People often wonder why I like Renault. Most Americans think of it merely as that company that AMC/Jeep bought right before they went bankrupt. Even French car enthusiasts tend to put it on the bottom rung. Citroën, of course, is the most elite of French cars. Anyone who not only owns a Citroën but can keep it running deserves the automotive tinkerer's Medal of Honor. Peugeot found its niche with the L.L. Bean crowd. The quasi-artist-wannabe's were drawn to Peugeot's quirky nature, and were accomodated with adequately posh appointments. Renault, on the other hand, made cars for the common masses. They were not adequately complex for Citroën-loving daredevils, and far too proletarian for the upper-middle-class Peugeot enthusiasts.
Perhaps one reason I like Renault so much is that they did the utilitarian thing with flair. They did indeed make dirt-simple cars at rock-bottom prices. But the cars weren't harshly spartan like the VW Beetle. They were not visually plain like the Ford Pinto or AMC Gremlin. Renault was the first manufacturer to understand that simple and cheap didn't have to mean stark and ugly.
I'd already been bitten by the French Car bug before I got my first Renault. I'd been driving an '72 Citroën DS21 Pallas. It was a lot of fun, but it was just too complicated for an inexperienced kid like me. It finally sprung a hydraulic leak, and I decided it wasn't worth fixing. It was shortly after that when I met my friend Brad. Brad was driving a couple of R16's at the time. He had a rusty old green one he called "The Green 16." And he had a beautifully maintained, pristine one he called "The Sweet 16." I found the R16 to be a wonderful car in every respect.
When Brad discovered that a I had a Citroën, he had to have it. The following winter he handed over an R12 as a down payment. It was a great car and I drove it for many years. It saw me through college graduation and my first big move away from home. It wound up being the first in a long line of Renaults I would own.
Another thing that I like about Renault is their dedication to racing. The R5 Turbo is perhaps the most unlikely of race cars in the history of motor sport. Who in the world would think of transforming a boxy economy car into a world-class ralley racer? Renault, that's who. They put the power plant behind the driver in a true mid-engine configuration, turbo-charged the hell out of it, and flared the fenders to accomodate the fat ralley tires. While it may have looked like a commuter car on steroids, it dominated the world ralley circuit.
Renault has also been a long-time influence in Formula 1. The first event considered to be a "Grand Prix" race, held at Le Mans in 1906, was won by a Renault. In the modern era, their presence hasn't been as consistent as Ferrari, but it has been considerable. They ushered in the Turbo Era of the 80's, taking advantage of a clause that allowed for smaller, turbo charged engines. The rest of the manufacturers thought they were nuts, but within a couple seasons every engine on the grid was turbo charged. Eventually the turbos had to be banned because the engines were just too damn fast.
Renault returned to F1 in the 90's as an engine supplier. They created the pneumatic valve closure system, eliminating the need for mechanical valve springs. This innovation was quickly adopted by every engine manufacturer in F1. The new Renault engine was competitive right off the bat. When Williams placed it in their chassis the result was the best car on the grid. From 1992-1997, every Constructors' Championship was won by a car with a Renault engine, and all but one Drivers' Championships were won by a man driving a Renault-powered car. After 1997, Renault pulled out of Formula 1.
Lately, Renault F1 fans have had a lot to cheer about. Renault returned as a factory manufacturer in 2001, taking over the Benetton team. Their first year saw the car move from mid-pack to the back of the grid. But this was not entirely unexpected, as it was a time of learning and growth for the team. Their improvement was swift and considerable. In 2002 and 2003 they found themselves better than every team except the perennial Top-3 of Ferrari, Williams BMW, and McLaren Mercedes.
In 2004 they surpassed Williams and McLaren and were battling with BAR Honda for second place to the dominant Ferrari. Renault led BAR until the last few races of the season, at which time BAR was able to overtake them in the standings. This year, 2005, it has been Renault that has been dominating. They have won the first four races of the season, and continue to run at the front of the pack. It's a good time to be a Renault F1 fan.
The rare sales brochure pictured below is something I picked up on a trip to Canada in the late 80's. A Romanian company had started manufacturing the R12 model under the name Dacia. At the time they were importing them to Canada. They intended to import them to the US, but poor reliability and dissapointing sales kept them from crossing our border.
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