Voiture à Vivre [Part Two]

The Supercar cometh.

Image: renaultgroup.com

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[1]. 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.

1971 Fiat 127. Image: FCA Heritage

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,[2] it nevertheless cleaved stubbornly to French market orthodoxy, Peugeot CEO, Francois Gaultier remaining staunchly of the view that two door vehicles were sales poison.[3] 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.

1972 Peugeot 104 berline. Image: storm.oldcarmanualproject

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.[4] 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.

Renault 5 TL cabin. Image Renault.com

While the exterior was an undoubted triumph, the 5’s cabin design too would garner praise.[5] 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[6] 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.

Image: The Drive

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.

Image: Renault Group

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[7] 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[8]. 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.[9]

1974 R5 LS. Image auto-pub.net

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[10] 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,[11] 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?


[1] 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.

[2] 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. 

[3] More excuses humiliantes.

[4] Pierre Bercot stepped down in 1971, meaning Citroen’s designers were no longer strait-jacketed by their CEO’s orthodoxies.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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. 

[9] 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.

[10] The Quatrelle’s internal nickname.

[11] The Renault 6 continued to sell in sufficient numbers elsewhere in Europe to justify its continued existence.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “Voiture à Vivre [Part Two]”

  1. Good morning Eóin. I’m thoroughly enjoying this history of a seminal car. In retrospect, the reservations about the 5’s three-door format seem incredibly myopic, but it probably took a car as chic and capable as the 5 to change perceptions.

    The design of the 5 really was masterful. In side profile, it is delightfully clean and spare, and perfectly proportioned, despite (or maybe because of?) its unusual mechanical layout. It even worked very nearly as well in five-door form:

    Needless to remark, it makes its ‘re-imagining’ as an EV look a bloated, fussy caricature:

    1. Agreed. The picture of the 5LS in the article with its lovely shade of blue shows off the pleasing design, as well as the mechanical lay-out (short front overhang, large distance between front wheels and doors).

      The current Twingo’s styling – if I remember correctly – is meant to evoke the 5 as well, though the rear-engined concept makes for somewhat strange proportions. The preceding Twin’Run concept was meant to evoke the mad 5 Turbo and doing a better job than the EV concept you pictured.

      The new Megane EV has the same visual heaviness about it. I suppose it’s apposite for heavy cars like EVs (although the Megane is up to 200 kilos lighter than a comparable Id3), but making them look so heavy that they seem to generate their own gravity well does them no favours in my eyes.

  2. The comment on the R5’s heating and ventilating system is a bit harsh.
    At that time cars normally didn’t have the full array of ventilation outlets we are used to nowadays and cars like the Benz W114/5 were rare exceptions.
    Many cars didn’t have vents at all in the dashboard and if they had, they were at the ends (next to the doors) or in the centre but only in very rare cases did they have both. Cars from Italy or France often had vents on top of the dashboard that could be rotated towards the windscreen or the passengers (Fiat 128, Alfasud) and French cars like Peugeot 204/304 had banana shaped pull-out vents to direct air towards the passengers. The air flow from these vents often was quite strong even at pedestrian speeds with no obstacles like pollen filters and the air flowing freely from scuttle panel to dashboard. The price to pay was that – at least in most French cars – these vents could not supply warm air.

    1. Here in the north central United States, where it can get VERY cold in the winter, I frequently experienced the joy (?) of starting my 5 and turning on the defroster to clear the windshield — only to be greeted with a minor squall inside the car from snow that accumulated in the top-of-hood intake.

      After a while I learned to cover that up when snow was in the forecast.

    2. @steveinmn; You probably also remember GM in particular having the habit of bundling face-level vents with air conditioning. No A/C meant no face-level vents and at least through the ’70s they’d go to the lengths of tooling separate dash pad molds with no openings for them. Chevettes and (IIRC) Novas were like that; my dad’s ’79 C-10 pickup had a storage slot in the dash that was open-backed and therefore useless except as a way to avoid having just a blanking plate where the dash vent would go on A/C equipped trucks.

  3. Hello Eóin. Very interesting article. The R5 was like a breeze of fresh air amid the collection of eyesores spoiling our cities and roads (the Ami 6, Simca 1000, Renault 8, etc.). Like the Mini it was cute and unassuming. Success was deserved.

  4. I feel like the Renault 5 is one of those cars that I didn’t properly appreciate at the time and then before you know it, poof! They’re all gone.

    I had no idea until reading this lovely retrospective series that the original series were front mid-engined. Being a small car I’d always assumed they used the transverse layout.

    I will be watching closely to see what the 2024 EV reborn R5 is like. I’m not expecting much. Another outsize cartoon car like the two EVs Daniel pictured in the thread yesterday.

    1. John Topley wrote:
      “I had no idea until reading this lovely retrospective series that the original series were front mid-engined. Being a small car I’d always assumed they used the transverse layout.”
      The R5 was based on the same underpinings as the R4 (the quatrelle) and R6, with just a shorter chassis.

    2. I think I have a Renault catalogue from 1977 where there is a nice see through picture of the 5, where you can clearly the engine layout. If my old remembers I will look for it tomorrow and post it here.

    3. The R5’s drivetrain architecture was a typically French engineering tradition since the Traction Avant.
      Gearbox in front of the axle line, engine behind it. TA, DS, SM.
      Renault adapted it later with R4, R6, R16, R5/7, originally because it allowed them to use the Dauphine drivetrain unchanged for the R4 which had enough initial trouble with its new Rzeppa joints.

  5. And yet the first FWD Renault, the 1959 Estafette had its engine ahead of the front axle, like the much later 12.

    1. And the Estafette was a cab over design which clearly none of the passenger vehivles was.

  6. Would the 5 have achieved the same level of success had the larger 6 not underperformed and received the same updates or developments as the former (e.g. 1.3-1.4-litre engines, 5-speed manual and 3-speed automatic if not already available, etc)? Would that in turn have undermined the case for the 14 aka the Pear?

  7. Octane magazine March 2018 featured an article on a dark blue R5 with very nice photos. This was a standard model and quite different from their usual content.

  8. In fact I can’t think of any french two door saloon (without a hatchback) constructed after WW2 at all! Does it exist?

    1. Hi Asgeir. Eóin mentioned one in his first footnote to the piece, the 1964 Panhard 24:

      I’m struggling to think of any others, however.

    2. Citroën Bijou and the Renault Alliance. I’m cheating in both cases, though, as the Citroën was produced for the UK market and the Renault for the USA. I also think the Bijou could be considered a coupé.

    3. I should perhaps make this point a little clearer. The Panhard 24 was available in two body styles, the short wheelbase C (or CT) as shown in the image appended by Daniel above, and the longer wheelbase B (or BT) berline, which I believe Panhard would have built as a four-door, had Citroen not (allegedly) vetoed it. As a two-door saloon, in two-door-averse France, its failure was probably assured.

      I rather like it, but the market had other ideas.

      There is undoubtedly another example or two lurking in the past, so I don’t presume to be definitive on this.

    4. Asgeir Hoffart says:
      3 Mar 2022 at 21:52
      “In fact I can’t think of any french two door saloon (without a hatchback) constructed after WW2 at all! Does it exist?”
      You forgot Lieutenant Columbo’s Peugeot 403! He had a cabriolet but there was also hadtops. Before that model there had been the 203 after it the 404, the 304 and the 504. Citroën manufactured some 11CV, mainly in cabriolet though. Henri Chapron was a specialist of DS mods.

    5. I’m not talking about coupés here, even if the distinction is not always clear…

  9. I gather there was two versions of the Panhard 24: The short CT and the longer BT. Maybe the CT are considered a Coupé, and the BT a two door saloon? But the picture shows a CT, if I’m not mistaken.

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