Raise a glass to : 50 years of the Renault 5

‘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.

Michel Boue - creator of the Renault 5

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. However, as site correspondent Philippe Centa confirms, ‘he can be seen in Paris-Match and its report from the launch, displaying him with the Renault board.’

French superstar bursts on to the scene

And so the Renault 5 was launched 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.

1977 Bertone proposal for the Renault 5 Turbo
Renault 5 Turbo: 1977 Bertone proposal
1978 Renault 5 Turbo motor show car
Renault 5 Turbo: 1978 Motor Show car
1980 Renault 5 Turbo
Renault 5 Turbo: 1980 production version
1983 Renault 5 Turbo 2
Renault 5 Turbo 2: 1983 update

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.

Keith Adams
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41 Comments

  1. I nearly bought one as my first car until I looked underneath……a very rusty floor pan which was irs bug bear. The closest I got was a owning several Matchbox and Majorette models!

    My Uncle owned a Supercinq which was a fabulous car for him, getting as a year old motor and owning it for close to 10 years and a few 100000 miles before the engine gave way (driving it from Spain to UK every few months for 3 years didn’t help!)

    And to mention the Supercinq, the concept designs for this were really interesting and it nearly didn’t end up being a homage to the original, which would have been a shame.

  2. Absolute landmark design. My mate had one called ‘Start you B*stard’

  3. I was a front-seat passenger in an early version of these, and the feature which caught my attention was the gear lever being a short, stubby unit which protruded from the dash – similar to a 2CV. Unlike any British car at the time.

    • Did not last long. The umbrella handle was quickly replaced by a floor shift lever.

        • All but precise !
          Rubber-type.
          Someone here told the Supercinq’s was no fun.
          I have had one, it was much much better thant the Cinq’s.
          The Supercinq box is still in use in the Twingo – it was on its gasoline Smart twin too and still on the base 65/75bhp Clio…

  4. The 5 morphed into the locally built 7 in pre-EEC Spain, a 4-door mongrel with a boot, as the market wasn’t quite ready for a B-segment hatchback, then viewed as a downmarket option.

    • It’s interesting that the 7 had steel bumpers, similar to the prototype pictured above

  5. My parents bought a new Supercinq, it was not the best car in the world, and the massive amounts of hard scratchy plastic inside made it stink on a hot day, and heaven forbid anyone that touched it, you would burn your hands… but it was comfortable, quick and quiet considering, teh steering was not as light as you would expect either, and the gear change was notchy, I remember all this from my dad saying what a crap car it was, it was their first all new car, and last for a few years, they replaced it after 12 months for a two year old, Subaru Estate, which lasted them about 15 years, and was one their most favourite cars they ever owned, they spent a fortune keeping it on the road, but alas, it ended up so bad they had to replace it.. Now they have really C**P car, the Vauxhall Mokka, I will not be seen dead in it. vile thing.

  6. A great car. I seem to recall that the 5 has a monocoque structure unlike the earlier 4 and 6

    Interesting that they considered a beam axle for the 5, as the 12 featured one which seemed a slightly retrograde step over previous FWD Renaults.

  7. I had two. A 5TS and later an Automatic. The latter I bought when living in London. It was perfect in that location. I liked them but did not love them. An earlier Fiat 128 was more amusing to drive. The steering was heavy and rubbery and they were noisy. But for practicality they were excellent. Of course they rusted.

    • The 1397cc + 5 speed TS was much quieter than the former 1289cc + 4 speed. Internal noise came from the thirsty Weber opening.

  8. Yeah Mum had one it was the “pool” car for us kids. It replaced an Alfasud and while it did not have the same street cred it was more comfortable and far more practical. In terms of handling and road holding it was not far behind the Sud but did role a lot. As hinted above not the most reliable of cars but better than the Sud or the Viva that preceded it. Would I have another? No I don’t find myself hankering for the 5 or the Sud the way I do for my Maestro, my Saab, My Montego or my Rover 45. Or indeed the way I would love to have an 1800

  9. Hello, long story ! Will rebirth in EV form soon. BTW the Supercinq was styled by Marcello Gandini after he had left Bertone.

  10. Our friend Olivier Guin (Car Design Archive) had the opportunity to talk to Madame Boué. Even if his brother and many people told Michel Boué was dead before the launch, that’s not the truth ! He passed away on 1972 Christmas Day – Olivier got the official certificate of death from Paris town-hall. There has even been a picture in Paris-Match for the launch, displaying him and the Renault board. Madame Boué told that he was a bit anxious because not having seen many Renault 5s in the streets. He feared the design was the root cause. He probably has seen much more Renault 5s later-on from the designers paradise ….

    • Philippe, that is a fantastic revelation. And overturning the entire industry’s knowledge of the Boué situation. I will, of course, update the story now to reflect this. What is disappointing is that there is so little information about the great man online, and no trace of the date of his passing (and I did look)

  11. It was quite an advanced design for the time apart from the engine layout, as Renault seemed to be reluctant to use a transverse layout before the 14, which used the Peugeot suitcase engines.

  12. The chassis layout was a complete carry-over from the 4 and 6, mostly economical for design and tooling. It was not that bad, just a bit noisy and cramped to host engine between the driver and passenger’s feet.

  13. It shows what smart styling can do with relatively mundane underpinnings, even today the Renault 5 looks good.

    Sadly Issigonis did not understand the importance of good styling (the Ado 16 thankfully escaping much of his influence on the styling thanks to the challenge of visiting Cowley from Longbridge was so difficult in the days before the M42/M40). Then the cost cutters brought in from Ford forbid the use of Italian styling houses for the Allegro and Princess.

    • The lack of style also hampered the Landcrab & Maxi, especially considering the advanced engineering under the skin.

      • I agree, which is why I noted Issigonis’s failure to understand the importance of good styling in the success of car, a failure which as you say led in no small part to the commercial failure of both the Landcrab and Maxi.

  14. The Maxi was not that bad looking. Somehow Michel Boué and the Renault staff were a bit anxious with the 5’s innovative styling.

    • The Maxi is not bad looking as such, it is just completely lacking in style at time when in the UK over 70% in the Maxi’s market segment were Company Cars.

      A company car is a statement about your job and your success at doing it. The Maxi 1750 HL did not shout middle management success, instead it said “hanging on for the pension”.

      • At that time you could choose between a roomy, secure and comfy Maxi and a cramped, noisy, harsh, bumpy Cortina Mk3 …

  15. A technical query, I drove a Renault 5 for a couple of weeks, working in Paris, my employer loaned the office runabout car for my use, a very good car, I enjoyed the experience. From the illustration in the article, the rear wheels are an trailing arm design, were the two rear wheels connected by a anti-roll-bar or fully independent? Did the R5 suffer from rapid wear of the pivot bearings for the trailing arm just like long-departed my A+ Metro. The front wheels of the R5, were they a McPherson strut or a double-wishbone arrangement?

  16. No rear anti-roll bar. And double wishbone on the front.
    I did not notice any wear of my pivot bearings while keeping my Renault 5 from new to 140 000km (95 000 miles)

  17. What the Mini should have become in the early seventies, a modern hatchback with three choices of trim and better engines. The Renault 5 was what we’d now call a supermini and light years ahead of the Mini. Even when the 5 was finally pensioned off in 1995, sales were still decent as it had been reinvented as a budget car for people who couldn’t afford a Clio.

    • There is no doubt in my mind, the R5 a good carvery appropriate for the needs of many, distinct from many cars of today, the modern obsession with “connectivity” and “image” of the driver.
      The mini was a labour intensive car to manufacture and assemble, therefore a drain on the profits, , how did the R5 fare in terms of manhours per car for the economy of manufacture and assembly?

  18. The original Renault 5 did not have better engines : the old looong stroke 3 bearings Billancourt (ok a race winner with the 4cv and Alpine) 782cc 34bhp DIN and the more modern Cleon 5 bearings Iron Block 956cc 44bhp DIN, both roaring. Could compare to A Series. Then came an extension of the Cleon with 1289cc and even 1397cc, 64bhp DIN and with the hemi-head and turbo 110bhp DIN.

  19. Only ever drove very early ones with the dash gear change. What a joy! Loved the soft ride and roll combined with a 2CV like ability to cling on – apparently defying physics! The French were the masters at this – the 16 was the ultimate!

  20. The original car with the dash change and the 845cc engine was great. I loved my 11 year old one, so much so that I’ve still got it 38 years later (and a lot of welding).

    • The iconic long-stroke three bearings 4cv-747cc-originated engine lasted from 1948 till 1986 when they destroyed the Billancourt Usine O where the “Billancourt” was manufactured. Iron block and alloy head, loooong stroke – 58×80 for the 845cc and 55×80 for the 747cc ! Lively engine anyway. The phase 1 five (phase 2 came with new dash and seats plus the quiter 1108cc/1397cc) rusted a lot. From 1981-on the phase 2 did not rust at-all, thanks to new cataphoresis installations like for quite every car manufacturer.

      • @ Phiiippe, I suppose in the south of France, rust would have been less of an issue. I can remember going on a coach trip to Spain in 1983 and seeing hundreds of elderly French cars that people had forgotten about like the Renault 8 and Peugeot 404. Also those funny looking( to our eyes) corrugated Citroen vans were familiar sights.

  21. @Glenn, I have been working with many manufacturers for years when I was developping a world-leader CAD system. They all, even Volvo and Mercedes, would tell you that the seventies were terrible for having produced rust-buckets. As a happy ’75 Jaguar XJC owner I can tell you too 😉 . This changed dramatically beginning of the eighties with new protection against rust techniques in the paintshops. Yes Renault 4, 16, Peugeot 404, but Minis too, even in the sixties while my ’67 3.4 “S” model is not too bad, better than younger sister.

    • The adoption of those rust protection techniques in the bodyshop probably marked a turning point for the Japanese car in the UK, the Japanese had built cars with very good engines and gearboxes allied to bodies which could not cope with British rain and winters, engines and gearboxes which outlasted the rust-prone bodies of Datsuns, when the public realised Japanese cars were no longer rusting away it became risk-free to spend your hard-earned money on a Datsun or Toyota, the 1980s Nissan Micra was an example of the new breed for the long-term owner

    • @ philippe, It is odd, as a car like the Mark 3 Ford Cortina seemed to rust at a faster rate than the Mark 2, but some manufacturers did cut corners to save money and produce more cars. Fiat was notorious for using cheap Russian steel which was notorious for premature rust, while the Hillman Avenger had very little underfloor rust protection that could see the floorpan rust out at four years old, damaging the brand’s reputation for making quite durable cars. Then there was the Rover SD1 and its flaking paintwork that helped to sink the brand’s reputation.
      Luckily as you say, by the end of the seventies, with buyers expecting better and tiring of cars rusting away after a couple of years, the manufacturers got their act together. I think the use of better steel, galvanised bodies, the use of more plastics and the introduction of anti rust warranties saw cars in the eighties become far more immune to rust. The Mark 5 Cortina was a huge leap forward and lasted far better than the Matk 3 and 4, and the Japanese rapidly shed the rusty Datsun image.

  22. I would go along with cyclist. I owned 1979 / 81 N10 Cherry’s then a 1983 Sunny B11 coupe. The build quality and rust protection on the Sunny was better and after selling it in 1990 it still looked decent under next ownership for a couple more years

  23. The R5 has generated more comments than any articles I’ve read recently – clearly a much loved classic! I seem to remember Princess Margaret drove one, as did Diana before her sudden press profile led her to be a flag waver for the Metro, perhaps her own decision, perhaps not!

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