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.
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.
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.
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.
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.