The Renault 9 was considered blandness personified. But not all the design proposals were.
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 and very successfully 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.
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, entirely 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 Citroen’s Bureau d’Etudes. Having been ousted from Quai de Javel following Peugeot’s takeover in 1976, 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 successful approach if it wasn’t 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), entailing that the forthcoming R9 would have to be acceptable both to European and US tastes. That the latter tended to prefer conservative looking 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 his own studios. Amongst those was that of Bertone, who were still creatively headed by Marcello Gandini.
By then, the great Italian car designer’s best days were well 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 so much because it was good, but more that it was not. Given that it came from the creative muse of Marcello 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 the proposal as fanciful.
In the interview 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 supplied. 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 shape 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.