Renault Dauphine (1956-68) – Ghosts of the past
This charming, rear-engined French saloon brought whole new levels of chic compact motoring to Britain’s roads in the Fifties. Vive la France!
For Britons of a certain age, driving off in a Renault Dauphine is to be instantly confronted by countless memories: that unforgettable aroma of lightly boiled rubber, watching the needle on the faintly illuminated speedometer slowly progress towards the 60mph mark, forcing the stiff catches on the sliding rear windows…
Of all the imported models on British roads 50 years ago, it was the Dauphine that seemed almost as ubiquitous a sight as any Vauxhall or Austin. Fewsuburbs were free of the distinctive sound of its engine clatter, and the Dauphine was found at all levels of British society, from the Royal Mews to pioneering mini cabs.
When the first Dauphines arrived in the UK their £769 price tag was considered pretty steep for a small car and they cost £100- plus more than de luxe versions of the Ford 100E Prefect or Morris Minor. But they also offered a high level of equipment. Any small car in 1957 that boasted a heater, a radiator blind, twin courtesy lamps, an automatic choke and – at a time when virtually all its British rivals had a separate starter button – a combined ignition/steering column lock was ahead of its time. So was the Dauphine’s technical specification: ‘Unlike any popular model of British design, it has a rear-mounted engine and independent springing of all four wheels,’ reported The Autocar.
The Dauphine also offered the discerning customer a choice of pastel shades regarded as somewhat dubious by not a few British motorists, a completely flat floor (although any driver with feet larger than size 9 found the pedals a challenge), a crisp, precise gear change and a remarkably smooth ride.
Some thoughtful details were incorporated in the elegant body, from the chromed rear air intakes to a separate compartment for the spare wheel under the capacious boot – not to mention a vibrant PR campaign promising A penny-farthing a mile and you travel in style!’ For more than a decade the Dauphine was the epitome of affordable French chic on British roads – yet today only about 30 examples are known to survive in the UK.
The first new post-war Renault was the 1947 4CV, a simple and robust compact saloon that became the first French car to sell a million units, but as early as 1949 the company was looking ahead to a time when motorists would demand more than bare austerity motoring.
Two years later Renault formalised Project 109′s design parameters: a four-door saloon with a top speed of ll0km/h (68mph), a fuel consumption of around 40mpg, sufficient seating for four passengers and an emphasis on attractive designbecause ‘women held stronger opinions about a car’s colours than the car itself according to Renault’s then chairman, Pierre Lefaucheux.
In fact the new car’s lines were a scaled down interpretation of the 1951 Fregate, Renault’s two-litre executive model, with some final stylistic flourishes from Carrozzeria Ghia. Tests of an early prototype against a Volkswagen Beetle prompted Lefaucheux to increase engine capacity from 748cc to 845cc. The three-speed transmission from the 4CV was retained on cost grounds, but rack-and- pinion steering was specified to increase the Dauphine’s sales potential in North America as a town car with a diminutive turning circle.
The Dauphine – so named because Renault said it was the ‘Princess of the Roads’ – made its debut in March 1956 and was immediately acclaimed for the smart coachwork and compact dimensions that made it ideal for piloting through congested Paris streets. From the outset the Dauphine occupied a niche in the French market: larger and far more bourgeois in appeal than the 2CV, but usefully lighter and smaller than the Peugeot 203 and Simca Aronde. For the more sporting driver 1957 saw the introduction of Amedee Gordini’s re-engineered Dauphine, with a 38bhp engine plus a very welcome four-speed gearbox.
The Dauphine was arguably the car that established the Renault badge across the globe and it was manufactured or assembled from Italy and Spain to Francophone Africa, Argentina (where it was made until 1971), Brazil and Japan, where it was the basis for the Hino Contessa. Renault’s most ambitious export territory was the USA and for a very brief period the Dauphine enjoyed success as a small car of the Manhattan Chic genre; it cost only $45 more than a Beetle but offered four doors and more svelte styling. Time magazine reported that ‘the car that has come up fastest in the US market in the past year is Renault’s', and by the end of the Fifties the Dauphine was second only to the Beetle in US import numbers.
But after just one winter of driving on salt-strewn roads Le Car Hot would have front wings resembling net curtains. Further challenges to US success were its leisurely acceleration and heavy dependence on tyre pressure differential to eliminate oversteer. For any motorist unfamiliar with the dynamics of a rear-engined car (which in the late Fifties would have been most Americans) failure to maintain the correct pressures would almost inevitably result in handling that was entertaining or terrifying, according to your point of view. In any case, 1959 saw the advent of the Ford Falcon and the Plymouth Valiant, straightforward ail-American compacts that had a serious effect on all European rivals.
By the beginning of the Sixties Renault was reeling from a US sales debacle accelerated by the development of the square- cut R8, which would eventually replace the Dauphine. The two models were made alongside each other from 1962-68 and in 1967 Renault despondently told potential US customers that the latest incarnation of the R8 was a Renault ‘for people who swore they would never buy another one’.
But these problems should never overshadow the vast overall success of the Dauphine, the Renault that sold a million units in four years across the world. The 1959 example featured here is both a rare survivor of the Dauphines assembled from kits at Renault’s Acton plant in 1957-61 and a prime example of the sheer charm of a standard car. After all, to quote Renault’s mid-Sixties publicity: ‘Whether taking the children to school, shopping by car or just driving for the fun of it, every woman knows she is looking at her best and driving at her best behind the wheel of the Dauphine.’ Absolutely.