Voiture à Vivre [Part Four]

My brilliant career.

Image: Publicis Conseil. Author’s collection

1975 was not a year to be recalled with much fondness across the global automotive industry, as the effects of Yom Kippur 1973 hit home. A number of carmakers would not survive the year, while others would undergo painful reinventions under dramatically altered circumstances. Renault, to some extent insulated by French Government stewardship, would undergo change too, Pierre Dreyfus, the CEO who had steadfastly guided them for two decades had elected to retire, nominating Bernard Vernier-Palliez in his stead. Prior to his departure, Dreyfus made another significant appointment, luring design-lead Robert Opron to defect from the failing Citroën in order to bolster Renault’s styling armoury[1].

Meanwhile in 1975, as Steven Spielberg’s prosthetic shark was chewing through scenery, props and Robert Shaw in cinemas everywhere, and while 10 CC’s “I’m Not In Love” was doing something similar amid the pop charts, the R5 was establishing itself as France’s favourite car. Not only perfectly pitched to the market, but post-1973, it was ideally placed to capitalise upon the changes in European buying habits the geopolitical fault lines had wrought. Later that year, Renault introduced the range-topping 5 TS – mechanically identical to the now superseded LS model, but gaining the additional features and luxuries downsizing buyers appreciated.

Image: Publicis Conseil. Author’s collection

With the search for frugality now front and centre of thinking throughout the industry, Renault engineers, fitting an R5 with a detuned version of the 1289 cc TS engine, mated to a higher final drive ratio, demonstrated not just how such a combination would improve flexibility but use notably less fuel. Introduced in 1976 as the GTL, the economy 5 sat between the TL and TS in the model hierarchy, and was externally distinguished by ribbed body side cladding – curiously, the only R5 model at the time so equipped[2].

But it wasn’t all hair shirts and privation. With a thriving track racing series (the Renault Elf cup) and some success in the junior formulae of the international rally championships, Billancourt recognised an opportunity to provide a halo version, the 1976 R5 Alpine[3] being Renault’s performance gambit. Using an expanded 1397 cc[4] version of the Cléon engine, breathed upon to provide 93 bhp and a clean pair of heels, while stiffer anti-roll bars and springing reined in the otherwise lurid roll-angles. External changes were relatively subtle, confined to suitably wider, more purposeful looking road wheels and tyres, a deep front spoiler-cum Cibié fog lamp arrangement, and some relatively subtle A5 striping along the flanks. Inside, it was very much à la TS, but a perforated three spoke steering wheel lent a more sportive touch.

Alpine 5. Image: lautomobileancienne

In ethos, the R5 was more of a lover than a fighter, so it was never wholly convincing in the role of performance hatchback, even if the species itself could be said to have originated in France[5]. Despite this, the Alpine/ Gordini 5 certainly looked the part, (the lowered ride height helped) even if the contemporary Golf GTi rather eclipsed it in sales, performance and reputational terms. But neither Renaultsport nor Alpine’s Dieppe skunkworks were entirely finished with the Cinq just yet[6].

1979 would mark the R5’s only significant facelift, if indeed the barest massaging its exterior would receive could justify the term. Outer changes being virtually imperceptible[7], illustrating not only the impossibility of improving upon the car’s appearance, but also Renault’s good sense in not interfering unnecessarily with a highly successful formula. Inside, the story was somewhat different, the 5 being in receipt of a new design moulded dashboard and refreshed cabin ambience, the new arrangement being improved from an ergonomic perspective, even if it was probably eclipsed (in bracing modernity terms at least) by that of the previous year’s Citroën Visa.

Revised cabin. Image: Publicis Conseil via the author.

During the scoping phase, styling prototypes had been made of a four door R5, which for a number of reasons was not proceeded with[8]. But times change, as do circumstance – there being two quite convincing reasons for Renault to press ahead with a four-door body at this juncture. The first being that any non-compete arrangement with Peugeot was well and truly dead by the late ’70s and secondly, it was by then abundantly clear that the flatlining Renault 6 model could no longer be maintained in the marketplace.

So whatever objections that might have held sway within Renault as regards a five-door model were negated by the indisputable force of commercial logic. Certainly, the five-door’s appearance gave little for its critics to latch onto, being wholly consistent and well executed. Despite sharing the same overall length and wheelbase as the standard car[9], the five-door body did not look truncated or ‘pinched‘. In fact, while few would suggest it a better looking car than the three-door model, it did not appear as an afterthought. Introduced alongside the facelifted standard car in 1979, the five-door was offered in TL, GTL or Automatic versions[10].

With the sales graph on an unerring upward trajectory, and its popularity beyond both doubt and the combined efforts of rivals to unseat it, Renault had been in no particular hurry to carry out a mid-life facelift. Fortuitously, the revised 5 range, far from fading in middle age, would go on to attain its sales peak in 1980, a remarkable performance for a model line, well into the second half of its career. October 1981 would witness a final set of changes to the mainstream 5 range, with the debuts of the Alpine/ Gordini Turbo and the luxurious TX model – the latter model featuring a 63 bhp version of the 1397 cc Cléon unit, power steering, a luxury interior and a very full specification.

Having topped the European sales charts from 1980 to 82, the Renault 5 met its twin nemeses the following year. Hitherto unassailable, despite its age and by now unfashionable engine layout, the advent of the up-to-the-minute FIAT Uno and Peugeot 205[11] finally made the Cinq both look and feel its age. Renault had a new car in hand, and in 1984, the all-new Supercinq was announced.

Image: velocetoday

The 5 had been rationalised in the run up to the Super 5’s launch. Special editions were rife throughout the Cinq’s lifespan, but in its final years models dubbed Campus and Laureate would become the default. In time-honoured French tradition, the original car continued in limited form after the introduction of its replacement, but by the Summer of 1985, following a thirteen year run, the Cinq was no more – in Europe at least.

La Cinq est mort, vive la Super Cinq.

[1] At a 1975 meeting between Robert Opron and Bernard Hanon, the Citroën chief designer, already disillusioned by the Peugeot takeover, was sufficiently impressed by the Renault Vice-President to jump ship.

[2] Apart from the 1978 R5 Automatic, which also gained a black vinyl roof for good measure.

[3] Owing to a conflict with Chrysler Europe over the use of the Alpine name in the UK, the emboldened A5 employed the otherwise dormant Gordini name in Britain and Ireland.

[4] The larger capacity unit was mated to a five-speed gearbox sourced from the Renault 16 TX model.

[5] The 1973 Simca 1100 Ti is commonly regarded as the first official ‘hot-hatch’.

[6] The mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo and A5 Turbo will be profiled separately.

[7] The most obvious being confined to black coloured bumper shields (and side panels on GTL and Auto models).

[8] According to Renault’s Jean-Claude Maraselli (as recounted to Car Magazine, April 1973) however, the cause of this rejection was both on aesthetic grounds and because it proved a less practical proposition than envisaged. As writer/historian, Jean-Louis Loubet outlined however (see part one), there were other reasons for Renault’s rejection of the four-door bodyshell, which does suggest Maraselli adopting something of a party line here.

[9] There was a small weight penalty incurred with the five-door bodyshell, owing to the strengthening required to mitigate the lack of torsional rigidity over the original body.

[10] The 1979 facelift also debuted the larger capacity 1108 cc engine in both TL and GTL models, the latter still featuring a longer final-drive and improved economy over the TL model. A five-door TS model was offered in some non-European markets and in the US, Le Car was offered with the five-door body in 1981.

[11] Echoing its predecessor, the 205 was launched with a five-door body only, although Peugeot would offer a three-door version later. The Uno was launched with both bodystyles from day one.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “Voiture à Vivre [Part Four]”

  1. A fascinating set of articles, thank you. And also a big thank you to anyone who mentions 10cc; a forgotten and hugely underrated band.

  2. Good morning, Eóin. This fascinating series of articles has me wonder how many R5’s are still with us today. The survival rate of this kind of car isn’t that high to begin with, but it’s been at least a decade since I last saw one.

    1. Out of curiosity, I had a look to see how many were for sale on a popular Portuguese website. About 70 at the moment, ranging from a few hundred euros to a Turbo 2 at over €100,000. The wonders of a dry climate…

  3. Thanks for the memories that this series of articles brings me. My first car was a 1981 5 door red GTL. Well, it was my sister´s, I had her permission to drive it every now and then.
    Seeing the red 5 door in the picture, it strikes me the small differences with the ones built in Spain by FASA Renault. Instead of the wide side cladding it had a more elegant (although less protective) slim rubber band; the door handles were made in black plastic, and the front seats had head restraints, albeit in a simpler, non “petal” form.

    I suppose the survival rate of these cars is not great due to rust (apart from being not very well cared for city cars). “My” R5 lived in a dry, sunny climate, and still had a bit of rust on the sills.

    1. About dry climates, only about half of Portugal ‘s surface is dry – more in the interior and more to the South.

      Our high 80’s renaults survival rate is explained on political/fiscal / administrative grounds:

      Although most volume automakers were obliged to produce their cars here on ckd form since 1961, 1979 is when is signed a preferenctial agreement between the portuguese government and La Regie: in exchange of a lot more jobs and production capacity, renault will be allowed to sell an unlimited amount of vehicles, at lower taxes and without delivery waiting lists.

      If i’m not wrong, they achieved up to 50% of the market sales.

      Thus, Portugal has so high a survival rate of 80’s renaults. Mind you, it is much harder to find a 5 from 1978 than from 1982…

      Otherwise, super 5, 9, and 11 turbos were once commomsight here… but not in Spain, who hadn’t some of them…

      (I apologise our spanish neighbours, I couldn’t avoid it! 🙂

  4. Nice article. Strange that I never saw that many Supercinq’s, I think it was only a fraction of the original 5. At least in the Netherlands.

  5. Excellent series again.
    “La Cinq est mort, vive la Super Cinq.”
    In France there was a rear window sticker reading: ” Plus Cinq que la Cinq” (More Five than the Five).

  6. My daughter had an R5 turbo that I drove once and boy would that thing move out, great fun!
    Since most daughters seem to rely on dad to keep their transport operating I dont recall ever having any problems with the R5.

  7. I was given a 5TS in 1979 so it can’t have been very old. It had terrible rust right from the rear wings beginning at the arches and extending almost to the window. Both sides. It was fixed and proved to be a good car in many ways. Nippy and very comfortable. Having learnt to drive in a mini however I did not rate the cornering experience. The steering and gear change were rubbery. Still I think it remains one of the best looking small cars and in period was probably the best small car available.

  8. From August 15, 2019 edition of motor-junkie.com:

    “Also, it was strangely designed, small and badly put together. Soon, it was considered the worst choice in the compact car class. And that is why it was strange that the town of Ogunquit, Maine had a Renault Le Car police cruiser. It was probably the first time an American police department used the foreign car for patrol purposes. But that same car was one of the worst choices on the market.”

    1. There seem to have been a few forces which adopted them as police cars in the era of budgetary cut-backs.

      LaConner Police in Washington had some Le Cars.

      1978 Renault Le Police Car

    2. Ogunquit is a lovely archetypal New England coastal town, well worth a visit!

  9. I’m very late catching up on the latest instalment of this great story today. (Just one of those days…😬)

    The photo of the original 5 and the Supercinq together is interesting to me: I had always thought the Supercinq a cleaner, tidier design, but here it actually looks a bit thin and insubstantial in comparison to the more robust and characterful original.

    1. Hi Daniel, I’m still a fan of the Supercinq, and I initially thought I disagreed with your comment. But I think it’s more subtle: as an object, I like the Supercinq better: it’s in some ways a sort of abstraction of a car, something you’d find in a well-drawn cartoon (in the vein of someone like Hergé) or in art – meant to evoke reality but at the same time simplify (or even comment on) it. As a car, the Cinq is probably a stronger design, although a bit dated by the time its successor appeared.

      I think (not particularly controversially) the spiritual successor to the Cinq is the 205 which, like the Renault, managed to look ‘right’ throughout its production run. Peugeot snatched the moment that the Cinq represented from Renault. I’m not sure there are such ‘complete’ cars around anymore: cars that almost represent the idea (in a Platonic sense) of their particular market niche. The Golf has relinquished that crown as well.

    2. The orignal Renault 5 was a proper car to replace mere driving aids like Renault 4, 2CV and others. It and the Fiat 127 moved the small car ahead by making it a real car.
      The 205 made the small car a grown-up car. It had road manners that put many cars from two classes above to shame, particularly in the ride comfort stakes, it had (some) really good engines like the XUD.
      Both had in common that the only truly primitive aspect was their interior, which for the 5 was more forgivable because it was more in line with the spirit of its time. That it took Peugeot so long to provide the 205 with a fully trimmed interior without acres of painted metal on display was a pity and the only letdown.

    1. Hi boarezina. Indeed it was, built by FASA Renault in Spain:

      Oddly, it had chromed steel bumpers front and rear, rather than the polyester items of the 5. It was actually called ‘Siete’ rather than 7.

  10. Heard the Supercinq could have appeared a few years earlier.

    It was an obviously improvement over the previous 5, with that said what were its virtues or USPs compared to the Uno and 205? The 205 was noted for its dynamics, while the Uno its space efficiency with both featuring fresh or attractive styling. With the Supercinq it was for carrying over a fresher version of the previous 5’s styling, now mounted to a more modern platform.

    Because while have seen the Supercinq featured as a rival over the past few decades against the 205 and Uno, possibly as a result of appearing a bit later it seems to get lost in the supermini shuffle (with the exception of the 5 GT Turbo) that it makes one question if it was actually part of the same breed of supermini the 205 and Uno embodied from the early 1980s or like the Vauxhall Nova / Opel Corsa A more a product of a previous era?

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