Fire Without the Spark

The French Capri?


The Spanish word for fire, the Renault Fuego was somewhat unusual in 1980 in that it was in receipt of a name rather than a numeral. The nationalised French carmaker’s numerical system, which had been in place since the ’60s was already showing signs of unravelling, but would take almost another decade before being abandoned with debut of the Clio in 1990. This made the Fuego something of an outlier in the range, a status the car maintains to this day.

To those who recall Renault’s 1980 coupé contender at all, most would probably be minded to dismiss it as something of a damp squib. However it was (for a time at least), both a critical and sales success. Yet it quickly waned, falling prey to changing market requirements and its maker’s shaky finances, the Renault coupé’s flame burnt itself out well before the curtain fell.

In 1975, Robert Opron, a recent refugee from Citroën’s takeover by Peugeot, was appointed Directeur de Style at Renault, bringing with him a concept for an upmarket grand coupé. But while this car wouldn’t be built for almost another decade, meanwhile, Renault’s R15 and 17 coupés, now looking dated against more up to date offerings – especially from Japan and Germany – required replacement.

In a similar manner to its predecessor, the Fuego would utilise the vin ordinaire 1978 R18 saloon as its creative and architectural basis. The 18 was an entirely pragmatic world-car in conception, intended to appeal to the broadest possible market, which probably explains its style, which was criticised – by certain members of the UK press in particular – for its bland appearance.

Utilising floorpan, running gear and most of its chassis hardware, the Fuego employed similar longitudinally mounted engines and transmissions, double wishbone front suspension closely derived from the larger R20/ 30 models and a rigid beam axle at the rear. Engine choices ranged from a 1397 cc entry level unit developing 64 bhp, with mid-range models powered by a 96 bhp 1647 cc version, while top-line versions received a 1995 cc Douvrin unit (from the R20 TS) developing 110 bhp.

Image: The author

The Fuego’s exterior is largely attributed to Renault stylist, Michel Jardin, working under Opron’s direct supervision. Whether by intent or by expedience, there were strong similarities between it and the 18. However the Fuego’s nose was lower and more penetrating, and the use of integrated plastic bumpers lent it a more modernist, aggressive mien. The rear was dominated by the curved opening glassback (a style feature which Opron had espoused during his previous stint at Citroën), and large integrated lamp units.

Clean uncluttered flanks aided the car’s 0.34 cd, but one feature in particular would prove divisive. Opron outlined to chroniclers that his intention was originally to have employed a series of ridges along the flanks of the car, finished in painted aluminium, designed to draw heat from both engine bay and passenger compartment without disrupting airflow. However, costs militated against such a treatment and the louvred plastic finisher which was used, he lamented, served no useful purpose whatsoever.

Indeed, reading between the lines of Opron’s statement is a suggestion that perhaps the finished car fell somewhat short of what he had in mind. Renault employed a very different commercial mindset to that of the double chevron, and while it appears he enjoyed a good rapport with Renault CEO, Bernard Hanon, it took Opron some time to reacclimatise to a different set of expectations.

Overall however, the Fuego was (both internally and externally) elegant, modernist, clean-limbed, but apart from the top of the range GTX models on their distinctive graphic alloy wheel designs and low profile Pirelli P6 tyres, the coupé appeared somewhat spindly, unplanted and overbodied. Trim levels followed the usual Renault logic, spanning TL, TS, GTS, TX and haut de gamme, GTX. A notable innovation was the so-called Pantograph wiper arm, which articulated the blade to the furthest edge of the screen. Another (possible first?) was the fitment of a speed-limited ‘get you home‘ spare wheel.

A curious omission at launch however, was a genuine performance model. While it’s unclear as to whether the PRV V6 from the R30 could have been stuffed in, such a power unit would have lent the car a more muscular demeanour and perhaps given some of its multi-cylinder contemporaries something to think about. Six-cylinder engines however would not be forthcoming, since Renault, thanks to their efforts in Formula One, were now wedded to turbocharging.

This did mean that while the Fuego was generally well received, it gained a reputation for being a little on the tepid side, lacking as it did a performance image – with the less charitable of the auto press contingent dismissing it as something of a voiture de coiffeur – a fleeting visual resemblance to its less stylish saloon sibling hardly aiding its cause. Nevertheless, sales proved strong over its first two years on the European market, with those in France and the UK being particularly strong.

1982 saw a federalised version introduced across the US market. Sold by AMC dealers in normally aspirated and turbocharged forms, North American models were fitted with recessed federal-compliant headlamps and larger 5-mph impact absorbing bumpers – and while the visual changes were less egregious than many European transplants, they hardly improved matters. Not that styling would be the Fuego’s problem in the US. While well reviewed by the press, the cars, like most European offerings, simply weren’t sufficiently well made or durable to meet US market expectations.

In 1983, the European models received a facelift, with changes to the grille treatment, bumpers and a revised cabin. Technically, the big news was the debut of the Turbo model, which used the same 1565 cc engine as fitted to the 18 Turbo. The previous year a turbocharged diesel version had been added to the range, perhaps the first of its kind. The facelift also brought innovations which would later become ubiquitous. The PLIP central locking system employed a keyfob which sent a signal to a sensor on the car, allowing the doors to be locked remotely. A major selling point at the time, as were the remote radio controls, mounted on a binnacle adjacent to the steering wheel.

Apart from the availability of a 2.2 litre model in both mainland Europe and America, the Fuego fizzled out, victim of falling demand for mid-size coupés from mainstream carmakers and the heyday of the performance B-segment hatchback, which provided more thrills for less outlay – for the customer but especially for the manufacturer. Production ceased at Renault’s Bolougne-Billancourt plant in 1985.

Image: The author

South America however would prove a different story, with Fuego production transferred to Argentina, where the car was sold in heavily revised GTA form (itself believed to be an abortive third series facelift proposal) until 1992.

Ultimately then, the Fuego was a bit of an anomaly, writing cheques it ultimately hadn’t necessarily the firepower to cash. A prime example of a car which lacked that final spark of inspiration that might have ignited the carbuying public’s ardour. In the end, a combination of factors extinguished it, but frankly, there wasn’t much of a conflagration to start with.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

36 thoughts on “Fire Without the Spark”

  1. Good grief, I’d completely forgotten about this car so thanks for a timely reminder, Eóin. It was always a head turner for me when a late teen, early twenties car spotter. Must be ten if not twenty years since I’ve seen one driving around or even at a car show but I still see the appeal of the overall shape. I couldn’t remember those wheels which are Ritmo reminiscent and would’ve had no clue as to the wipers, those side ridges or who Opron was at the time.
    The red turbo picture lends itself a somewhat sad demeanour whereas the silver GTA holds a Citroën XM-esque stance which is slightly more appealing. The original with plenty of clear glass and in that particular bronze shade is rather dapper. And brightens an otherwise wet Wednesday, cheers

  2. Good morning Eóin and thanks for an excellent retrospective on a car that’s pretty much forgotten today. The Fuego was so nearly right, but its sporting pretensions were, I think, hobbled by the excessive inward curvature of the lower body sides and too narrow a track. This always made it look like it was standing on its tippy-toes. A wider track and lowered suspension would have made it look much more planted.

    I was never sure about the asthetics of the black plastic ribbing, but replacing it with a body-coloured infill, as was done on the GTA, just made the body look taller and narrower.

    I’d love to have seen a replacement for the Fuego in the crisp style of the Renault 25. It looks like a prime candidate for some Photoshopping later today.

    Incidentally, the 15/17, which the Fuego replaced, had similar issues with its stance, but still had a left-field appeal. Here’s a very nice example on wider (Alpine or Gordini?) wheels:

  3. One of the assistents at my secondary school had a Fuego. That fact alone made the Fuego an uncool car for a school boy. I can’t recall the last time I saw one. Looking at it now I agree with Daniel the track is too narrow and the inward curvature of the body doesn’t do it any favours. I would assume the plastic black ribbing is there to camouflage the fact that there is quite a lot of car above the wheelarches.

    This post has me thinking about other largely forgotten coupés from this era. Mitsubishi Sapporo and Starion come to mind

    1. I really had forgotten about the Sapporo. It was actually rather nice, in a late 70’s angular style:

      I really like the crisp way the rear glass is resolved. Why couldn’t AR have done something similar on the Montego five years later?

    2. Nice Example of the Sapporo. It has Dutch plates too! Looks a bit like Van Gogh with only one rearview mirror, but that was standard practice back in the days.

    3. The fuego’s black plastic trim always reminded me of the rubber bellows at the bumpers some model years of the 911 had.
      I always thought that the fuego had some cranking mechanism that allowed you to wind the upper half to a higher position for city driving and to lower it for high speed work.

    1. Hi Kine and Charles. Yes. It works rather well although, on reflection, I might have taken a bit more out of the wheelbase. As it is, it’s more of GT than a sporting coupé. I gave it frameless side windows like the 17, but not the Fuego

      Charles, that was, er, brave of Ligier to try and modify the Renault 14’s unique shape!

    2. Hello Daniel,

      I think the front could start looking very long if you made the rest of it any shorter.

      The 14 Coupé doesn’t really work. However, a proposed convertible 14 by Heuliez really does, I think; it has shades of the Peugeot 205, to me.

      The Fuego convertibles they proposed works less well. They ended up looking ‘messy’, for some reason.

    3. Thanks Freerk. It wasn’t hard: the 25 is one of my favourites and a great starting point.

    4. Nice – I would posit it would have been based on the 21 though – an anomaly itself as an 70’s style angular car launched in the late 80s when everyone was going full-jellymould. My dad had two and looking back I love that appliance-like boxiness of the pre-facelift ones.
      Anyway- here’s a 21 Fuego: Yours is nicer but I had to do it:

    5. Hi Huw. Your ’21 Fuego’ is very nice, and more appropriately sized too. I was just being lazy and wanted to use the 25’s wraparound glass hatchback rather than construct my own, as you have done. My effort was mainly a simple ‘cut-and-shut’ job.

      I’ve taken the liberty of embedding the image directly in your post so everyone can see it without having to follow the link . I hope that’s ok with you.

    6. I like both the R25 and R21 coupé. It makes me think of a European Thunderbird – though it doesn´t look like a Thunderbird. I mean it´s a large personal coupé and not a sports car and all the nicer for it. It ought to have been introduced in 1985 and run on until 1994, selling about 10-12,000 units a year, dominant in a small market. Today it would be remembered as a car with a small but loyal following and which served a specialist market well and ones in good condition would command a good price. Classic and Old Car would run an article in May, 2007 pitching the R25 coupé against the Volvo 780 ES and Rover 800 coupé. Conclusion: “Whichever car you choose among these three, you can´t lose. The Renault offers comfy modernism and a spacious hatch for golf clubs; the Rover´s wood and leather is like a mini-Bentley and the 780ES is a louche and left-field Swedish-Italian model with a good turn of speed”.

      The R21 coupé was a sportier car. It had a strong turbo engine in top sport trim and a relaxed 2.0 four in Baccara trim, one for the sports market and one for the long lunch crowd. Base models were recalled for a leak in the real tailgate but it was easily fixed. Both did quite well despite the downturn in the coupé market and it was really only the arrival of the 406 coupé that finished off the R21 coupe, but by then 57,000 units had been sold. Good ones in GTX Turbo spec would fetch 5,000 euros and Baccara models 8,000-9,000 (they only made 4500 of them). There should be four on sale in (three in Holland and one Poland). The R21 coupé club is based in Holland and meets once a year in Paris.

    7. Great stuff, Richard. I would add that the 25 coupé had unusually long doors to allow for elegant entry and egress for rear seat passengers. To save space, the doors had a clever articulation mechanism that was not used again until the 2001 Avantime concept (which never made production because it lacked the elegance expected in large personal coupé).

      The 25 coupé is considered by some to be the spiritual successor to the Citroen SM. (Too much? Sorry!)

    8. Daniel – please do always embed images if I post them – that’s always the intention, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think WordPress doesn’t like my Dropbox hosted images 🙂

  4. Might I say that I have not forgotten the Renault Fuego – it´s not that I think about it much but it is not a car that has fallen out of my synapses. When I inspect the memory, it is as I last recalled it. Like Mr Miles the Fuego left a big impression on me as a kid and I always like the look of the car. I still do – I have no problem with the stance though, yes, it could be a bit lower. I also liked the plastic strip as it is (much like the Alfa 75). If you want one for under 5000 euros, you´ll need to go to Poland. The other three on sale at are 5K (one) and 11K (two cars). The cheapest one is in the Black Forest so you will have a nice time going to buy it!

    1. Richard – I did consider blacking out the b-pillar – but there was an honest purity in those 21s, not unlike mk1 octavia, where such smoke and mirrors was deemed somewhat gauche to the designers 😉

  5. The Fuego was a fashion statement and never meant to be a sporty car. But instead of being disappointed, I was instead positively surprised by the standard equipment and long legged cruising abilities of my two litre GTX, especially considering the price. Discussions regarding performance, or the lack thereof, were easily ended with a demonstration of the PLIP, something no other car had at the time, not even ultra luxury ones. In those days, this was much more TRON than a pointless 0-60 figure.
    It’s easy to accuse the Fuego for not having had the fire that was expected from it, which it wasn’t anyway, but show me the alternative. Like the R16, the Fuego was a standalone car with no predecessor and no successor.

  6. Michel Jardin was a very good designer – and a very sensitive individual, I’m told. The Fuego’s reception, courtesy of the press and industry professionals in particular, hurt him very much and left scars that wouldn’t go away throughout the remainder of his career.

    As far as I know, the Fuego, as originally designed, was a drastically different car from the one depicted here. Based upon a generous platform, with wider track front and rear. But this was changed late in the day, despite the design being production-ready by that point. The Fuego hence gained that much higher roof, which led to its banana-like appearance, for which it was widely mocked.

    1. Charles – that was a very interesting link, thanks. There are photos of concepts for what was to become the Supercinq which look a lot like the ADO88 which eventually became the Austin Metro.

    2. There’s some fascinating and very bold designs on that website that I hadn’t seen before. Thanks for sharing, Charles.

  7. It’s very evocative of that era, isn’t it? In some ways, I think it is better thought of as a two door R18 than a coupe in its own right. My first girlfriend’s dad had an R18 and I thought it pretty ordinary, with a loud and rough sounding engine and very springy gearbox. It also felt quite cramped in the back.

    The stance is wrong, the wheelbase too short and, yes, it’s too tall – seems like a case similar to the Alfa Brera where a lovely base design was spoiled by fitting it onto another production platform.

    1. Thanks, SV. I’m afraid I agree with you about the Fuego – it’s a bit ordinary, without being bad enough to be very interesting. Even things like the R9 are interesting, as they’re so determinedly average, they’re distinctive. The Fuego is very much of it’s time, though, as you say. It makes me think of primary coloured sports-leisure wear, white trainers, big hair and sweatbands, for some reason.

      Re the other link, one of the (many) joys of this site is how much I still learn from other contributors in terms of facts and opinions (even though I’ve been interested in transportation all my life) and the rabbit holes it sends me down.

    2. Apologies – I should clarify – by ‘this site’ I meant DTW and although the Fuego is a bit ordinary, it’s still interesting to examine it, so thanks for the article.

    3. Fully agree on this point about the Fuego being a precedent
      to the Brera case. The damage that a late-phase ‘pragmatic decision’ to platform-adapt an excellent design can induce,
      is indeed astounding.

  8. Prefer the later South American versions with body coloured bumpers.

    Doubt the Fuego would have coped with the 160-175 hp 2-litre Turbo engine used in the 21 Turbo, yet it at least deserved a 138+ hp 2-2.2-litre engine. A21 coupe is another missed opportunity.

  9. Hi Eoin,

    Excellent article about the Fuego. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, maybe it’s the name ? It didn’t look very sporty or agressive but it was interesting to look at nontheless in my opinion.

  10. “Hi Huw. Your ’21 Fuego’ is very nice, and more appropriately sized too. I was just being lazy and wanted to use the 25’s wraparound glass hatchback rather than construct my own, as you have done. My effort was mainly a simple ‘cut-and-shut’ job.

    I’ve taken the liberty of embedding the image directly in your post so everyone can see it without having to follow the link . I hope that’s ok with you.”

    Daniel you are the very soul of courtesy, one of the very many things to like about this site and your posts.

    1. Hi Rick, and thank you, it’s very kind of you to say so. The civility of the discourse on DTW is one of the things that first attracted me to the site and I’m very happy to do my bit to maintain those standards. It’s very gratifying to know that it’s recognised and appreciated.

  11. The following image seems to show that someone did attempt
    to remedy the profoundly dissonant styling X wheelbase/track equation that plagued the Fuego as we knew it:

    Being, apparently, a photographic material aimed at promotional purposes for the S.American markets, it reveals that there were ripe worries about how would the Fuego be accepted there, and they played with massively offset wheels and adapted ride heights
    – at least for marketing/promotional purposes.

    This was especially a case after it became apparent just how wrong the rear ride-height was on the first series (obviously a platform-adaptation spring-rate oversight). This ride-height ‘situation’, made its innately wrong stance look even worse,
    downright appaling.

    Still, the Fuego managed to ‘bear its cross’ in a dignified manner, and sold relatively well with a view to the crippled styling execution
    it had to live with. This, in itself, is enough of a proof that the
    original Jardin’s design was probably very close to a great one.

    It manages to keep the virtues of the R14 harmonically radiused beltline, furthermore using same feature (with the rippled plastic strip) to create a vivid, ‘alternating’ optical illusion about the sides’ height / cabin height proportion.

    It soon became familiar (especially to those owners/tuners that immediately sought ways to improve the looks), that the ‘deletion’
    of the black colour of said strip, was a way to palpably reduce the too-long-overhangs impression, at the obvious cost of ‘castrating’ the soul of its very design, so to speak. That black strip was definitely not meant to appear on such a short wheelbase.

    Yet even those, body-coloured-strip examples, had lots to offer
    as a visual appeal, proving that Jardin’s original was probably
    a complex, very well thought-out design, thus justifying
    him, reportedly, being so profoundly proud of.

    In theory at least, nothing prevents Renault to re-iterate this design
    as a modern interpretation, what with the endless technical possibilities that today’s industry offers to mask certain cost-
    saving / platformation aspects.

    Having in mind the appaling lack of convincing yet affordable Coupes or “Coupes” on offer (eg. imagine Dacia offering a 2dr. longroof “Coupe”, or even just a conventional 2dr. …),

    there could be a huge potential should such a (very unlikely) scenario be exploited.

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