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