Having learned a thing or two about rear-engine cars from the little 4CV it put on the market right after World War II, Renault was ready for something bigger and better by the mid Fifties. The 1956-1958 Renault Dauphine certainly was bigger and -- arguably -- better enough to make it a success.

Classic Cars Image Gallery

The 1955 Renault Dauphine is shown here.
After years in development, the Renault Dauphine finally rolled
 off the assembly line in 1955. The 1955 Renault Dauphine
 is shown here. See more pictures of classic cars.

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche has a lot to answer for. If he had not originally designed the Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle, the fashion for building small rear-engined cars might never have taken off. Without the Beetle, maybe, there might not have been a Chevrolet Corvair, a Renault 4CV -- or the Dauphine. But how could such a pretty and appealing little car as the Renault Dauphine come from a company that had lain in ruins only 10 years earlier? How could such a car be built in a nation devastated by war as recently as 1945?

When American troops from General G. O. Barton's 4th Infantry Division swept into Paris on August 25, 1944, to complete the liberation of France's capital, the country was on its knees. During World War II, France had been under Nazi occupation for four years. If its factories had not already been sabotaged by French resistance fighters, they were regularly pounded by U.S. Army Air Forces and British Royal Air Force bomber sorties.

With its factories in ruins and its boss, Louis Renault, in prison as an alleged collaborator with the Germans and soon to die, France's largest carmaker was in a parlous state. Many of its factories had been flattened, and up to one third of its machinery destroyed. Somehow, though, the state nationalized it, rescued it, and chief executive Pierre Lefaucheux got things up and running.

A brand new Renault, the 760cc 4CV, went on sale in 1947. Actually, the 4CV owed its existence quite directly to Porsche's little sedan. Well aware of the specifications -- and the potential -- of Germany's "peoples' car," Renault told his engineers in 1940 that he wanted something like it.

Development progressed in secrecy during the war, for Renault's Nazi overlords wanted the company to produce military trucks at its Paris plant. Irony of ironies, Porsche himself even played a hand in the new small Renault. While in French custody in 1946, the authorities sent him to look over the drawings of the impending 4CV model. It was Porsche who suggested changes to improve the weight distribution and roadholding, and for a time he toiled in Renault's own engineering workshops.

Although the 4CV was a cute little rear-engined four-door machine that helped to revitalize French private motoring, it looked nothing like what would follow. Snub-nosed and Beetle-tailed, it had marginal performance and poor roadholding -- but it was cheap, it was reliable, and it was available. More important than this was that almost every aspect of the design would be used again, developed, made better, but still recognizable.

In 1951, Régie Nationale des Usines Renault -- as the government-backed company was now known -- decided that it was time to try again. It took a long time to get the new R1090 project car ready for sale. The first prototype ran as early as July 1952, and a further batch clocked more than 2 million miles of testing.

Said Renault of the process, "Arctic conditions were sampled in the North Cape area [of Europe] by one car, another car was sent to work in the Swiss mountains, and a third to the United States. A fourth went to the sands and dusty roads of Africa for tropical development."

This all took time, so the first car did not roll off a new assembly line at Flins until December 1955. Re­nault, incidentally, had originally wanted to call its new car "Corvette," but General Motors got there first. Instead, the company got in touch with its feminine side. Although France was a republic, it still enjoyed its royal connections. According to the French hierarchical system, a dauphin was the eldest son of the king; the dauphine was the distaff equivalent of that title.

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