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The Early Years
The history of Renault S.A. begins with French innovator and industrialist, Louis Renault. Since childhood, Renault showed a strong interest in electricity and machines. In 1898, when he reached his early twenties, he converted a De Dion-Bouton tricycle into a four-wheeled, high-sitting car with a three-speed gear box. The vehicle, called the Voiturette, also known as the Type A, featured a third gear that was labeled "direct drive" and improved the contemporary chain-driven transmission. He revealed the car at a party on Christmas Eve, and later left with 12 orders requesting duplicates. After seeking help from his brothers, Marcel and Fernand, to meet the new demands, Louis formed the Renault Frères Company in 1899.
A year later he released the Type B, which is considered to be the first sedan as it, unlike the Type A, included a roof and two doors. But the work was tiresome, and the brothers had their sights set on expansion to lower time and costs. In the early days, Louis Renault assembled each of the orders by hand. After gaining enough capital, they moved the operation into a factory, which later employed nearly 100 people by 1900. Then the company released the Type D, which expanded the size of the Voiturette to fit four passengers. Renault cars were lauded by consumers for their space and reliability, but the company learned that the real publicity came from showing off what the cars could do. Racing provided the perfect opportunity.
Perhaps Renault's most successful racing feat was its placing in the 1901 Paris-Bordeaux race. Its four drivers, including Louis and Marcel, came in the top four spots for the voiturette class. A year later Marcel placed first in the Paris-Vienna race, which also bolstered the Renault name. Sadly, tragedy struck in 1903 when Marcel died in a fatal crash. Renault pulled itself out of racing for the following two years.
Like racing, taxis also promoted Renault's name. The company became one of France's largest automobile producers, and its exports generated a strong presence in cities overseas, like London. Dubbed the "Taxis de la Marne," Renault taxis were also a main source of transportation to the front for French soldiers in World War I. Renault agreed to several government contracts in support of the war, and halted civilian production in order to develop a plethora of vehicles and engines imperative to France's success-such as ambulances, aircraft engines, and, of course, taxis. However, midway through the war, Renault was called upon again to assist in the development of a light tank. Known as the FT, the tank was built with a rear engine and rotating turret, and was a personal favorite of the soldiers, who gave it the title "Le meilleur ami de l'infantrie," meaning "the infantry's best friend."
Following the war, Renault focused on developing several types of cars to reach as wide of a market as possible. Some of these were the long nosed 40CV, one of which was ordered for the French President Gaston Doumergue, the family-orientated 6 CV, which also featured a Torpedo Sport version, and later the upscale and gaudy Reinastella. Renault also established its diamond-shaped logo in 1925, laced with diagonal lines with "Renault" centered in the middle. Despite their early success, Renault spent the decade competing with its arch-rival, Citroën, which was known for creating the Citroen Type A, also known as the French Model T.
In order to stay afloat, Renault diversified its vehicles to fire trucks, delivery trucks that hauled items such as milk and fuel, dump trucks, tractors, and ambulances. Any member from any class had the opportunity to buy a Renault, as the company offered something to entice each. By the thirties, many of their models featured "stella" on the end, meaning "star" in Latin, directed at the upper class. The Nervastella, seen as a smaller but large alternative to the Reinastella, debuted for the 1931 model year, and later lead to a sport version known as the Nervasport. The newer Renault models showed much promise, but the onset of WWII put a big halt on civilian production once again, and changed Louis Renault's path forever.
When Hitler took Paris in 1940, Louis Renault was given the option of forfeiting the factory so it could be disassembled and rebuilt in Germany, or keeping his property to support the German war effort. Renault chose the latter, and despite the fact he complied with the Nazis, it's rumored that Renault purposely slowed down production as a subtle retaliation. Regardless, when the war was over and France was liberated, Louis Renault was charged with collaboration with the enemy. Though he denied the allegations, believing he had in fact saved his workers lives by refusing to forfeit his property, he was arrested and jailed, and died shortly before his trial took place. All of his property was seized by the French State. Pierre Lefaucheux, who had been a resistance leader during the war, was appointed to Louis Renault's position.
New Leadership and New Models
Renault's name changed to the Régie Nationale des Usines Renault, but Lefaucheux promised to maintain Renault's vision. The 4CV, conceived by Renault engineers during WWII, had plans to be released for the 1946 model year. During the war, though Renault was ordered to suspend civilian production, they managed to create a two-door prototype in 1941 that was modeled after early versions of the Beetle. Adhering to the designs, the 4CV was released with a water cooled, rear-mounted engine. The car was a hit and Renault produced around 250 cars per day. By 1953, Renault produced over half a million cars, and later went on to produce over a million 4CVs, becoming the first French vehicle to do so.
The party didn't stop there. Released for the 1957 model year, the Dauphine was an economical version of the 4CV and its eventual successor. It made a memorable public appearance after a model was bestowed on Queen Elizabeth II. As the Dauphine evolved, later models were released such as a luxury version known as the Ondine and a sport version known as the Gordini. Unfortunately Lefaucheux never saw the Dauphine reach production due to a fatal accident in 1955. Lefaucheux's successor, Pierre Dreyfus, would go on to unintentionally change the way Renault would design and manufacture their vehicles.
The first model under Dreyfus, the Renault 4, was designed to fill the absence of a family-orientated car. Dreyfus called for a folding rear seat to give more storage space. However, in order to do this, engineers learned that the engine would need to be mounted in the front instead of the rear. It was successful, and the R-4 was designed as a five-door hatchback and officially broke Renault into the passenger car market and changed the way they would design cars. This would later lead to models like the compact Renault 16 and the Alliance, which went on the win Motor Trend's "Car of the Year" in 1983, despite the fact there was a separate award for imported cars.
AMC and Eventual Privatization
By the late seventies, Renault came to an agreement with the American Motor Corporation that allowed AMC to purchase 46.4 percent of the company in an exchange where Renault would import AMC cars to Europe and AMC would import cars from Renault. Unfortunately, Renault's tenure in the US fluctuated in sales throughout its history, and, after recording a $1.5 Billion loss and falling further in the US market, Renault sold its remaining stake in AMC to Chrysler.
Seeking a new direction, the company invested in engines that helped win the 1992 F1 Constructors' World Champion title by teaming up with the Williams racing team. The Williams team, using Renault engines won each of the next five years.
By 1995, the French state's share of Renault dropped from 80 to 45, allowing the company to privatize in 1996. The nineties saw the release of cars like the upscale Safrane and the van-like Twingo car, which were hits that helped Renault recover from its losses. By '99, the company purchased the Romanian automobile company Dacia, and signed a joint-venture through a cross-shareholding agreement with Nissan. A year later, to add to the number of companies under their agreement, Renault purchased Samsung Motors and reestablished the company as Renault Samsung Motors.
Today, Renault has a select number of vehicles that can be found all throughout the world, from Chile to Australia to China to England to France itself. Their joint venture with Nissan has made them the leading plug-in electric vehicle manufacturer, and they continue to remain true to their diverse lineup, offering models like the upscale Megane to the crossover Captur to the eco-friendly Zoe. With a recovered company and sights set on the future, one can only dream that we may once again see a Renault for sale in the US.