[Full disclosure: Torch wanted to review my Renault Le Car so badly, he asked if he could and then moved 3,000 miles away. So, I'm through waiting for him to come back and am reviewing it myself because it's my car, what makes you think that Volkswagen-loving mother scratcher would do a better job?]
Another car I adore that most everyone else in America hated is the infamous Renault Le Car. I'm on my third one now and its one of my pride and joys. Why did everyone hate it? The usual dumb shit Americans complain about with inexpensive, small cars. We'll go over some of them here and I'll explain why the Le Car was revolutionary and wonderful and its reception here was a crock.
The Le Car was what the rest of the world knew as the Renault 5, which was the hugely successful follow-up to the beloved Renault 4. Where they got their naming conventions is a mystery for the ages and we won't dwell on it here. Renault had been in America for years, but always had a spotty dealer network of random lots that sold whatever imports they could get their hands on.
So, in the 70's, they bought a controlling interest in plucky underdog American Motors to get their cars in AMC showrooms.
The 5 was actually called the "5" when it first arrived on these shores in late 1975, but that was apparently confusing to people who I guess thought they had bought an actual "5" and were then handed the keys to a car.
To combat this, the geniuses in AMC's marketing department came up with "Le Car" which means "The Car" in French only the French word for car is really "voiture," but, again, Americans are morons and "Le" is all the French we can handle at any one time. They plastered the name in big letters on the sides of the cars to really hammer home what the little contraption was. Now that people knew it was a car that was on sale, they were ready to fly out the door.
Here's some background. One of the all-time car importing boondoggles was the tangled Renault Dauphine affair. The Dauphine was the replacement for the 4CV (which they kept making anyway) and built to be a Beetle killer starting in the mid-50's. It was small, cheap, rear-engined, and underpowered. It's three box design was more conventionally car shaped than the Beetle and is as cute as a button.
In typical French fashion, it has a little more flair, but none of the dependability of a VW. It used the 4CV's motor boosted to a screaming 32 horsepower, but you could get a Gordini tuned 37 hp one. Renault spent 5 years developing every aspect of it and thought the car was going to be hot. They even said so in the ads. And in Europe and elsewhere it was a big seller. Not quite the Beetle, but during its 11 year lifespan, 2.1 million Dauphines were built and sold around the world. Unfortunately, in America, they were as hot as the Archbishop of Nome, Alaska's balls. My mom actually bought one back in the day and I asked her what it was like and she said, "Terrible. The inside door handle kept falling off." I asked if it ran okay and she said that "it ran fine. Slow, but it never broke down or anything. It was just so cheap. The inside door handle kept falling off." So, for want of better fasteners on their door handles, Renault lost buckets of money exporting Dauphines to the U.S. Apparently everyone who took them for a test drive remained trapped in the cars, preventing them from ever being sold to anyone at all. They were crushed with the skeletons still inside clutching broken door handles in vain. In reality, they sold okay at first, so Renault flooded the market with them just in time for people to discover that they didn't hold up all that well under driving conditions in the United States.
They corroded and more than just door handles rained from Dauphines like car part filled piñatas. Sales plummeted. Famously, in 1959, two shiploads of Dauphines were turned back while en route to New York because the port there was already full of the things rusting away. It had arrived just a little too late, and was a little too fragile in the hands of American drivers to compete with the Volkswagen. (One of my personal favorite Car Talk memories is turning it on mid-show once and hearing, "…yes, the Renault Dauphine was the absolute worst car ever sold in America." They then moved on to something else, but I can only imagine how those guys must have ripped that car.)
Renault kept sending automobiles over the Atlantic and sold some R8's and R10's, but the Dauphine stink remained. Renaults were quirky, cheap, unreliable things weirdos drove. And, that's the environment the Le Car was introduced to. Only now they had AMC's miserable reputation added to it.
So, what's the big deal with the Le Car? It's just another cheap shitbox people hated. Didn't you say it was revolutionary? Yes, look at it. It's shaped like the Rabbit, Dodge Omni and a hundred other little shitbox hatchbacks, you say. But, the Renault was the first. It was the shitbox all other shitboxes followed. It really was a revolutionary and totally modern design that was an ingenious package for its time. Renault had a long, proud history selling affordable cars culminating with the 4CV which helped put France back on wheels after WWII. Citroen's strange and sexy cars like the 2CV and DS get all the attention, but Renault always did the French auto industry's dirty work, building cars average people could really use. The 5 was designed in 1967 by Michel Boué, a young assistant in Renault's design department, on a lark. Renault wasn't planning on developing a new small car, but they knew instantly this was something special. At first, it was just an outline quickly drawn over a photo of a 4 that Boué would tweak in his spare time. Unlike the carefully developed Dauphine, after some fleshing out, it went pretty much from design rendering to production.
Seriously. The guys at Renault took one look at the drawing and said, "Mon dieu!" And a couple months later they had a full-sized mockup. No focus groups. No board meetings. They liked it, they made it, and it worked.
Now, that may sound funny to you and me since it's just a little square car like we've seen a billion times, big whoop, but when you look at the low-priced offerings people were driving before then, you see why it was so striking. The 4CV was dainty and primitive.
The 4 was awkwardly utilitarian and kind of looks like it was designed by surrealists as an exquisite corpse.
But, the 5 was clean and cool. Mechanically, it was basic, with engines from other Renaults and the transmission out of the 4. But, its monocoque body with, for the first time on a car ever, flush plastic bumpers was like a space pod from the year 9000 to the australopithecusses living in 1972 when it debuted.
It was exactly what everyone wanted and was an instant sensation. It came in bright colors and was hip, chic, affordable, and amazingly practical. The hatch is big, and when you put the seats down, it becomes like the Tardis. It'll swallow almost anything.
It also came out just as the oil crises of the 70's started to hit, so its timing was impeccable. People were downsizing and here was this nice, new, thrifty little car. By 1975 over a million had been sold and Renault execs drunk on its success looked at the great big North America shaped hole on their sales map and said, "what do we have to lose?" But, imitators like the Rabbit and Civic had beaten it here, and Americans were all, "they still make cars in France?" I find it typically American that we looked at something the rest of the world found to be an innovative piece of economical transportation and laughed at and mocked it. Because that's what happened. It was Le Joke. People thought it was too tiny, the tires were too narrow, the layout of the controls was weird, it had a stupid name. These are the same people who went on to buy Chevettes and Pintos like they were made of pornography. Unlike those cars, the Renault 5 was designed as a small car. It wasn't a big car shrunk down and minimized. Unfortunately, as with the Dauphine, it liked salted roads as much as a banana slug, but show me a 70's car that didn't rust and I'll let you sleep with my wife, Charlize Theron. It was still really cheap, so they did sell enough to those without shame who just buy the lowest priced thing available like my father when he brought home a "Sears Video Arcade" instead of the fucking Intellivision I asked for. The Le Car managed to hang around until 1984. 3 years later, Renault cashed out their AMC stake and fled America never to be seen or heard from again, not that anyone's really noticed. As a final fuck you, they gave us the Fuego.
Everywhere else, people kept on buying them. It was so popular that when Renault developed a technologically all new replacement, they made it look almost exactly like the old 5 and called it the Super 5.
By the time that one was retired in 1996, more than 9.2 million 5's and Super 5's had rolled out of Renault's factories making it one of the all time great people's cars. There were, of course, the souped-up ones, the Alpine and absurd R5 Turbo, but I don't have all day and you know all about those anyway because FAST THINGS GOOD. ME LIKE POWER!
I am reviewing my 1978 Americanized Le Car version only since this is America and I've never driven a foreign one.
Exterior - 10/10
I've heard them described as ugly, but that makes no sense. It's a crisp, clean box with a slanted back that you can open up to put your stuff inside. What's the problem? I actually like the early U.S. spec ones with the cute round eyes, but most people seem to think they're dorky and that the later, Euro-style square headlights are so much better. Most people view things though an anal membrane. The cute ones win.
Gearbox - 4/5
It's fine. It's French, so there's a twist, of course. The shifting motion isn't straight back and forth, you kind of go at an angle as illustrated on the knob. This is no big deal, so don't start screaming, "that's so stupid!" No it isn't. You won't even notice it. That's just the way the thing is set up. Unbunch your panties. The throw is short enough to seem quick. Shifting isn't all that precise, but I've shifted worse. I mean, it's not a fucking Ferrari, all right? What do you want from the poor thing? Besides, Ferraris use a gated shifter. Isn't that cheating? Of course it shifts into gear easily, there's a piece of metal there forcing you into the right slot. Sorry, car, if I think 3rd gear should be over there, I'm going over there and 3rd gear better follow me. Has anyone ever tried removing the gate? Not so precise now, is it, asshole? The Le Car's got 4 gears and it would be nice if it had a 5th, but it's an economy car and gears don't just magically appear in blocks of fromage.
Reliability - 7/7
Did I mention it's French? But, you know, mine have been quite dependable. I've had to do work to them, sure, but they're going on 40 years old. Once I replaced shit that was busted from age, they've always run like tops. It takes some carb finagling to get them to pass smog sometimes, but I've gotten them through. And, who doesn't need a little practice adjusting a carburetor now and again? I've had people tell me who owned them back in the day that they were pretty trouble free. Did they have a reputation of being reliable? No. They were cheap, stuff broke. They were French, people didn't know how to fix them. Especially not the guys at the dealership who were used to working on the rudimentary drivetrains in AMC's. But, millions of people around the world drove them in every condition imaginable, so it was clearly a durable little car.
Safety - N/A
Uh, I remember kids in school calling them Le Coffin. What if they had put that on the door? How badass would that have been? You'd drive a Le Coffin, wouldn't you, tough guy?
Interior - 11/11
Hey, for a cheap car from that era, it's actually pretty nice. Carpets were standard and the seats, although covered in flimsy vinyl, have a pleasant, comfy squishiness that is like sitting on marshmallows floating on a champagne river. Mmmm. That sounds nice. The bubbles tickling your toes. Taking handfuls of marshmallow from your friend's marshmallow floatie and stuffing your face until it can no longer support them and they sink and drown. Stupid friend. Like I said before, for its size, the Le Car is quite roomy. For its size. You still sit shoulder to shoulder with your cabin mate, and you're never going to stuff a Steinway in it, but it's a clever piece of space utilization. It's also got some fun French quirks like the ignition is on the left side of the column, and I dare you to find the hood release. Also, the cup holders are square. Amazingly, though, they provided a little tray next to the steering wheel that is the perfect size and shape for holding an iPhone. That's some Nostradamus level foresight right there. What would a champagne soaked marshmallow taste like?
Handling & Ride - 2 Million
It's an absolute joy to drive this car. No. Shut up. It really is. It's got a longer wheelbase than other cars its size. It's got fully independent suspension. It's got the shockiest of shocks. The French know their suspension and the Le Car is smooth and soft, but not hilariously soft. It's nimble and darty, but with a hint of understeer. The engine is shoved pretty far into the engine bay to make room for the spare tire so the car is quite well balanced. Steering is easy and precise so long as the bushings aren't worn out (they're always worn out).
Toys - ?
I don't know, there's a radio and sometimes they'd put a windshield wiper on the rear window. The whole car cost like 9 dollars new, so what kind of toys do you expect, you greedy dick?
Engine - 9/9
It has a carbureted, smog equipment smothered 1.4 liter making something something the right amount of horsepower. Chill out about the horsepower, ok? It's small and light. It actually does feel peppy if you're not thinking about it. I just keep it floored all the time and laugh with terrible glee dreaming of champagne infused marshmallow lollipop sundaes eaten off a friend's floating cadaver. Fuel economy is 26 city, 40 on the highway.
Horn - Gold Star
Sunroof - Award Winning
The greatest sunroof ever installed on a production automobile. End of story. Period.
Value - Check
It cost $3600 in 1978 which was the same as a Chevette and right in line with its other competitors more or less. But, these were AMC dealerships and those guys were desperate. There was always some rebate or sale and they'd take anything vaguely car shaped as a trade-in. So, you got your money's worth and more. You did have to put gourmet gas in it because that's what they had in Europe and fuck your merde Americain fuel. Of course people poured whatever sludge was cheapest in so they never ran right.
In summary: it's a charming sub-compact filled with charm that will charm the socks off of you if you have a heart. It's fun to drive in that slow car fast way. Like my Subaru 360, it gets tons of attention. Foreigners will stop you to tell you how their first car was one. Literally every non-American has owned a Renault 5 at some point in their life. They're relatively rare since they were considered disposable so even the coolest of hipster will be jealous before scoffing and telling you they'd rather have a Yugo. And, even though they are rare, no one wants them, so if you do find one it'll be cheap. Plus, it gave us the greatest commercial in the history of humanity.
I know that people will say that I'm crazy and Le Cars were the crappiest pieces of crap ever crapped. And, I know I have a bias for shitty little cars. But, the Renault 5/Le Car is a true classic. Boué's design was visionary. Sadly, he died of cancer in 1971 and never got to see the impact and influence his scribble would have. It's one of the best selling cars ever made and the genesis of all the hot hatches. It's also the perfect stocking stuffer.
It was the real French Beetle in my opinion. As a matter of fact, it was the replacement for the Beetle in most parts of the planet. And people called the Beetle crap all the time. But, it isn't really because crap is never that successful. [Insert your version of Coldplay/Radiohead/Bieber/Zamfir joke here.] Same goes for my Le Car (shown here before I took it apart).