‘What’s yours called?’ went the advert for the second-generation R5. But it was the first one that changed buyers attitudes towards small cars forever.
In one fell swoop, the R5 popularised the supermini concept, proving a substantial hit across Europe as well as providing the perfect city transport for the smartest young blades across the continent.
Renault 5: The best things come in small packages
The Renault 5 is an automotive fairy story. These moments don’t happen nearly often enough in an industry ruled by pragmatism and the company’s balance sheet – but, just for once, the sheer creative genius of one man blossomed in a most wonderful way.
The man was Michel Boué, and the fruit of his labours was the Renault 5. Here was a vehicle that not only became France’s bestselling car for well over a decade, but helped cement the next phase in small car development so ably kicked off by Sir Alec Issigonis and his Mini. What he and no one else in Renault could have known was that Fiat’s Dante Giacosa was doing pretty much the same thing over in Turin developing what became the Fiat 127 out of the Autobianchi A112.
However, that’s a different story, and one I partially told in ‘Why the Italians beat us to a supermini by a decade‘.
How one man’s vision became a million seller
Boué’s fairy story was one of opportunism, talent and being in the right place at the right time. You see, the Renault 5 came out of an idea by Bernard Hanon, Renault’s head of planning (who would later go on to become Renault’s boss). He wanted the company to expand its small car portfolio, and build something that appealed to younger buyers than the wonderfully utilitarian 4L. In 1967, he managed to persuade the company’s CEO, Pierre Dreyfus, to include his plan in Renault’s forward model development – and create a new ‘car for for all seasons’.
This is where Renault stylist, Michel Boué (below), came into the story. Hearing of the project, and working in his own time, he made the bold decision to take his styling ideas for an all-new three-door hatchback and base them on the platform and running gear of the 4L.
Boué was encouraged to develop the idea further and, within two days, his initial sketches were brought to life in the form of a polystyrene-foam model. Renault’s management rapidly realised that they had a potential hit in their hands, and could well have the perfect small car to champion what would become the supermini sector – a market sector that was showing signs of growing hugely across Europe. And thus, Projet 122 was born.
Getting it from paper to clay and then into the showroom proved particularly straightforward and was undertaken at great speed thanks to the model being so closely based on the 4L. There were a few examples of soul searching along the way, though – it was made a three-door hatchback only in deference to the forthcoming Peugeot 104 four-door, while the 4L’s torsion bar rear suspension layout was almost dropped in favour of a cheaper beam axle until it became clear it wouldn’t offer the desired ride quality.
Tragedy comes soon after the launch
Under the skin, it was almost pure 4L, sharing its 782cc four-cylinder engine in the entry-level version alongside a 956cc unit based on the 1108cc power unit from the R6 and R8. Unlike its unintended rival from Italy, the Fiat 127 and the forthcoming Peugeot 104, the R5’s engines were longitudinally mounted with the gearbox ahead of the engine. Despite their long linkages the dash-mounted gearlever would be blessed with a delightful action.
The pièce de resistance of the R5 would undoubtedly be its styling. It was super-chic and, although ostensibly a simple two-box shape as created by Boué, the surfacing and detail work had been considerably worked upon during development and added real depth.
The wraparound plastic bumpers were a masterstroke – not only were they Paris-friendly, but they also rendered the opposition outdated in appearance. They had been used previously on the Renault 15/17, but the R5 popularised them. One only has to look at the Projet 122 proposal with steel bumpers (above) to see just how successful they were.
These really were a big deal back in the early 1970s, and a major advance. They were developed by Prost-Dame, who came up with glass fibre bumpers that were dipped in a self-skinning polyurethane foam. They proved highly impact resistant, and certainly gave the R5 parking-proof appeal, lacking in its chrome-bumpered rivals. Later models would also benefit from side strips made from the same material.
Truly the new car oozed sophistication and proved to be the desirable conveyance for chic city slickers of the 1970s – just as Bernard Hanon had wanted.
The tragedy was that Boué died from cancer of the spine on Christmas Day 1972, just months after the R5’s launch. His wife told Olivier Guin (Car Design Archives) that had he barely had time to see just how much of an impact his car would have in French culture. This overturns the previously-held notion that Boué had died before its launch, a fact even reported in Renault’s official history of the R5.
French superstar bursts on to the scene
And so the Renault 5 was announced to the press on 28 January 1972, going on sale a couple of months later. It caused a sensation when it was first shown to the press, soon establishing itself as France’s best-selling car, rapidly quelling pre-launch jitters about having two doors (the French traditionally preferred four-door cars) and a utilitarian tailgate – something the Renault 16 had popularised in 1965.
At launch in March 1972, the R5 was available in two forms – the 782cc 5L and the TL, which used the more powerful 956cc engine and featured a floor-mounted gearshift. Just one year later, the 5LS was launched, powered by the 64bhp 1289cc engine from the R12, proving there was considerable potential for upward expansion in the R5 range.
In 1976, the first sporting Renault 5 hit the scene, with the arrival of the 5TS – merely a renamed 5LS with more sporting trim. It would be the first of many…
Performance or economy? You choose
The Renault 5’s vault into superstardom was well underway by this point. New versions were appearing at an impressive rate, while sales continued to boom. Paris, London and Rome were full of them, and it finally looked like the Mini’s days as the de facto classless small car with universal appeal were well and truly over with the French upstart now the hottest ticket in town.
To drive, the Renault 5 was great fun. The steering was accurate, the gearchange snappy, the engines willing and smooth, the ride Gallic-soft and the bodyroll epic. The amount of enjoyment you’d get from a 5 was directly proportional to the amount of power available. However, it was also becoming synonymous with impressive fuel consumption.
This might have been an accident of timing, but it was highly fortuitous for Renault. The early 1970s might have been a time of economic boom and global optimism, but they were brought crashing to earth with a series of geo-political events that brought us the 1973-74 Energy Crisis. Suddenly, inflation was rife as fuel prices began to spiral, car sales began to nosedive, with small cars once again being in massive demand. The R5 was there to capitalise, and La Régie made the most of it, developing the range to meet this demand.
In 1976, the Renault 5 GTL (above) was added to the range. It was basically a new fuel consumption-focused addition to the range, powered by a de-tuned version of the TS’s 1289cc engine – with a power output of 44bhp and longer gearing, more than 45mpg was on the cards in daily driving, and 55mpg+ if you put your mind to it. Equally interestingly, this model gained full-length bodyside cladding, which made it even more city-friendly, and a new soft-touch dashboard. No wonder it was now Europe’s best-selling car.
Other new developments included an auto version in 1978, five-door bodystyle in 1979 (designed alongside the original three-door) to coincide with a light facelift, which incorporated a new dashboard, and the memorable Le Car limited edition, which had been built to celebrate the car’s introduction in the USA.
The best would be yet to come – the 5 Alpine (Gordini in the UK) would follow in 1977 (but we’d have to wait until 1979), and was a delicious-looking sporting version that boasted 93bhp, a sub-10-second 0-60mph time and a maximum speed of 110mph that saw it pitched as France’s answer to the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Many in the UK more correctly saw it as a latter-day Mini Cooper, in lieu of the MG Metro, which would be along in five years time…
To a Turbo future
The 1978 Paris Motor Show hosted the unveiling of the most powerful and outlandish Renault 5 yet. The company was investing hugely in motor sport, with the conquest of Le Mans, Formula 1 and Group 4 rallying its ultimate ambition. Victory in the former arrived in 1978, with F1 following the following year – and to win on the gravel, it unveiled the mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo.
The production version went on sale in 1980 and earned itself a reputation for being something of a widowmaker, thanks to its hair-trigger handling and ferocious turbo boost. Although its maximum power of 160bhp and 0-60mph time of 7.7 seconds don’t sound that fast today, that was seriously quick, easily matching matching the much larger and more powerful Audi Quattro – and as someone who’s driven one in the wet, I can confirm they’re pretty damned exciting, and it’s on my Top Ten most wanted cars list.
Sadly, the competition version was overtaken by events – Group 4 was soon dominated by four-wheel-drive challengers, and it morphed into the far more exotic Group B, typified by the Peugeot 205 T16 and MG Metro 6R4.
The Gordini was replaced by the Gordini Turbo a couple of years later, expanding the company’s range of blown hot hatches and giving newer rivals something to think about (not least with a 0-60mph time of 8.7 seconds), but the Renault 5 was now entering the twilight of its life, with strong newer rivals, such as the Austin Metro and Ford Fiesta showing up weaknesses in the car’s basic design.
That didn’t stop Renault continuing to develop the R5 even though its replacement, the Marcello Gandini-styled ‘Supercinq’ was now well underway. In 1981, the company battled to regain its title of Europe’s most economical car, with a new five-speed 1.1-litre version of the GTL pushing 62.8mpg in the ‘official’ ECE fuel consumption tests (at an unrealistic steady 56mph).
The end is nigh…
By 1983, the game was up. The Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205 had moved the supermini game on and, as the Supercinq was months away, production was beginning to wind down. Despite that, ever more appealing versions were being rolled out – we had the 1.4-litre TX, which featured power assisted steering – a first in its sector – and a luxury interior, thus proving buyers wanted big car features in small cars.
In the car’s final full year of production, the range was slimmed to incorporate the TL in three- and five-door form, the high-economy GTL and Gordini Turbo. To mark the end of the line, France received a Campus special edition, and the UK made do with the Le Car 2. The Supercinq was introduced and, although it was all new under the skin, its styling paid the ultimate homage to the original, and lived on until 1996 – long after its replacement the Clio was launched.
However, the Renault 5 was truly special, an absolute phenomenon, selling 5.5 million examples along the way. It was built in France, Iran, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, Venezuela and Yugoslavia, and came in basic, performance, luxury, economy and even supercar forms. Unlike many of its contemporaries, as the the years rolled on, it never lost its appeal, remaining the best-selling car in France until it went out of production.
There can be little, if any, doubt that Michel Boué would have been really proud to see how his creation ended up capturing the hearts and minds of millions of fans to this day.