The Renault 14 had the potential to be a great success, but it did not turn out that way. DTW investigates.
The 1976 Renault 14 was the end-product of an unusual and protracted development process. It began with a memorandum of understanding signed in April 1966 between Renault and Peugeot for the joint purchase of materials and co-development of mechanical parts that would be shared between the two manufacturers, to reduce costs for each.
Another more controversial aspect of the agreement was, allegedly, an understanding that each manufacturer would design models that did not directly compete with the other. The agreement was driven by the ambition of Pierre Dreyfus, CEO of Renault since 1955, to create a French automotive powerhouse to rival foreign competitors on equal terms.
The first joint-venture project initiated under this agreement went by the code name M121 and emerged as the 1972 Peugeot 104. This was a transverse-engined front-wheel-drive B-segment car, in today’s terms an archetypal supermini in all respects but one. At launch, despite its two-box shape, it had four doors and a conventional boot. This would be replaced by a hatchback in 1976.
The non-compete understanding in the 1966 agreement (surely unrealistic for two mainstream manufacturers?) was put under considerable strain by the launch of the Renault 5, also in 1972. Although the latter would not be produced in five-door form until 1979 and had nothing in common with the 104, it was pretty much a direct competitor. The agreement was formally terminated by Peugeot in June 1974 when the company agreed to take over control of Citröen from Michelin, much to Dreyfus’s dismay.
Meanwhile, Renault was continuing development of its own M121 based car. Early prototypes of what would become the 14 had an angular body with a high tail that was remarkably similar in appearance to the 104. Had it been launched in that form, Renault would certainly have been accused of plagiarism.
A new design for the 14 was developed. The sharp creases of the early prototype were replaced by much more rounded organic forms. The new body appeared to grow noticeably larger and more voluminous towards the rear, something that would have unfortunate consequences after the car was launched. The 14 featured impact-absorbing plastic bumpers like those on the 5, but these seem to have been quite a late addition: there are photographs of a near-production 14 with slim chromed steel bumpers front and rear.
One interesting innovation was the treatment of the DLO. The bonnet line was quite high, a consequence of storing the spare wheel above the inclined engine, but the side windows were deep. Rather than try and force a union with the windscreen at the base of the A-pillar, the designers simply continued the waistline forward as a pronounced groove pressed into the front wing. The door mirror sail panel neatly bridged the gap to the base of the A-pillar. Another neat bit of lateral thinking concerned the ‘upside-down’ exterior door handles, which looked a little odd, but were highly ergonomic when one became accustomed to them.
The 14 was launched in 1976 in L and better equipped TL versions to a generally positive reception from the motoring press. It was a spacious and comfortable car, softly sprung with the usual Renault virtue of plush and deeply upholstered seats. The distinctive shape had the benefit of providing a large boot space, although the loading lip was high.
The 14 was the first transverse-engined FWD Renault. It was powered by the so-called ‘Douvrin’ 1,218cc 57bhp four-cylinder engine co-developed with Peugeot and used in the 104. Like the Issigonis FWD designs for BMC, the four-speed gearbox was contained in the sump and shared the same oil as the engine. Unfortunately, the drivetrain proved to be one of the weak points of the new model: the gearbox produced an intrusive whine audible in the cabin.
The 14 was initially rather lamely promoted* as “La 7CV Du Bonheur”, in English, “The Happy Seven Horsepower Car”. The car buying public were rather equivocal about its unusual appearance and early sales numbers, while respectable in France and Spain, were weak elsewhere. Frustrated by this, Renault consulted another advertising agency, who spotted the car’s resemblance to a pear and devised a new campaign on that basis. Unfortunately, such was the inadequacy of the 14’s anti-corrosion measures that early cars soon began to rust and the 14 acquired the unfortunate nickname of the ‘Rotten Pear’.
The 14 was given a larger 1,360cc engine, achieved simply by lengthening the stroke from 69 to 77mm. Together with a new twin-choke carburettor, this increased the power output to 70bhp. The range was extended upwards with better equipped GTL and TS versions in 1979. The car received a minor facelift in 1980 which saw the front indicators repositioned from the bumper to outboard of the headlamps, in an attempt to make the car look wider when viewed from the front and mitigate its ‘pear-shaped’ appearance. The colour of the plastic bumpers was changed from an indistinct grey colour to black.
The 1980 facelift had little effect on sales. Unfortunately for Renault, it coincided with the launch of two fresh and strong competitors in the 1979 Opel Kadett D and 1980 Ford Escort Mk3, both entirely contemporary FWD hatchbacks replacing dated RWD saloons. For those who preferred their C-segment hatchback to have a Gallic flavour, Citroen had finally given the 1970 GS a fifth door and a new name, GSA, in 1979.
The 14 never came anywhere close to achieving Renault’s sales projections, and it was discontinued in 1983. It was replaced by the 11, a hatchback version of the 9 saloon, launched in 1981. Over seven years on the market, the 14 racked up sales of just under one million units. It sold well enough in the first couple of years, but quickly fell out of favour thereafter.
My now brother-in-law’s brother, a veterinarian and high-mileage driver who changed his car annually, bought a 14 new in 1977. When he went to trade it in a year later, such was the 14’s unpopularity in Ireland that only Renault would take it in part-exchange. It was replaced with a 12, which was a pleasant car but felt like a retrograde step after the modern 14. I had the experience of travelling in the 14 from Dublin to Galway on a few occasions and it was a capable and comfortable car which coped admirably with Ireland’s then notoriously poor roads.
It is difficult to escape the impression that, given its joint parentage, the 14 became something of an unloved and neglected child within Renault after the company’s abandonment by Peugeot, but it was too far advanced to be cancelled. It was also the only Renault to use the Douvrin engine. The 9 and 11 reverted to Renault’s venerable Cléon Fonte unit, albeit installed transversely for the first time.
Perhaps cowed by the adverse reaction to the 14, Renault took no risks with the styling and engineering of the 9 and 11**. Consequently, both were rather bland devices, even if the 11 was enlivened somewhat by its panoramic glass hatchback and slightly chintzy front end, with its quad ‘US standard’ small rectangular headlamps.
I think the styling of the 14 has aged rather better than its twin successors. It was a bold and interesting design that deserved a better drivetrain, protection against corrosion that was at least adequate, and more commitment from its maker. Had this been the case, then it might have been more influential in Renault’s subsequent designs. As it was, the 14 was quickly forgotten, not least by its maker. A real shame.
* More about the misconceived advertising campaigns for the Renault 14 can be found here.
** In fairness to Renault, the 9 and 11 were also designed to be built and sold in North America, hence their comparatively more conservative styling.