1956-1968 Renault Dauphine

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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1956 Renault Dauphine

Renault's "princess" -- the 1956 Renault Dauphine -- made her public debut in March 1956, and the French were enthralled.

Renault kept its conventional "Ventoux" ohc inline four-cylinder water-cooled engine with removable cylinder sleeves in the tail, and swathed it all in pretty and curvaceous bodywork. At 89 inches, its wheelbase was 6.3 inches longer than that of the 4CV. The Dauphine was a full foot longer end to end, and it was wider and slightly lower than its predecessor (which hung around until 1961).

The result was a peoples' car that looked much classier than it was, could swallow an impressive payload of people and luggage, and would swish along France's tree-lined Routes Nationales at more than 60 mph.

Unhappily for Renault, at that stage, it knew no more than Dr. Porsche did about controlling tail-heavy swing-axle handling characteristics. If the heavy engine and gearbox were mounted in the tail, and most of the front sheetmetal surrounded nothing but fresh air for carrying luggage, the resulting weight distri­bution was bound to be scary.

Nearly 62 percent of the Dauphine's weight was carried by the rear wheels, and since the rear suspension was by simple high-pivot swing axles, those wheels always had a hard time. Everything you have heard about Dauphine handling -- the nervous way in which it might pass a semi on the Interstate, and the skittish way it crossed high exposed bridges -- was true. Not even a weird combination of recommended tire pressures --15 psi at the front and 23 psi at the rear -- could completely tame that problem.

Early road tests in U.S. publications were quite content with the Dauphine's handling, but by 1960, Motor Trend had this to say: "There is nothing in the handling at normal speeds to indicate that the engine is stowed in the rear but push up to some high-speed cornering and the rear end becomes quite skittish, requiring skilled control of an oversteer condition that presents itself."

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The Glamorous Dauphine

The Renault Dauphine's unit-construction bodyshell was really that of a conventional body under which a pair of perimeter-shaped longitudinal box sections, with substantial cross-bracing, had been welded. The four-cylinder 845cc engine, essentially the 4CV powerplant with larger cylinder bores, lived in the extreme tail with cooling outlet vents in the engine lid -- I nearly called it a "trunklid," though that was at the front -- and neat air intakes in each rear passenger door to give away the game. The rear wheels were driven through a three-speed transaxle mounted ahead of it. (Even in 1956 Road & Track and Motor Trend longed for a fourth gear.)

One technical oddity was the option of the Ferlec clutch, which had automatic electromagnetic operation, and no separate clutch pedal. The front-hinged trunk­lid, in which the headlights were mounted, flipped up to reveal a seven-cubic-foot cargo hold. The spare tire was carried on its side under the front of the car, hidden behind a pivoting panel below the center section of the bumper.

The suspension, let's now be honest about this, was a mixture of the sensible and the bizarre. Up front, there was a conventional coil-spring/wishbone layout, with an antiroll bar, all neatly packaged with rack-and-pinion steering, on a detachable front cross member. Then, at the rear, there was a high-pivot swing axle of the simplest nature, with concentric coil-spring/telescopic dampers sitting atop the swing tubes (Renault called them "trumpet casings") themselves.

Fore-and-aft location? Except for the trunnion arms in the transaxle housing itself, there was none at all. The whole of the pressed engine/transaxle/suspension mounting member was detachable from the main body structure.

One oddity, which was carried over from the 4CV, was that the axle hubs at front and rear were quite large, with five very widely spaced bolt locations for the road wheels. The wheels themselves were really no more than sturdy rims with five mounting lugs to match up with the hubs, the space in the middle being pure fresh air!

Maybe it all looked technically elegant, and maybe the Dauphine was very cheap to build, but this certainly wasn't the sort of car likely to last for decades. At the front end, it looked positively flimsy (in any sort of head-on crash, that fairly hollow nose would fold up to the windshield in no time at all), and it wasn't long before customers discovered the alarming tendency for body panels to rust away.

Commercially, none of this seemed to matter very much. New at the right time, when France's economy was picking up well, and when the world was still looking for really modern-looking cars, the Dauphine was soon a fashionable machine. It wasn't long before Paris and other French cities were teeming with these little four-seaters.

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1957-1959 Renault Dauphine

Before long, 700 Renault Dauphines were being built every day, the 100,000th car being produced in March 1957.

Renault, never likely to miss too many publicity tricks, made sure that film stars like Brigitte Bardot were photographed in a Dauphine. A works team of five cars with tweaked engines and five-speed gearboxes swept the first four places in class at the '56 Mille Miglia, the smashed-up fourth-place car having survived a tumble into a ravine along the way.

Kit assembly began in several countries (including England and Italy), and Renault even hoped to sell big numbers in the USA, where the car first appeared in April 1956 at the New York Auto Show.

Could they have been serious? Could they really have expected a 30-bhp machine that took an age to drag itself away from traffic lights (0-60 mph in about 31 seconds), one that couldn't afford to dispute the same piece of road as a Checker cab, to take over on Main Street, USA? They could -- and they were swiftly proved wrong.

Customers soon found that they could not really beat 45 mph in second gear, and somehow, too, they felt vulnerable. At least the Dauphine had frugality going for it. In addition to its affordable starting price ($1,645 at its U.S. introduction, or $150 more than a base VW Beetle), the Dauphine averaged as much as 39.1 mixed-use mpg in magazine tests.

The glamorous side, though, was soon enhanced with brighter, faster, and more sporting models. Luckily for Renault, when the Dauphine was being launched, the impecunious French race-car builder, Amédée Gordini, had abandoned Grand Prix racing, and was looking for work. Renault speedily hired him, and set him to improve the Dauphine's performance.

In September 1957, the result was the Dauphine-Gordini, which not only had a different cylinder head and a 38-bhp engine, but a four-speed gearbox, too. The extra peak power doesn't sound like much, but it was, after all, a 27 percent improvement on the standard car -- enough to provide a top speed of 74 mph, much more suitable for keeping up with larger-engined cars, particularly in the U.S. (The Dauphine further proved its performance mettle by winning the punishing 1958 Monte Carlo Rally.)

Little more than a year later, Renault then added the very fashionable Floride models -- called Caravelles in the USA -- with styling by Frua, and bodyshell manufacture by specialist coachbuilders Brissonneau et Lotz. Though available in extremely smart 2+2 coupe or two-seat convertible forms, these cars were both based on the Dauphine platform, albeit with a more powerful engine. For a time, a Floride was the car in which to be seen in Paris, or in French seaside resorts.

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Renault Dauphine of the Sixties

The Renault Dauphine models of the Sixties started off with a bang. For the 1960 model year, Renault astonished everyone by introducing a new Dauphine suspension system, called Aerostable. Don't get too excited, though; this was not a replacement for the agricultural swing-axle rear end, but the addition of extra rubber springs up front, and auxiliary air spring units (mounted inboard of the conventional coils) at the rear.

Although this setup gave a softer ride in most conditions, it firmed up rapidly as the payload increased. For the sporty driver, the main advantage was that when only two people were being carried, the rear wheels now had a small degree of negative camber and more grip when cornering.

The 1964 Renault Dauphine sported new four-wheel disc brakes.
The 1964 Renault Dauphine sported
new four-wheel disc brakes.

By that time, Renault had pushed up 845cc engine power to 32 bhp in the standard Dauphine and 40 bhp in the Gordini (the latter now picking up the Caravelle's engine rather than its own special castings). As such, the Gordini was good for 0-60 times of around 20 seconds and a top speed of about 80 mph.

With more than 200,000 Dauphines being built every year, and the 1 millionth car being produced in 1960, a bit of midterm complacency might be expected, but there was none of that at the Régie.

For 1961, the Ondine Dauphine appeared, this being a standard model equipped with the four-speed gearbox of the Gordini, then from mid 1961 came the DeLuxe models, in which the backrests of the front seats could be reclined, the luggage container was lined, the trim was enhanced, and whitewall tires were standard.

There was more to come. For 1962, Renault gave the basic Dauphine an all-synchromesh three-speed gearbox. At the same time the fierce limited-edition Dauphine R1093 (R for "Rally") made its appearance. Because almost all of those cars stayed at home, export enthusiasts missed out on a car with no less than 55 bhp that could beat 90 mph.

Although the Dauphine was soon outshone by the new rear-engine R8 sedan -- a square-rigged, larger-engined car with updated versions of the Dauphine's suspension systems that first appeared in mid 1962 -- it picked up the R8's four-wheel disc brakes for 1964. New options for the year included air conditioning and a three-speed automatic transmission with pushbutton controls mounted on the dash.

Here, at last, was a well-matured little car that looked good, was brisk enough, and stopped very well indeed. If only Renault had ever taken heed of criticism over the handling problems -- if Porsche could find ways of dealing with it in its sports cars, why not Renault? -- the package might have been even more appealing.

The rear half of the back windows of the 1964 Renault Dauphine slid forward for ventilation
The rear half of the back windows of the 1964
Renault Dauphine slid forward for ventilation.

By the mid Sixties, however, time was running out for the Dauphine. It had been running for nearly 10 years with no style changes, and, in basic form, with very little improvement in performance. Serious body-corrosion problems that came on with age were now well known, and the light (some said fragile) construction was sometimes criticized.

Appealing or not, the car was also under attack from within Renault itself: from below by the new front-wheel-drive R4, and from above by the more spacious, more capable, R8.

In America specifically, some other factors were at work cooling demand for the Dauphine. Renault's U.S. sales, which had been in the mere hundreds per year in the early Fifties, shot up in the decade's latter years, a time when more and more Americans were turning to small, economical European cars. Led by the Dauphine, Renault sold 91,073 cars in the States in 1959. But from that high point, the total slipped precipitously to just 12,106 for 1966.

When new domestic compacts from Ford, Chrysler, and Chevrolet joined existing small cars from Rambler and Studebaker on the market for 1960, all the imports -- even Volkswagen -- suffered to some degree. Even a price cut instituted for 1961 couldn't help the Dauphine.

Renault faced more than a sudden spate of Yank competitors, however. There was also growing disenchantment with its service support in the U.S. You needn't take our word on it; Renault freely admitted as much in its magazine advertising when it introduced the R8's successor, the 10, for 1967. "Our [earlier] cars were not fully prepared to meet the demands of America. . . . More than a fair share of things went wrong with our cars. Less than a fair share of our dealers were equipped to deal with what went wrong," the company confessed as it begged erstwhile customers to consider "The Renault for people who swore they would never buy another one."

Renaults would briefly sell in great numbers in the USA again, but not until the early Eighties, when they were being manufactured in American Motors Corporation plants and sold by AMC dealers.

The last of the base-model Dauphines was produced in December 1966, though the higher-powered Gordini types carried on until 1968. In the end, about 2 million of the little sedans were built, which made this a commercial success by any standards. And no matter how hard Renault tried in the next few years, it never again produced anything that looked quite as cute.

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1956-1968 Renault Dauphine Specifications

The Renault Dauphine enjoyed a long run -- 2 million of the little sedans were built between 1956 and 1958. Here are selected specifications for the Dauphine:

General
Wheelbase (in.)
89
Overall length (in.) 155
Overall width (in.) 60
Overall height (in.) 57
Tread, front/rear (in.) 49/48
Curb weight (lbs) 1324
Weight distribution, front/rear (%)
39/61
Cargo space (cu ft)
7

Construction
Layout rear-engine, rear-wheel drive
Type unitized
Body material
steel

Engine
Type inline ohv 4-cylinder
Material cast-iron block, aluminum head
Bore x stroke (mm/in.)
58/2.2880/3.15
Displacement (cc/cid)
845/51.5
Horsepower @ rpm
30* @ 4250
Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm
48.5 @ 2000
Compression ratio
7.25:1
Main bearings
3
Valve lifters
mechanical
Carburetor
1-bbl Solex downdraft
Electrical system
6-volt

Drivetrain
Transmission type
3-speed manual, synchromesh, floor-mounted shifter
Gear ratios
1st-3.70:1; 2nd-1.81:1; 3rd-1.07:1; reverse-3.70:1
Axle ratio
4.37:1

Suspension
Front independent coil-spring-and-wishbone with antiroll bar and tubular shock absorbers
Rear independent swing axle with coil springs and tubular shock absorbers

­

Brakes and Tires
Brake type
4-wheel hydraulic drum
Brake diameter, front/rear (in.)
8.9/8.9
Brake swept area (sq in.)
133
Tire size
5.00 x 15
Steering
Type rack and pinion
Turns, lock to lock 4
Turning diameter (ft) 29

­*U.S.-specification cars; 26 others.

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