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