Voiture à Vivre [Part Three]

You Cannot Be Serious!

Le Advertising. Image: autoevolution

The North American market has always been tough, unyielding and, for a great many European carmakers, impenetrable. Lucrative for those who could find a way in, success however has always required an unswerving commitment and very deep pockets, characteristics which were in short supply at Bologne-Billancourt. Renault had made some tentative explorations into the US during the early 1950s, but it wasn’t until the advent of the Dauphine model towards the latter end of the decade that the French carmaker would put its shoulder to the metaphorical wheel.

While low-powered, potentially evil-handling European imports were by no means unfamiliar to US audiences by this time, the ones which America had taken to their collective hearts were not only considerably more robustly wrought at Wolfsburg, but were vastly better represented by a large and widespread support network.

Yet despite these apparent shortcomings, the Dauphine made significant headway, outselling Volkswagen in 1959[1]. But despite Renault Inc’s best efforts, the Dauphine’s reputation did not survive contact with US soil – a combination of a chronic lack of material quality, durability and a propensity to spontaneously dissolve into crumbs of ferrous oxide saw matters come to an inglorious halt. Indeed, so poor did the Dauphine’s US reputation become that when its replacement was introduced, early advertising billed it as a car for those who swore never again to buy a Renault product.[2]

By the start of the 1970s, Renault appeared to have lost the stomach for the job. Billancourt, minded to place its emphasis upon the relative certainty of the European market, ceased to consider the United States a priority[3]. Certainly, to have made serious inroads would probably have required a level of investment the state-owned manufacturer simply could not justify to its French state paymasters. However, as Renault CEO, Pierre Dreyfus made plans for his eventual succession, he reiterated the strong necessity for Renault to bolster its North American presence.

Image: vwvortex

There had been no overt US market intent in the original R5 product plan but, as Renault’s senior technical liaison, Jean-Claude Maraselli outlined to Car magazine’s journalists in April 1973, the R5 could easily be adopted to comply with US regulations, should the necessity arise. This would prove fortuitous, given the geopolitical shock of that Autumn’s Middle East oil embargo and the expediency that its aftermath would brutally cast to light. With a sudden and urgent rush towards more fuel-efficient cars, both across Europe and in the United States, Renault enacted a volte-face, with the R5 prepared for a US debut.

Altering the R5 for federal homologation required a number of technical and cosmetic alterations. The most significant involved the fitment of a de-smogged version of the 1289 cc engine, as fitted to the home market LS model. Externally, the R5 received larger, more prominent 5-mph resistant bumpers and the obligatory round sealed-beam headlamps – neither of which did anything for the car’s appearance. Obligatory side marker lamps were also added and the equipment levels calibrated to appeal to a more demanding clientele.

Facing formidable imported opposition, primarily from Japanese carmakers, but also Volkswagen, the federalised Renault 5 made US landfall in October 1975, before going on sale the following Spring. But despite broadly favourable reports from the specialist auto press, the R5 failed to make any discernible commercial impact during its debut year on US soil.

Renault Inc, troubled by this disappointing state of affairs, tasked US ad agency, Marsteller with turning around the R5’s fortunes. From their market research, the ad-men concluded that the 5 was simply not resonating with people – its numerical name failing to land in customer’s minds. Mindful of the success of VW’s Rabbit, they proposed a suitably anthropomorphised name-change to get the car noticed, the emphasis being upon the R5 being not simply a fun car, but a fun French car. A number of toe-curling iterations were considered[4] before Le Car[5] was eventually adopted as nom de guerre.

Image: french-cars-in-america

Now, one can of course argue the relative merits of this approach[6], but to many eyes it betrayed a fundamental gulf between how the new and old worlds viewed the car. The R5 after all was an inherently serious automobile, if one which happened in its native Europe to be considered rather chic. But whereas in its home market, the Cinq was (initially) advertised in cartoon strip form, the car would come to be viewed in the United States as Le Joke – certainly a sizeable percentage of the market would struggle to take it seriously, especially with the garish side stripes and loud decals screaming its name along its flanks.

Derisive laughter aside, the ad-men were seemingly vindicated, with sales of Le Car doubling in 1977, moving steadily upwards henceforth as Renault Inc pushed the cuteness and faux-French aspect for all it was worth. Meanwhile, 1978 witnessed the broadening of a long-standing alliance[7] between Renault and the American Motor Corporation, one which would ultimately culminate in what could be be described as Le Takeover. Of primary interest for Renault was AMC’s distribution network – some 1300 dealers across the USA, while for the beleaguered US carmaker, vital new product in the form of an all-new compact sedan being developed in Paris, which it was hoped, would provide Le Lifeline.

Shipments continued to become more frequent, with over 25,000 crossing the Atlantic in 1980. The following year, it received Le Facelift[8], with even larger bumpers and revised rectangular headlamps, which at least (distantly) resembled the original design intent. A larger capacity 1397 cc engine became standardised, with both fuel injection and a catalytic converter.

Le Facelift. Image: bestsellingcarsblog

Despite increased sales, repeat transactions proved harder to come by, with Renault’s reputation rooted in Le Orthodoxy – mechanical frailty, poor parts availability and rust. Le Cars were often purchased as commuter vehicles, often subjected to high mileages and infrequent servicing, hardly a recipe for longevity[9]. In 1982, the Renault Alliance model, a development of the 1981 Renault 9 made its way down the tracks at AMC’s Kenosha plant, marking time on Le Car’s US sojourn. By the Spring of 1983 Le Car was pushing up Le Daisies with 32,702 making the crossing during its final full year on US sale.

While the 5’s American sojourn did not set the Le Sales Charts ablaze, it was a notable success by Renault Inc’s terms. Yet for every customer charmed by the Le Car persona, there were probably as many who simply walked the other way, unwilling to be seen driving something so seemingly contrived.  Nevertheless, while it is most likely Le Car justified its US presence, it is quite telling that when the Alliance model made its debut, it was as a sober, conservative looking sedan, without a hint of Gallic spice or élan.

No more jokes. Renault meant Le Business[10].


[1] Aided to some extent by the efforts of a certain Bernard Hanon

[2] While it was undoubtedly a clever piece of marketing, many former owners, once bitten, would not return.

[3] One could understand the logic of Renault’s reliance upon the European market, but its stated ambivalence towards the US in April 1973’s Car magazine sounded more like an attempt to place successive failures in a more positive light.

[4] Among the proposed names was ‘Frog’ – or worse, was it to have been Le Frog?

[5] Talk about mangling the language – even the gender was wrong. Somebody notify the Académie Française…

[6] A curious decision, given that this flew in the face of American orthodoxy – France, long being perceived in the US as a benchmark of sophistication and good taste.

[7] AMC came into being in 1954, following a merger between Hudson and Nash. JEEP was added to the conglomerate in 1970. AMC’s links with Renault date back to the early 1960s, when the régie assembled small quantities of Rambler cars for the French market. In 1978, an agreement was instituted to produce Renault models at AMC’s Kenosha plant. The following year, a deal was signed whereby US-market Renault cars would be sold and distributed through AMC dealers. In 1980, Renault gained approval to take a controlling interest in the US carmaker, doing just that in 1983.

[8] A five-door version was also offered in line with this bodystyle’s introduction in Europe.

[9] Renault never committed upon a sufficiently rigorous US proving programme, nor did they take the trouble to beef up either the mechanicals, electrical system or the bodywork to cope with the harsher US environment or usage patterns. The 5 would therefore prove as frangible as all other US market Renault offerings, with all too predictable results.

[10] Well, for a time at least.

Sources: See Part One.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Voiture à Vivre [Part Three]”

  1. Good morning to Le Writer of Le Article. With Le Hindsight Le Outcome seems predictable. Looking forward to Le Sequel.

  2. The remarks on the lack of hardening for the US market and its specific conditions and the mechanical unreliability reminded me of an article in T&CC in the mid-Eighties.
    A former BMC service manager was sent to the US to find out why they had so many warranty claims and customer complaints for overheating, burnt clutches and faulty brakes from the San Francisco region while there were no such complaints from (for their eyes) nearby Los Angeles.

    In theory at least the French mentality towards maintenance and servicing of a car should be very close to that in the US so it would be interesting to find out why their cars suffered so badly there. It can’t have been the distances or speeds because from the Sixties and Seventies I remember French drivers going down the N7 towards Le Midi for their summer holidays at considerable speed and over long distances at high temperatures.

  3. Great story, very well told. Ignoring any borderline offensive / racist connotations, I actually think the name ‘Le Frog’ is rather appropriate, especially for the round-headlamp original. I also rather like the headlamp treatment, although the side market lamps look really tacked-on:

  4. Here’s a contemporary road test from the US. It’s a very thorough test – as they say in the video, “You’ll want to have a paper and pen handy to take notes”. Er, yes.

    I won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment by revealing the result, but it’s as you might expect. The Civic isn’t included in this test group, but it would have given Le Car a run for its money in the early days.

    1. Thanks for posting that review, Charles. I think the verdict here is clear: The R5 was too small for the American market, although it proved dynamically superior to the others in the handling and braking tests.

      I’m also reminded that Mitsubishi once made far better cars than Nissan, and how far their star has fallen.

    2. Hello gooddog – yes, that’s true. The Mitsubishi looked really well done and they said it was used as an industry benchmark. The verdict on the Nissan appeared to be ‘Would suit overweight smokers’.

  5. Daft name, but it inadvertently helped to launch a highly successful thriller-writing career, according to the son of the author formerly known as Jim Grant:

    “So back in the ’70s, Renault (French car maker) made a car called “Le Car” (“le” means “the” in French, and is pronounced “luh” – apologies if you already knew that!). I think it was one of the few Renault models to ever be sold in the US. My dad was on a train in the US (my mom is American and they were visiting her parents), sitting opposite a guy from Texas and they got to chatting. They started talking about cars and the Texan asked my dad if he had ever heard of “Lee Car.” From then on, he and my mom called a lot of things “Lee [whatever]” (e.g., “Lee Dog” – “The Dog”). When I was born, I became “Lee Baby” and when I got older it was “Lee Child” (don’t worry, they did call me by my name too… sometimes).”

    1. You’ve just brightened-up a rainy morning in Co Kerry !

    2. I knew a young lady called Lee Lee Teo. She married her sweetheart, Bing Lee. So her name became…

  6. Another literary connection: Armistead Maupin put Mary Ann Singleton in a Le Car in one of the Tales of the City books.

  7. As a kid i marveled about Le Car, as it made a rather common car very exotic all of a sudden, and you could actually spot one in NL from time to time, probably due to the presence of a US airbase in our proximity.
    The headlight treatment always had me think Le Car was family-related to The Pacer, which in an intricate way they are…
    Now if you excuse me i might go out to get my Le Big Mac (or perhaps I won’t)…

    1. But that’s only because in Paris they have the metric system.
      A Big Kahuna Burger is far better…

    2. And here we are again on the most important page of the internet.
      The most unimportant things in the world (cars and their shutlines) are presented in polished form, in le highly linguistic skill.
      There is concentrated expertise, one knows the important musicians, one knows the important films.
      It is a pleasure.

  8. For the few years that the 11/9-based Renault Alliance was in production, could a Supercinq-derived successor to the 5 aka Le Car (particularly if appeared earlier) have generated additional sales on the basis it (unlikely the previous 5) had much in common with the 11/9-based Alliance?

  9. Hi Eóin. Funny how different markets are so hard to crack for manufacturers from other markets: European brands almost universaly failed in the US (even VW’s fortunes have been up and down), except for the premium bunch. American brands failed in Europe after (I think) the 1950s as the markets took different turns: America started to commoditize around marketing gimmicks and insubstantial yearly updates while Europe (slowly) started to develop in a more sophisticated direction. Japan has been idiosyncratic once local manufacturers graduated from their licensing deals with European and US manufacturers, with a local product line up largely unknown abroad. Some have succeeded both in Europe and the US (Toyota) through diversification and sheer scale, some have largely given up on Europe after early promise (Honda).

    The specific failures are usually not that difficult to find, as in the case of rust-proofing and general beefing up of the technical bits on the Renault. Information was harder to come by than nowadays, so maybe they really hadn’t expected US conditions to be so much harder, or it was just a lack of money. Conversely, a marque like Honda has been failing to produce a coherent and (to European eyes) sufficiently attractive line up for years and has consequently seen its European market share dwindle. Most of their cars are attractive enough for the US, where tastes seem a little more utilitarian and gaudy at the same time, a curious mix.

    I’m with Daniel in that I find Le Car in its pre-facelift form not that offensive, although the styling changes do highlight the narrowness of the car. I sort of like those headlights and the bumpers look less clumsy than on most Federalised imports.

    1. Hello Tom – yes, it’s an interesting subject. I found this analysis of Volkswagen’s relative lack of appeal quite enlightening, although I think the view of Volkswagen as a manufacturer which produces cars with a patchy reliability record and which are expensive to look after is more recent than is stated in the article. Perhaps the just-launched ID. Buzz will help matters.


    2. Thanks, Charles. That’s an insightful little article indeed. Especially poignant to me is the mention of Subaru (a sort of smaller Honda in many ways), which has managed in the US what has eluded it in Europe (except, I believe in Alpine regions – geographical ones, not the various cars): build a niche and thrive in it. Funny that Subarus’ fuel economy gets mentioned, since it’s still a bugbear in Europe.

      It’s not surprising that a brand like Volkswagen, which is (I think) almost universally known as utilitarian with a dash of premium about it in most markets where it is active, misread the American situation. Maybe they’ve been believing their own advertising hype about being super-reliable. Maybe they just thought it beneath them to be the German Saab.

      It is indeed quite possible that the new electric range, especially but not exclusively the Buzz, will help matters as the appeal of EVs is generally more in line with the desires of what the article states as VW’s core demographic in the US. Kia and Hyundai prove that the EV provides new opportunities.

  10. The “Le Car” ad campaign was parodied by Tony Hendra as “America Motor’s Le Shoe”, with the unforgettable byline “We’re Not Stupid”.

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