Against all Odds (Part One)

Before it became part of Groupe Renault, Dacia survived enormous political, social and economic upheavals to remain in business for over thirty years. Today we look back at its remarkable history.

The first Dacia 1100 being presented to Nicholae Ceauşescu (c)

Although subsumed into the vast political monolith of the Soviet Union following the Second World War, the countries that were signatories to the Warsaw Pact tried to maintain at least a veneer of independence from their Soviet masters. In the vanguard of resistance was Romania. Nicholae Ceaușescu, who became the country’s leader in 1965, refused to participate in and openly criticised the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Ceaușescu’s independence of mind initially won him widespread support at home and he leveraged this to build stronger diplomatic ties with western European countries, including France and West Germany.

Ceaușescu’s Romania was keen to establish a national automobile manufacturing company independent of the Soviet Union, both as a matter of national pride and as a source of much needed foreign revenue. In 1966, the company we know as Dacia was established under the name of Uzina de Autoturisme Pitești. A new factory was completed in 1968 and initially produced the Dacia 1100, a version of the Renault 8 built under licence. This was a rather dated rear-engined small car that was essentially a rebodied 1956 Renault Dauphine. Around 37,500 were produced before it was discontinued in 1971.

Behind the scenes, however, Dacia had audaciously negotiated a contract for the rights to build the Renault 12, a brand-new FWD mid-size saloon that had yet to be launched. The 12 was unveiled at the Paris Salon in October 1969. Meanwhile, the identical Dacia 1300 had already featured in Romania’s national holiday parade on 23rd August*, so Dacia actually scooped Renault’s launch!

To add insult to injury, the 1300 was also proudly displayed at the Paris Salon, sharing the limelight with the 12. Quite what persuaded Renault to make such a seemingly careless PR blunder is unclear, although one might speculate about political pressure being brought to bear on the then state-owned French company.

1969 Dacia 1300 (c)

In any event, the Romanians were delighted with the new car’s modernity, and lengthy waiting lists soon built up. Conveniently setting aside communist ideology, Dacia also produced a better equipped 1301 ’Lux Super’ variant that was reserved for Communist Party apparatchiks.

With the factory operating at full capacity, the 1300 estate did not arrive until 1973, three years after Renault launched its own version. There followed a commercial derivative, which was no more than an estate with no rear seats or side glazing. (This was unlike the Renault 12 Service van, which had only two doors and unique bodywork aft of the B-pillar.) Dacia did launch its own unique version of the 1300, the 1302 pick-up, in 1975.

1982 Dacia 1302 Pick-Up (c)

After one major facelift in 1975, the Renault 12 was phased out in 1980 in favour of its successor, the 18. Dacia was, however, determined to extract much more life from the design. This was largely out of necessity, not choice, as the Romanian economy was now on its knees after more than a decade of mismanagement and cronyism on the part of Ceaușescu and his deeply corrupt family and associates.

In 1979 the 1300 gained essentially the same facelift that Renault had given the 12 four years earlier, comprising a raised front bumper, shallower grille and enlarged tail lights. Unlike the 12, however, some versions received twin circular headlamps rather than single rectangular units. Renamed 1310 in 1982, the car was briefly exported to the UK under the Dacia Denem name in the early 1980’s. There were few takers, but the Romanian embassy in London ran a small number as staff cars.

1983 Dacia Denem UK Advertisement (c)

From 1980, Dacia assembled a small number of Renault 20 models, badged Dacia 2000. These were available only in black or dark blue and were supplied exclusively to senior members of the ruling communist party, including Ceaușescu himself.

Dacia spun an extensive range of pick-up models off the 1310 base: in 1982 the 1302 pick-up was supplanted by the 1304, a regular two-door cab available in either pick-up or drop-side variants.  The 1307 four-door crew-cab LWB model with an extended rear deck would follow in 1992, together with the 1309 four-door crew-cab SWB model with a short rear deck.  Finally, in 1994, the 1304 two-door extended King-Cab variant rounded off the range.

1983 saw the launch of another version unique to Dacia, the 1410 Sport. While this looked at first glance to be simply a two-door version of the 1310 saloon, the Sport’s roofline was lower and horizontal, losing the saloon’s upward sloping arrow profile. The DLO was consequently much shallower, justifying to some degree at least the coupé suffix sometimes applied to this model.

1983 Dacia 1410 Sport (c)

In 1984 the 1310 was facelifted, gaining a more prominent and slightly crude black plastic grille. Slightly larger and smaller engine options were offered, named 1210 and 1410 respectively, and a five-speed gearbox became available. Another unique derivative arrived in 1987, the 1320 liftback. This appeared to be based on the 1310 estate but had strong overtones of the (defunct since 1984) Renault 20 in its styling, with a recessed rear window and large rectangular light units front and rear.

Dacia Launched its first in-house design in 1988, a 500cc fibreglass bodied city car called the Lastun. It quickly developed a reputation for terrible quality and reliability, and production stopped in 1991 after only around 6,000 were produced.

1988 Dacia Lastun (c)

In December 1989, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ceaușescu’s greed, cruelty and incompetence finally led to his overthrow in a violent revolution. He and his wife, Elena, were executed after being convicted on charges of genocide by starvation.

Dacia continued to make the best of the severely limited resources at its disposal. A heavily revised version of the 1320 liftback, called the 1325 Liberta in recognition of the country’s new-found freedom, was launched in 1990. The 1310 received a further facelift in 1994, featuring large plastic wraparound bumpers and slim rectangular headlamps with outboard indicators.

1993 Dacia 1325 Liberta (c)
1993 Dacia 1325 Liberta (c)

Although the 1310 was now three decades old and hopelessly outdated, in 1999 it received yet another minor facelift for the new millennium. A half-elliptical grille** was the identifying feature of this final facelift, which saw the model through to its ultimate demise in 2006.

It is worth noting that difficulties with parts supply over the years caused many ‘hybrid’ cars to be built with a mix of parts from older and newer versions. One really does have to admire the resourcefulness of Dacia’s engineers, who kept the 1300 and its multitude of derivatives in production for thirty-seven years, surviving a shattered economy, political upheaval and violent revolution. It was also a testament to the robustness and quality of Renault’s original design for the 12. In all, around 2.3 million units of the 1300 and its derivatives were built, not far short of the 2.5 million total for the Renault 12.

Renault clearly saw something valuable in Dacia and, in September 1999, acquired the company from the Romanian government.

Part Two follows shortly.


* On 23rd August 1944, Romania’s King Michael I led a successful coup d’état that brought down the country’s government, which had supported Nazi Germany, and declared a ceasefire with the Soviet army. For his heroism, the king was awarded the Soviet Order of Victory by Joseph Stalin in 1945. Just two years later, he was forced to abdicate and flee into exile by Romania’s communist government.

** The new grille was nicknamed ‘Iliescu’s smile’ after Ion Iliescu, who was the first democratically elected president of Romania. Iliescu served two terms, from 1990 to 1996 and 2000 to 2004.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

20 thoughts on “Against all Odds (Part One)”

  1. Looking fgorward to Part Deux, as there are many Dacia models here in France.
    I have Romanian friends here too. None would ever drive a Dacia.

  2. “In all, around 2.3 million units of the 1300 and its derivatives were built, not far short of the 2.5 million total for the Renault 12”

    Amazing. Dacia almost OutRenauled Renault with the 12.

    My dad bought an spanish built Renault 12 in 1971. His previous cars were the infamous Dauphine (a.k.a. “The widow’s car”, due to its atrocious handling) and an stretched Renault 8 derivative called Renault 10.

    He was told that the technological leap from the 8/10 to the 12 was bigger than the leap from the first Renault to the 8/10. From my father’s point of view owning a Renault 12 was like entering into a new era in motoring.

    1. Good morning Vic and Spanish Reader. Yes, the 12 was an excellent car for its time, and quite a coup for Dacia as it was a brand new model, not an outdated cast-off like the 8.

      It’s enduring popularity was certainly the key to Dacia’s survival, and acquisition by Renault. Dacia’s own in-house efforts were pretty hopeless: the horrible Lastun mentioned above, and the original 1980’s Duster, a utilitarian 4×4 that Autocar described as “an automotive excrescence so terrible it makes a bus pass look attractive”:

      In fairness to Dacia, the original Duster was actually manufactured by a company called ARO using Dacia supplied engines and other components, which I omitted it from the piece. It was sold under the Dacia brand in some export markets, including the UK.

      Vic, I wonder if your Romanian acquaintances’ prejudice against Dacia relates to the vehicles, or their bad memories of the impoverishment caused by Ceauşescu’s evil and corrupt regime?

    2. Hi Dave. Yes, and this too, the ARO24:

      I don’t know anything about it, but it might be worthy of a DTW investigation!

    3. I remember those AROs – I seem to recall a number of them in Ireland, during the 1980s. The nose treatment was more utilitarian, as I recall, but otherwise, the bodyshape was the same. I recall being intrigued by them as a youngster – they seemed oddly familiar, yet somewhat dissonant. Looking back, there were a lot of vehicles offered to the Irish market from what would have been called COMECON countries – Zetor tractors, for example. Skoda was, from an automotive perspective perhaps the most long-lasting – which may have aided their cause, commercially. I remember seeing original RHD Octavias knocking about until the ’80s.

    4. Great, interesting article, thanks, Daniel. Also however, we all know how the Interweb can propagate myths, on every subject. So would like to offer a more balanced perspective on your description of the R8, as ‘essentially a rebodied Dauphine’, it was much more than that.

      Back in the day, I drove many miles in an R8-1100, in parallel with my own BL ADO16’s and Minis, standard and modified. Yes the R8 along with Simca’s 1000 and Skoda’s was the last manifestation of an outdated layout, but the Regie’s boys gave it their best shot.

      A new family of 5 main bearing engines, all synchro boxes, big disc brakes all round, and rack and pinion steering. A stout anti roll bar at the front, plus 15″ diameter wheels so that the rear end had neutral static camber, tamed the handling quite well. Subtle aerodynamics, including how the airflow for the rear mounted radiator was routed, helped towards efficient and economical performance.

      With this smooth and durable powertrain tucked away at the back, it could be driven briskly, for as long as you wished, with a complete absence of the mechanical fuss and fragility of BL’s products ( which, despite their faults, I also loved ) . While the high performance Gordini 1100 and 1300 versions ( hemi heads, double twin chokes, 5 speeds), launched shoals of young French hotshoes on their sporting careers.

      So yes, the last throw of the rear engined dice, and the subsequent R10 versions were worse, but, I submit that this was far more than a rebodied Dauphine.

    5. Hi Richard. Glad you enjoyed the piece. With hindsight, I was probably a bit dismissive of the R8 because of its outdated layout. I will take a proper look at the R8 and R10 in due course.

  3. What an empathic view of Dacia you’ve introduced us to here, Daniel, thank you.
    But as for the rather hideous lastun, that’s a phrase we Yorkshire folk would use for something (or one) arriving too late, as in Lastun just gone. – you missed the last bus. Or Fred took the last biscuit.
    Apt for such a dreadful looking thing .
    Looking forward to part two

    1. The Lastun’s got the look of a French sans-permis, but I suspect the authoritarian regime didn’t appropriate that piece of Gallic legislation as readily as they did their automobiles. It’s not as bad as the Timișoarans’ very close Hungarian neighbours’ abominable Puli.

      The ARO – a sort of proto-Trooper or Pajero – deserves its own exegesis, as does the ROCAR Tudor Vladimirescu, a few of which made it to the UK, and a lot more to Portugal.

    2. Daniel, my Romanian friends are too young to remember much, if anything, of Ceausescu’s régime.
      They’re more influenced by appreciating the long history of Czech engineering quality, and now buy Skodas (even if a bit old). I can’t say I blame them.

  4. The 88 Lastuns body panels remind me of a poor attempt to copy the Lancia Y10 which did a better job of it proportion wise and fit & finish.
    Maybe Daniel has a Y10 pic to prove my observation.

    1. Happy to oblige, and there certainly is a similarity:

  5. To what extent did the Dacia Lastun carry over Renault mechanicals and was it’s engine an in-house or Renault-derived design?

    An opportunity was missed where Renault instead offered Dacia some version of the abandoned Renault R2 / VBG (Véhicule Bas de Gamme) project, likely more conservatively styled and derived from the original Renault 5 (as opposed to the Supercinq).

  6. Living for a short period in rural Romania about a decade ago the 1310 and it’s derivatives were absolutely everywhere with every street featuring one with the bonet up and a pair of legs protruding from underneath. If anyone bought anything new it was almost always the new Dacias.

    Talking to people this was less about national pride and far more about everyday reliability. The roads were appalling and the road to the villages where we were living in the mountains no more than dirt tracks. The old Dacias in particular had greater ground clearance, extremely tough suspension and were able to get up steep snowbound dirt roads with ease and alarming speed.

    Those who bought Skodas, or even went as far as a Renault, were viewed as foolish because of the higher service costs brought on by the driving conditions.

  7. I like your wide choice of subjects. The main stream publications could learn a thing or two here. Please do more articles on main stream vehicles. Who else would write about Renault 12/Dacia. Can we see something on R6 or R10 or even R15

    1. Hi Simon. Thank you for your kind words. I’ve taken a look through the archives and it seems that the Renaults you mention have so far escaped our attention, so stay tuned, we’ll see what we can do! Please be patient with us as we’ve already got a lot in the pipeline.

  8. I’ve just stumbled upon these webpages while searching for articles on the refreshed Dacia models that have just launched.
    I feel like I’ve found an automotive goldmine amongst the other foolsgold identikit car magazines.
    Thank you for an enjoyable, informative and well written article.
    I am about to delve into the archive for a fun few hours.
    Thanks from a new fan.

    1. Thank you Kevin – and welcome. We may need to send a search party. The archive is deep…

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