The Supercar cometh.
Unlike other major European markets, France did not particularly enjoy a love affair with the two-door bodystyle and by consequence, for sound commercial reasons, few mainstream French carmakers saw fit to offer one throughout the 1950s and 60s. It was therefore not at all surprising that Renault CEO, Pierre Dreyfus and his marketing heads were initially dubious about the sales prospects for the new Renault 5’s two-door-with-a-tailgate style. The level of commercial risk was, not to exaggerate matters, enormous.
Misgivings were not only expressed within Billancourt itself however, Renault’s dealer representatives vehemently agitated against the two-door body style when the Cinq was previewed to them prior to launch. In fact, they wrote it off entirely, baldly stating that only commercial operators would be interested in such a car. An abject litany of excuses humiliantes would issue from Renault’s retail leadership before 1972 had drawn to a close.
The story was somewhat different East of the Alps. Introduced in April 1971, FIAT Auto’s 127, a creation of Dante Giacosa’s engineering team and the late Pio Manzù at Centro Stile, would be viewed as Renault’s fiercest competitor throughout both models’ parallel careers. The 127 was a direct replacement for the rear-engined two-door 850 berlina, and as such was conceived primarily as a fastback saloon. Introduced exclusively with a booted two-door body, Mirafiori would remedy this apparent oversight a year after its debut, introducing a hatchback version.
While likely to have been in the product plan, the timing of this appeared reactive. But not only did FIAT appear to be on the backfoot in format terms, the 127 suffered practicality-wise from its sloping rear and high loading sill. Certainly, Dreyfus certainly appeared unconcerned by the Cinq’s Italian rival in 1972, stating; “Fiat have confused their clientele a little with the 127, and has therefore prepared the market for us”. Clearly confident of his new offering’s appeal, he went to make the claim that the R5 “makes the 127 obsolete”.
Meanwhile at Sochaux, Peugeot seemingly hurried the 104 into production in 1972 so that Billancourt would not have the Francophile fields entirely to themselves. Denied the hatchback it had been designed for, it nevertheless cleaved stubbornly to French market orthodoxy, Peugeot CEO, Francois Gaultier remaining staunchly of the view that two door vehicles were sales poison. The lack of a hatch may have impeded the Peugeot’s progress, although given that the 104 was at least perceived as a slightly more upmarket offering to that of Renault’s entrant, the enclosed boot might have been viewed by some as a more apt arrangement.
Across Paris, given their reputation for innovation, one might have been forgiven for believing that Automobiles Citroën might have been an early adopter of the hatchback format. This might well have come to pass had CEO, Pierre Bercot, not been pathologically opposed to such a move, believing it to be the strict preserve of tradespeople. Citroën’s Bureau d’Études had considered a supermini sized car (to be twinned with Fiat’s 127) as part of the 1968 agreement between the two carmakers. However, it fizzled out amid intransigence and a ‘not invented here’ mentality. While it remains unclear what kind of body shape was to have been envisaged, we do know is that when projet TA was initiated in its wake the following year, it was schemed as both a three and five-door hatch.
From a styling and usability perspective at least, Dreyfus was probably correct in his assessment of the 127 – and to a certain extent, the 104 – both products of gifted Italian design teams, then the envy of the world. Manzù’s 127 shape was modern and well proportioned, but in silhouette and style, it marched to a different drum entirely. A more rakish and sportier design, its fastback silhouette was very much of the late Sixties Italian idiom, but would not speak to the future as Boué’s shape unquestionably did. The Peugeot’s body style on the other hand stemmed from the studios of carrozzeria Pininfarina. A tidy, well executed design, but like its Torinese rival, visual comparisons with the Renault would not necessarily flatter it.
While the exterior was an undoubted triumph, the 5’s cabin design too would garner praise. The dashboard was a simple affair – a ribbed and padded pvc moulding covering the expanse of the dash panel. Ahead of the driver, a rectangular binnacle contained most of the switchgear and instrumentation in a pod arrangement. With the dash-mounted gear selector specified, all vital controls lay within easy reach of the handwheel.
Despite noticeable intrusion from the engine, the 5’s interior didn’t lack for space, there being plenty of cabin room for occupants within its generous wheelbase and thanks to its tall canopy, abundant headspace. The rear seats folded flat (a far more practical arrangement than that of the 16) opening up a large and easily accessed load bay, while with the seats up, the boot compartment was large and largely unimpeded. (The spare wheel lived above the gearbox). One curious cabin oddity was a bonded raffia-effect roof covering, in place of the usual full headliner.
The R5 was a very different kind of product and Billancourt’s marketers promoted it as such, tasking ad agency Publicis Groupe to come up with a distinctive promotional angle. The resulting campaign, in print, poster and cinema form portrayed an anthropomorphised cartoon 5 with eyes in place of headlamps, speaking directly to the customer. This memorable campaign was a notable success, appealing well beyond the audiences Renault had identified as its primary target customers.
Coming a close second to Audi’s new for 1972 80 in the European Car of the Year contest would prove scant impediment to the 5’s commercial reception. Success was instantaneous and demand voracious, soon far outstripping supply. But despite deliveries following demographic projections, the R5 sold strongly across all age groups. Renault had invested heavily in automation at the Flins factory to facilitate production of the 5 and, with daily production rates quickly exceeding the planned 1,000 per day, customers still faced lengthy waits to get their hands on Renault’s Supercar. Further capacity would soon be added at the Douai plant to assuage the impatient hordes.
The Cinq would prove a classless, ‘all things to all people’ proposition. Appealing across social stratifications, urban and rural centres, one senior Renault director recounting to Car magazine in April 1973 how a number of his acquaintances had traded their larger car for a pair of his and hers R5s.
The early success of the Cinq not only served to vindicate the design team and senior managers like Hanon who championed it against considerable opposition, but not only changing the face of France, the 5 also shifted French buyers’ taste towards the three-door body style. Having demonstrated proof of concept, Renault’s rivals were not slow to offer their own take, with varying degrees of success. In 1974, Renault expanded the R5 range with the more upmarket LS model. Fitted with a larger capacity 1289 cc Cléon engine developing 64 bhp, front and rear anti-roll bars and wider tyres, the LS was quicker, more capable and more generously appointed.
The 5’s unassuming yet irrepressible appeal would transcend national boundaries and buyer tastes, but its sales success and unbounded image had a noticeable knock-on effect a good deal closer to home. While demand for what was affectionately known within Billancourt as “la bonne a tout faire” remained impervious to the R5’s wide appeal, its advent had an immediate and wholly detrimental effect upon the fortunes of the R6, a model which had not exactly hit the ground running to start with. The further broadening of the Cinq’s range would do little to aid its cause. Nevertheless, the R6 would soldier on until 1980, by which time, it was well overdue retirement.
Meanwhile, the R5 continued to make friends. But in late 1975 it would face its sternest test yet. Could the Supercar make it in America?
 Panhard was a notable exception to this orthodoxy, when they introduced the 24-series in 1964. This car however was to have been offered as a four-door berline, only to be vetoed by Pierre Bercot and the Citroën board, so as not to conflict with Javel’s own ambitions within this market segment – essentially hobbling the car’s prospects at birth.
 This was a direct consequence of the aforementioned clause between the two competitors. A hatchback version of the 104 was finally offered in 1976, replacing the booted version. Clearly any agreement with la regié had by then lapsed.
 More excuses humiliantes.
 Pierre Bercot stepped down in 1971, meaning Citroen’s designers were no longer strait-jacketed by their CEO’s orthodoxies.
 One area where the 5 remained behind the times was in heating and ventilation – its water valve arrangement and paucity of of dash-mounted air outlets proving less than ideal.
 8 cu.ft with seats up and 32 cu.ft with them down. A design stipulation being the requirement to accommodate an entire supermarché trolley of groceries.
 Car devoted a large portion of their editorial that month (including the cover) to the 5, having voted it their 1972 Car of the Year. Amongst the judges were former racing driver, Stirling Moss, journalist, Jan Norbye and of course the ever-quixotic Leonard Setright, who in characteristic fashion, voted against his fellows, lending his maximum vote to the Ford Consul/ Granada.
 In 1974, Peugeot introduced the 3-door 104 ZR, and two years later debuted the Citroen LN, sharing the same bodyshell. When PSA later developed the related Talbot Samba, it too was schemed from the off as a three-door only.
 LS Equipment included a rev counter, clock, better seats and carpeting, rear wiper and was externally distinguished by a different ‘styled’ roadwheel design. Distinguishing side stripes and decals were also popular.
 The Quatrelle’s internal nickname.
 The Renault 6 continued to sell in sufficient numbers elsewhere in Europe to justify its continued existence.