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