How Billancourt was presented with an unexpected proposal for an ultra-basic car, not by the product committee, but from the mighty French labour union.
The mid eighties were tough times for Renault. Georges Besse had become CEO in January 1985 and was confronted with an alarming financial situation: between 1984 and 1985 losses were spiralling – amounting to in the region of 10 billion Francs. Furthermore, the alliance in the USA with American Motors was costing enormous amounts of money, with little headway to show for in return. In an effort to stem the red ink, Besse ordered layoffs for over 20,000 workers and the cancellation of the X55 project, the putative successor to the SuperCinq.
Meanwhile, there did not appear to be any serious work being done on a replacement for the outdated, but still much loved R4, at least not officially. The design office had been toying with the idea however, but in a discreet and almost secretive fashion. Its codename was W60.
The actions of the new CEO started to show effect within a year as Renault reported small gains again, although the situation still remained far from rosy. Meanwhile, Georges Besse continued to champion the Renault-AMC alliance, investing even more into the operation at this time.
The CGT (Confederation Générale du Travail or French Labour Union) was not aware of the the existence of W60 but instead, in a step not readily associated with the normal modus operandi of a labour union, developed and proposed a low-cost successor to the 4 themselves in cooperation with a team of Renault engineers, technicians and designers who themselves were staunch supporters of the CGT.
Instead of simply ordering strikes and creating conflict (although the CGT certainly had resorted to this in the past), an effort was seemingly made to both save jobs and Renault itself by means of a car in the spirit of the ageing 4. It was named Neutral – an anagram of Renault.
A full size mock-up of the Neutral was presented to Renault management on November 7, 1986. The Neutral had a very basic shape without any frills, aimed at industrial production efficiency and profitability without much regard for style. The large 4 in the grille left no doubt of its mission and inspiration, while the rearmost side window also recalled the venerable Quatrelle.
To be powered by one of the Super 5 engines, the Neutral’s spartan aspect was continued inside: only the bare necessities and plastic all around. The projected sales price was 35,000 Francs; the cheapest 5 at that time was about 7000 Francs more.
Georges Besse was not convinced however and dismissed the proposal, instead proposing to persist with the Renault-AMC alliance in the USA in the hope that in the longer term the investments would pay off. Fate would intervene: ten days later Besse was assassinated outside his house by the terrorist organisation Action Directe as he got out of his car. The motivation stated for the hit were the mass layoffs ordered by Besse and the death of Pierre Overney, a Maoist activist killed by a Renault security guard some time before.
Raymond Lévy succeeded Besse as CEO of Renault; one of his first actions was to cancel the AMC alliance, and sell Renault’s share to Chrysler. To be fair, there was some movement towards profitability to be detected by 1986 (likely the reason why Besse wanted to persist) but it was probably the right decision, as a huge financial burden was lifted from the troubled Régie’s shoulders.
Breaking off the AMC alliance also gave the CGT renewed confidence that under Lévy’s guidance, Renault could return to profitability. Therefore the Neutral proposal remained just that.
In 1988 the decision was made to initiate a new small basic car project, this time under the codename W06. This would ultimately lead to the highly successful, and more sophisticated Twingo model. In 1979 Renault had broken all ties with Romania’s Dacia, but twenty years later it purchased the Eastern European carmaker outright in order to create a low price range of cars.
A vehicle like the Logan may look different from the Neutral but it is primarily a similar concept: cheap to buy and run, simple and proven mechanics, equipped with only the basics and devoid of superfluous stylistic elements. Having said that, many are still waiting for a credible 4 successor from Renault. Will we ever see it?
8 thoughts on “Stuck In Neutral”
Thanks for bringing this into the open Brrruno. I became aware of it only recently on local government archives, and that’s after thirty years at Renault!
A great story, Bruno, and unknown to me before today, so thank you for sharing. I think Besse made the right call: it would have been impossible to produce such a car cheaply enough in high-cost France to make any profit and I’m not sure the market for such an ultra-basic car was still large enough, in Europe at least. The continent had become considerably more affluent since the 4’s launch and consumers’ expectations were much higher. Perhaps it should instead have been designed explicitly to be manufactured and sold in third-world countries? The original Twingo was a much better idea, an economy car, but with an appealing style and personality.
A new one for me, too and I add my thanks. I fear that Daniel is correct about the market. The 4 was, and is, one of my all-time greats (my father had three, the last of which I inherited) but those who think like me are a small minority when it comes to placing money in front of mouth. But the times they are a-changing and in the fast approaching fiscal armageddon a new market for cheap basic transport my emerge…
Meanwhile I mourn the loss of that last 4GTL; beneath its unmarked, un-chipped, shiny paintwork the salt-spray impregnated metal was dissolving away unseen. Something to do with the un-painted shell sitting on the Wexford quayside during its assembly?
Very interesting – the interior is very reminiscent of the Fiat Panda – a car which managed to pull of a very similar brief with aplomb.
Fascinating. There is a Renault 4 in very good condition and apparently regular use near where I live, which reminded me just how basic cars used to be before I got around to them. It’s a charming thing, as was the MK1 Twingo (in contrast to its successors, sadly). I’m increasingly thinking that the VW Up is the closest thing we’ll get to a spiritual successor to that sort of car.
Was of the view the abandoned X55 project was essentially the VBG (Véhicules Bas de Gamme), which IIRC was mentioned in a previous article. On first impressions perhaps there is a link between the X55/VBG and Neutral projects on the basis the later versions of X55/VBG when from a Panda-esque / R2 direction to a more R4 successor-like direction.
Even though the Neutral was designed around the Renault C-Type engines used in the Supercinq, have to wonder if it also used a similar platform as the Supercinq which itself was believed to be based on the larger R9/R11 and would have made sense as a way of reducing costs similar to Dacia using the B platform to underpin the Logan/Sandero/etc.
Maybe it would have been to both Renault and Dacia’s benefit if the former sold the X55/VBG (or Neutral) to Dacia in place of the Dacia Lastun, similar to Citroen and Oltcit with the Citroen Axel / Oltcit Club.
1) http://lignesauto.fr/?page_id=3047 (English at bottom of article)
2) https://www.gazoline.net/2020/04/23/projets-secrets-la-renault-4-du-futur/ (French link)
I can’t help feeling that this car is, more than anything, a reflection of the management culture and lack of communication, at the time – it’s unfortunate that employees felt desperate enough to produce it in the first place.
Sad but reassuring. Renault was state controlled at the time, the transition from RNUR to Renault SA was akin to the Vatican becoming Protestant.
That the employees who Collaborated on this project were probably ostracized speaks of their courage in hoping for a future that was at best unsure. I can’t recall an example of the chaps at Longbridge taking a pro – active stance of this kind. Billancourt could strike with the best of them, but Neutral remains a candle in the dark.