Big science in a small package.
The scientific approach to motor car design was one which was taken up with some enthusiasm in France during the post-war period, resulting not only in some of the more compelling examples of motive modernity, but the most significant of the modern era. The results of intellectual rigour and no small quantum of application, these cars were also imbued with another, more nebulous quality: a piquant and distinctive character. Certainly, it was a potent amalgamation of elements that in this instance created a car both of its time, yet also timeless. A car for living. A car for life.
Towards the end of the 1960s, amid Europe’s engineering centres and styling studios, a new evolution of car was being forged. With matters of powertrain layout and body format still to be definitively established, nobody was entirely sure what would emerge as the dominant strain. But while Mirafiori, Turin would in the fullness of time lay claim to the precise technical layout of the compact front wheel drive car, it was their Transalpine rivals at Boulogne-Billancourt who would go on to define its appearance and architecture.
Genre-busting, avant garde style and pioneering spirit had not really been the traditional preserve of conservative, state-controlled Renault, but this was to change under the direction of CEO, Pierre Dreyfus. In 1961 the Quatrelle would usher in a wholesale technical and creative shift. Proving no flash in the pan, the mid-decade advent of the 16, employing the R4’s utilitarian five-door format in a car targeting the middle classes would not only successfully shift Renault’s aspirations towards a market segment which had previously eluded it, but would alter perceptions of the nationalised carmaker entirely.
By the close of the 1960s, Renault was going places. Its efficient and versatile car lineup was proving commercially successful both at home and across widespread export markets. But despite the undoubted appeal of their compact models, Renault’s offerings in this sector (the related 4, 6 and rear-engined 8) lacked a certain allure.
In 1967, Bernard Hanon, Renault’s head of planning became convinced of the necessity to develop a new type of compact car. Dubbed the American by colleagues, owing to his convivial manner and fluent command of English, Hanon drew upon his US market experience, believing that future growth would come from suburban demand for a chic second car for working families, and from younger customers seeking a vehicle that reflected their changing way of life. In this he found a sympathetic ear from CEO, Dreyfus, who it is stated, tasked his teams to create a “voiture à vivre: a car for all seasons, for holidays and for work, for weekdays and for weekends, for town and for country.”
Certainly, it was asking a good deal of Renault’s late Sixties small car range to cater to all of these stated imperatives. The 4, while hugely popular, was too basic, too utilitarian. The 6 was viewed as too derivative and despite its more evolved style, lacked flair. While on the other hand, the 8 was very much yesterday’s news. It was therefore to the upmarket 16 that Renault would by necessity refer.
Timing is everything, and so it would prove for Renault stylist, Michel Boué. Working it is said, outside of office hours, he superimposed a new design of his own creation upon the side elevation of a Quatrelle, and in so doing, not only reimagined the compact Renault for the coming decade, but the modern B-segment Euro-hatchback. Based on the key dimensions of the R4/6, it embodied the earlier car’s essential design principles but with a good deal more sophistication.
With Hanon’s enthusiastic backing, Dreyfus soon became convinced of the Boué proposal’s visual merits, but baulked at the notion of a two-door body, a layout anathema to French market norms. Hanon argued that this would prevent it from competing directly with existing models, and would, he believed, lend the model a unique appeal in the marketplace. Dreyfus however, remained doubtful.
There would be another, more prescient sticking point however, that of the agreement between la regié and Automobiles Peugeot, who were in the throes of developing projet M, their own compact front-wheel drive offering. Sochaux were aghast at what they learned Renault was proposing, and with full disclosure between both camps regarding future product, it was eventually concluded that Renault would offer their new car in two-door form only, while Peugeot’s upcoming 104 in turn would be forced to forego a rear tailgate, thereby minimising potential conflicts.
Meanwhile, hedging his bets, Dreyfus tasked the design team under the supervision of Gaston Juchet to prepare a five-door proposal, intended to be employed should the two-door version prove unpalatable to the French public.
Created in plaster with minimal change from Boué’s original sketches, senior management signed off on the basic styling. Hence, Projet 122 (as it became dubbed) would offer Directeur des Études, Yves George comparatively few technical challenges, employing as it did, largely carry-over technology. But it wasn’t entirely a case of a simple transposing of technical hardware. A beam axle rear suspension design, à la R12 was initially specified to reduce unit cost, but owing to the 122’s distribution of masses (being contained largely within the wheelbase) this did not achieve the desired ride and handling balance. A further benefit of the R4-derived trailing arm/ transverse torsion bar arrangement was that it offered superior space utilisation, ride comfort and a knock-on of improved refinement.
The engines chosen were off the shelf, longitudinally mounted inline units, the entry level version being a somewhat leisurely 4 CV 782 cc Ventoux unit from the R4. The 956 cc unit as fitted to the initial range-topping TL model was a reduced capacity version of the 1108 cc unit fitted to both R6 and 8. Each were proven, competitive power units, and certainly no impediment in a lightweight bodyshell, even if the location of the technical masses would not necessarily turn out to be one for the ages. Additionally, the gearbox, a stronger fully synchromesh unit designed for the 1108 cc R8 model was used in both engine installations, with either the traditional dash-mounted ‘push-pull’ gear selector or a floor mounted shifter.
With stylistic approval for the essential shape, Boué and the Billancourt styling team worked to tease out the nuances of 122’s styling. Characterised by a similar uncompromising silhouette to that of both 4 and 16, the differences lay in the treatment of surfaces and in the level of finesse applied to the detail design. While additional body styles were worked up, the design was optimised as a two door unitary body with a lift-up tailgate, a layout not adopted by any of Renault’s rivals, and in commercial terms, another significant risk.
Defined by largely unadorned surfaces, the design was anchored by strong proportions, a four-square stance, a clear, unambiguous theme and confident use of form and graphics. Boué and his team of designers allowed the car’s spare surfaces carry out the heavy lifting, with only the very minimum of visual grace notes to punctuate and add elaboration. There was nothing extraneous, the shape pared back to near-essentials, yet there was a subtle sophistication and richness to its styling that elevated it from pure product design into an almost perfectly realised object of fascination.
While the silhouette itself was simplicity itself, it was the detail design that truly elevated Boué’s shape. Unlike its supermini rivals, the frontal styling (a matter of some considerable deliberation at Billancourt) eschewed convention with its raked nose treatment, large rectangular headlamp units and mere suggestion of a grille. Also unusual was the lack of exterior doorhandles, replaced by a simple pressed recess in the quarter panel – a feature reprised (in reverse) on the rear tailgate. Simple but effective.
But there was one aspect of the design which really set the car apart from its rivals. Parking in French cities was usually achieved by touch, meaning that minor parking knocks were worn as badges of combat. Yves George’s engineering team, in partnership with Rhône-Poulenc devised integrated bumpers made from reinforced polyester, pre-impregnated with fibreglass, which would be capable of absorbing impacts of up to 7 km/h without deformation. The ribbed, self-coloured, bumper-cum-valance units would become the Renault’s defining style statement, at once underlining its functionality yet simultaneously highlighting its state of the art design credentials. This brand of radicalism, normally the preserve of Renault’s Parisian double chevron rivals, married with Boué’s ultra-modern style was described by Bernard Hanon, as “a stroke of genius; a bolt from the blue”.
Certainly, when the new Renault 5 was first shown in December of 1971, prior to its official launch the following January, it would prove exactly that.
 Under engineer Dante Giacosa’s oversight, FIAT Auto pioneered the transverse engine, end-on gearbox and unequal length driveshaft layout in large-scale production.
 Bernard Hanon’s career at Renault included a sojourn in America. He ultimately became CEO of Régie Renault in 1981, succeeding Bernard Vernier-Palliez.
 Like most front wheel drive Renaults of the time, the 5 employed differing wheelbase lengths – left to right – a consequence of its transverse torsion bar rear suspension design.
 This suspension change occurred quite late in 122’s development – only some two and half years prior to its debut.
 The 782 cc engine was limited to home market 5s. An enlarged 845 cc version of this powerplant would later be offered.
 In addition to the five-door hatchback, a three-volume saloon was schemed, aimed at Southern Mediterranean markets. Introduced into the Spanish market in 1974 as the Siete, it was produced there until 1984.
 Neither the 1971 Fiat 127, nor the 1972 Peugeot 104 were introduced with rear tailgates.
 Poignantly, Michel Boué was not to see his brainchild’s success. Diagnosed with cancer, the talented 37-year old designer succumbed in 1971 – a promising career cut tragically short.
 Originally intended to be christened Renault 2, but given that the 122 was a far more sophisticated product, yet was to be priced similarly to the existing R4, Renault’s marketers elected to retain the 5 moniker.
Sources: Child of the Sixties – Jean-Louis Loubet: Renault Group/ Renault Classic/ Car Magazine (April 1973)/ Renault-5.net/ lautomobileancienne.com