it.
It’s tempting when one discusses Renault to think of groundbreaking models like the 5 or 16, but in truth these vehicles were aberrations – torpitude being more often the Regie’s metier.

The 21 was intended to replace the 18, a product planner’s car to the last millimetre; Renault having ascertained there was a decent market for a car less durable and well finished as a (traditional) Peugeot, holding the median between outright conservatism and Citroen’s unique brand of avant garde. Despite a lack of design flair, the 18 was a competent car and a strong seller available in a huge range of trim levels, engine choices and bodystyles – particularly if you include the Fuego coupé derived from it.

Renault’s presence in the US culminated in their partial acquisition of the struggling AMC car business in 1980, which saw a process of US-ification of the 9 and 11 models badged Alliance and Encore. With the 21, (Medallion in the US), a similar process was envisaged in the hope of giving AMC a contender in the more lucrative mid-market. Therefore, it was necessary to ensure that it could accommodate an even broader engine range. But here Renault was faced with a dilemma. The 1.7 litre four was a modern transverse unit with an orthodox end-on gearbox sourced from the 9/11 twins. However they lacked a suitable transaxle for the larger 2-litre Douvrin four, or indeed the funds to produce one.

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According to LJK Setright, who was usually reliable on such matters, Renault engineers discovered it would be cheaper and easier in practice to engineer the car to accept both layouts, accepting different subframe designs, different front suspension geometries, different track widths and different wheelbase lengths – the larger engined model’s being shorter by 2.4 inches. According to LJKS, because of this the 21 was capable of accepting any Renault or Douvrin-sourced engine. As it stood, the car was launched with five engines – (more followed), two gearboxes, three distinct wheelbases and was available with four equipment levels.

During this period, Renault’s styling studios had been using outside consultancies with some regularity – the Supercinq allegedly the work of Gandini for instance. Styling for the 21 is said to have been the responsibility of Ital Design. Certainly it bore an strong resemblance to Giugiaro’s 1982 Orca concept, Giorgetto being far from the only carrozzeria principal known for reheating unwanted proposals for new customers. Due perhaps to the importance of the US market and Renault’s ambitions there, a three volume body style was initially offered, although more attractive five door hatchback and Estate models were later added. It’s probably not unfair to describe the 21’s styling as blandly contemporary, these were not distinctive looking cars – in fact they probably made excellent undercover police vehicles. Mind you, the floating bootlid effect was to make a notable reappearance, attributed to a certain notorious American styling chief.

The 21 was well received in European markets and although it didn’t particularly set anyone’s hearts aflutter, the handsome and commodious seven-seater Nevada estate – (it was called Savanna in the British Isles for some unspecified, probably copyright-related reason) was popular with those who couldn’t or wouldn’t stretch to an Espace. They did drive quite well from personal experience with a characteristic loping ride quality and Renault’s trademark accurate if rather ‘sticky’ gearchange. The interior was airy, extremely spacious with a decent level of fit and finish – better than that of its PSA rivals anyway. The remote radio controls which made an appearance with the model was a useful feature and unlike the Citroen BX’s satellite controls, felt as though it had the benefit of some production engineering rigour.

Since Renault and PSA were locked in eternal battle, a halo model was deemed necessary to counter its domestic rival(s). Having (quite literally) blown a fortune on Formula one with little to show – (Renault pulled out in 1986) – a turbo version was developed both to underline the old racing adage and justify the expenditure. The 21 Turbo was said to be a fine car – fast, suave and well mannered – especially in 4×4 form. Shorn of its boy racer addenda, it would have made a brilliant Q-car, since few realised Renault had a 140-mph saloon on its books – especially one potentially invisible to the naked eye.

Viewed throughout its life as strictly a median offering, it never proved as well liked as Peugeot’s more shoddily finished 405, yet it was a successful model line for Renault, with over 2 million sold in Europe, North America, Turkey and South America over a 9-year lifespan.

Image: wroom.ru
Image: wroom.ru

In 1987, Patrick le Quement took control of styling, beginning a process which would see Renault adopting a more distinctive visual character. The 1994 Laguna was his studio’s response, offered in hatchback and a year later, in estate form. Few mourned the 21’s passing, fewer still remember it and while it never quite descended to Carisma-levels of numbing blankness, a sighting would elicit little response today, if indeed any survive.

No, Renault’s midliner wasn’t a brilliant car but it was a decent one. So while we’re not exactly getting the bunting out, for one day at least, the 21 deserves its moment.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

23 thoughts on “Middle Class – 1986 Renault 21”

  1. I assume the 21 was first conceived under Robert Opron’s watch. If you didn’t know, it’s hard to believe that the designer who oversaw the boldly sculptured Citroens of the late 60s and early 70s, would have been the same person encouraging the crisp minimalist line of 80s Renaults.

    I always liked the shape of the 21. We nearly bought a Savannah at work, it was unassumingly competent. In the end we decided (probably with undue pressure from me) to get a Citroen BX 19 Break instead. Unfortunately, that particular example of the BX was all that detractors would expect from a PSA vehicle.

    1. I agree with your opinion on the styling of the 21; it was minimalist and elegant. I think the interior might have been influenced by the Talbot Tagora. I think you made the right decision buying the BX, even if you had problems, I bet it would have been more reliable than the Renault in the long run. I owned by first BX of four in 1987 and borrowed a 21 for a couple of days. The BX was a considerably nicer drive, with a smoother ride, more precise handling, less noise, more space and superb controls.

  2. Am I right in thinking that the 21 was available with both a transverse and a longitudinal engine, depending on which one you went for? Crazy.

  3. I had never seen the Orca concept, so thank you for that. To my eyes the 21 appeared like an Alba midi hifi in car form, so perhaps it was appropriate to the age. The only aspect I really didn’t like was the dashboard, the cowl over the instruments having the look of an overturned plastic dinner tray. Otherwise the 21 was a well resolved exercise that tended towards blandness.

    1. Surely you mean cheap hifi of the 1990s? Otherwise it is an unfairly harsh comment in my opinion.
      A few months ago I compared some of the outside styling details to the Atari 520 ST…

    2. Cheap, yes, but not awful and everyone had one. And ah, the Atari ST. As a callow youth I owned a 1040STE. Indeed, Deluxe Paint was my introduction to producing graphics on the computer, so one might say it has a lot to answer for.

    3. I still think you’re a bit harsh with your low-end, Argos/Dixons reference. Look at what a upper-middle market brand was offering at the time:

    4. That was very much an entry level piece of kit (I had that exact model in red). The rest of their range looked much solid.

    5. I had the same thought the other day. I miss him. I hope he’s OK.

    1. It always seemed to me like they felt the need to have a logo, but weren’t 100% sure. So they made it removable.

  4. Was this the first model where Renault finally did what everyone else did and used proper CV joints? Enquiring minds and all that. The Fuego ate its Pascal joints for lunch round here, which is why the 21, known as the Medallion, sold at a glacial rate after the ignoble 18s and 9s and 11s that preceded it. Japanese cars exhibited few problems if you just wanted transportation, or you could buy a Renault and wing it through life itself, living on the edge like a Vegas gambler. In fact, Renault gave up and flogged AMC to Iacocca at Chrysler.

    It was a tossup whether the modern inboard plunge joint and outer 6 ball CV joint first came to market on the Olds Toronado or the 1966 Subaru. They both claim the honour, almost two decades before Renault woke up.

    No question the Renaults looked decent but there comes a time when bashing yourself in the head with a large hammer no longer feels good to the average punter. Peugeot left a couple of years later with its tinfoil 405 unable to be sold in any quantity, that’s if its engine ran properly. Underdeveloped nightmares presented with a Gallic shrug of indifference, nay, sang froid, to the rubes and backwoods folk of ‘Murica. Light duty at its finest.

    I suppose I could drink five cups of tea, ruminate on the much more temperate Euro climate so kind to cars, and deliver a heartfelt analysis of the 21’s styling. But when these names come up and your mind fills with the remembrances of shoddy engineering design and Aunt Sally’s Cinq with collapsed rear suspension rather than piquant memories of glorious styling, well, who cares who styled the thing if it’s unfit for purpose?

    1. As a counterpoint, Peugeots are what North Africans want. They are renowned for being able to deal with less-than-excellent conditions. 404s, 405s and 406s plus 505s all get shipped to N Africa and the middle East. How crap can they be? It’s only a sample of one but my father-in-law’s 406 is still solid after 18 Danish winters and I’ve seen them in Sweden as well.
      Renault, on the other hand…. they last about seven years and get scrapped.

    1. Hi. Newbie here. The blog is excellent. Apparently the difference between both wheelbases was 6cm and invisible from outside.

    2. Thanks for the clarification NRJ and welcome to DTW. Very pleased you’re enjoying it.

    3. As far as I know, Renaults used to have offset rear wheels, but the front ones were always in line.
      Back to the 21: the difference is not entirely invisible. The front wings are different, and by looking closely, one can spot different distances between wheelarch and door.

    4. Thank you for the warm welcome. I did post a reply a few days ago but it never appeared. I wonder if the post didn’t go through because I’ve added 2 pictures to it ?
      In it, I was saying that Simonhastel is correct in that you can actually see the difference from outside. The rubber strip that goes from the front door to the front wheel arch is slightly longer on the 1.7 petrol and 1.9 diesel versions. Other small clues are the orange side indicators, between the Wheel arch and front door shutline have more room around them on account of the longer wheelbase.

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