Voiture à Vivre [Part Six]

The everycar.

Image: Publicis Conseil – author’s collection

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[1]. 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.

Image: Publicis Conseil – author’s collection

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[2]. 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[3] 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[4], 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[5].

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[6].

Image: Publicis Conseil – author’s collection.

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[7]. 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.

[1] In 1980 alone, the TL accounted for over 79% of all 5 sales, and would make up the lion’s share of R5 production.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Gandini was hardly alone here – just about every designer faces similar issues and simply has to work around them.

[5] The Peugeot 205 would prove to be the Super Cinq’s domestic bête noire.

[6] 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.

[7] Safer, yes, better rustproofed and probably more reliable, but fundamentally, the R5 as a package retains a strong relevance.


Sources: See part one.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

23 thoughts on “Voiture à Vivre [Part Six]”

  1. Hi Eóin,

    Thanks for the extensive write-up on this icon of small car design. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, as a 1980s kid, I actually liked the Super Cinq; it had a sleekness of design that somehow made me think of devices I lusted after back then: the Atari 520 STFM, the Commodore Amiga 500 and 1000, the B&O Beosystem 4500. Also, while the original 5, in its three-door format, was delightful, I must admit, after thirteen years of five-door ownership, that there’s no turning back for me. So, I think the Super Cinq’s five-door version was a more than welcome addition to the stable, and the five-door electric “5” will obviously be a lot more practical than Fiat’s electric 500. Truth be told, though, the electric “5” does look bloated compared to the original. Then again, all cars today are bloated.

  2. Good morning Eóin. This has been a most enjoyable history of a highly significant car, thank you. Your final image of the white example is very well chosen. It shows the perfectly realised simplicity of the design in its purest original form.

    Which model currently in production would come closest to this ideal? Here’s my nomination:

    I’ve deliberately chosen the Škoda version because I prefer the simplicity of the three-door’s horizontal lower DLO line over the upswept line on the Up!

    1. I’d say the Honda e or the Suzuki Swift – the Citigo doen’t quite meet your criteria as it’s no longer in production (the Up! still is, but only with five doors). One of the Swift’s predecessors, the MK1 Ignis, is the later car that reminds me the most of the R5 and it seems to be stylistically inspired by it -the main clues are the GTL-like lower side strakes of the 3-door, the rear lights and especially the front wings.

    2. Hi Megasigma. I spotted that after I posted the photo of the Citigo. I suppose I’ll have to go for the three-door up then, while I still can, as I suspect it won’t be around for much longer, sadly.

      Coincidentally, we have a piece on the Ignis coming up in the near future. Stay tuned!

  3. Here are some comparative dimensions, which might come as a surprise to some:

    Renault 5:
    Length: 3,521 mm (138.6 in)
    Width: 1,525 mm (60.0 in)
    Height: 1,410 mm (55.5 in)
    Wheelbase 2,419 mm (95.2 in)

    Škoda Citigo:
    Length: 3,597 mm (141.6 in)
    Width: 1,645 mm (64.8 in)
    Height: 1,478 mm (58.2 in)
    Wheelbase 2,420 mm (95.3 in)

    1. Even the difference in wheelbase is only a couple of millimetres which is astonishing when you take into account the different drivetrain architectures.

      What’s even more astonishing is that 5 and Super 5 are nearly exactly the same size when the Super 5 looks much bigger – or is this something with my spectacles…

    2. Hi Dave. You’re right about the wheelbase. I’ve amended my comment, adding the relevant numbers.

    3. That’s the R5’s wheelbase on one side, the other is six centimetres shorter…
      Does this make the R5 a car with an average wheelbase?

    4. Very well observed Dave! 😁 I’ve no idea whether the number above is one, the other, or the average of the two and I really can’t be bothered to find out!

  4. Sadly there is a finite limit to my enthusiasm for the R5. The heading picture in Part Six (!) reminds me that the front-end was overly fussy and poorly resolved.

  5. Hi Eóin, thanks for this series. Like many manufacturers, Renault seems to go through phases of conservatism and avantgardism. Perhaps Renault were also hobbled in developing the supercinq by the fact that the 5 arrived before the technical template of smaller cars (FWD, transverse engine) had crystalised. That and crippling losses, obviously. By the time the Clio arrived, I seem to remember, the Supercinq was considered old hat and thoroughly superceded (not helped by its playing second fiddle to the 205 – oh, and not meant as a pun), so a new style made sense back then.

    To me, the EV5 (they wish!) concept isn’t so much an about face on the relevance of the 5 as a jumping on the bandwagon of raiding the back catalog for the most succesful model and referencing it to death. Or maybe it’s a tacit admission that more subtle (and confused), less specific references just don’t cut it anymore the way they did for the Alfa 156. Granted, the 156 was a charismatic car in its own right and the Twingo Mk3 is interesting but too flawed, and ultimately not charismatic enough.

  6. Thank you for a very enjoyable series, Eóin – I hope that there will be more like it, in future.

    In learning more about the Renault 5, I’ve come away with a slight sense of a missed opportunity and my thoughts echo Tom’s, above. In some respects, the R5 is a very chic reinterpretation of the R4 and I wonder if, from a strictly utilitarian point of view, there would have been much advantage in buying a 5 instead of a 4. As a side note, I would have loved to have learnt what Issigonis thought of the R5.

    The EV5 is disappointing to me for many reasons – its bulk, the fact that it’s backwards-looking – but also because it takes design themes and tries to use them out of context, which just makes me sad that the new design isn’t as good, or as subtle, or as carefully-judged, as the old one.

  7. The Supercinq was said to have used a shortened platform derived from the 11/9, with the latter going on to form the basis of the 19 and mk1 Megane.

    However the relationship between the Supercinq and mk1 Clio or the former two with the mk1 Twingo is less clear (despite the latter roughly sharing the same width as the Clio), though it is claimed the Clio’s suspension and floorpan are largely the same as the Supercinq to thereby placing the Clio as part of the wider 1981-2002 Renault B/C-Segment family.

    It also brings up the question why Renault were unable to bestow the more potent mk1 Meganes fell short against the Clio Williams if both were related to that extent.

  8. I hope I’m not usurping the content of Part 7, but I suspect that the first generation Cinq was not as profitable as it might have been. Compared with the 127, Polo, and Fiesta, which were rigorously cost-controlled and designed for ease and speed of production, the 5 was heavy, unnecessarily complicated and over-engineered.

    Examples are the use of a platform chassis, albeit with the superstructure welded rather than bolted on top, torsion bar suspension which was tricky and time-consuming to install on the production line, and the bulky and heavy detachable liner engine. The Fiat, Ford, and VW had leanly engineered monocoques, easily installed suspension modules, and engines no bigger than they needed to be.

    The Supercinq ought to have been far better in these matters, and probably was, being based on the 9/11 platform which was designed to be cheap and easy to build in large quantities, using the Golf Mk.1 and – surprisingly – the FWD GM X-body cars as benchmarks.

    1. Robertas: Thanks for this insight and no, you are not usurping any further instalments, since this is the final one. Of course one could also argue that what additional costs Renault incurred by the complicated nature of the powertrain and body were offset to some extent by the fact that it was all largely carried over and by 1972, probably amortised.

      My thanks for the warm words regarding this series. The Super Cinq will be profiled at a later date.

    2. Not that surprising that the R9 and 11 were benchmarked off the X-body since they were the first new Renault platform developed after buying American Motors and the possibility of it being stretched into a direct replacement for the AMC Concord (and competitor to the X-cars) had to have entered their minds, particularly since the R18 was proving unsuited to that purpose.

  9. The 5 would undoubtedly have been a design which could have been adjusted to suit the times in the same way the Golf is. Renault have an aversion to making much use of their design heritage and it is a consistent aversion. They just about keep a family look across a line of cars; from generation to generaton, much less so. In one way that´s a respectable attitude but there should be exceptions to rules of this sort. The Clio and all Clios thereafter a uninteresting devices.

  10. belated thanks, Eóin, for this comprehensive and intelligent
    survey of a special car. we came over from the Antipodes in ’96,
    bought an early basic 5 for 250 quid in England and spent seven
    months clocking up 10,000 miles around Europe, mostly in Greece,
    where the 5’s tenacity and simplicity and endearing driveability
    made it a special companion. as Richard notes, it’s a great pity
    it hasn’t lived on in a meaningful way.

    1. During the 80s recession my dad had to trade down from a Rover SD1 in brown to a Renault 5 in beige. We toured France in 1985 (or 1984) and the car blew a gasket near St Malo after cantering around the Perigord and somewhere near the Alps and the west coast. I don´t remember what happened to the car. The next one was a Volvo 240 GLE and the combination of the negative experience with the 5 and the comparative prestige of the 240 strengthened the pro-large car bias I developed from an early age. Apart from a base model 205, I don´t think I´ve driven any small cars for long.

  11. I can well imagine, Richard, the youthful trauma thus
    inflicted. my father, a boilermaker, had a quixotic penchant
    for Daimlers. the weekends he lost underneath them, me
    passing him spanners, also left left scars. at 75, my relationship
    with cars is more rational than it was at 19, but not a lot more.

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