Louis Renault (French diplomat)

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Louis Renault

French automobile designer Louis Renault (1877–1944) founded the company that bears his name. A pioneer in the automotive industry, Renault has been heralded for the superb mechanical innovations in his company's early models. In 1944 he was arrested and jailed because of his business collaboration with France's pro–Nazi Vichy puppet government during World War II. He died in custody.

Renault was born on February 15, 1877, at home at 14 Place de Laborde in Paris, France. He was the fourth of six Renault children, but two of his sisters and a brother did not survive to adulthood. Their father, Alfred, was a successful button manufacturer and fabric merchant, and the family lived a grand Parisian life. Unlike his brothers, Renault did poorly in school, but was an avid tinkerer from an early age. At the family's country home in Billancourt, outside Paris, he converted its garden shed into his first workshop.

Thrilled by Emerging Technology

Renault was fascinated by the emerging "horseless carriage" industry. In 1889, French inventor Léon Serpollet teamed with bicycle manufacturer Armand Peugeot to introduce an unwieldy steam–powered, three–wheeled car, but it was not until the Peugeot company began placing internal–combustion engines from the Daimler company into their cars that a genuine French automotive industry truly emerged. Renault loved to hang out near Serpollet's facility in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, where the inventor noticed the teenager one day and gave him his first ride in a motor–powered vehicle.

After pursuing a course in mechanical engineering, Renault earned his first patent, for a steam generator, and began tinkering with his own vehicles. He built his first car in 1898, a 1.75–horsepower Voiturette, or "small car." It was actually a motorized tricycle with a fourth wheel he installed as well as a transmission system. His three–speed gearbox allowed the Voiturette to go in reverse, and the gearbox was also his first foray into the "direct drive" system. Previously, gear wheels transmitted power to the wheels even at the highest gear, and appropriate gear wheels were needed for each speed. This was known as the chain–drive system. Renault's idea innovation also featured universal joints in the drive shaft, which allowed the axle to rise and fall. He demonstrated it to some friends on Christmas Eve of 1898, when they challenged him to drive the Voiturette up the notoriously steep Rue Lepic in Montmartre. He won the bet that night, and took twelve orders for the car from among the friends and a crowd that had gathered to watch.

Formed Company

Renault's brothers Fernand and Marcel had taken over their father's business after his 1891 death. They decided to back Louis in his venture, and established the Société Renault Fréres in early 1899. Initially, Renault was not even listed as a principal in the new company, merely a salaried employee. But the Renault firm's automobiles quickly made their mark on the burgeoning industry, thanks to Renault's mechanical genius. In 1902, the company introduced the modern drum brake on its cars, which remained standard a century later. The firm also thrived with the help of the brothers' savvy marketing efforts: they entered and personally drove the cars in the new auto rallies that had become the craze in Europe. A Renault model performed well in the Paris–Trouville event of 1899, and then on a Paris–Berlin route. Marcel Renault won the Paris–Vienna race in 1902, beating even the express train. The races served to gain major publicity for Renault cars and proved their mettle in the most trying of conditions. Renault quit racing, however, when Marcel died in the 1903 Paris–Madrid rally. Industry lore claims that Detroit auto pioneer Henry Ford halted his own daredevil participation in similar races as well because of the tragedy.

Renault instead devoted his energies to expanding the business with new designs, and in 1905 his company issued five vehicles, including a 2–cylinder AG model. That same year the company received major orders for taxicabs for Paris and London, and Renault–built cabs were even deployed as far away as New York City and Buenos Aires in these early years. Still keenly interested in racing, but from the sidelines, Renault became one of the founders of the Grand Prix racing circuit. In 1906, a Renault AK 90CV won the first–ever Grand Prix event. A year later, Renault visited the United States and Ford's impressive Highland Park assembly plant just outside of Detroit, and took ideas back to the immense new Renault manufacturing plant in Billancourt. By then he had secured control of the company, and owned it outright after the death of his brother Fernand in 1909. As chief of Louis Renault Automobile Company, he emerged as one of France's leading industrialists, and entered into a fierce competitive battle with automotive rival Andre Citroën.

Renault was fond of the work of an early factory–management theorist, Frederick Winslow Taylor, who wrote The Principles of Scientific Management. What became known as "Taylorism" centered around precise time–motion studies, with the resultant data then used to tightly control all facets of the manufacturing process to produce maximum efficiency and profit. The Renault plant was the first in France to introduce Taylorism to the workplace, but the stringent rules incited bad feelings among workers, and the plant suffered the first in a series of politically risky strikes in 1913.

The Marne Taxis

The onset of the Great War, or World War I, in France gave the Renault company one of its most legendary moments in business history: on September 7, 1914, General Joseph Gallieni commissioned the Paris Renault AG taxicabs to take newly mobilized soldiers to a Marne River battlefield, where the newly deployed French troops successfully repelled a German advance. Renault's firm went on to make airplane engines, ammunition, and the vital FT–17 tanks that broke through German defense lines later during the war.

The war's end in 1918 also brought a new change in Renault's personal life: at the age of 40, he wed 21–year–old Christiane Boullaire, a quick–witted and attractive member of a haute–Parisian social set. The couple had a son, Jean–Louis, and they lived a lavish lifestyle, both at a palatial home on Paris's Avenue Foch and at a country estate near Rouen called Herqueville. Christiane Renault was a socially ambitious and clever woman, but she had some bohemian tendencies. One of these was her collection of pet snakes that she kept in the house, and on occasion she would even greet visitors with one around her neck or wrist.

Unable to Stem Labor Troubles

Renault's firm grew immense during the 1920s: it made a roster of inexpensive small cars, and also branched out into farm equipment as well as industrial and marine machinery. At one point, it was France's largest manufacturer and the leading auto exporter. Renault reorganized in the early 1920s, forming the Société Anonyme des Usines Renault (SAUR), a vertical organization that copied much from Henry Ford's "vertical integration" model. Renault's company came to own the suppliers from which it bought its parts, and in some cases even the sources of raw material. Imitating Ford's strategy once again, Renault introduced the assembly line method of production, and constructed a state–of–the–art facility at Ile Seguin in Billancourt in the early 1930s.

Renault had traditionally concentrated on the smaller–car market, but in the late 1920s the company began introducing larger models, such as the Renault 6. It continued to expand despite the effects of the Great Depression, and even bought a stake in Air France during this era. The economic setbacks, however, led to problems with the immense Renault labor force, and to stay viable its chief ordered wages or hours to be cut, which added to the ill will inside the plants. There were more strikes in 1934, which turned violent, and the Billancourt factory became an epicenter of the burgeoning trade–union movement in France after 1936. A leftist coalition called the Popular Front came to power that year, and Renault's factories, like many others, were occupied by workers in the heady aftermath. The government stepped in to negotiate, and forced Renault and other leading industrialists to comply with all new labor laws, including a 40–hour work week, social security contributions, and paid holidays.

Sent Abroad in Ruse

More labor troubles came in 1938, and Renault factories were once again occupied by workers; this time the riot police stepped in. Afterward, Renault ordered some 2,000 workers suspected of being Communist Party members off the payroll. He and other French industrialists worried that the strong leftist sentiment in the country meant that a Soviet–style government takeover of industry was imminent, while he also feared that United States economic might would overpower European industry anyway should the system be left as it was. He looked to Germany and Italy, where new fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were actively involved in reviving automobile manufacturing in their respective lands, and even met Hitler personally at the 1938 Berlin auto show.

France wavered when Nazi Germany emerged as a credible threat, and with war looming, Renault was adamant that his plants not be forced to convert to making armaments. During World War I, he argued, he had willingly complied, but in this case he resented the government's interference. By this time Renault had made enemies in many quarters, and the French government requested that he serve as the country's representative on a mission to the United States, ostensibly to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to negotiate the production of tanks under license. In retrospect the request appeared to be a ruse, for once he was safely out of the country, France surrendered to Germany and a puppet government was installed in Vichy. All of Renault's plants were then forced to produce armaments for the German war effort, and when he sailed home he even endured some difficulties trying to re–enter France under the new occupation laws.

"Or They'll Take the Cows"

Renault adamantly refused to give aid to the French Resistance, which worked secretly to destabilize the pro–Nazi Vichy regime. This was another decision that sealed his fate with the leftist government that returned to power once the war turned and Allied troops liberated France in mid–1944. Renault was greeted with hostility at his Billancourt factory, and vilified in the left–wing press as a German collaborator. His supporters argued that he had only done so to keep his factory from being dismantled and moved to Germany, with its workers deported to labor camps under Nazi control. "It is better to give them the butter, or they'll take the cows," he once said of the Germans, according to Anthony Rhodes's Louis Renault: A Biography.

Renault was taken into custody and awaited trial at a Frésnes military prison facility in Paris. He was then moved to a psychiatric prison facility, and his health rapidly deteriorated. Finally, the pleas of his family and supporters resulted in another relocation, this time to a nearby private hospital, but he had already sunk into a coma and died there on October 24, 1944. For years, rumors circulated that blows to the head three weeks earlier may have caused Renault's cerebral hemorrhage, but the cause of death was officially listed as heart failure, and a later inquiry failed to turn up either witnesses or credible clues. His company was nationalized by the French government under General Charles de Gaulle, the former Resistance leader, after having been classified as an instrument of the enemy. The move was widely seen as a conciliatory gesture to the left. It became Régie National des Usines Renault, and continued to thrive over the next few decades. It was partially privatized in 1996.


Rhodes, Anthony, Louis Renault: A Biography, Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1969.

World of Invention, second edition, Gale, 1999.


Automotive News, September 28, 1998.

Evening Standard (London, England), October 26, 2001.

Times (London, England), December 24, 1957.

Ward's Auto World, October 1, 2002.