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1956-1968 Renault Dauphine

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 trunkĀ­lid, 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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