Coupé à la Française

DTW recalls the 1971 Renault 15 and 17, La Régie’s distinctively French take on the sporting coupé.

Renault 15 & 17. (c) stubs-auto .fr

The 1969 Renault 12 saloon was an immediate hit for its manufacturer. It was praised by European motoring journalists for its styling, spacious and comfortable interior, and good performance and fuel economy. It was based on a new platform that placed the engine longitudinally ahead of the front axle and gearbox. On Renault’s existing FWD models, the 4, 6 and 16, the engine was positioned behind the gearbox, necessitating a distinctly unsporting high bonnet line and dashboard mounted gear lever.

Renault had not offered a coupé in its range since the demise of the Dauphine-based Caravelle in 1968, and only 9,309 Caravelles had been sold in the last three years of its production. Moreover, the European coupé market had been transformed by the launch of the Ford Capri Mk1 in 1969 and Opel Manta A a year later. The new coupés were closely related to their mainstream saloon siblings, the Cortina Mk2 and Ascona A. More significantly, they were styled to look aggressively sporting, masculine rather than demure in character.

Renault decided that it could usefully employ the 12’s platform as the basis for its own coupé. Surprisingly, given the relatively modest sales numbers that must have been forecast, the company decided to produce two distinctly different bodystyles and brand them 15 and 17. Both models were launched in July 1971.

1970 Renault 15 TL. (c) carsaddiction

The 15 had slim pillars, a large, airy glasshouse and frameless door windows.  The style was almost ascetic in its simplicity and restraint. The bodysides were unadorned, apart from a single, subtle crease running from nose to tail. There were no external door handles, just a simple push button and a recess in the bodywork behind the trailing edge of the door.  This arrangement would be employed again on the 1972 Renault 5 supermini.

The front end was unusual, comprising a hoop-shaped bumper surrounding the grille and deeply recessed single rectangular headlamps. This arrangement was mirrored at the rear, where a similar shape was employed for a deep ‘shield’ bumper surrounding a black panel containing the number plate, above which were slim tail lights. The rear hatch had a recessed window, and its shut-line was neatly hidden by an inverted U-shaped strip of brightwork. This disguised the fact that the car had a rear hatch rather than a conventional boot.

1971 Renault 15 and 17 (c) press.renault.co.uk

The 17 was identical to the 15 below the waistline, apart from having twin circular headlamps in place of the single rectangular units on the latter. The side DLO was, however, radically different: instead of the 15’s single large triangular rear side window that was hinged near its leading edge, allowing it to pop open, the 17 had a wide reverse-rake pillar bisecting the space. Ahead of this was a smaller wind-down rear side window and, unlike the 15, no B-pillar.  Behind it was another piece of glass, covered by louvres. The rear hatch had a slim black rubber spoiler not fitted to the 15 and the area above it was painted black rather than body-colour.

A Gaston Juchet render for the R17. (c) lignesauto.fr

The intention of these modifications was clearly to endow the 17 with a more overtly sporting style than the 15, but these efforts were undermined somewhat by the short wheelbase, high nose and tail, and spindly looking three-stud wheels, which gave the car a less than well-planted stance. The engine in the base model 15TL was the 1,298cc, 59bhp inline four from the 12. The 15TS and 17TL had a larger 1,565cc, 89bhp unit from the Renault 16TS, while the top of the range 17TS (renamed Gordini in 1974) had a 1,647cc, 107bhp unit from the 16TX.

The instrumentation of both models featured four separate dials, each under a deep individual cowling.  While this looked rather exotic, the rest of the dashboard was more prosaic, featuring a swathe of black plastic, horizontal heater controls in the centre, and a distinctly aftermarket-looking centre console for the radio. The rest of the interior was rather better, with comfortable and well upholstered seats in the Renault tradition.

Sporty! Renault 17 dashboard. (c) honestjohn

Car Magazine tested the base model 15TL against the Fiat 128 1300SL Coupé and Ford Capri 1600GT in January 1973. The mismatch in engine sizes was explained by the better value offered by the UK built Ford, which cost £1,370 against the Fiat at £1,454 and the Renault at £1,325. A Capri 1300L would have cost just £1,123.  This disparity was caused by the weakness of Sterling pushing up the prices for imports.

The Capri was, unsurprisingly, the best performer, with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of around 11.5 seconds, compared with 12 seconds for the 128 and 12.5 seconds for the 15TL. Top speeds were measured at 105, 97 and 94mph (169, 156 and 152 km/h) respectively.

The Renault’s handling was typical of contemporary FWD cars, with strong understeer when cornering at speed, but exacerbated by the forward position of the engine and soft suspension. The engine was smooth and willing to rev hard with no sign of strain, but the gearbox was found to be rather rubbery and imprecise. Despite being driven hard, the 15TL returned around 28mpg over the test, better than either rival. The comfort and refinement were easily the best of the trio, with little wind noise and a soft, supple ride.

The testers were surprisingly complimentary about the styling of the 15. They liked the “Camaro-ish”(!) front end, its generous glass area and practical tailgate. They said it was the only one of the trio that turned heads in the street.  By comparison, they found the Capri overly familiar and rather dated, and described the Fiat as “an aesthetic non-event”.

Overall, the magazine concluded that any choice would be dictated by the buyer’s priorities. The Capri was the best performer, the Fiat had the best handling, but the Renault was the best looking, most comfortable and quietest.

1976 Renault 15 Coupe. Image: carsinvasion

The only significant alteration during the models’ life was a facelift in 1976. The front end lost its hoop-shaped bumper in favour of a deeper U-shaped item. The upper half of the nose now had a body-coloured capping. The different headlamp arrangements between the 15 and 17 remained, although they were now separated from the grille and no longer recessed. At the rear, the hatch with its recessed glazing was replaced by a more conventional flush item and a horizontal strip of red reflective plastic now connected the tail lights. Inside, a new and better quality (if less distinctive) dashboard was fitted.

The 15/17 sold steadily in Europe throughout its eight-year life.  It was intermittently exported to the US but only sold in tiny numbers alongside the ‘Le Car’, a federalised Renault 5. US models of the 15/17 were defaced with really ugly 5 mph bumpers that destroyed the integrity of the front and rear end designs. The 15/17 was also exported to Australia from 1973 in small numbers. Incidentally, the 17 was marketed in Italy as the 177 because of a tradition of heptadecaphobia in that country.

1971 Renault 17 TL : frenchautos.fr

Production came to an end in August 1979 and both the 15 and 17 were replaced by a new coupé, the Fuego, from 1980. The 15 and 17 may not have been overtly or aggressively sporting like the Capri (notwithstanding the feeble 1300L) but they had a quiet elegance that endeared them to a different sort of buyer.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

36 thoughts on “Coupé à la Française”

  1. A nice reminder of these rather forgotten cars. As a child in the 70s and notwithstanding we had 12s in the family, these always struck me as rather odd and unconvincing. I never understood why they were marketed as two separate models either and which wasted a number in the Renault nomenclature of the day.

  2. Nice piece. I just like to point out that the Renault 15/17 was never sold officially in Spain. I’ve only seen a couple at car shows and they sported very recent number plates, a telltale sign that they were imported as classics.
    As far as I know The Renault 177 nomenclature was used in Italy. We, spaniards, don’t have any particular issue with number 17.

    1. Hi Severo, thanks for dropping by and glad you enjoyed the piece. Thanks also for the correction regarding the 177 nomenclature. I’ve amended the text accordingly.

  3. I always loved these – my dad was a Renault man through and through (we had a 4, a 6, a 16, 2x 21s and a 2x Lagunas over the years) and I used to drool a little over pictures of them in the Renault ‘Boutique’ catalogues,

    I would say that the Renault design team were definitely looking across the atlantic with these – especially the 17 as the chrome wrap-around bumpers and aggressive headlamps and frameless doors and faux targa top are all so reminiscent of the 1973 Dodge Charger.

    https://cdn1.mecum.com/auctions/fl0120/fl0120-396913/images/01-1568404473600@2x.jpg?1578510368000

    This must have caused quite a stir in France—so loud, so gauche! “Tellement américain—Ta voiture est si vulgaire!”

    1. Hi Huw. You’re right, the 17 did have a distinctively American flavour compared to the understated simplicity of the 15. If Renault was targeting the US market with the 17, the company really should have taken more account of the 5mph bumper requirements in the design stage. US bound 17s were defaced with really ugly add-ons, especially at the back, where the original European bumper was left in place and the US item just added on:

  4. Here’s a nice comparative photo of the side profile of both models:

    Until I started researching for this piece, I hadn’t realised that the 15 had a B-pillar, albeit a slim one, unlike the ‘pillarless’ design of the 17. I suppose it was necessary because the 15 did lacked the body strengthening provided by the 17’s wide reverse-rake C-pillar.

    Interestingly, I’ve just noticed that the US 17 above has a fuel filler flap instead of the exposed filler cap on European models. Perhaps that was also as a result of US regulations?

  5. Unusually, Mr O´Callaghan seems that he may perhaps have not done all his research. Archie Vicar seems to have reviewed these cars and the link is here:
    https://driventowrite.com/2015/11/23/1971-renault-17-roadtest/
    I wonder why WP does not link to it automatically.
    Apart from that grievious ommission, this is a timely and relevant article.
    If you are pining for one of these compelling machines, you will need 4500 euros.
    https://www.autoscout24.de/angebote/renault-others-benzin-weiss-19879ca5-715c-e117-e053-0100007ff43c?&cldtidx=12&cldtsrc=listPage

    1. Good morning Richard. In not referencing the estimable Mr Vicar, I am protecting the sensibilities of our more ‘woke’ readers who might find his writing style and general demeanour a touch abrasive.

      As to the 15 advertised for sale, one has to admire the ingenuity of its current (or previous) owner who managed to fit it with plastic impact-absorbing bumpers from a completely different car:

      Alas, being a stickler for historical accuracy, it’s not for me. Here’s a rather more original example, in this case a 17:

      https://www.carandclassic.co.uk/car/C1218352

    2. As Ret´d Colonel from Tunbridge Wells wrote: “Political correctness gone mad”.
      You´re being a little fastidious about the car for sale. What´s not to like and consider the great price. It´s virtually box fresh! Timewarp condition.

    3. The picture above of the modified Renault 15 provides us with a DTW Friday trivia question. From what car did the non-standard plastic bumpers come? I’m sure someone will get it, but if not, I’ll reveal the answer tonight at 8.00pm BST.

  6. Hi I love all these Renault observations. We were not particularly Renault oriented growing up but there was a yellow Dauphine and a 14. The 14 was an excellent machine very comfortable and quite nippy. I think Renault was a very interesting manufacturer in the 60’s and 70’s . Once they dumped the numerical product nomenclature I lost interest. Why drop an iconic brand name like Renault 4 or 5 for some meaningless name. Why did they feel they could not just reuse existing numbers when a model was replaced. I understand the 12 became the 18 and the 14 become the 9/11. Anyway more stories in this please.

    1. Hi Simon. Thank you for your comments and glad you’re enjoying our current Renault theme. There are more Renault pieces coming up shortly. Stay tuned to DTW!

  7. @Daniel – my guess on those bumpers would be early Citröen BX base-spec

    1. @Daniel – I think when I said transatlantic I more meant ‘US Style for the Euro Market – much like coke-bottle styling on Cortinas etc than actually designing FOR the US. Interesting they actually sold a few! (Even with those terrible bumpers.

      DOT regs did so many terrible things to european cars in the 70s and 80s. So many Volvos, Mercs, BMWs, MGs ruined with sealed-beam light conversions and ridiculous bumpers. Looking back it’s kind of mad to think every single vehicle in the US in those years had one of only two types of headlamp!

    2. …is the correct answer:

      Well done, Huw. I thought the bumper-mounted indicators might have thrown people off the scent, but there’s no fooling DTW’s highly knowledgeable commentariat.

      Whoever installed the bumper must have cut holes for the indicators, as they were mounted in the corner of the front wings on the BX. For me, the giveaway was the unusual vertical leading edge of the rear bumper, just visible in the photo of the 15.

      Well done! Eóin and I are working on the DTW Bumper Holiday Quiz at the moment, so we’ll have to make the questions even tougher to make it sufficiently challenging!

    3. Regarding the US DOT regulations for standardised headlamp sizes, the 7″ single and 5.75″ twin round items weren’t so bad, but the titchy twin rectangular items added in 1974 were the ruination of many European cars in the US. Compare these, for example:


    1. Well, that certainly improves the 17’s stance! Joking aside, wider tracks and a small reduction in ride height would have improved the appearance of the production car, considerably, ridding it of the ‘on tip-toes’ attitude making it more overtly sporty.

    1. I had a red Matchbox model of the 17! Actually I have a feeling I had a model of the 15 as well in silver, possibly by Majorette. I probably still do have them – must go mountaineering.*

      * i.e. looking in the attic

    2. Majorette – I haven´t thought of that name for four decades. Even as a kid I felt Majorette were inferior to Matchbox. Was that impression personal to me or generally held?

    3. What were Matchbox (and Corgi) cars made of? They didn’t rust, and chipped paint revealed a dark grey metal of some sort. Was it aluminium, or an alloy of the same?

    4. They were sold as “die-cast” and the metal was a crystalline, granular material. Was it aluminium? I get unusually intense visual recollections all of a sudden, to do with playing with cars at carpet level. This must be to do with the way early childhood memories are quite intense due to the novelty of it all. I imagine cognitive psychologists must have an explanation. If I wander around in that memory space I recall my James Bond Lotus model, the Stromberg helicopter, a DeTomaso Pantera and the Starskey & Hutch Buick. I also had a Bond DB6 and, tragically, recall losing the little blue figure almost instantly. The Lotus missiles also got lost. And bitterly, my parents were utterly indifferent. That leads to a strong impulse for me ensure my kids´ broken toys are fixed immediately!

    5. Starsky and Hutch Buick? I think you’re getting your US cop programmes muddled up, Richard. Starsky drove a Ford Gran Torino, red with a white stripe, while Hutch occasionally drove a battered Ford Galaxie.

      Kojak, on the other hand, drove this 1974 brown Buick Century Hardtop

      I’ve always been intrigued by the styling of this Buick, with its flowing curves over the wheel arches and tapered tail. It was a brave attempt to add some dynamism to an otherwise boxy shape. Its successor reverted to a much more conventional rectillinear style.

    6. Daniel: you´re right. I got them mixed up. Didn´t the Kojak model have the figure always hanging out of the car pointing the gun? That bothered me as a kid, as did the fact the Bond Lotus was always in submarine configuration. It ought to have been transformable.

    7. Those model cars were pressure cast in zinc. No trapped bubbles, smooth surface and easy to paint.

  8. I always thought Majorette were less effective as toys than Matchbox. The paint was less glossy and chipped more easily, and the wheels were narrower. On the other hand the thinner paint meant the moulding seemed finer, and the range of subjects was more interesting – more European cars as I recall, ones you might actually have seen in real life. I know I had a Saab 900 in Majorette, for example. I had a Dodge Charger in Matchbox, but how likely was I ever to see one of them in rural Wicklow? Even Saabs weren’t that common!
    Daniel – very good question! No idea what the answer is, though.

    1. Hi Michael. Apparently they were (are?) made of ZAMAC (or Mazak), which is an alloy of zinc and aluminium, also referred to as white metal or pot metal.

    2. I think we need a whole series of DTW posts on toy cars!

      Richard, I think you mean the silver DB5 from Goldfinger rather than DB6? I seem to recall the toy version came in two sizes. I had the small one, which I think had a red ejectable passenger and interior. I believe that was made by Corgi.

    3. Amal motorcycle carburettors were made from Zamac. They were famous for wearing out in no time and their shaky slides.
      The exterior door handles of my Alfa 166 were made from that material and the acid trapped in the porous base during galvanising made the chrome come off in a matter of weeks.

  9. Never got the appeal of the Renault 15/17, besides being rather underpowered (e.g. lack of 1800-2000cc engines) it reminds me of a Brazilian-meets-Eastern Bloc-built fiberglass carmaker unsuccessfully attempting to create a bloated yet distinctive Franco-American styling theme.

    Renault should have simply gone with a comparatively more attactive coupe that still exteriorly resembled Renault 12, like Dacia done with the Dacia Sport-Brasovia later the Dacia Sport. It is almost at if Renault and Dacia agreed to switch over their 12-based coupe projects.

    A pity Renault never got around to developing a Renault 8-based coupe to replace the Caravelle/Floride beyond the Renault R8 Sport Coupe Prototype by Ghia, whose slightly odd proportions looks as if designer Filippo Sapino was deliberately trying and failing to avoid comparisons with the Michelotti styled Alpine A110.

    1. Hi Bob. Oh dear, The R8 Sports Coupé prototype was not Ghia’s finest work by a long chalk:

      It looks like something from a children’s animated film.

    2. There were engines with plenty of power available for the R17. The standard TS/TX engine already had 108 hp tuneable to 125 hp like for Alpine A110 use. Mignotet versions for the A110 had up to 1,800cc and 165 hp which would have been enough for any R17.

    3. A standardized road-going version of the motorsport focused 1800cc A-Type engine (1774cc via 82mm bore x 84mm stroke though some claim a 1796cc version) used in the A110 would have been preferable, had it been possible of course. A 107 hp 1605cc engine used in the R17 Gordini would have been transformed with a 1774cc engine putting out 118 hp, with more sedate versions putting out around 100-106 hp.

      Know the A110 also received modified A-Type engines as large as 1862cc with matching 84mm bore x stroke, though have doubts the latter could have been productionized let alone been further stretched prior to the Douvrin / J-Type engine.

      It would have probably made sense for the 12 Coupe / R17 to feature a 1800cc engine at minimum (however tempting it is to directly compete against its 2-litre coupe opposition of the period had the option been available), with the later 2-litre Fuego thus being a more natural progression in place of the R17’s 1650cc engine.

      https://www.classicdriver.com/en/car/renault/alpine/1974/729645 (1774cc)
      https://www.facebook.com/1165919466809253/posts/alpine-a110-groupe-4-1970-1860-cm3-178-cv-700-kg/2379684425432745/ (1862cc)

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