By Stuart Grant

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If you’d bought a Renault 5 in South Africa in 1979, you could’ve claimed to have the best example in the world. This was no made-up intoxicated pub-talk bragging – it was fact – direct from Renault of France – and judged on specification, quality of build and lack of warranty issues. Judging by the number of good examples of the fashionable hatch still around today, it would appear that this award was more than just propaganda and marketing tricks. 

The mid- to late 1960s saw Renault riding a popularity crest in the South African market, with the nippy R8/10 family saloons firm favourites. At the core of this success was the fact that Renault had a good, cost-effective and reliable product, as well as dealership back-up and support. Oh yes, and there were the giant-killing race and rally results with the likes of Geoff Mortimer, Scamp Porter, Jody Scheckter and others at the wheel that helped the brand building.

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But this wasn’t enough to keep Renault at the sharp end of the sales figures through the early 1970s, and although the 12 and 17 were not bad cars, sales couldn’t keep up with the competition, largely due to pricing. In 1972, a 1289cc Renault 12 would have set you back R2 277, while a Ford Escort 1300L cost R1 883. That year, 1 456 of the Renaults sold versus 2 170 of the 1297cc Escorts. Add in another 820 1098cc Escort 1100s and you’d see 2 990 Ford Escorts. A betting man would have ignored these two, though, and opted for something from the Land of the Rising Sun – maybe a more powerful 1600 Datsun which, although R208 more than the French offering, delivered double the punch (4 075 buyers agreed).

The world of cars changed somewhat toward the latter half of 1973 when the fuel crisis hit. Small, cheap, practical and efficient cars became the rage, but there was more to making a successful mid-’70s car than just these mentioned traits. Vehicle manufacturers had to make cars that were fun to drive and fashionable. Volkswagen led the way here with the Golf, but the likes of Alfa Romeo snapped at its heels with the Sud. There’s a pattern or formula that these cars stuck to religiously, and one that differentiated them from the popular cars that preceded them – we are talking the contemporary-styled, compact, front-wheel-drive hatchback. 

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At the time, Renault had the front-wheel-drive and hatchback formula covered in the form of the 16 TS but being essentially just an updated version of the 1966 Renault 16, it was far from 1975-hip in the aesthetic department. Thankfully, France knows a thing or two about fashion (and cars) and announced the smaller, nippier, more stylish Renault 5 to South Africa in October 1975. A handful of French-built cars were imported to act as prototypes in the setting up of a production facility at Motor Assemblies in Prospectron, just south of Durban (Renault Africa was a sister company to Toyota South Africa under the Wesco Group). One of these imports was handed to CAR magazine in November 1975, who in between road testing, carried out a public opinion survey and got as many people to drive the car as possible.

Their first bit of info came out of the blue when a “lass with long golden tresses and an unabashed manner” strolled up and asked where and when she could buy one and much it cost. It turned out she’d driven one overseas and was so smitten with it that she promised if it ever came to SA, she would buy one.

Test subject number one was a young female medical technology student who owned an Anglia. She found the Renault 5 fun to drive but said steering was heavy (probably due to the FWD) and although the gear lever was a bit of a stretch, she loved the shift smoothness and light clutch action.

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Tester number two was a young company director who clearly knew a thing or two about cars and had somewhat sophisticated taste. He reckoned the car was smart, neat and modern in looks but for some reason found the lack of visible door handles irritating. He also found the headroom a bit on the minimal side and said of the interior: “The car has the usual French idiosyncrasies as far as switches and other instrumentation is concerned.”

Executives, secretaries, sales reps and a doctor… had I read a bit further I wouldn’t be surprised if the butcher, baker and candlestick maker got a word in too. Descriptions like “smart”, “neat”, “smooth control”, “plenty of character”, “ugly but appealing”, “plenty of pep”, “decidedly fun car” and “solid and cheeky” flowed but there was one that was common across the board: it was too expensive for what you got.

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Fashion is a funny thing, though. Despite the grumbles, the 1300cc Renault 5 went on sale at R3 275 and by the end of 1976, just over 3 500 trendsetters were driving the coolest of cars. By 1979 the 10 000 mark was reached, and this marched on to nearly 36 000 by close of play in 1985. In defence of the buyers, the units sold were made here and, as we mentioned, were the best in the world in terms of quality and specification. 

South Africa’s KZN plant, which had a R7.3 million investment injection, was up against Renault 5 factories in France, Spain, Belgium, Mexico, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Portugal and Indonesia in the auditing race. South Africa was awarded best manufacturing quality in 1977, ’78 and ’79, with the latter setting the highest-ever standard recorded for any Renault production anywhere on the globe.

Fifteen cars were churned out per day, which thanks to local body pressings and engine manufacture at Motor Assemblies saw the local content percentage reach 67. The local 5 also had numerous South African-only features when compared to the internationals. We got a suspended roof lining with felt insulation backing, fully carpeted floor and boot, trimmed interior pillars, larger-capacity radiator, bigger rear and heftier anti-roll bar. Complaints about heavy steering were remedied in ’79 by reducing the castor angle by 7 degrees; this was accomplished by designing new upper and lower suspension arms, steering links, steering knuckle and anti-roll bar.

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In the highest spec (TS), the buyers could justify the price to their mates by pointing out that the improved seat comfort levels were further enhanced by genuine wool inserts, and this luxurious item was carried across to other bits of the cabin. A trip meter (very fancy, I know) found its way into the binnacle, alongside a rev counter, halogen headlights, fancy radio console, inertia-reel seatbelts, hinged rear side windows and heated rear window with wiper.

In 1982, the ultimate of the South African production Renault 5s, the 1400 TS, was released. It added a grand on to the price but also increased the capacity to 1397cc and slapped an extra gear into the box. At R7 775 it was R85 cheaper than the FWD Ford Escort 1300L and, despite being 6kW less than the Escort in the power game, competed admirably in the 0-100km/h race with a 15.8 sprint against the Escort’s 15.5 – likely thanks to it tipping the scales at 62kg less than the 906kg Ford.

On the open road the Renault again held its own, recording 148km/h in fifth gear against the Ford’s 154km/h in fourth. While the TS couldn’t match the bigger-capacity performance hatches like the Golf GTI, Ford XR3 or Opel Kadett GTE, it didn’t play in the same price range as these either. It found the middle ground, offering the sporting details and finish at the same price and economy as that of a plain jane hatch from the competitors.

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Advertising material was spot on with a campaign that began with: “The Fantastique Elastique Renault 5” and then went through the car’s virtues. SSSSSTRETCHHHH: opens wide to take people and parcels and prams and presents… and pooches… and... SKWEEEEZE showed it snuggling into the tiniest parking space. SIP was for the thrifty fuel consumption. ZIP for the engine that skims along, silky silent, and shrugs off the steepest hills with cocky confidence. WHIP was for the Renault 5 nipping around the tightest corners with the front-wheel drive and low, wide radials keeping it sure-footed in wet or dry, on dirt or on tar.

The locally built Renault 5 re-established the marque’s good standing with the South African public with quality, specification, a 170-strong dealer footprint, heaps of fun-loving driving, economy and, eventually, competitive pricing.

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During the latter half of the 1970s, Renault used the 5 as a test bench for future technologies. The one was a collaboration with an electrical company where the engine was tossed in favour of an electric motor. And the other, a project undertaken in Durban, saw three stainless-steel Renault 5s made in a collaboration between Motor Assemblies and Southern Cross Steel. If you were at the 1979 Rand Show, you might recall seeing a silver (raw stainless steel) 5 badged with SS graphics. Electricity and stainless steel in 1979… imagine if ‘Doc’ Brown and Marty McFly had known this earlier – the DeLorean DMC might not have become as famous as it did.  

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