Not Alone is the Winter’s Chalice Replenished

A vanishingly rare version of an increasingly rare car falls under our Danish correspondent’s purview today. (First published on 1st May  2017)

All images: the author

Very clearly the work of a singular vision, that of Michel Boué, the Renault 5 impresses with the clarity of its concept. This example shows how it could be more than a basic conveyance. In this instance, we have here a really tidy, time-warp example with very little sign of tear or wear. We’ll get to the interior in a moment, with its comfortable sports seats and very inviting ambience. The 5 is a reduction of the essential themes of the Renault 4, using simple industrial design form language. The surfaces are minimal and the discipline of the radii is consistently applied. The lamps fit neatly into the surrounding surface and the features are aligned in an orderly fashion. Despite all this formal correctness, the car is quite cheerful and friendly.

This view captures the way the two volumes of the bonnet and cabin suggest the Renault 4 without just copying it. The wheel arch treatment is quite original, with the front wheel arch surround blending into the front fascia. At the rear, the wheel arch surround flows back into the bumper.

Boué wanted the rear lamps to go up the C-pillar to the roof, a wish vetoed by management who otherwise were supportive of a project that was created out of hours before being proposed for series production. A few adjustments, such as flush registration plate lamps and the full-height rear lamps, are all that would be needed to make this perfect. In the above photo you can just make out the carpeted boot and the split rear backrest.

Turning to the interior, note the high-spec seats with their side bolsters and alluring semi-cord upholstery. The choice of colour for the plastic trim and the warm beige cloth create a very welcoming ambience. It does not take much to turn the car from a spartan runabout to something altogether more habitable. It’s a remarkably roomy vehicle for one so small. The view below shows the brightness of the interior and the excellent all-round vision afforded by the deep side glass and large rear window.

The side panel here, below the window, is a small masterpiece of industrial design. As a TX model it has speakers built into the trim; base models had a storage cubby.

Renault continually invested in improvements over the car’s life: the rear side windows opened on hinges from 1974 and a revised dashboard was fitted from 1979. The three-speed automatic had appeared a year earlier, mated to a 1.3 litre engine. In 1980, Renault introduced a 5-door version.

In the image above, although the sharp light casts strong shadows, you can see the condition of the upholstery and its rather delightful tone. Seats don’t look this comfortable any more, do they?

1978 Renault 5 TX interior

Here is another view with more even light and a clear impression of the dashboard, which is formally very correct and well-arranged. The colour break-up is sensible, distinguishing the functional areas from the rest. It is hard to imagine how to improve this concept. Notice, however, that the radio is set vertically ahead of the automatic transmission lever. The engine sits well back in relation to the front axle line so there was not enough space to install a horizontally mounted radio, hence this compromise.

Only the alloy wheels show much sign of the car’s age. Just three bolts hold the wheel in place.

The lesson I draw from this car is that good industrial design endures as long as the material it shapes. The car also demonstrates how to apply appropriate amounts of luxury without over-stepping the mark. The later R5 Baccara had leather and wood trim, and neither made for a more appealing interior than this. The colour choice also makes a big difference. As far as I can ascertain, there weren’t other colours available for the TX interior trim, though possibly a mid-blue might have been offered at one point.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

19 thoughts on “Not Alone is the Winter’s Chalice Replenished”

  1. Good morning, Richard. What a lovely find. I hope it is still with us today.

    The interior is fab. The color of the dash and the fabric seem to mismatch, but one has probably discolored more than the other. The radio is mounted way too low, but as you said there’s a good reason for it.

  2. Good morning Richard. What a nice find. As you say, it had a properly inviting and comfortable looking interior without resorting to ‘luxury’ tropes. Here’s another photo that shows the texture of the upholstery nicely:

    Do any manufacturers currently offer nice warm earth-coloured cloth upholstery options instead of the ubiquitous grey-scale that seems to be standard issue these days?

    1. That was Renault’s era of futuristic seat design.
      Fuego

      Renault 11

      Renault 21

    2. “My” R5 interior had the same shade of beige (although without the “pétale” seats) and it was a very nice place to wait for the roadside assistance. In 1997 my sister traded it in for a new Polo 1.6, which of course had a coal mine interior.

      I think Richard is spot on when he mentions the Clio Baccara: is it cladding with leather and and those stupid “B” wood medallions in the door panels the right way to give a little of luxury to a small car? The TX didn´t had those frivolities and was impressively equipped with electric windows, alloy wheels and even power steering (how many small cars had power steering in the early ´80s?)

  3. Here’s the current Clio ‘coal mine’ interior by way of comparison:

  4. Hi Richard, what a lovely find indeed, dug up from a happier past (though not weather-wise). The warmth of these interiors is unsurpassed and Daniel’s evocation of the contrast with modern interiors is spot-on. I occasionally come across French cars (mainly Peugeots, a wonderful 505 not long ago) which sport a brown-ish window tint that immediately evokes French summery country lanes to me – and I’ve never driven along a summery French country lane in a Peugeot with appopriately tinted windows and upholtstery.

    Stephen Bayley dubs (car) design telling a story, and the story that most modern car design tells is of almost psychotically aggressive defence against a hostile outside world, which rather creates a self fulfilling prophecy. There are, fortunately, exceptions, but none to the extent of the R5 you profiled: even in a sporty guise it evokes comfort, flowing grain fields and (especially) feeling comfortable in one’s own skin.

    As has been discussed here before, part of that might be that the end user doesn’t actually select the car anymore, but rather an intermediate (often a leasing outfit) does, meaning that much of the care for satisfying personal taste and intended message gets lost.

  5. Good morning, Richard. This TX is a wonderful upgrade from my early-80s American-spec 5. It had a black vinyl interior (aside from the blue body color echoed on some door parts) that, combined with the black canvas sunroof, made me swear I would never again buy another car with a black interior. I resorted to a beach towel on the front seats to make summer parking tolerable. The front seats of my car were functional and flat, though — fortunately — soft enough to be very comfortable and to provide what grip there was when the 5 leaned mightily on highway on-ramps. These seats look much more inviting both to the body and to driving spirit.

    My 5 came without a radio or speakers. I had some fitted aftermarket, doing away with the front door cubbies for the speakers and having to specify a head unit that could play cassettes in that almost-vertical position without injuring itself or the tapes. Like the 5, that head unit was completely manual, without even pre-set buttons for selecting radio stations. It had to be turned up rather high to drown out the sound of the engine on the other side of its mount!

    It occurred to me the other day that I’ve owned a few cars over the last 40 years; my current Jetta (Golf) wagon/estate/variant for half of them (!). The 5, however, is the one I’d most like to experience again. It was a considerable mechanical achievement, on many levels, and refreshingly different than other cars I could buy then and certainly than whatever can be purchased (in the U.S.) today.

  6. Richard, I think you’ve mentioned the concept of formal correctness in other writings, but I’m not sure I completely understand what is meant by the term. Could you perhaps define it for me? Or alternatively, direct me towards a reference which might discuss some of the theory of design? I feel like I understand less about design than I think I do…

    1. As I like to say when challenged for further elucidation: “good question”. What is formal correctness then? To answer this we need to consider a basic conceptual division of an object into its a) form and b) content. The content of the concept in question here is “car” or “transport” or “vehicle”. The form deals with its physical manifestation, the geometry, the material and the colour. The geometry is the short, dense term for talking about the dimensional attributes of the car which at a most basic level would be the co-ordinates of the visible surfaces, the data you´d need to carve the shape from a block of material. Form is also the underlying structures of the geometry which would be the cylindrical, spherical, rectangular and other primitives that are the building blocks of the eventual shape. The radii are in part made up of cylindrical geometries. Another aspect of form is the apparent rule-set that characterises a design. Styling (or form-giving, to use the N. European phrase) is often about devising and applying a set of rules that allows the elements of a design to be put together in an aesthetically satisfying way. The Renault 5 looks like it has a simple enough set of rules that guide the designer in solving all the problems of how to get things to look acceptable when the parts are joined up: where components meet, where parts turn corners or stop or blend from one shape to the next. The Renault 5 is formally correct in that the rule set is discernable and it has been applied consistently and pleasingly to result in a comprehensible shape with a clear signal and very little noise. A counter example is formal incorrectness, a shape where the rule set seems to have exceptions or jarring details where the rule set broke down. A very clear example is the chrome headlamp bezel of the later Saab 9-5s. There´s a stump of chrome surface that hangs off the bezel near the indicator. The designer didn´t know how to finish the lamp while maintaining the principle that the “frame” or edge should be chromed while the glass ought to be unchromed. I think they ran out of time and money and could not rework the geometry to avoid the problem.

      Contemporary car design is problematic because it´s hard to assess from the point of view of rule sets. They obviously do have rule sets as they seem to have some character; the rule sets seem very complex though. The Ford Focus Mk3 is a case of a car with a very muddy rule set; the Mk 2 has a very austere and pared down rule set (which is why I find it so lovely). The trend for busy flanks was/is hard to judge because you can´t really tell what the general, underlying conceit is supposed to be. I suppose all these newer cars are formally correct but it´s not as clear as on the R5 (or the current Suzuki Ignis or Kia Soul, for example). To bang on my current drum, the pleasing quality of Kia and Hyundai´s present work is that formal correctness is easy to sense – I can work out the main message of the design and I see the rule sets applied well all over the exteriors.

    2. Here is the offending headlamp treatment on the Saab 9-5 described by Richard above:

      It really is very poor.

    3. Thanks for your very detailed reply, Richard. Plenty of food for thought for me to chew on there! I’m grateful because I’d like to move a bit beyond the “I knows what I like” approach to aesthetics.
      That 9-5 headlamp bezel as an example of poor form is unfortunately all too striking (but thanks to Daniel for supplying the photo regardless!)

    4. These ‘Dame Edna’-Saabs all look pretty awful.
      The sidemarkers of the 9-5’s US version at least fill the hole with some colour

    5. You are welcome. It´s good to be asked to explain things as it makes it clearer for myself too. I think the notion of formal correctness hangs together.
      Another way of talking about form is to assess the level of homogeneity. What that means is the extent to which the parts of the object are consistent with other parts of the object. One of the most exasperating aspects of the famous Jaguar XJ-S was the way it looks like three or four different cars depending on the viewing angle. Taken too far homogeneity can be stifling as in the much-discussed Talbot Tagora or perhaps the blandness of some 80s Japanese design.
      I know what I like too – it´s okay to like things for personal reasons. Designers have to propose things other people like and have reasons for their choices. This is seldom water tight but it helps avoid the worst of idiosyncacy. Design is art employed for other people (and it´s also natural science and social science employed for other people).

  7. Hi Richard, thanks for the lovely article on this delicious little car. I remember I loved the 5, both in its original form and in the later “Super 5” version. I sometimes wish I had a high-spec example of the latter, to be honest…

  8. I’ve never liked three-stud wheel-hubs. Four is OK, and five is perfect – three is just wrong….

  9. An automatic 5 of the first series is a rare find indeed. The home-grown Renault transmission had an electronic control system which was effective but troublesome – replacements were costly and usually led to a premature demise.

    I recall reading that the gearbox was the same as used in the 30TS/TX but can’t find any information to confirm this.

  10. Nice article and observations Richard, and quite the find.

    I wonder would it have been better to mount the radio on the passenger side of the dashboard? Hardly a problem in such a narrow car. Then again you wouldn’t have been looking at the radio very often – apart from locating the knob, volume adjustment or radio tuning didn’t need you to look at a screen!

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