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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