FORM VS FUNCTION

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By Stuart Grant with photos by Etienne Fouche

Ask any pre-schooler, or those of us not gifted with any artistic ability, to draw a picture of a car and they’ll pen (or crayon) a Renault R8 – or if the drawing utensil slips, a longer-nosed 10. The French firm’s simple 3-box shape is the model case for form-follows-function design but surprisingly, followed hot on the heels of a beautifully sculptured automotive artwork, the Renault Floride/Caravelle.

By the late 1940s Renault was thinking about a 4CV successor that would be able to penetrate the lucrative American market. Renault’s director of styling, Robert Barthoud, was charged with preliminary sketches but Pierre Lefaucheux (Renault chairman) did not approve of the in-house designs and approached Carrozzeria Ghia SpA to redesign the car. The result was the Project 109, the Renault Dauphine, with the first prototype being built in 1952.

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When Lefaucheux died in a car accident the French government appointed Pierre Dreyfus as his successor and tasked him with completing Project 109 and launch it late in 1955. Mechanically it was an evolution of the 4CV, with the same suspension and 4-cylinder 845cc Ventoux engine, and put the power to the rear via a transaxle gearbox setup. It was water-cooled too, with a radiator mounted in front of the motor (behind the rear seat) – a location that meant the inclusion of vents on the side of the body, which were treated with a fair dose of style. The car with its Italian-designed body was immediately successful, taking up position at the sharp end of the market tables in Europe, where it fought against the Volkswagen Beetle.  

In 1956 Dreyfus and Fernand Picard (Renault director of research) went stateside on a fact-finding mission on how to really penetrate the American market. As the two gathered information from dealers and other industry insiders it became apparent that the solution was to look at Volkswagen’s American model – its Beetle and sporting variants thereof.  With servicemen returning home and bringing the likes of MG TCs with them, it was clear that there was a need for affordable sporting cars. Not only would they sell well but they were also the real key in brand awareness. General Motors came with the Corvette, Ford with the Thunderbird and Volkswagen responded with the Karmann Ghia.

Dreyfus was convinced that a small convertible had significant market potential, a fact further enhanced during a dinner party with the governor of Florida, where talk surrounded the brilliance of the Karmann Ghia. Picard suggested to Dreyfus that Renault emulate the Volkswagen philosophy and build a Karmann Ghia competitor. To keep production costs down, he suggested that the Dauphine be used for underpinnings – not exactly revolutionary, considering that the Volkswagen 1200 Beetle had provided the platform for the Karmann Ghia. Officially designated as Project 1092, the car was eventually named ‘Floride’ in a nod to the place where the idea was formulated.

Initial sketches were done at Renault but it was decided that Ghia should be roped in for the design. Besides Ghia’s reputation and Renault’s experience with the Ghia-designed Dauphine, Ghia was selected as it already had an established name in America.

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Ghia’s Luigi Segre accepted the Renault project but in May of 1951, fearing a conflict with the VW contract, he turned to his American friend Virgil Exner for help. However Exner was employed by Chrysler and could not lend a hand; instead he recommended his son Virgil Exner Jr, a young designer serving in the United States Air Force. Virgil was free to enter into a contract with Ghia and design for Renault, so a deal was done. The design parameters that it should be based on the Dauphine platform were put in place.

This meant Dauphine engine, suspension and running gear and the stylish side vents set the guidelines. Exner Jr. drew some initial sketches and sent them to Segre, who in turn showed them to Renault, and the go-ahead was given. Toward the end of ’57 Exner produced the formal design and sent the final drawings to Segre, who delivered them to Giovanni Savonuzzi (Ghia’s chief designer) to make a clay model. This was then shown to Dreyfus and Renault management, who approved and authorised Ghia to build a prototype.

And this is where it gets confusing. Most say that it was in fact Pietro Frua (who from 1952 was contracted to work exclusively for Ghia) that designed and built the prototype, while Exner Jr. insists that he designed the car and Ghia built the prototype and the first 1 000 cars before turning the business over to Frua. When one considers that Ghia had contractual commitments to Volkswagen and Karmann, it would make sense that Ghia had to sidestep and hand over to Frua. For the same reason, in 1959, Ghia outsourced the Volvo P1800 to Frua, so it seems probable that Ghia involved Frua early on to prevent a conflict of interest.

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Assuming this to be the case, Frua built two prototypes in 1958 using the Ghia design and contacted Renault for further instructions. He got no reply, most likely as it was Ghia who had subcontracted Frua and not Renault. Ghia also kept quiet, supposedly as it had not yet paid Frua for the prototype work. This annoyed Frua to such an extent that he set about trying to sell the design to other manufacturers by booking a spot to exhibit the car at the Geneva Automobile Show under the name ‘Dauphine GT’.

Just before the show opened Dreyfus saw the prototype drop-top on the stand and confronted Frua. His response was that he hadn’t heard from Renault or Ghia and would present the convertible as a Frua design. Dreyfus immediately turned the screws on Luigi Segre to fix the situation – history tells us he did and saved a little embarrassment as a result. The prototypes, now on the Renault stand and sporting the Floride name, were displayed for the first time at the Paris show in October 1958. Over 8 000 orders were taken and production began in 1959.

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Of course the goal was America and the Floride debuted there during the 1959 New York Motor Show. Again it impressed, with 13 000 or so orders being secured. The Dauphine became a serious competitor to the Volkswagen in the US, and in 1957 helped put Renault into the number two spot for imported vehicles – even outselling the German in 11 states. Such was the demand that Renault increased the projected build turnover from 30 cars a day to 200 and set up three assembly lines at coachbuilder Brissonneau et Lotz’s factory in Criel, north of Paris.

The stamped sheet metal monocoque body (with an optional removable hardtop) and front suspension was produced at Brissonneau et Lotz and Renault provided the mechanical parts like engine and swing transaxles from the Dauphine. Between 1959 and 1962 just over 49 700 Dauphine-based Renault Florides left the line but Dreyfus, worried about the dangers of a single-model culture (for once beating Volkswagen to the thought) and afraid of a looming oversupply of Dauphines, sped up the arrival of a Dauphine and Floride replacement. The Dauphine’s reputation in America for unreliability, brought on by poor maintenance due to a shortage of dealerships and spares supply, must have also forced the French to introduce a new product.

Enter the Renault 8 in 1963. Who penned the boxy R8 lines? It could just as easily have been little Johnny or even Alfa Romeo for that matter. Yes, that’s right – Alfa Romeo. During the early 1950s Alfa and Renault shared a healthy collaboration, with Italian Alfa dealers selling and servicing Renaults and French Renault dealers doing the same for Alfa. It went even further, with Alfa making the Dauphine under licence, most likely to circumvent import duties. With Alfa looking to develop a small saloon to replace the Giulietta sedan and assault the Fiat 1100 in the Italian showroom race, it produced the 1960 prototype Tipo 103, a car that not only introduced the idea of a front-wheel drive Alfa but that, barring the front grille area, looked identical to the Renault R8 launched two years later. The underpinnings however varied dramatically, with Renault sticking to its rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive format.

In reality though it wasn’t Johnny or the Italians that are credited with creating the then-fashionable R8 box appearance – those honours go to French industrial designer Philippe Charbonneaux.  Launched in June 1962 the R8 (it changed name to just Renault 8 in 1964) shared the Dauphine layout but got 43hp from an all-new 956cc Cléon-Fonte engine, pioneered a sealed-for-life water-cooling system and saw disc brakes fitted on all corners. In keeping with the theory of leading the way technologically, the R8 was also fitted with an optional ‘automatic’ transmission where the clutch in the system was replaced by a metallic ferromagnetic coupler. This coupler used iron powder which, when an electromagnet was energised, locked the driving and driven plates of the transmission together. 

With the arrival of the R8 came the Floride replacement – the Caravelle. America had adopted ‘Caravelle’ earlier when research showed that buyers outside Florida were not happy about having a car named after a state they didn’t live in. Like before it was offered in coupé and convertible format but this time Renault went directly to Frua for the design and steered the process by insisting on the use of the R8 running gear. Frua’s changes were subtle, retaining the body contours of the Floride with its countersunk headlights, and what appeared to be side vents. These were now in fact entirely aesthetic, with the airflow not necessary because like in the R8, the radiator was moved to the rear and venting was added to the deck lid. To meet the requirement of a proper 2+2 design that could accommodate some very small rear occupants on a ‘jump seat’, the coupé roofline was squared up a touch by giving the rear windscreen a steeper rake. And to combat the Floride’s problem of folding in the middle when the car was jacked up with the doors open, the monocoque structure was reinforced.

Following the unveiling Pietro Frua took all the credit for the design, but with most differences to the Floride not noticeable to casual observers Ghia got upset, objected to Frua and filed a lawsuit to establish its rights to the design. The suit was settled quickly and officially Ghia got the credit but most of the press allocated it to Frua. This soured the relationship between the two outfits, and they remained at loggerheads up to the 1980s.

Any criticism of the Caravelle not being an all-new car was quashed with sales speak like that of president of Renault’s American operations Vincent Grob, who said, “We’re not interested in a ‘facelift’ just to give the impression of a new model. People who know cars will recognise the changes underneath.”

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In 1963 displacement in the engine, codenamed Sierra, was increased from 956cc to 1108cc and fitted in both the Caravelle and R8. This saw power increase to 56hp and at the same time a fully synchromesh gearbox became standard. The pair soldiered on trying to remedy the Dauphine wrongs with sporting yet economical attributes and France even upped the game for those wanting a touch more space by offering the Renault 10 (or Renault 1100) from late 1965 – basically an R8 with a longer nose and some more ‘luxurious’ finishes. And the firm pulled some desperate marketing measures in an attempt to rescue its American image, claiming the 10 to be ‘The Renault for people who swore they would never buy another one.’

To keep it contemporary the 10 evolved from round headlights to rectangular items in 1967, and to try and compete with the ever-growing American entry level drop-top market a Weber carb was added to the Caravelle, upping it to 58 horsepower (the 8 and 10 saloons retained the old Solex item until a Super version was released in 1968). In 1967, in a final Caravelle sales push, Renault added a rev counter and seatbelts, and changed the steering wheel design. In July 1968 the last Caravelle rolled off the assembly line. The total number of Caravelles/Florides came in at 117 113 units. The 8 and 10 however continued marching on until 1971. In 1970 a 1289cc engine was added to the 10 and of course the motorsport successes of the ‘hot’ Gordini-tuned 8 did wonders for the marketing department and ensured a decent lifespan.

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The Floride/Caravelle version was definitely the most aesthetically-pleasing product in Renault’s period product line-up but like the Beetle, its rudimentary-styled siblings sold in dramatically greater numbers – exactly as the executives had planned. South African trends followed suit, with relatively few Floride/Caravelle units being sold. The 8 and 10 versions, however, flew off the floor… and even more so when the Gordini and our local Alconi versions excelled on track.

SOUTH AFRICAN RENAULT 8 & 10 SALES

Renault 8 1100
1965 – R1 429 – 1 923 units
1966 – R1 444 – N/A
1967 – R1 478 – N/A
1968 – R1 478 – 345 units      
1969 – R1 598 – 288 units
1970 – R1 598 – 543 units
1971 – R1 652 – 34 units

Renault 10 De Luxe 1100
1966 – R1 540 – N/A
1967 – R1 578 – N/A
1968 – R1 588 – 349 units
1969 – R1 698 – 236 units
1970 – R1 658 – 33 units

Renault 10 Super 1100
1968 – R1 678 – 1 200 units
1969 – R1 798 – 1 023 units
1970 – R1 772 – 563 units

Renault 10 1300
1970 – R1 875 – 633 units
1971 – R1 938 – 73 units

Renault 10 Alconi
1968 – R1 820 – 306 units
1969 – R1 990 – 201 units
1970 – R1 945 – 23 units

Renault 8 Gordini
1968 – R2 230 – 79 units
1969 – R2 465 – 83 units
1970 – R2 390 – 124 units
1971   – R2 470 – 8 units


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