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.”