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In 1899 Louis Renault (1877–1944), son of drapery and button manufacturer Alfred Renault, and two of his four brothers established a business in a small workshop in a garden shed in Billancourt, a Paris suburb on the Seine River. A year with steam boiler maker Delaunay Belleville had proven Renault's brilliant engineering skills, and being an ambitious motorist, he decided to build a motorcar by himself. His first vehicle, finished in 1899, featured a De Dion-Bouton motorcycle engine with less than two horsepower, front-mounted with shaft drive to the rear axle via a three-speed gearbox, plus wheel steering—unusual enough in those days when belt or chain drive was common and only tiller steering was offered by other manufacturers.

Louis, Marcel, and Fernand Renault were persuaded by friends and business people to produce a series of that sturdy little vehicle called Type A, so by the end of 1899, they had finished seventy-one cars in the prototype pattern, with the help of sixty workers.


Production grew rapidly, as new premises in Billancourt were built; new and bigger models followed the Type A. From 1902 on, Renault used engines of the company's own design. Racing became the most important means of advertising, so Louis and his brothers participated with specially prepared cars in all major events of the time, such as the 1902 Paris-Vienna town-to-town race, which Marcel won outright, defeating much more powerful competitors. One year later, however, Marcel Renault lost his life in a road accident after leading the Paris-Madrid race as far as Bordeaux. The race was stopped there, and Renault quit motor sports for a few years. Back on the scene in 1906, a 12.1 liter Renault driven by Hungarian driver François Szisz won the French Grand Prix, the very first Grand Prix event in history. In 1907 he competed in a similar car, but it was not until 1977 that Renault cars were back on the Grand Prix stage. And in 2005 the Spanish Formula One driver Fernando Alonso won, for the first time, the Grand Prix World Championship for Renault. Renault-powered cars had won the Formula One World Championship in 1992, 1993, 1996, and 1997 with the British Williams team and in 1995 with Benetton supplying cars, manpower, and organization. In 2005, however, both the engine and the car were purely Renault. Alonso, only twenty-four, was the youngest Grand Prix driver ever to become World Champion.


The famous "coal scuttle" hood and dashboard-mounted radiator became Renault features from 1904 to 1928. More than a dozen competitors copied this striking design. As production in Billancourt increased, so did the model range: Renault's aim was to satisfy every customer, so by 1905 the program consisted of fifteen different models with two- and four-cylinder engines up to 4.4 liters.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Renault became a market leader in France. Since 1907 Louis Renault had owned 97 percent of the company shares; in March 1922 the enterprise became incorporated. Small and medium-sized cars proved to be bestsellers, and only few eight-cylinders were built, like the mighty 40 CV 7.2 liter, a masterpiece of engineering. Main competitors were Peugeot and, beginning in 1919, Citroën, but Renault managed to maintain its engineering and marketing leadership. In the early 1930s, Renault set up Europe's most advanced car factory on the Isle de Segiun in the Seine River.

Aerodynamic bodies with one-piece windshields and sloping radiator grilles marked a new era in the early 1930s, and again Renault was among the first to feature the new design trend with headlamps set in the front wings. Renault sedans, coupes, convertibles, and limousines shared a reputation for being the best. Renault cars were the traditional transport for French presidents up to 1939.


In 1939 Louis Renault did not change to tank production as he had done in 1915 but continued producing cars as he thought the conflict would soon be over. But when the Germans took control of the factory in 1940, they forced Renault to produce military trucks for them. For "helping the enemy," Louis Renault was arrested in 1944, accused of collaboration; he died soon after. His company was nationalized by the French state in 1945, declared as "Régie Nationale des Usines Renault."

Under the leadership of Pierre Lefaucheux (1898–1955), the company again rose to prosperity and commercial success. Its main product was the popular little 4 CV car: 1.1 million were built up to 1962, thus dominating the small car market against Citroën's rustic 2 CV. Its successor, the Renault 4, was even more successful, with 8.5 million units produced between 1962 and 1992. It was the first Renault with front-wheel drive, a technology that Renault adopted after the rear-engine design was phased out in 1968.

With the streamlined, unitary-construction Dauphine, Renault started its prosperous export activities to the United States. Other internationally popular models were the 16 beginning in 1965, the 5 ("Le Car" in the United States) beginning in 1972, and the 20 beginning in 1975, not to forget the Clio (introduced 1990) and the Twingo (1995).


Renault's first important business collaboration with a U.S. manufacturer was in 1963 when the French company started to produce the American Motors (AMC) Rambler in France under license, a link that resulted in Renault taking over a 46.9 percent stake in AMC in 1979. In the United States, Renault began competing strongly with Volkswagen by manufacturing its own cars in the country. When Chrysler acquired AMC in 1987, Renault's ties were phased out. As a replacement, Renault bought 36.8 percent of Nissan in 1999, paying $1.7 billion to become the fifth largest car manufacturer in the world. The stake rose to 44.4 percent in 2001. Nissan in turn took a 15 percent stake in Renault in 2002. Renault also bought Samsung Motors of Seoul (Renault Samsung Motors) and Dacia in Romania, a former Renault licensee. Technology transfer, engineering, sales, and marketing forces were combined to mutual benefit for Renault and Nissan. In 2000 Renault and Nissan had more than 350,000 dealer outlets around the globe.

In 1996 Renault was privatized under chief executive Louis Schweitzer (b. 1942), a successor to Georges Besse (1927–1986), who had been assassinated by leftist militants in November 1986. Only one year earlier, Renault had recovered from a severe slump. The worst year in a sequence of five, 1985 saw a number of strikes and a decline in productivity, which led to losses. Although its cars were successful both on the road and on the racetrack, Renault reported a loss of 12.5 billion francs in 1984. The government intervened and Besse was installed as chairman; he set about cutting costs dramatically, selling off many of Renault's non-core assets, withdrawing from motor sports, and laying off many employees. It took another year to re-establish stability.

Since 1947 strikes had not been a major threat to Renault because the labor unions—mainly communist controlled—always had a strong foothold. During the 1960s, paid holidays for Renault workers had been raised from two weeks to three, then even four. The company was renowned in France for its social welfare programs and generous pension plans. After Besse came Raymond Lévy (b. 1927), who continued Besse's strategy, slimming down the company considerably with the result that by the end of 1987 Renault was financially stable again, also thanks to new and innovative car models.


Renault's commercial vehicle production had always been strong as well. The company had built its first diesel engine truck as early as 1929, merged with Berliet in 1974, and, after a number of further acquisitions, set up Renault Véhicules Industriels (RVI) in 1979. The traditional American truck producer Mack joined forces with Renault in 1990, and in 2001 the RVI group was integrated into Volvo Trucks Holding with Renault securing a minority stake. Leading in modern design and innovative engineering, RVI revolutionized the European truck industry ahead of Scania, IVECO, MAN, and Mercedes-Benz. In the smaller range, Renault again made history with the Espace model line, a completely new kind of multipurpose van for the European markets launched in late 1985.


In 2004, 130,500 employees worldwide worked for Renault, and the financial year featured a turnover of 60 billion euros against 55 billion in the previous year. The government of France owned a mere 15.7 percent of the company. The passenger model range consisted of eleven basic models with more than fifty derivates and versions. Independent Renault factories were active in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Spain, and Turkey while assembly production took place in Colombia, Madagascar, Mexico, the Philippines, Portugal, and Venezuela. In many European countries, including Germany, Renault was the bestselling non-domestic make, leading Japanese imports by far. The well-loved slogan, always in French and not translated, was simply "Renault, créateur d'automobiles." In 2004 Renault became known for its car safety record: it was the car manufacturer with the largest number of models achieving the maximum five-star rating in the Euro New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) crash tests.

While Mégane, Laguna, and Clio continued to be bestsellers, there were also bizarre hybrids like the Avantime and the luxury sedan Vel Satis that sold poorly.

In 2004 Renault reported a 43 percent rise in net income, to 3.5 billion euros. The Group (Renault, Dacia, Renault Samsung Motors) posted a 4.2 percent increase in worldwide sales to a record 2,489,401 vehicles, representing a global market share of 4.1 percent and 40.7 billion euros in revenue. It is clear that Renault retained its position as the leading brand in Europe.

See alsoAutomobiles.


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Halwart Schrader