The Dreaming

The Renault 9 was deemed blandness personified. But one of the design proposals was, shall we say, over the Rainbow? 

1981 Renault 9.

Occasionally, when one is presented with a rejected concept for a well-known car design, one experiences a frisson of regret, a sharp sense of opportunity missed. More often however, one is reminded of the essential rightness of the production concept chosen. But once in a while, one finds oneself staring in disbelief, wondering what were they thinking? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

When Renault introduced the 14 model in 1976, it entered what automotive marketers like to term ‘white space’ in the Renault range. Not that the market itself was unpopulated, Volkswagen most notably having made a convincing attempt at producing a car with the broad market appeal of Billancourt’s R5 model, within a larger, more aspirant envelope.

(c) Autoevolution

The Renault 14 was nevertheless a convincing effort, offering a bold, modernist design, (credited to Robert Broyer), a spacious body and a frugal powertrain, but was ultimately hampered both by an initial lack of engine choice (it was the 1218 cc Douvrin unit or nothing) and a positively absurdist marketing campaign which proved highly successful in ensuring the model line fell well short of sales expectations.

So either by circumstance or design (it’s unclear which) the 14’s lifespan would prove remarkably short, particularly by Renault standards. In 1981, Renault introduced the R9, a similarly sized, front-wheel drive saloon, which would, alongside its hatchback 11 sibling, replace the 14 two years later. The R9 was, even by contemporary Renault standards, an almost reactionary shape, closely aping the conservative style of the 1977 Peugeot 305 model, a popular choice in the French market at the time.

The motoring press – particularly in the UK – who had warmly received the R14 upon its debut, were almost openly derisive of the R9, finding its conservative lines something of an affront, especially in the wake of innovative predecessor-models like the 4, the 16 and the 5. Heading Renault’s design offices at the 9’s debut was Robert Opron, late of Citroën’s Bureau de Style. Having departed Quai de Javel following Peugeot’s takeover, Opron, instead of trying to force upon Renault a similar radicalism to that of his former employer, chose to instead honour the brief that was handed to him.

In the case of the 9, this was complicated by Billancourt’s ambitions for the US market. Renault had made inroads into America in 1976 with a Federalised version of the R5, marketed as Le Car. This might have proven a fruitful approach if it hadn’t been for the fact that the Cinq wasn’t sufficiently proven for US conditions, either mechanically or bodily – and Renault, like most European carmakers, simply weren’t interested in carrying out the necessary heavy lifting to make it so.

Nevertheless, Renault, having built-up an association with the troubled AMC corporation (taking a controlling interest in 1980), stipulated that the forthcoming R9 would have to be acceptable both to European and US tastes. That the latter tended to prefer three volume sedans at that end of the market (and in those innocent times) dictated to a large extent the production 9’s unremarkable appearance.

But despite Opron’s pre-eminent position, he chose to consult with several major carrozzieri (as was the practice of the time) in addition to the various proposals from within his own studio. Amongst those was that of Bertone, who was still (just about) creatively headed by Marcello Gandini.

By then, the great Italian car designer’s best days were behind him; where once he thrilled with his audacious, yet delicate and beautifully realised bodyshapes, by the latter-’70s, Gandini’s proposals appeared simply a repeat of the heavy-handed, unsophisticated looking forms embodied by the 1976 Rainbow concept.

Italian carrozzieri were notorious for taking a theme and redeploying it in every conceivable application. Hence its principles were to be found in 1977’s Ascot (for Jaguar) in the FW11 Anadol / Reliant of the same year, the 1979 Tundra (for Volvo) and ultimately (and successfully) in the BX for Citroen – although there is some conjecture over which of the latter two came first. There is however a missing link, if you like, because in 1978, Bertone offered Renault a proposal for Projet 142, the precursor to the R9 model, which was as house-specific as it was, how do we put this, wildly speculative?

Bertone’s 1976 Rainbow concept was a proposal for Ferrari. It was an extraordinary looking shape, not insofar as it was good, but more that it was not. Given that it came from the creative muse of maestro Gandini, made its impact even more shocking. As an example of a genius out of ideas, it was graphically illustrative. Perhaps Marcello needed a holiday. However, the fact that he remained doggedly wedded to the same stylistic theme for another two years at least, suggests that it was perhaps a sabbatical that was required.

This comes into the sharpest of reliefs with this 1978 proposal sent to Billancourt and shown to Renault management. What we see is essentially the Rainbow expressed as a compact front-drive three volume saloon. Whether Gandini was actually serious about this is open to conjecture, but a piece earlier this year which contains extracts of communication between Caprie and Billancourt, suggests that it was. Needless to say, Renault rejected Bertone’s proposal as fanciful.

In the exchange which took place around the Turin motor show in June 1978, Renault Design executive, Serge Van Hove spoke with Gandini and his deputy, Eugenio Pagliano, where the two Italians attempt to convince the Frenchman of its merits – Pagliano at one point declaring; “…It’s a down-to-earth car, really!

Now of course, the work delivered can only be as good as the initial brief. So either the brief was vague, or Gandini simply ignored it. Either way, not only was his proposal deemed overly futuristic; “too much on the side of the dream,” according to Van Hove, it simply wasn’t a cohesive or realistic proposal.

What backs this up is another image, also dated from 1978, of two proposals, said to be for the Projet 142 (R9) programme; one of which is quite obviously a development of the earlier Gandini car, maintaining its odd truncated-tail proportions, but otherwise looking very much akin to a three-volume Citroën BX in miniature.

What neither proposal acknowledges however is that Renault were not after a daring, modernist shape. The 1978 R18, despite its conservative lines would prove to be a big seller for the state owned carmaker, and with the forthcoming smaller saloon to be marketed by AMC in the United States, Gandini’s outré flights of fancy were simply not acceptable.

In the end, Renault went with an in-house design, one which is not spoken of with much affection by anyone, but went on to sell in excess of 3 million, with almost as many again of the related R11 hatchback. The R14 by contrast didn’t even broach a million sales.

In 1987, Serge Van Hove, speaking with Italian publication, Auto & Design said: “What Gandini cares about more than anything else, what makes him unique, is the dreaming.” The design process is one where often difficult decisions have to made in the cause of commercial imperatives. Here, one could argue (and in the case of the Gandini proposals at least), the correct decision was made.


Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

32 thoughts on “The Dreaming”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. I always hugely regretted the failure of the 14. It was a great, distinctive design with excellent accommodation and a huge boot. The weedy engine and, in particular, its propensity to rust enthusiastically, was its undoing.

    My problem with the 9 and 11 models is not their plainness, but quite the opposite: the side profile is far too busy with those multiple horizontal creases and features. Austin Rover made the precisely same error with the XX Rover 800.

    Had the 9/11 instead had the lovely smooth flanks of the Renault 25, a model in the same geometric style, the result would have been much more satisfactory:

    1. Here’s the 11 in side profile:

      Here’s the same image, with the superfluous crease below the door handles removed:


    2. And with just a rubbing strip instead of the side cladding:

    3. And finally, getting rid of the clamshell bonnet in favour of a conventional and adding the single headlamps and corner indicators from the 9 in place of those nasty little dual rectangular units (as fitted to the US versions) that were standard on the 11:

      Hey everybody, I’ve designed the Peugeot 309!

    4. Forgot to put the recesses for the door handles back in:

      I’ll stop now…

    5. I disagree, the strakes were added to do a job, making a short and tall car visually longer and lower, and it worked. Erasing them proves my point, it makes the car look shorter and taller and above else, fatter. The strakes makes for just a modicum of athleticism.

    6. Hi Ingvar, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this. I understand the point you’re making about the horizontal creases visually lengthening the car, but the multiple creases, to my eyes, made it look thin and insubstantial. In particular, the front wing, with the clamshell bonnet shut-line and the crease below “squashing” the wheel arch looks terrible. I think the 11 benefits from being fattened up a bit, and the 9, with its longer tail, probably even moreso but, hey, what do I know!

    7. You know much, Daniel. I just don’t always agree…

      I think the strakes work on the 11, making a visually more interesting car. Erasing the strakes makes it looking like the very bland 19.

      But yes, I agree on the 9. It always looked very insubstantial and “tinny” to me and would’ve visually improved with more fat.

    8. Well, it looks like someone had a lot of time on their hands to butcher the venerable 11.
      The 11 was fine as it was Daniel, it just needed the little rubber spoiler at the back on all versions as the car looked naked without one in my opinion.

    9. Something I really like about the 11 Daniel was its textured tail lamps. A bit like Mercedes around that time the tail lights had grooves and I loved running my hands on them as a kid as my father had a navy blue Renault 11 which some of you might remember I crashed when I was 14. I realise now it’s funny I really liked the spoiler and the tail light because when I crashed I actually crashed in reverse against a wall so I smashed the part I really liked. The car was written off, the back was like an accordion. We had to come back from our holidays by boat as we were abroad and no way to drive back home. I felt so bad.

    10. ….And the 11 was such a trend setter hen you think about it, in its restyled version it introduced a fake strip of light that ran the width of the back of the car and that design trope is all the rage right now.

    11. You’re right Daniel, you’ve almost created a Peugeot 309, your reworked 11 looks a bit like this rejected 309 proposal:

    12. It only takes being 14, inexperienced and in a sudden panic to do that Daniel thanks very much.

    13. Don’t mind me, NRJ. I’m just grumpy because nobody liked my virtual reworking of the Renault 11. Your physical reworking was, I’m sure, much more impressive!

  2. The rear three quarter view of the Gandini car somehow reminds me of a shrunken late model type 116 Giulietta.

  3. For some reason, we never saw those in Sweden. Rumour has it, and it would be fun to delve into it more deeply, Renault and Volvo had an understanding between them, where Volvo imported small cars into Sweden and Renault imported larger cars into France. But the understanding was that it wasn’t supposed to be the other way around, so as not to step on each others toes. So, during the entire 80’s, the only Renault we saw in Sweden was the Renault 5. From having exported their entire line, including the 12, 14, 18, 20/30, the line up was reduced to only the 5. The 9/11, 21, and 25 were never exported to Sweden at all, not a single car. I guess the understanding was reworked during the late 80’s early 90’s with the 19, Mégane, and Laguna being imported, but not the Safrane. Neither the first generation of the Espace, but a trickle of the second and third. It would be really fun if someone could look into this, because it is a tale of diverse national interest and captive imports, in a time before Scandinavia was included into the common market.

  4. In Gandinis defence, I would say he was actually more daring than lazy. In hindsight, the Rainbow way was a dead end, but at the time, it wasn’t a clear cut case. What we perceive as “beautiful” is something we are trained to see, especially if it evolves in small incremental steps. But someone also have to break the rules of convention to find new ways. Many times, themes are found that others can pick up and make theirs. But as many times, ways are tried that not make it into the mainstream. I would say Gandini was daring in that way, at least he tried a different way, even if it didn’t work out in the end. But design could as well have made a different turn at that time, making his design very much in vogue. The 1978 Renault proposal reminds me of both the Triumph TR7 and Alfa Romeos Nuova Giulietta, I could very well see it making some sort of fashion statement at the time.

    1. Yes Ingvar, Gandini was daring – this was his stock in trade. So in some ways, perhaps Renault ought to have realised what they were getting by commissioning him. I do wonder however at the logic of proposing such an outré looking shape when it must have been clear to him that Renault was looking for a more conservative design. That the production design erred so much towards the latter speaks volumes as to where their ambitions truly lay.

      One could suggest that Marcello was tilting towards a more product design aesthetic with his Renault proposal, something akin to Sergio Sartorelli’s Ritmo perhaps, although I might suggest that the Fiat design (as one would expect) was superior in execution. I can also see something of Cressoni’s 116-Series Giulietta, especially in the truncated boot treatment and its determinately modernist approach. But ultimately, and regardless of the merits or otherwise of the 9 / 11, can anyone envisage this basic design being well received in the US market?

      What is interesting here is despite Renault’s and in particular, Serge Van Hove’s stark rejection of the proposal, enough was considered of Gandini’s talents that he was retained by them as consultant subsequent to his departure from Caprie. Doubly interesting is the fact that Marcello, settled down and produced a thoroughly well executed continuation of Boué’s original in 1984’s SuperCinq – something one might not have imagined was in him – certainly not on the basis of the ’78 study above.

  5. TBH, when I look on them now, I don’t mind the 9 and 11. The 11 in particular has a certain appeal, and I love the bother that Renault went to with the Monotrace front seat runners.

    1. Agreed, S.V. – Monotrace were really clever for the comfort of back seat passenger. I travelled quite a few miles as a teenager in the back of a 9GTX and remember the cleverness of the design.

    2. The Monotrace seats came at the wrong moment because you can’t mount seat belts on them. At the time the R9 came to market everybody was moving to fitting the lower belt mount and the belt buckle to the seat frame for better belt geometry and the poor Renault had to make do with a floor mounted belt.

  6. I found those prototypes shown in the article’s links fascinating. One of them had a real Talbot Tagora vibe from the front.

    I think I may have the Tagora on the brain – going back to the DS 9 referred to a couple of articles back, it’s a Peugeot-based duplicate, which is arguably not needed by its maker; which reminds me of…

  7. One thing occurred to me when I was playing around with the 11 yesterday was just how large and generous the door openings appeared to be for what was quite a small car. Look at the length of the rest door in particular; it’s positively limousine-like. The contrast with, for example, the new 208 is very striking.

    The A- and, in particular, B-pillar is extraordinarily slim by today’s standards. Visibility must have been excellent. On the other hand, it’s crash-worthiness might have been questionable:

    (Although not as questionable as appears in the example above, from the 1985 James Bond 007 film ‘A View to a Kill’.)

  8. What Renault nailed perfectly with the R9/R11 design, is the optical illusion part.
    The final versions are proportioned in such a way so as to make, out of what’s actually a Supercinq-sized car underneath, a credible looking “C-segm.” car, in the contect
    of the early ’80s. (Daniel’s remark on the sheer size of the doors vs. the overall car is very important in this regard and gives the hint about the entire spatial “thinking” behind the design).

    The peculiarly shaped front seats (and the genius Monotrace system), helped offer
    a palpably less cramped interior, additionally masking the essentially compact
    disposition of the cars.

    In that regard (purely as an optical illusion generator), the styling of the R9/R11
    is a massively succesful exercise.

    As for objective aesthetic asessment, I’d strongly suggest observing the GTX/Turbo versions of both the R9 and the R11, as the more mainstream versions’ thin tyres
    and “rural France practical” ride height, both exacerbate the “R5-inside” tell-tale narrow disposition of both the front and rear tracks.


    The decidedly trapezoidal DLO lends an air of distinctiveness (decisiveness, even)
    to what is, basically, I agree, a rather conservative, play-it-safe design
    for the period in which it appeared.

    Another succesful aspect of the design (in the case of the R9), is that it offers a good solution to the traditional issue, of it being nigh-on impossible to make a small-sized sedan that looks even remotely elegant.

    While elegant the R9 isn’t, it’s still rather far from the inherent clumsiness
    of your typical average B/C-segm.based sedan. In this regard, the R9 is a clean design exercise, up there with the Jetta Mk1, Regata Mk2 and Prisma (as relatively rare examples of a small sedan that look decent from most angles).

    1. Might I suggest the Alfa Romeo Giuliar saloon, one of my very favourite small saloons? Or the BMW E30-series cars? They are perfectly proportioned. And finally, the Lancia Trevi, a perennial favourite here at DTW.

  9. Hi Eoin,

    A great article about a not so great car. I always preferred the 11. Some of the special editions of the time showed Renault’s interest in the U.S market: with the Renault 18 “American” (and “American 2”) came the 9 “Avenue” and “Louisiane”. Just like the 18 it had a two-tone paint job.

    The name “American” was a bit daft in my opinion. My neighbour had an 18 “American 2” for many years and we use to make fun of the name with his own kids, like “Ooh your dad thinks he’s a Yankee now huh ?”

    That Gandini proposal was so interesting, I remember the shock the first time I saw that prototype.

    1. Richard,
      perhaps I needed to elaborate more clearly: my point was referring to small sedans that were actually based on a hatchback.

      The Trevi, E30 and Giulia were individual designs, without any platform-based ‘burdens’ of the type the Jetta, Prisma
      or Regata designers had to tackle.

      While the R9 nominally falls in between the above two ‘categories’
      of small sedans (genuine and hatch-based), my point was that, essentially, it is a R5-based car underneath, with styling
      that succesfully manages to pull that peculiar optical
      illusion trick of offering itself as a viable (for the period)
      C-segm. motorcar.

    2. Alex: ah, I was not clear on that. The Jetta and Peugeot 306 saloons were okay, were they not? I love the VW Vento and then the 1999 Bora. Lovely as saloons, much nicer than the Golves they were based on.

    3. The Trevi was based on the hump backed beta.
      Saloons derived from a hatchback design look much better when they get modified rear doors because then they don’t need the upright C-posts of a typical hatch – like the Bora.

  10. So, it was based on a fundamental misreading of what American buyers wanted. We were buying bland-looking Japanese sedans despite the (lack of) styling, because everything worked and nothing broke, not because they were ditchwater-dull boxes (at least to look at).

    The biggest problem with the 4/5-door models was the most typically “French” line on the entire car, the undersized/partly hidden rear wheelarches. The 2/3-doors larger ones made the car look much lighter and more balanced.

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