You Cannot Be Serious!
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. 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.
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. 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.
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 before Le Car was eventually adopted as nom de guerre.
Now, one can of course argue the relative merits of this approach, 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 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, 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.
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. 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.
 Aided to some extent by the efforts of a certain Bernard Hanon
 While it was undoubtedly a clever piece of marketing, many former owners, once bitten, would not return.
 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.
 Among the proposed names was ‘Frog’ – or worse, was it to have been Le Frog?
 Talk about mangling the language – even the gender was wrong. Somebody notify the Académie Française…
 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.
 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.
 A five-door version was also offered in line with this bodystyle’s introduction in Europe.
 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.
 Well, for a time at least.
Sources: See Part One.