A brief history of Renault

We look at the interesting history of the brand...

Renault is one of the most well-known brands in Europe, and is also one of the oldest car manufacturers around.

Groupe Renault is a multi-national manufacturer, producing cars, vans and historically, tractors, tanks and autorail vehicles.

In 2016, Renault were the ninth biggest automaker in the world by production volume, and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi-Alliance the fourth-largest automotive group in the world.

But how did Renault become the automotive machine it is today?

We look at a brief history of Renault.

When did Renault start making cars?

Renault was founded in 1899 as Societe Renault Freres by brothers Louis, Marcel and Fernand Renault. Louis had already designed and built many prototypes while his brothers were improving their business skills working for their Father’s textile firm. It worked perfectly, Louis was in charge of the design and production while the other two brothers managed the business.

The first ever Renault car was the Renault Voiturette 1CV. It was sold to a friend of their fathers in 1898.

In 1903 Renault started to manufacture its own engines, as before they had purchased them from De Dion-Bouton. Their first volume sale came in 1905 when Societe des Automobiles de Place bought Renault AG1 cars. This was to establish a fleet of taxis and were later used to transport troops during World War One by the French military. By 1907, a percentage of London and Paris taxis had been built by Renault. They were also the best-selling foreign brand in New York during 1907 and 1908. At the time, however, Renault vehicles were known as luxury items. The smallest Renaults were on sale for F3000 francs. This was about ten years pay for the average worker. In 1905, they introduced mass-production techniques.

1901 Renault driving on a country road

Renault ventured into motor racing around this time, and made itself known through succeeding in the first city-to-city races in Switzerland. Both Louis and Marcel raced, but Marcel was killed in an accident during the 1903 Paris-Madrid race. Louis never raced again, but the company remained involved in racing.

By 1909, Louis was the only remaining brother after Fernand died from ill health. Renault was soon re-named Renault Automobile Company.

What happened to Renault during World War One?

During the First World War, Renault branched out to produce ammunition and military aircraft engines. Interestingly, the first Rolls-Royce aircraft engines were V8 units produced by Renault.

The military designs were so popular that Louis was awarded the Legion of Honour for his contributions.

After the war, Renault expanded and started producing agricultural and industrial machinery. The Type GP, the first Renault tractor, was produced between 1919 and 1930, based on the FT tank.

However, Renault were struggling to compete with the smaller, more affordable vehicles, the stock market was slowing and the workforce was slowing the company growth. So, in 1920, Louis signed one of the first distribution contacts with Gustave Gueudet.

Until 1930, all Renault models had a distinctive front shape. This was caused by positioning the radiator behind the engine to give it a “coalscuttle bonnet”. This changed in 1930 when the models placed the radiator at the front. It was also around this time that Renault changed their badge to the diamond shape we know it as today.

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Renault in the late 1920s and 1930s

There were a range of Renault released during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. These included the 6cv, the 10cv, the Monasix and the Vivasix. During 1928, Renault produced 45,809 cars. The smaller vehicles were the most popular while the larger, the 18/24cv, was the least produced.

The UK market was important to Renault as it was fairly large. Modified vehicles were dispatched from the UK to North America. However, by 1928, sales to the US were nearly at zero, this was due to the affordability of their competitors such as Cadillac.

Renault also continued to produce aircraft engines after the First World War. In the 1930s, the company took over Caudron, the aircraft manufacture. It also acquired a stake in Air France. Renault Cauldron aeroplanes set several speed world records during the 1930s.

Around this time, Citroen surpassed Renault as the largest car manufacturer in France. This was down to the fact that Citroen models were more innovative and more popular than Renaults. However, the great depression hit in the mid-1930s. While Renault fell back on their tractor and weaponry production, Citroen had to file for bankruptcy and was later acquired by Michelin. Renault then reclaimed their trophy as the biggest French car manufacturer. They would keep this position until the 1980s.

1903 Renault driving along a country road

However, Renault were not immune to the economic crisis and in 1936 they sold Coudron. Following this, Renault had a series of labour disputes and strikes, of which spread through the automotive industry. These disputes were ended, resulting in over 2,000 people losing their jobs.

What happened to Renault during World War Two?

After the Nazis took France, Louis Renault refused to produce tanks for Nazi Germany. Instead, he produced trucks.

In March 1932, the RAF launched low-level bombers at the Billancourt plant, the largest number at a single target during the war. This caused extensive damage and heavy civilian casualties. While they tried to rebuild the factory as quickly as possible, it was again bombed several more times by the Americans.

After World War Two, the plant reopened. However, in 1936 the plant was victim to violent political and industrial unrest. This had surfaced as a result of the Popular Front government. The violence and conspiracy that followed French liberation haunted the plant. The Council of Ministers took the plant under the presidency of de Gaulle. He was anti-communist and politically, Billancourt was a communist stronghold.

When did Louis Renault go to prison?

The provisional government accused Louis Renault of collaborating with the Germans. This was in a time of post-liberation, and extreme accusations were common place. He was advised to present himself as a judge, and he appeared before a Judge in September 1944. Along with several other French auto-motive leaders, he was arrested on September 23rd 1944. His handling of the strikes in the previous decade meant he had no political allies and no one came to his aid. He was put in prison and died on October 24th 1944 whilst awaiting trial.

The company became nationalised after his death, the only factories permanently expropriated by the French government. The Renault family tried to have the nationalisation rescinded but they were unsuccessful.

Post-War Renault

During the war, in secret, Louis Renault developed a rear engine 4CV. This was launched under the leadership of Pierre Lefaucheux in 1946. This was a strong rival for the Morris Minor and the Volkswagen Beetle. It sold more than 500,000 and stayed in production until 1961.

Renault debuted its flagship model, the 2-litre, 4-cylinder Renault Fregate in 1951. The Dauphine followed, which sold well abroad, including Africa and North America. However, it became outdated quite quickly against the likes of the Chevrolet Corvair.

Other cars launched during this period include the Renault 4, of which competed with the Citroen 2CV, and the Renault 10 and the more upmarket Renault 16. This was a hatchback launched in 1966.

Classic bright orange Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle, known locally as a Fusca, parked on a cobblestone street in the Santa Teresa neighborhood. beetlevwvolkswagencarclassicbrazilianabstractautomobilebrasilbrazilbugclose-upcobblecobblestonesdefrom abovefuscahorizontaljaneiroorangeoutdoorsparkedpartpart ofphotophotographphotographyriorio de janeirosantasanta teresasouth americastreetteresatraditionalvolkswagen beetlevolkswagen bugShow more

When did Renault partner with American Motors Corporation?

Renault had a collaborative partnership with Nash Motors Rambler and American Motors Corporation. In 1962, Renault assembled knock down kits of the Rambler Classic sedans in its factory in Belgium. The Rambler Renault was an alternative to the Mercedes Fintail cars.

Renault partnered with American Motors, buying a 22.5% stake in the company in 1979. The R5 was the first Renault model sold through AMC dealerships. AMC ran into some trouble and were on the brink of bankruptcy. Renault bailed AMC out with cash and ended up controlling 47.5% of AMC. This partnership resulted in the marketing of Jeep vehicles in Europe. They also used wheels and seats from Renault.

Eventually, Renault sold AMC to Chrysler after the assassination of Renault’s chairman, Georges Besse, in 1987. Renault imports ended after 1989.

Renault also established subsidiaries with many other manufacturers during this period. This included Dacia in both Romania and South America and Volvo and Peugeot. The latter were technological co-operation and resulted in the Renault 30, Peugeot 604 and the Volvo 260.

When Peugeot acquired Citroen the collaboration with Renault was reduced but maintained its joint production.

When was Georges Besse assassinated?

Besse became head of Renault in January 1985. He joined at a time when Renault were failing to make profit.

He wasn’t particularly popular at first, closing plants and laying of over 20,000 workers. Besse championed the AMC partnership, of which not everyone agreed with. He also sold many assets including their stake in Volvo and withdrew Renault from motorsports almost entirely.

However, Georges Besse did turn the company around, and reported profit just a few months before his death.

He was killed by Action Directe, a militant anarchist group, and two women were arrested and charged with his murder. They claimed he was murdered due to his reforms at Renault. The assassination was also linked to negotiations concerning a nuclear company Eurodif.

Raymond Levy replaced Besse, who continued to slim the company down. In 1981, the Renault 9 was launched, and was voted European Car of the Year. It sold well in France, but was overtaken by the Renault 11.

When did Renault launch the Clio?

The Renault Clio was launched in May 1990. It was the first model that replaced numeric identifiers with nameplates. It was voted European Car of the Year and was one of Europe’s best selling cars of the 1990s. It has consistently been a huge seller, and is largely credited with restoring Renault’s reputation.

The second generation Clio was launched in March 1998 and was more rounded than its predecessor. A major facelift took place in 2001 and saw the exterior restyled and a 1.5 litre diesel engine added. In 2004, the Clio was in its third phase and its fourth phase came in 2006. It had a restyled rear end and also came with a better specification on all models.

The current Clio model is in its fifth phase and was released in April 2009 with a revised front end.

It was voted European Car of the Year again in 2006, making it one of only three cars to do so. The other two were the Volkswagen Golf and the Opel (Vauxhall) Astra.

When was Renault privatised?

Plans to sell shares to public investors was announced in 1994 and by 1996 Renault was fully privatised. This meant that Renault could venture back into the Eastern European and South American markets.

In December 1996, Renault began to collaborate with General Motors Europe to develop the LCV’s, starting with the second generation Trafic.

However, Renault were still looking for a partner to cope with an industry that was consolidating.

When did Renault enter an alliance with Nissan?

Renault entered talks with BMW, Mitsubishi, and Nissan, with an alliance with Nissan coming to fruition in March 1999.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance was the first of its kind involving a Japanese and a French brand. Renault initially acquired a 36.8% stake in Nissan, while in turn, Nissan took a 15% non-voting stake in Renault. Renault was still a stand-alone company but collaborated with Nissan to reduce costs. They also undertook research together on topics such as zero-emission transportation.

Together, the Renault-Nissan Alliance controls ten brands including Infiniti, Dacia, Alpine, Datsun, Lada and Venucia. Mitsubishi joined the Alliance this year (2017) and together, they are the world’s leading plug-in electric vehicle manufacturer and have nearly 450,000 employees. Together, they sell more than 1 in 10 cars worldwide.

Renault and Electric Vehicles

Renault were the leader of electric vehicle sales in 2013.

In 2008, Renault made agreements for its zero-emission products including in Portugal, Denmark and in US states Tennessee and Oregon.

The Renault Zoe was the best-selling all-electric cars in Europe in 2015 with 18,453 registrations. The Zoe continued to rank as the top-selling plug-in electric car in Europe during the first half of 2016. The Zoe represents 54% of their global electric vehicle sales, with the Kangoo Z.E accounting for 24% and the Twizy with 18% of sales.

Renault Zoe in metallic light blue charging

That really brings us to the present day. Renault are hugely popular across Europe and their electric cars are proving increasingly popular as the technology develops. Renault plan to introduce autonomous vehicle technology by 2020 and the Next Two, based on the Zoe, was unveiled in February 2014.

Renault continue to be a huge presence in the automotive industry, and we think they will be for some time.

Do you own a Renault and would like to see if they're reliable? Let's explore how trustworthy Renault are as a manufacturer 

Holly Martin

Content Co-ordinator at OSV Ltd
Holly enjoys: Reading, music and spending time with friends.

Within a week of Holly starting work at OSV she became an indispensable part of the marketing team. She's very intuitive and gets on with the whole office effortlessly.
Holly Martin

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