It may not have been the most commercially successful car of the 1970s, nor even the most technically significant. It did not win accolades for its ultimate handling capabilities or jaw dropping styling. Car of the decade may have been a title which eluded it, but none of the above should detract from the significance of the Renault 5 amid the automotive pantheon, nor Renault’s sound judgement in taking the car into production in such unadulterated form.
As an archetype of the art of product design, the Five was almost perfectly realised, certainly by the standards of its time. The practicality and robustness of its basic shape, the unmatched versatility offered by its hinging rear tailgate, combined with the subtle richness yet stark modernism of its detail design ensured its place as the first genuine hatchback supermini and the archetype for the modern B-segment motorcar. Such was its design integrity that Renault not only found themselves incapable, but unwilling to significantly alter the design – both in its definitive form or later in its second incarnation.
France’s best seller for a decade – at its peak, the Cinq held 16% of the total domestic car market. This enormous success was further underscored by its position as Europe’s most popular car from 1979 to 1982. In total, over 5.5 million R5’s were built, with production also taking place in Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Venezuela, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, South Africa, Iran and Zimbabwe.
The root of its success lay primarily in its handy size, practicality and low running costs, but also in its chic, sophisticated, yet unpretentious style. While primarily aimed at young, female drivers, the 5’s appeal would prove broadly universal – younger or older, male or female – few were immune to the Cinq’s easy going charm. That it failed to make anywhere near the US market impact it did in Europe should not have surprised anyone – the real shock being how many were sold there at all.
But while it succeeded predominantly as a pragmatic, economical consumer durable, the 5 demonstrated that a small, frugal car could also be so much more – performance or luxury – there would be a Cinq for every pocket and taste and as such would help define a new form of pan-European auto consumption.
But one swallow does not a summer make and while the 5 bestrode the super mini segment with élan, Renault’s larger contemporary offerings fared a good deal less satisfactorily. Not only did model lines like the under-performing R14 do little for the carmaker’s cost base, the pivot towards more conservative designs by the latter part of the decade seemed to confuse a market by then more attuned to forward-looking Renaults. Faced with falling revenues, significant investments in the US and in motorsport, not to mention domestic labour unrest and rising oil prices, the nationalised carmaker was in serious financial difficulties by 1984.
It is perhaps because of the internal agonies being experienced at Renault’s Parisian headquarters that a decision on the Cinq’s replacement was comparatively slow in coming. This was noted by UK imprint, Motor in its September 29 press launch description of the Super Cinq in 1984, the magazine suggesting that Renault had taken its eye off the ball by failing to have a new model on the market before sales of its predecessor began to fade. In Renault’s defence however, the 5 had throughout its lifetime been largely impervious to the normal nostrums of obsolescence (planned or otherwise), so it was only quite late in its career that the dial had started to move in an opposing direction.
There did however appear to be a level of uncertainty within la régie as to the direction to take with the 5’s replacement, there being elements within the bureau de style who espoused a forward-looking approach, but the favoured proposal by freelance (former Bertone) designer, Marcello Gandini was as much faithful homage to the outgoing car in overall form, feeling and detail as pragmatic update. Despite subsequently observing that he felt impeded by the hard points imposed upon him by Renault engineers, Gandini’s reinterpreted Cinq was a fine effort, albeit one which arrived two years later than it ought. While the Super Cinq became a commercial success (albeit to a lesser extent), by then the market had become far more competitive.
That it failed to land a killer blow to major rival, PSA may have prompted Renault management to abandon the style entirely for the 1990 Clio model and its subsequent successors. A number of half-hearted references were made over the intervening years, most notably with the (just about) current Twingo model, but it was rather thin gruel for the most part.
Now the wheel has turned, if not full-circle, at least three quarters, with Renault set to introduce a new electric 5 in 2023, with styling clearly inspired by that of its forebear; in this case, a curious and curiously unconvincing blend of Super Cinq and Turbo 5 cues, lacking any of the delicacy, subtlety, or charm of the Boué original.
Did Renault err in abandoning the 5 template? After all, a car which embodied such a unique style could, with careful stewardship have gone on almost indefinitely – certainly some 50 years later, it remains difficult to pinpoint where the format has been usefully improved. The Cinq arrived at a point when the supermini was still to be definitively defined. But while others were tentatively edging towards it, Boué and Renault’s styling team planted the Tricolour firmly into the sand. Such was the 5’s visual mastery of the format that rivals simply fell into line. It was a lead that Renault appeared to take for granted and in retrospect can only be said to have squandered. Certainly, the fact that the carmaker is now pivoting back towards it suggests that this too has been acknowledged in Paris.
Embodying style without ostentation, honesty without conceit, the Renault 5 marked the point when the small car came of age. As the small affordable car now faces a crisis of confidence, of relevance and of affordability, Renault are pinning much on its ability to convince a new generation of car owners amid a vastly altered commercial and technical landscape. A different form of science informs today’s motorcars. Renault is betting upon 5 still being a valuable number, but whether there remains a place in today’s febrile marketplace for a voiture à vivre only time will tell.
 In 1980 alone, the TL accounted for over 79% of all 5 sales, and would make up the lion’s share of R5 production.
 1978’s R18 for instance arrived as the nominal replacement for the popular R12. However, with a wider array of engines, it also ate into the R16’s market and was perceived by some as its successor. Meanwhile Renault’s attempt at replacing the 16 (the 1976 R20) failed to capitalise on its predecessor’s innovative style.
 Bernard Hanon succeeded Bernard Vernier-Palliez as CEO of Régie Renault, but despite his efforts, losses continued to mount, which would culminate in his sacking by the Mitterrand government in 1985. Hanon was replaced by Georges Besse, a decision which Hanon later stated, probably saved his life.
 Gandini was hardly alone here – just about every designer faces similar issues and simply has to work around them.
 The Peugeot 205 would prove to be the Super Cinq’s domestic bête noire.
 The 1991 Twingo could be said to have inherited the Cinq’s mantle in that it was an innovative, styling-led and wholly convincing piece of product design, but it shared no visual reference – being very much its own entity.
 Safer, yes, better rustproofed and probably more reliable, but fundamentally, the R5 as a package retains a strong relevance.
Sources: See part one.