Oh Nicole!

File under (Renault: B-segment: Good – not great). At least the ad-campaign was memorable.

(c) autoevolution

Ask anyone about the 1990 Renault Clio and amongst those who remember it at all, most will cite the long-running UK advertising campaign, featuring the somewhat clichéd antics of comely young Nicole, getting the slip on her somewhat louche papa at their somewhat clichéd Provencal retreat. Meanwhile Papa, displaying equally duplicitous behaviour (all French men of course routinely have affairs), was fomenting assignations of his own.

Risible of course, but it played to cherished English preconceptions of French mores, and was instrumental in cementing brand-Clio in the minds of UK buyers. It worked too: the Clio proving a thirty year success story for the French carmaker, but the first-generation model, unlike its ad-campaign, was not what anyone would describe as memorable. Over its illustrious history, Renault has produced many good cars, a number of truly great ones, but for the most part, its output has been what journalists have frequently dismissed in terms of vin ordinarire.

Nicole et papa. (c) ipswitch star

It certainly was on these somewhat derisive terms that Britain’s Car Magazine rated Renault’s 9/11 C-segment twins during their sojourn on sale during the 1980s. Having begun the previous decade with a tranche of forward-looking designs, as the ’70s came to a close, the then state-owned carmaker appeared to retrench, both in outlook, and in output.

As a publicly funded entity, Renault’s fortunes were a matter of public discourse. Additionally, Renault was attempting to make inroads into the United States, where overt flights of French fancy were unlikely to appeal – a matter which informed styling decisions for a number of Renault models. Furthermore, by the close of the Seventies, European customers began to reject statement design, gravitating towards more rational, often quite conservative styles.

(c) autoevolution

In 1984, Renault introduced the SuperCinq, an all new replacement for Boué’s 1972 original (file under great Renault designs: #3). Despite a large number of styling concepts and prototypes being created in-house by Robert Opron’s team of stylists, an evolutionary design theme was chosen, the work of Marcello Gandini, employed by Renault on a freelance basis.

A thorough, well executed and commercially successful product, the second generation 5 however lived under the shadow of the all-conquering 205 from domestic rival, Peugeot, and the more modernist Fiat Uno. So it was little surprise that when work began on the SuperCinq’s replacement, the in-house team looked towards Sochaux, whereas Renault’s now go-to design consultant, Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design offered what appeared to be an evolution of Uno, with a foreshadowing of Punto.

(c) autoevolution

Meanwhile, Renault itself was in turmoil, haemorrhaging market share, money and suffering from poor quality and woeful productivity. Losses for 1984 were said to have amounted to around $1 billion. French President, François Mitterand is believed to have dismissed CEO, Bernard Hanon in 1985, with some auto-analysts suggesting he was scapegoated out, only for his successor to be assassinated the following year in a politically motivated attack.

Meanwhile, incumbent Director de Style, Robert Opron, who had lobbied for some time for an advanced design studio to be set up in the United States to serve both AMC and bolster the styling team back in France found himself sidelined, with longstanding Billancourt designer, Gaston Juchet appointed in his stead. Opron resigned, stating he was “no longer useful to Renault“.

A fresh direction was required and incoming Renault CEO, Reymond Levy, approached former Ford and VW designer, Patrick le Quément, and having first insisted on on a number of significant changes to reporting, staffing and the use of outside consultants, he assumed the role in 1987 as Vice President, Corporate Design.

It was under these chaotic circumstances that the Clio was established. While technically and dimensionally similar to the outgoing 5, it would offer a wider range, greater refinement and a broader remit; a more sophisticated offering, as was the manner in which the European industry was moving. The Clio was a by-the-numbers design; squeakingly competent, but like the equivalent mark 3 Ford Fiesta launched in 1989, lacking much by way of character or personality.

Utilising the outgoing 5’s platform, suspensions (struts up front and transverse torsion bars aft), and engines; the Clio offered few technical surprises, but then, it didn’t really need to – competency was key. The only notable technical shift was the abandonment of Renault’s much promoted turbo programme with the announcement in 1991 of the normally aspirated Clio 16v performance model. Unlike its better-loved predecessor however, the cloven hoof Clio was a subtle-looking bolide, and none the worse for it.

Clio 16v. (c) carthrottle

Stylistically, the Clio fell victim to the circumstances of its birth, its creation taking place under considerable instability – never particularly conducive to creativity. It’s clear that from an early stage, a decision was made to break from the familiar Cinq style, a matter perhaps informed by the outgoing car’s failure to unseat Peugeot’s offering.

With the benefit of hindsight, this was an error. The SuperCinq may not have been the car Renault had hoped for, but that was not so much a function of its styling, (which was an entirely logical update) more that Renault played it, if anything, a little too safe, then failed to build the car with sufficient integrity. Had Renault kept faith with the basic Cinq style for its successor, they might have created something far more lasting.

But management opted for change. The Giugiaro proposal lost out in the end; probably for the best, since it carried no recognisable Renault visual cues whatsoever, despite being entirely competent (you’d expect nothing less from Ital Design), with Juchet’s internal team getting the nod.

The resultant car was therefore something of a creative orphan. Neither an Opron design, (he was sidelined by then), nor a le Quément car (the design was finalised by the time he arrived), it was a car created under troubled circumstances, and in some respects, it shows.

(c) autoevolution

That it chimed with its times so well is perhaps as much a happy coincidence as the result of great deal of work by talented people at all levels of Renault’s organisation – for while it wasn’t a great Renault, it was a good one.

And yet: the 1990 Clio is not memorable. It’s a template car; albeit one with a well crafted marketing campaign. Nevertheless, maybe Renault had the last laugh, since it sold like oven-fresh baguette. However, eaten bread is soon forgotten – but even if the original Clio has escaped our recollections, we’ll always remember Nicole – to say nothing of papa…

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “Oh Nicole!”

  1. I knew nothing of the Clio backstory, which looks to contain almost as many cliches as the adverts for the car. Remaining with those inevitable cliches, I have no memory of the first Clio whatsoever. But my local hairdressing salon did (much later I expect) have a Roland Garros variant and her boyfriend a Clio Williams which must be as far away from the standard Clio as can be.
    But it is always a delight to see the impossibly beautiful Estelle Skornik . How we college students discussed her and her movements…car? What car?

  2. Good morning Eóin. The Clio is, for me, a difficult car to critique. It’s a neat and competent design, but there’s so little to get hold of. There’s nothing distinctively Renault about it. It could just as easily be a Peugeot (a larger 106) or one of those dreary 1990’s commoditized Citröens. The only thing that catches my eye is the slightly uncomfortable shut line between the clamshell bonnet and front wing. It reminds me of those anonymised cars used in TV advertisements for other products.

    Renault tried to add some more character to the front end in the facelift, with limited success:

    As to the advertisement, it’s clever and attractive, but the characters are clichéd and stereotyped to the degree that it would probably never be made today. Was it shown in France, I wonder?

    The TV advertisement for the latest Clio is tapping into the zeitgeist with a blossoming romance between two young women, one of whom runs out on her wedding (to a man) to be with her true love. I suppose I should applaud its inclusivity, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a bit patronising and exploitative.

    1. I haven’t seen the latest Clio ad but it sounds like a PC update of the British launch ad for the Rover 200 (R8), which itself was an obvious Graduate parody set to music by Joe Cocker. That was memorable in our household as the lady in question looked startlingly like my Godmother.
      Regarding the original Clio it is just a car shaped volume for me. I would have said it was a handy summation of Renault’s whole output, as they are a marque whose very existence doesn’t register to me unless there is one parked in front of me. However I don’t think the 1990’s was a visually strong time for supermini design- Nissan Micra Mkll and Skoda Fabia aside (I perceive the original wonderful Twingo as being a size below and we were deprived of it in RHD markets anyway)- so the Clio I suppose was just a representative of the norm.

    2. Daniel, you are using my memory and my words.
      The first time I saw a Clio it was in the parking lot in front of our studio. And I thought, what kind of nerd must it be to put a Renault logo on a Peugeot. When we went to Cannes for the advertising film festival the following summer I saw some Clios there driving and parking around and I realized “this is a Renault”.

      As an auto chauvinist, I’ve always ignored* the Clio, but the Clio also made it very easy for me. Shame on me and shame on him.

      * Thanks to my ignorance, until today I didn’t even know that the Clio was the successor to the SuperCinq, haha…

    3. Hi Daniel,
      funny concidence: last year I saw a print advertisement for an American car insurance firm featuring an anonymised Clio IV. The picture being a close up view of the front wing, and the Clio IV design slightly reprising that detail (among numerous others), made that bonnet shutline all but the central feature in the ad.

      As an aside, at the time I was considering moving myself and possibly my Clio to the US. Had it happened, I would have driven arguably one of the rarest cars in the country!

  3. Very interesting article – thank you. Although I didn’t much like the diesel one I had as a temporary company car, I still think it’s a nice design.

    Here’s the equivalent French advert for the Clio; I think it lacks the humour of the (admittedly corny) UK one.

  4. Did not know the mk1 Clio carried over the platform and more from the Supercinq, was there a similar degree of carry over from the Supercinq to the Twingo as well as the 9/11 to the 19 (that was also form the basis of the mk1 Megane)?

    Cannot say whether the mk1 Clio would have benefited with carrying over the basic Supercinq style or whether there were other design studies that would have better fit the bill.

    Like the mk1 Clio though while understanding the context felt Renault played it too safe by largely only being available as a 3/5-door hatchback, with only a possible convertible prototype and a few convertible conversions being the most that was done with the Clio.

    Can see why they decided to not build a turbocharged successor to the Supercinq Turbo, though perplexed as to why Renault used the unusual 1.7 F-Type engine above the 1.4 Energy engine given the former was too close to the 1.8 F-Type engine. Also felt the 1.6 diesel could have been carried over from the Supercinq to the Clio and even been turbocharged in place of or complementing the 1.9 naturally aspirated diesel.

    Even though the Clio did receive the 1.2 D-Type engine a few year before being replaced by the mk2 Clio, would have loved to have seen how the 16-valve version in the latter would have performed in the former. The same with being fascinated by how the mk2 Clio’s 1.4 K-Type 16-valve engine would have performed in the mk1 Clio.

    If anyone has had any experience driving both the mk1 and mk2 Clio, how do they compare as someone who has only driven the mk2 and mk3 Clios?

    1. Hello Bob,

      All I can say is that the naturally aspirated 1.9 litre diesel seemed nose heavy and had all the performance of an anaesthetised slug (and I’m not the world’s fastest driver, by any means). Revving it, or changing down to try to make it go faster was pointless; it was dreadful on a gradient, on a motorway. Conversely, it didn’t seem to have much low-down torque. It wasn’t even very economical. It did seem to be nicely built and finished though, and it was otherwise a nice car – it just needed a decent engine.

      I thought it was interesting to see the Giugiaro proposal – futuristic for 1990, but also a bit anonymous. Here’s a montage of other proposals considered. I don’t think any of them are very spectacular.

    2. Charles

      The other proposals shown are certainly not spectacular by any means.

      On the subject of a smaller lighter diesel engine in place of the 1.9 F-Type, with the later 1.5 dCi K-Type being an evolution of the Energy engine that itself was derived from the Cleon-Fonte engine. The question that comes to mind is did Renault look into experimental diesel / turbodiesel versions of the Cleon-Fonte and Energy engines like it later did with the stillborn 1.2 dCi type D9F project?

      While a case could be made against adapting an aging small 4-cylinder into a diesel, that did not stop Fiat from developing the diesel 1.3-1.4 Fiat 124 Series engines used in the Panda and Uno and even Vauxhall were looking a 1.3 diesel based on the OHV Kadett/Viva engine for the Vauxhall Scamp project.

    3. The ideal cylinder size for a car diesel engine is 400 to 500 cc. Anything much smaller doesn’t make sense from an effiency point of view as already Peugeot found out with their 1,300/45 hp engine for the 204.
      A 1.3 diesel therefore should have three cylinders as VW/Audi did with the Lupo/A2.

    4. 400-500cc per cylinder is be the ideal for small diesels, however that has not stopped carmakers over the years from producing small diesels with diverse cylinder sizes below or above the ideal range. With the Toyota Starlet featuring a 1.5 diesel, along with the 1.5 diesel in the Vauxhall Nova and Corsa, 1.4-1.5 TUD diesels in the AX/Saxo/106, 1.4 in the Yaris/MINI, 1.4 DLD/HDi in various PSA/Fords/etc, 1.3 JTD in Fiats, not to mention the 1.0 diesel in Charade or the 0.8 in the Fortwo and a few others.

      Renault had their own reasons for going with the 1.5 dCi and even contemplating the stillborn 1.2 dCi type D9F project, though going by ideal cylinder size alone the possible small diesel alternatives for the mk1 Clio would range from carrying over the 1.6 F-Type from the Supercinq and turbocharging it (that would likely still have the perceived nose heaviness of the existing 1.9 F-Type diesel in the Clio), developing a 1.4 3-cylinder version of the 1.9 diesel / turbodiesel (similar to Volkswagen) or developing a Cleon-Fonte / Energy based diesel and turbodiesel of similar capacity.

      The latter was certainly within the Cleon-Fonte’s capability via 76mm bore x 88mm stroke of the 1596cc Volvo 343 Oëttinger, with there also being room for the bore to grow to 77mm via the Dacia, Argentine and Brazilian versions of the Cleon-Fonte engine to create a theoretical engine displacing 1639cc (yet could see Renault likely opting for a smaller less ideal Cleon-Fonte / Energy based diesel with a capacity of around 1.4-1.5 – the latter later adopted for the K-Type diesel).

  5. As daniel says it´s not a typical renault design, maybe it´s more renault the second series but personally it´s the one i like the most. I´ve driven it and i have to say i preferred the driving position of the ONE, higher. the bonnet opened in an impractical way, it was fixed to the headlight height, it pulled up from the windscreen.

  6. Though it was a long time ago, I remember being strongly unconvinced about the Clio. I can see hints of the 5 in it though not enough to make them references worth having. In front view the face is quite modernist/technical. The rest is bland. Especially unhappy is the way the bonnet shut line and headlamp silhouette fail to gel. I saw this on the 80s Carina and one other 90s Japanese car: it´s to do with a radius and an inclined corner. It can look okay from two views but weird from the others.
    The dashboard has a nacelle, a HVAC console and some box for the stereo and none are alligned or organised.
    It would appear to be a car compromised in committee. If it had been as consistent as the Twingo it would have been better. I have to admit none of the Clios really light my fire.

    1. I agree with you, there´s always been a more interesting competitor for all the series of the Clio, but it managed to win the car trophy of the year twice

  7. wow, tough crowd!
    I think your all being a bit hard on the clio – its a pretty nice design i think, and works quite well in real life.
    if you had sent me back to 1990 i would have probably picked one over a lot of its contemporaries.

    Its got good proportions inherited from the superfive (nice and low), and the kink in the rear hipline looks memorable and distinct.
    Not as cool as the r5 rear of course, but pretty good nonetheless.

    Sure, the low rent black bumper ones don’t work as good as the higher spec cars with painted bumpers, and the five door looks pretty bland (as all supermini 5 doors did back then), but in real life the higher spec 3 door models, like the 16v and williams look really good.

    I used to have a R5 GTE with the 1.7 f3n engine, and when parked next to a clio williams, it became pretty clear that it was just a reskin. stuff like subframes and torsion bars were interchangeable, the engine was pretty much the same with a new head on it.
    The interior also kept the layout, but with a slightly less sci-fi look.

    Never got to drive the williams but the r5 GTE was a hoot (only negative was a slightly rubbery gearchange), so i’m pretty sure its good, seeing as it was pretty much the same, but with more power 😉

  8. South American fun fact about the 1st-gen Clio: in Brazil they were known as Maradona, because… well, because they were imported from Argentina.

    1. Speaking of Argentine Clios, the 1996 Grand Prix of Argentina saw a Clio Williams leading the pack for a few laps. Of course, as a pace car deployed after an accident.

  9. just came to say: it always struck me how similar the first gen Clio was to both the 1987 Daihatsu Charade and the 1991 Golf III, albeit in a slightly smaller and a slightly bigger package. However, I like all three of them.

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