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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.