A Failure of Nerve

In 1966 Peugeot and Renault formulated an ambitious plan to take on the incumbents in the luxury car market. Sadly, both companies got cold feet and their dream went unrealised. DTW recounts the story of Projet H.

Image: Christopher Butt

With the successful launch of the 16 in 1965, Renault had a large five-door FWD hatchback to complement its (not so) small 4 model. The range would be augmented with the medium-sized 6 in 1968 and completed with the 5 supermini in 1972 . These hatchbacks sat alongside its rear-engined 8 and 10 saloons for more conservative customers.

However, the company lacked a large and prestigious car as a flagship for its range. Likewise Peugeot, where the largest model was the well-regarded 404 saloon, launched in 1960. Both manufacturers eyed Citröen with a degree of envy. The Double Chevron’s large DS model, although already a decade old, had been so advanced and futuristic at launch that it still looked handsome and prestigious.

It was a fitting ‘halo’ model for the marque, notwithstanding the idiosyncratic appearance of Citröen’s smaller cars. The DS was also the choice for official transport at the Elysée Palace, giving Citröen kudos that was jealously coveted by both Billancourt and Sochaux.

Both manufacturers were allegedly nervous about the market potential for a large and luxurious car bearing their marque names, so they agreed in April 1966 to develop such a car jointly. It would be known simply by the anodyne name Projet H(1) and would be a conventional front-engined RWD saloon. The engine for the new model would be a 90° V8 with a capacity of 3.5 litres, the development of which would be Peugeot’s responsibility. Projet H would be a large car at 4.90m long and 1.88m wide.

The Projet H joint venture was the second(2) project initiated under a wider agreement between the two companies to share development resources and costs, and ensure that each manufacturer’s models did not compete directly with the other’s(3). The agreement was sealed in anticipation of the establishment of the EEC Customs Union on 1 July 1968 which would see tariffs abolished between member states and harmonised between the EEC and other major economies with which the EEC traded. This would expose the French automakers to increased competition from imports but would also give them much greater export sales potential.

Renault and Peugeot would each design its own bodystyle for Projet H. It is unclear as to whether each manufacturer would put its own chosen design into production, or whether only one design would be selected and would be shared between the two manufacturers, with only trim and cosmetic embellishments to differentiate them.

Renault Projet H 2.5 Box Saloon Proposal (c) histo-auto.com

Michel Béligond, who had designed the 16, was given responsibility for the new model at Renault, overseen by design studio head Gaston Juchet. Béligond envisaged the new model as a six-light fastback design in the same mould as the 16, but with a conventional boot rather than a hatchback, to appeal to a more conservative customer demographic(4).

Two other Renault designs were also developed into full-scale models. One was a six-light ‘2.5 box’ saloon, designed by Vincent Dumolard. This had a sloping tail, albeit with a distinct break in the line between the rear window and boot. There was also a more conventional saloon with a three-box profile, designed by Jean-Claude Mornard.

Over at Peugeot, the Projet H design was contracted out to Pininfarina as the company did not have the in-house resources to take it on. The Italian carrozzeria produced a very pleasant if somewhat anonymous six-light conventional saloon with a low waistline, slim pillars and twin rectangular headlamps.

Pininfarina proposal for Peugeot’s Projet H (c) histo-auto.com

One of the three Renault prototypes has survived, the fastback saloon, and it is an interesting looking car. The front end is rather heavy and Baroque. The deep chromed front bumper encompasses the lights and grille. Its reverse-rake angle gives the car an aggressive shark-nosed attitude. The rear end is more subtle, with a ‘U’ shaped bumper encompassing the circular tail lights and indicators within its upturned ends.

It is in side profile that the car looks its best. The flanks are smooth and unadorned, except for a high-level crease that gives the car a strong shoulder line. Simple door handles are aligned with this crease. The DLO is large and airy with slim pillars, and both front and rear doors are uninterrupted by fixed quarter lights.

The only detail that seriously dates the design is unfashionably narrow front and rear tracks, giving it a somewhat over-bodied or under-wheeled appearance. In fairness, this is probably exacerbated by the lack of bright wheel covers on the prototype, leaving the black painted wheels exposed. One notable innovation was integral hydraulic jacks to facilitate easy wheel changes in the event of a puncture.

The interior, designed by Robert Broyer, is suitably luxurious with sumptuously upholstered seats and door trims. However, the dashboard is rather plain and spartan, comprising a strip speedometer with fuel and water temperature gauges under a single glass, below which are three small circular supplementary gauges. At either end of the speedometer are a separate rectangular analogue clock and small tachometer.

The dashboard is covered by an unusually deep full-width cowling, intended to direct air from the vents in its underside onto the faces of the driver and front seat passenger. The dashboard would probably have been refined for production, but Projet H was intended as a car to be driven in as much or more than to drive, hence, the car had the unusual luxury of dual-zone air conditioning, split between front and rear.

Renault Projet H Proposal Interior (c) lenouvelautomobiliste.fr

Having developed their prototypes, both manufacturers began to have doubts as to the financial viability of production. Sales were forecast at 50,000 units annually. Production cost and sale price were estimated at FF 9,600 and FF 19,500, which indicated a healthy profit margin on each sale. However, it would take a further investment of FF 190 million to bring Projet H to production and neither manufacturer was willing to commit these funds for a move into an untested market segment. Projet H was cancelled in July 1967, writing off the FF 7.4 million so far invested.

The work done on the proposed 90° V8 engine was not entirely wasted as this formed the basis for the 1974 PRV joint venture ‘Douvrin’ 2.7 litre V6. Renault went for a more tentative move upmarket with the 30 model, launched in 1975. Likewise, Peugeot launched the 604 in the same year. Although both were powered by the PRV engine, the former was a hatchback, the latter a conventional saloon, so both companies appeared still to be honouring the spirit of the non-compete clause in their decade-old agreement. However, the launch in 1972 of the Renault 5 and Peugeot 104, squarely aimed at each other, signalled that the agreement was withering away.

Stylistically, the only strong echo of Projet H was the Pininfarina design’s front-end treatment, which was reprised on the very pretty 1969 Peugeot 504 Coupé and Cabriolet. It is for me something of a shame that neither manufacturer had the courage to put Projet H into production. Had they done so, the luxury car market might enjoy more variety now.

(1) Intriguingly, however, Projet F was the code name Citröen had given to an early 1960’s proposal for a mid-range car intended to sit in the large gap between the Ami and DS in the company’s range. Projet F was abandoned, but one styling proposal was remarkably similar to the Renault 16, which led to accusations of plagiarism. One unusual detail of Projet F’s construction, concerning the manner in which the door frames were welded to the roof, was employed on the 16 and was actually patented by Renault, much to Citröen’s annoyance!

(2) The first, code-named M121, would ultimately result in the 1972 Peugeot 104 and 1976 Renault 14.

(3) Of course, the ‘non-compete’ aspect of the agreement would cause great concern for anti-trust authorities if it were to be signed today.  

(4) It would be another decade before Renault would commit to a hatchback design in this segment with the launch of the 30.

Author’s note: My thanks to DTW stalwart reader and commenter Bob for pointing me towards useful sources on Projet H.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

35 thoughts on “A Failure of Nerve”

  1. The V8 story is rather well known, I reckon. However, I never knew about this car. Perhaps not surprising as I don’t particularly like Peugeot and Renault, with the exception of a few models. Great article, though. The Peugeot name is misspelled. I’m sure you put that little easter egg in there to keep me happy 😉

    1. Good morning Freerk. Thanks for the compliment and glad you enjoyed the piece. I had to look hard for the typo (on the photo caption, now corrected) so your powers of observation are impressive!

  2. Renault´s 2.5 box saloon is alright from the nose to the b-pillar and then goes off the boil – I put it down to the location of the C-pillar; the chromed bumpers aren´t that good either. In comparison, Peugeot´s is clean and mature and plausible. Perhaps the Renault is a compromise design; the front looks to be out of the R16 school and perhaps there was a version that was a large 16 that was altered at the rear at some stage. The Renault interior is curious. It has all that teddy bear soft beige cloth and square shapes as per the early 1980s. I´d have expected something else, more vinyl or leather and certainly more visual space.

    1. Good morning Richard. I rather like the 2.5 box design, but from the A-pillar to the tail. I don’t like the uncertain way the bodyside crease is handled on the front wing and would instead have run it straight (or faded it out) into the front wheel arch, with no crease between the wheel arch and nose.

      Overall, the Renault designs remind me of those model cars that featured in Gerry Anderson children’s programmes in the 1960’s like Thunderbirds and Stingray. I was a huge fan of the former!

      The Peugeot is quite handsome. It puts me in mind of the VW K70 (with hints of the Mk2 Ford Cortina in the ‘overbite’ waistline crease and wheel arch treatment!) Would a six-light design with such slim D-pillars have been appropriate for a plutocrat’s privacy and security? In any event, it’s a shame that no version of Projet H made production.

    2. I only noticed the wave-like swage line on the Renault now. It´s awful. The design doesn´t speak to me of much maturity, reminding me of something a quite young person might do because they lacked the ability to see the car as a whole (I speak from experience because that is what I lacked when I started drawing cars).

    3. “Overall, the Renault designs remind me of those model cars that featured in Gerry Anderson children’s programmes in the 1960’s like Thunderbirds and Stingray.”

      I had the same thought – the designs are sort of non-specifically futuristic, while also being a bit ‘grim’ / heavy-handed – not a criticism, by the way. The Rover P8 has a similar quality, which I quite like.

      I found a link which shows some of the Gerry Anderson ‘locations’ – background buildings, cars, etc. I think they’re wonderful – the attention to detail, such as weathered concrete, is amazing, especially considering they’d only be seen for fractions of a second; that’s probably one of the things that gives Anderson’s work its charm.

      Joe 90 Hotel
    4. * If you click on the picture, you can click through to the full set of photos.

    5. Hi Charles. Thanks for posting the link to those Gerry Anderson ‘Supermarionation’ set photos. The attention to detail is amazing, like the weathering on the concrete buildings and the corrugated iron sheets in one picture. Now days, I guess it’s a lost art as CGI has largely taken over (apart from Nick Park’s creations, of course)..

    6. Hi Charles, these prototypes also reminded me of the Rover P8 – the ‘Europa’ bumper treatment, the general ‘heavy-handed’ styling, the proposed 3.5 Litre V8 engine, and the fact that none reached production. The article says the engine was planned before Rover launched theirs – it’s fascinating how different companies arrive at similar conclusions.

  3. The non-complete clause perhaps explains why the 104 was initially launched as a 2 box saloon, with the hatch only coming later.

    1. That’s very plausible, James. Once the Renault 5 was launched, the gloves were off. We will be discussing the agreement further in our next Renault piece. Stay tuned!

  4. Classic Monthly Driver (Aug. 2015) ran a short article about the R40 and Peugeot 701.
    “If you are looking for an alternative to the standard classic large car such as the Lancia Gamma, BMW 3.0 or Alfa 6, then why not take a gander at the 1972 R40 or the 1971 Peugeot 701. Both share the well-regarded V8 engine that went on to power later Triumphs and Jaguars. Both cars have distinctly Gallic styling but differ in many other regards. Spare parts are easy to get as the cars were popular and sold for more than a decade each. If you prefer a more spacious and modernist interior, try Renault´s 40 which had the benefit of Renault´s advanced suspension. And if you want something more conservative, Peugeot´s Pininfarina-inspired car has it in spades. The suspension is a development of the 404´s and the steering is exemplary. Watch out for the tricky seat runners though. The R40 has problems with rusting fuel tank mounting points”.

    1. Er, not sure where to start with this! Google has never heard of a Peugeot 701, the Renault 40 was only ever a prototype, so how they were produced for over a decade and now have good spare parts availability is beyond me, as is the idea that Triumph and Jaguar used a Renault/Peugeot designed V8. Still, it’s good to know that we must watch out for the 701’s “tricky seat runners” and the R40’s “rusty fuel tank mounting points”

      You couldn’t make it up, although, apparently, you can! Very funny, Richard.

    2. Mea Culpa, Richard. I’ve found the production Renault R40, and here it is (yes, really!):

    3. The Peugeot has the same kind of bonnet treatment as the later 604; the grille and lamps suggest the Fiat 130 coupe.
      The canopy? Audi or NSU? I like it but it missing something to tie it together. What does the rear look like?

    4. Unfortunately, Richard, I cannot find any photos of the rear of Pininfarina prototype.

  5. The Pininfarina proposal for Peugeot’s Projet H is a lovely thing; very clean. Is it really anonymous?

    1. Hi Chris. I agree that it is very nice. By anonymous, I meant that it didn’t feature any design tropes that would identify it readily as a Peugeot, but that wasn’t necessarily a criticism. Perhaps ‘generic’ might have been a better choice of adjective, but that also sounds critical.

      Of course, with any manufacturer introducing a new style, the first model to feature it is likely to look unlike anything previously seen. Take, for example, the latest Ford Focus, which was a complete departure from the previous generations (but still carried the familiar front grille). Now, its style, having been reprised on other models, is identifiably ‘Ford’.

    2. I understand what you mean. Something about it reminds me of the NSU Ro80, now I look again…

    3. I was also thinking NSU took but (VW) K70 rather than Ro80.

    4. Good call. The slim pillars are doing it for me: The interior of that Peugeot must have been beautifully light and airy (spacious too, given its size).

  6. Thanks Daniel

    Based on the following French article it seems the first 3550cc 90-degree V8 prototype engine used in Project H was actually derived from a pair of Peugeot engines (likely what became the 1.8 Peugeot XM), prior to later evolving into the PRV V6 after Project H was abandoned first by Renault followed by Peugeot though reputedly Peugeot persisted with the PRV V8 idea a bit longer for the Peugeot 604 until deciding to opt for what became the PRV V6.

    That would at least help explain why some believe the V8 in Project H was unrelated to the PRV V6, similar to how the MG Metro 6R4 development car used a V6-derived from a cut-and-shut Rover V8 until it was replaced by the specially-designed and built bespoke 3.0-litre V6 (which allegedly used some of the engine architecture of the Cosworth DFV).
    https://www.histo-auto.com/fr/actualite/675/projet-h-renault-peugeot-le-concept-oublie-qui-voulait-la-peau-de-la-ds

    Also not sure if brought up the following French link and video.
    https://www.cockpitdz.com/post/renault-projet-h

    It would not be the first post-war instance of Peugeot engines being used to form the basis of a V8, a project prior to the Peugeot 404 to challenge Citroen featuring a V8 and hydraulic suspension was considered but very quickly abandoned, in particular for reasons of patent and technical complexity.

    Yet had both Renault and Peugeot gone ahead with their own versions of Project H, it would not be difficult to see more tax friendly 2-litre 4-cylinder and even 6-cylinder engines being used by both akin to how 2-litre Peugeot XN engines were fitted to the Peugeot 604 for used by the French government. The Inline-6 engine used on the Renault Project 114 prototype that later became the 4-cylinder A-Type in the Renault 16 could have found a new lease of life in Renault’s version of Project H prior to the PRV V6 had it also been given the go ahead (above in the E-Segment as the previous Frégate rather than in place of the D-Segment 16).

    In terms of size it can be argued Project H would not have butterflied away the Renault 20/30 and Peugeot 604 had it reached production, yet it is questionable whether Project H would have met its targets.

    Marc Stabel’s book on the Citroen GS/GSA makes mention Project F’s dimensions were around the size of the Renault 6 (or Simca 1100) rather than the larger Renault 16. In Retrospect Citroen would have probably been better off sticking with some form of the Citroen C60 prototype IMO yet with an Ami 8 fastback hatchback like rear in place of the Citroen Ami 6 and Ford Anglia 105E style backward-slanted rear window of the original C60 prototype (together with some touching up at the front).

    1. Great stuff, Bob. Thanks again for the pointers and the additional information above.

    2. To further the connection between the PRV V6 (initially PRV V8) and the Peugeot 4-cylinder engines, it would appear based on the French wiki article on the PRV V6 that Peugeot opted for a bore of 88mm on the production version so it would make it possible to reuse part of the parts and tooling of the 2-litre XN engine (that was closely related to the smaller 1.8 XM unit).

  7. Great article, makes me realise how shallow my knowledge of the French car industry of that era is.

    It’s interesting to read about the integral hydraulic jacks – were French roads or tyres really that bad? Jacking systems of that type were commonplace on 1950s upmarket British saloons. There’s a good story in the Sharratt Austin book about an apprentice who was tasked with ‘putting the miles’ on a prototype Sheerline, and was caught taking the car down a remote lane, putting the car up on the hydraulic jacks, then sleeping in the back of the car with the engine running.

    Also – more Bob’s territory here – could the PRV V8 have been inspired by the Buick / Rover V8? They’re both all-aluminium, and dimensions are very similar. There weren’t many similar-sized European engines around, BMW and Daimler excepted. If the V6 is in any way indicative, there were American lessons learned. Rolls-Royce and BMW in the ’50s looked at how V8s were designed in the USA. Standard-Triumph and Glas didn’t, and suffered for it.

  8. Again I have to admit my lack of knowledge about the French motor industry in the post-WW2 era and into the Sixties, but it does look as if there was a pact between the three senior members of the Big Four right up to 1969-70 when the Renault 12, Peugeot 304, and Citroën GS arrived to fight over the same patch.

    Consider:

    Citroën 2CV
    Citroën Ami 6
    Renault 4
    Renault 8
    Peugeot 204
    Renault 16
    Peugeot 404
    Citroën DS

    Post 1966, the Dyane, R10, and R6 started to challenge the boundaries. The Peugeot 504 arrived in 1968 and filled an obvious gap. Simca, a disrupter, covered the mass-market more coherently.

    The variety of technological approaches and styles found in the cars listed is breathtaking, but it feels as if the Cheval Vapeur categories had been carved up by mutual agreement.

  9. Thank you for a fascinating article, Daniel. Looking at the photos prompts a question that relates not only to Project H, but to a large number of 1960s, 70s and even 1980s designs, and which has been bugging me for years. Which is, why did designers seem to pay so little attention to a car’s stance? So many cars from those eras are hugely over-bodied, with too-small or too-inboard wheels. The resulting stance is hopelessly top-heavy and weak. It almost seems as if the cars were designed without taking track width or wheel size into account at all. The rear of Project H in the top photo is a good example of this.

    Surely correct stance has always been a universal value? Surely a set of properly filled-out wheel arches with suitably proportioned wheels and tyres was as desirable then as it is now? Why then were so many older designs so wrong in that respect?

    1. Hi Ric. Thank you for your kind words and I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

      That’s an interesting question you raise regarding the stance of 1960’s to 1980’s cars. I would suggest that our perception as to what looks ‘correct’ may be (largely) universal, but it has not been constant and has evolved over time, driven by fashions in automotive design. I first became interested in cars as a child in the late 1960’s and I never recall thinking that cars of that era were particularly top-heavy or over-bodied, even if that now appears to be the case.

      I think it’s analogous to the issue of wheel sizes: 13″ or 14″ wheels with high-profile tyres looked perfectly ‘right’ on small and medium sized cars in the 60’s and 70’s. Now, 15″ items make even small cars look under-wheeled because our perceptions have been so skewed by designers’ totally unfeasible sketches, as well as concept cars on enormous wheels with zero room for suspension travel.

      How many cars have had their ride quality compromised by the fitment of larger alloy wheels on low profile tyres, simply because they looked better? I succumbed to this self-imposed pressure when we ordered our Mini Cooper. The standard 15″ wheels looked much too small within those big black plastic wheel arches, so we chose optional 17″ items. Going for non-runflat tyres and a spare wheel preserved the ride quality.

      Those Range Rovers trundling around on 22″ alloys with ultra low-profile tyres , even if you like the way they look (I don’t) must have significantly inferior ride quality to the standard car, all for the sake of satisfying the buyers’ conditioned thinking as to what looks ‘right’.

      Here’s a good example, the Jaguar I-Pace on (formerly) standard wheels:

      The I-Pace is by no means huge, but the wheels look extraordinarily undersized, and they’re 18″ items! It’s all because of how we’ve been conditioned to think.

    2. Stance is an interesting issue – I recall I used to view Rover P5Bs as being ludicrously thickset and powerful looking. If I see one today, it looks very modest – delicate, even.

      The same goes for many older American cars and, I’m afraid, Jaguar’s E-Type and Citroën’s DS, the latter looking very tall and narrow when seen from the rear.

      The designers of the first SAAB clearly weren’t that concerned by the issue.

      https://www.favcars.com/wallpapers-saab-92-prototype-ursaab-1947-385280-800×600.htm

      It’s telling that the smallest wheels you can get on a Volkswagen ID.3 are 18 inches in diameter.

    3. At that time tyre technology wasn’t what it is today.
      In the Sixties many cars came on crossply tyres as standard equipment and radials were an option. French cars were an exception with standard radials from the early Sixties.
      Tyre sizes we expect today simply weren’t available and low profile tyres were very rare. A 911 came on 165-15 wheels and the Carrera RS’ 205/70-15 were considered very sporty and the Alfasud’s 165/70-13 were very wide for such a light car. 205/70 were about the widest tyres you could get and were considered sufficient even for cars like a Daytona or early Countachs. The technology push for ever wider and ever lower sectioned tyres started in the late Seventies when the first 60-section tyres became available. This (presumed) progress in tyre technology is interlinked with progress in suspension design because it’s not recommendable to fit tyres of more aggressive contour than 205/60 to a rigid axle (or trailing arms). The arrival of multi link suspension designs made it possible to fully exploit wider tyres’ capabilities a the cost of reduced suspension travel.
      Manufacturers want you to buy wider and larger wheels because they create a larger margin, designers have distorted our perceptions and the press is obsessed with brake distances. And yes, wide and low tyres are detrimental to ride comfort. My current car sits on 245/40-18 tyres and it feels as if the wheels were made from wood, the thing is crashing into potholes, cobblestones make it feel as if it would fall apart, it’s prone to aquaplaning and it’s tramlining like hell.

      The wheels of those cars in the pictures look small in comparison to the wheelarch cut outs because French cars in particular had ample suspension travel at that time (and they needed it, considering the condition of the roads) and the wheels have to go somewhere when they move.

  10. One partner company is currently conducting a side-project, with several A- and B- segment current crop of vehicles, by fitting them with 2″ or 3″ smaller wheel diameters (fitting different front brakes is sometimes required), to assess the changes in ride comfort / handling.

    Although too early to tell, I was told off-record that they were left literally speechless at some initial results they saw by now.

    1. Peugeotiste: If indeed they are as speechless as you were informed, I might cheekily suggest that they must be rather inexperienced. The relationship between wheel diameter and chassis dynamics (steering, ride and handling) is well established, especially on the tyremakers side. In my estimation, any chassis engineer who isn’t aware of the principles either isn’t very good at his job or simply doesn’t want to know.

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