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1956-1968 Renault Dauphine

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 RĂ©gie.

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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