Blog : If Issigonis had worked for Renault…

Mike Goy


We take transverse-engined/front-wheel-drive cars for granted these days. It’s easy to forget that design parameters were very different 50 years ago. Rear-engined offerings from Fiat, Renault and VW dominated the European market. In Britain, Alec Issigonis had already made waves with his 1948 Morris Minor, but even this imaginative and technologically advanced offering was in essence a conventional design, lacking independent suspension and reliant on rear wheel drive.

By the mid-Fifties, Issigonis had been prised away from Morris and was working for Leonard Lord’s Austin. Given a brief to fight back against the wave of bubble cars (Isetta and Messerschmitt) sweeping a fuel conscious, post-Suez Europe, his solution was a triumph of lateral thinking. Detesting rear-engined designs with their inherent impracticality, he sketched out what would become the revolutionary, technologically advanced, transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive and independently sprung Mini of 1959.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Renault was working on one of the world’s first hatchback saloons, launched in Autumn 1961 as the R4. Another concept we take for granted these days when every manufacturer offers an example. Front-wheel drive, independent torsion bar suspension, one-piece lift up tailgate, compact exterior dimensions, big inside. There is no doubt that the launch of the R4 was a defining moment for Renault, signalling a move away from rear engine design towards a more practical front wheel drive model line up which by the mid-1970s would comprise; 4, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20 and 30.

Likewise, the Mini presaged the launch of the 1100/1300/Allegro, Maxi and 1800/2200/Princess. Issigonis was a Designer, not a Product Planner. However, because of his domineering personality, that’s just what he became. Convinced he was right about everything, this is the time when BMC/BL began their slow, but inexorable, slide towards oblivion. That’s not to say it was Issigonis’s fault – far from it, but he became the fall guy for all BMC/BL design, production and marketing shortcomings. Renault, by comparison, just went from strength to strength and now looks rock solid.

I wonder what would have happened if Issigonis had been approached by Renault when it was first considering the R4. Can you imagine just how revolutionary a transverse-engined, front-wheel drive, amazingly space efficient small hatchback would have been? Just like today’s offerings, but 45 years sooner.

A kind of 1961 Honda Jazz…

Keith Adams


  1. Don’t forget the key model in Renault’s 1970s line up, the 5.

    As for Renault going ‘from strength to strength’, I’m not to sure about that. The many millions of Francs poured into them from the French government have kept them alive, together with the alliance with Nissan in recent years. Poor line up, poor reliability, large socialist workforce, reliance on domestic market and government funding – it all sounds very familiar!!

  2. Actually, in the mid 1950s Issigonis was working for Alvis. And he never worked for Austin..he rejoined the group when it was all BMC, having left it about the time of the merger in 1951/2

  3. Given French car themes of the time, the Renault Mini would’ve been tall to allow for farmer’s hats.

    The jacked up, soft suspension (to allow for the farmer to deliver eggs across a ploughed field) would also have added to the height.
    Might not have worked as well on rally stages as the Austin Mini did.
    Perhaps Issigonis might’ve eyed up neighbouring Citroen’s development of hydropneumatic suspension, and ended up with a system similar to hydrogas.
    (In a magazine interview for ‘CAR’ magazine in the late 1980s, Dr Moulton stated that he and Issigonis had also studied the Citroën 2CV in the 1950s, which featured fore/aft interconnected steel springs. With Hydrolastic suspensionthey particularly wished to address the comical lack of roll stiffness of that car with the system that they were designing.)

    A hatchback, with removable seats, to allow for the usage of the vehicle to transport calves etc.

    Styling would probably have been similar to the Austin Mini – small Dauphine with a grille. And obviously more of an upright, full length booted rear.

    France being France of the time, and the taxation classes, it would’ve been available in very basic 3CV (R3) form and relatively larger engined 4CV (R4).

    Renault of today had some struggles, the UK market has been decimated – no D or E segment contenders (Laguna and Latitude). They’re betting the farm on their small cars (Dacia Sandero and Clio) and SUVs (Duster and Captuer).

  4. Most of Renault’s current [and recent] range are God awful. Mk 1 Laguna / clio where ok, then they became convinced that they had to get “technical”, as did Citroen and Peugeot. Good engineering practice has been abandoned by the french, who are now more interested in making choo;ate engines / gearboxes, with ridiculouly complex electronic systems.
    The whole shooting match underwritten by the Frencc taxpayer, contravening whole rafts of EU legislation.

  5. Interesting comparison. The target of the R4 was the 2CV, so it was bound to be bigger than the Mini and possibly planned to be cheap to make – something the Mini failed.

    Whilst the Mini is something like an engineers car, where Issigonis and his staff could start with the famous white sheet of paper, the task at Renault lay different: The engineering department got a pretty detailed description of what to achieve from the marketing department under the lead of the then new chairman Dreyfus (a lawyer being politically close to socialists). With huge success: The new base model was better (and much more modern) than the 2CV, but cheaper!

    This is where BMC was lacking. The Mini was interesting, if no big sales success, the 1100 was brilliant – but how much of this was planned and how much was just sheer luck? At least with 1800 and later it seems there was not enough direction from marketing, as the 1800 failed to slot into the market, leading to continued production of the Farina cars.

    Issigonis (together with Moulton and others) was interested in pushing the boundaries for car engineering, just like Citroën. Renault planned a healthy business case instead…

  6. Issigonis plus Renault is an interesting idea. But I dont know if the timing would work that well.
    If you take the interesting/creative period of Renault – which I would characterise as 1985 onwards – the cars already handled and went well. Whether Hydrogas or Hydrolastic would have made any improvements is debatable. Add to this the complexity and dubious reliabity of Renault electronics plus Issigonis, i’m not sure what would have resulted.
    It might have been interesting to put Hydragas/Hydrolastic into the 15/17 & 20/30 ranges, and it would have gone well with the 16 but again – Renault have always been good at tuning the ride of conventional systems (they’re not far off the Hydractive 3 systems on the C5) so the main technical incongruity of the Mini & 1100 etc would probably have been just that technology for technology’s sake (not that Renault couldn’t do that perfectly well on their own)..

  7. #5.Mini – no big sales success ? is more than 5 million no big sales success ?

    It also brings me to another point which keeps being mentioned, namely that the mini could never have been profitable ( because Ford said so ! ) . Had the mini been replaced every 3 to 4 years, as Ford did with the Cortina, then Ford would have been correct. But the development and tooling costs which broadly speaking account for about half of the cost of a car, were written off over not 3 but 40 years . It was this signal truth which was so well understood by Lyons, ( albeit not to the same degree ) as a result of which Jaguar were able to sell their cars profitably at a significantly lower price than competitors

  8. @9

    Citroen were already FWD pioneers, though they might’ve used him to properly replace the 2CV with something a little less pre-war.
    Would probably still end up like a cross between the Mini, DS and R4.

  9. @11

    An Issigonis car by Citroen to replace the 2CV would have been fascinating especially if powered by 602-750cc Flat-2 and 1015-1301cc Flat-4 engines, the end result would likely resemble a smaller version of Citroen’s Project F with elements of the Mini.

  10. Over 8m R4s were made, many more that the 2CV.
    Renault and Nissan ranked as the No. 3 car group in terms
    of worldwide sales, behind General Motors and Volkswagen in 2011. So although much government money was pumped to keep it alive, the company is still with us, whereas MG Rover is not!
    This shows the difference in attitude to manufacturing between the UK, where engineering and manufacturing is considered as ‘trade’ and the rest of Europe where it is treated with respect and not distain.

  11. “Work on this project had reached an extremely advanced stage when Renault launched the almost identically styled 16 below. Rumours of industrial espionage abounded but were unproved.”
    “To add insult to injury, the technique for welding the roof and door frames had been patented by Renault. Citroën had decided not to patent the process since it did not want its competitors to have any inkling of what they were up to.

    This must be seen in the light of Renault’s blatant plagiarism of the 2CV with their R4 .

    On 14th April 1967, the project was dropped – millions of Francs were written off and work commenced on project G – the GS.

    Projet F proved to be a costly exercise for Citroën.

    Presses had been ordered from Budd in the USA and had to be paid for.

    The failure of this project had ramifications for the company that led to compromises in both the technologies used and in the model range that eventually led to the financial crisis of 1974 and the acquisition of the company by Peugeot.”

    Well the prove is in the pudding, as they say…

    • The R4 mechanical design was pretty much shrunken Traction Avant. The 2CV influence was only really the utilitarianism, such as exposed seat frames and the dashboard gearchange.

  12. And about the R4:

    “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery… …although Citroën didn’t think so in 1961 when Renault launched their R4. Renault’s rear-engined 4 CV was, by the end of the fifties, very dated. More powerful than Citroën’s 2 CV, it was also more cramped, had poorer road holding, handling and comfort. The Regie took the decision to build a front wheel drive, independently suspended, utilitarian car, using the 2 CV as a blue print. Despite protestations from Citroën, the state-owned company blatantly copied the dash-mounted gearchange, tubular-framed removable seats, detatchable body panels, fabric roof and even the “nose down tail up” attitude of the 2 CV.
    In September 1961 the Renault R4 was launched. It was initially fitted with the engine and transmission of the old rear-engined 4CV with an engine capacity of 747 cc. There was also a 603cc version sold in France where it was badged R3 and there was a deluxe, 6 light version fitted with a bored out version of the Dauphine engine with 845cc. The R3 was discontinued in 1962. The transmission was a 3-speed manual whereas the thirteen-year old 2CV had four speeds and the option of a centrifugal clutch. The R4 had four-wheel independent suspension. The longitudinal layout of the front wheel drive engine and transmission with the engine mounted behind the front axle with the gearbox/differential in front (effectively a mid-engined front wheel drive design) is identical to the Citroën Traction Avant and DS”

    • As much as I like the Citroenet site, this is not entirely fair towards the R4. Detacheable panels? The VW beetle had them too, so what? The R3/4 came with a steel roof as standard. The gear change was quite characteristic and indeed a copy. The tubular seat frames? That was a construction used by many cars, it was possibly more visible in the 2CV than in others. Compared to the 2CV the R4 had proper seats though. Would you say the Marina was a blatant copy of the Cortina? Probably more than the R4 copied the 2CV in my opinion.

      • What the R4 mostly copied was the Traction Avant. It’s mechanically not far off a shrunken Traction copy with R4 shape bolted on.

  13. Christopher @ 7

    ” It also brings me to another point which keeps being mentioned, namely that the mini could never have been profitable ( because Ford said so ! ) . Had the mini been replaced every 3 to 4 years, as Ford did with the Cortina, then Ford would have been correct. But the development and tooling costs which broadly speaking account for about half of the cost of a car, were written off over not 3 but 40 years ”

    Yes, good point. Is there any evidence other than Ford’s claims that Mini was not profitable ? Aside from the issue of development costs being spread over such a long period, Ford’s costings, although informed, remained estimates. In particular, how would Ford have known what prices, deals had been struck with suppliers? How could their estimate of development cost, and the figure allocated to each car, been that accurate?

  14. It’s interesting how that period (the 60s and 70s) had such wide variation in design. Without Issigonis, Renault were FWD pioneers, but not with the Issigonis transverse engine layout!

    The R4 has a front mid layout, as per FWD Citroens at that point, and the same layout was used in the R6 and R16.

    The RR R8/10 were replaced with the R12 which had a different FWD layout, with the engine ahead of the axle, a layout that Audi still use.

    The R5 used the R4 Front mid layout

    The R20/30 (and then the 18) used the R12 layout

    The R14 finally had a transverse engine, but using the Douvrin engines and in sump Peugeot layout.

    In 1991 the R9 was launched, with the now standard end on gearbox layout

    Finally, the 1986 R21 had smaller engined versions with the transverse, end on gearbox layout, while the larger engined versions kept the longitudinal layout from the R18!

  15. @13, 2013: Nissan no4 Renault No9. And only the dead buy the current Micra which is possibly just as unreliable as the previous model.

  16. @23. I read that before, but yes; interesting. They had it laying around, why not at last use it?

    And about Issigonis, though brilliant, he was far from being the first with a commercially viable car with a transverse engine, as we now know it:
    – DKW F1 (1931)
    – Saab 92 (1949)

    The first FWD car with a transverse water-cooled 4-pot engine layout as we now know it (and love?), was the (1964) Autobianchi Primula:

    Issigonis was the first to come up with a gearbox-in-sump layout. Reason was -as we all know-: he had to use the A-series engine, but that came with packaging problems when the engine bay is a mere 70 or so centimeters wide.

    But yes; there was the French X-engine ( and also the Lambo Miura ( used Issigonis’ gear-in-sump. The latter because of the fact that they wanted to cramp a V12 east -west in the rear of the car. So that led to the same problems as with the mini.

    A side note: the most outrageous concept -I think- of a FWD car with a transverse engine layout is the Lancia Thema 8.32 (

    Q to them; Why?
    A Because we can (…just).

    That one was the first with a boot lid spoiler which sat flush in the lid and raised automatically when speed exceeded 80 mph. So cool.

    Off my soupbox now. So much for the history lessons.

  17. @26 True, but one has to draw the line somewhere… 😉

    Trivia about the Trabi:
    In 1989 a licensed version of the Volkswagen Polo engine replaced the ancient two-stroke engine. The model, known as the Trabant 1.1, also had minor improvements to the brake and signal lights, a revised grille, and MacPherson struts instead of the leaf spring-suspended chassis.

    We probably all know the Polo G40. Well, being basically the same engine, that lump dropped right in in seconds, on the existing 1.1’s engine mounts!

    What can me more fun? Or scary… At least 115hp in a 600kg cardboard box on wheels?
    Before you answer; ponder about a Lotus 7 derivative first.
    BTW not cardboard; Duroplast… The Carbon fiber of the East.
    Scroll down: original Trabant engine bay –> 1.05 engine bay –> 1.3 G40

  18. I fail to see how anyone can say that Renault group is a lame duck and put it down, it is by far and away one of the biggest motoring companies in the world, it has in its Portfolio, Renault, Nissan, Datsun, Dacia, Lada (AutoVAZ), RSM, a bank, A wholly owned retail distribution company.

    In excess of 2.6 million cars sold in 2012, turnover of Euro 41 Billion and a near euro 2 billion profit, now, with all that how can anyone say that Renault is “struggling”

  19. Tasked with providing a range of mainstream cars to dominate the French/European market (and be suited to the road surfaces of France in the sixties), I’d like to think that Issigonis’ logical approach would have resulted in a range of cars following the template of the Maxi (AD014), but a significant number of the larger variants would have the option of four-wheel-drive.

  20. @24, I was referring to their world positions.

    @29, Is that bank still in existence or bailed out?
    Just because Chelsea football club or equivalent are owned by the super rich does not mean they do not have debt to service-as in any business.

    Now, far from being a little Englander whatever that bollocks means I wish Renault had not committed suicide in the UK with the Megane and Laguna, I always wished they would fetch out an antidote to BMW’s and so on.

    Hopefully something good and interesting may surface soon.

  21. An interesting counterfactual would be one where the Alvis TA/350 entered production with Rover later utilizing the all-alloy 3.5 Alvis V8 OHC either in place of the original 215 Buick V8 or limited-only to Rover-derived Alvis models (akin to Jaguar and Daimler).

  22. To further expand on previous comment above from a few years ago. Read a while back Thomas George John at Alvis had plans to increase capacity to 3k per annum pre-WW2 from a peak of over 1100 in 1934 against a rough average of 600 cars a year, with Alvis looking to make its own bodies using bought-in pressed steel panels.

    Had that occurred would it have enabled Alvis to produce a more production feasible TA350/175, one featuring a conventional 5-speed ZF gearbox as later considered near end of project and even a licenced-built all-alloy BMW OHV V8 that weighed only 20kg more than Issigonis’s own ultimately unviable all-alloy Alvis V8 design? Like the Alvis V8, the BMW OHV V8 was said to have untapped potential to grow in displacement, spawning 4/6-cylinders and even be converted to OHC (BMW – The History of Engines).

  23. I always rated the Renault 12, it was a conventionally styled saloon and estate aimed at the sort of people who would buy Escorts, but benefited from fwd, a typically French soft ride and comfortable seats, and even though most were only 1.3 litres, could reach over 90 mph and cruise quietly at motorway speeds. Sales were high for all the car’s life and I can remember the TS having really comfortable cloth seats like you’d find in a much bigger car.

    • My parents had a Renault 12 for about 10 years, being mostly driven by my Mum after by Dad started to get company cars from work.

      It was OK for what it was, though it was getting a little crusty by the time it was sold to make way for a Metro in 1984.

      Unfortunately it had vinyl seats that were torture to sit on in the summer, especially while wearing shorts! Usually an old bedsheet would be used to cover the rear seat to make it bearable to sit on!

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