Founded in 1899 by Louis, Marcel and Fernand Renault, the Renault motor company would go on to become one of the dominant French players in the automotive industry. Louis, the engineer, was tasked with developing vehicles, whilst Marcel and Fernand, the businessmen, would handle the practical job of running the company. Their first car, the Voiturette 1CV, was sold to a friend of the brothers’ father following a test drive. Then, in 1905, Renault acquired a major contract with Société des Automobiles de Place to supply taxis for them, this was possible as they were amongst the first cars to have ‘taximeters’ fitted. Due to this success, by 1908, Renault had become the largest car maker in France.
Before the start of the First World War Renault had tried to take advantage of the exposure that could be gained from winning motor races. Renault knew that in taking part in these point to point races they could demonstrate the technical prowess of their cars. Unfortunately in 1903 Marcel Renault was killed in a racing accident, but this did not deter the company. By 1906 Renault had secured a win in the first ever Grand Prix motor race with Ferenc Szisz at the wheel of an AK 90CV. This set the tone for a company that would, to this day, have very close links with motor racing.
During the First World War Renault helped the war effort by producing lorries, stretchers, ambulances, ammunition and the FT-17 tank, which is credited with being a decisive element in defeating the Kaiser. Between the wars Renault expanded their production lines to include more cars and a variety of commercial vehicles. It even produced a tractor, called the Type GP, that was based on the old FT-17 tanks from the war. In 1920 a deal was signed with an entrepreneur named Gustave Gueudet to more effectively distribute Renault’s vehicles. Growth continued until the outbreak of the Second World War when Renault, having refused to build tanks for the Nazis, resigned to building commercial vehicles for the occupying forces. This proved to be a thankless endeavour, however, as following the war Louis Renault was accused of being a Nazi sympathiser, arrested and died in prison awaiting trial in 1944.
Following the rocky first half of the 20th Century, the next few decades would prove to be a breeze by comparison. In 1946 it unveiled the 4CV, a compact rear-engined car to compete with the likes of the Volkswagen Beetle, which proved a sales success. This was succeeded by the Dauphine in 1956, and between it and the 4CV Renault sold more than two and a half million examples. In response to the sales success that was the Citroën 2CV, Renault introduced the 4 (or Quatrelle) in 1961 and it remained in production in one form or another until 1992. In 1966, the company launched the 16, arguably a forbearer of today’s family hatchbacks, to critical acclaim, ultimately receiving the European Car of the Year award for its design.
During the 70’s and the oil crisis the Renault 5 sold in very large numbers because it was very economical for the time. Into the late 70’s Renault acquired a controlling stake in AMC (American Motors Corporation), which resulted in a number of cars being sold and built under license around the world. Most notably the introduction of the Jeep Cherokee to the European market, which would prove to be the only real success of the deal which ended in 1987. In 1984 Renault launched Europe’s first MPV, but this could not stem the tide of losses it had started to make. Following a Government intervention, Georges Besse was put in charge of the company. He enacted a series of cost cutting measures which saved the company financially, though they were wildly unpopular. So much so he was eventually assassinated by protest group Action Directe for the job losses he had caused.
This brought Renault into the modern age, releasing successful cars such as the Clio, Twingo and Megane. They also set up a growing business partnership between Renault and Nissan and acquired a majority stake in the Romanian brand Dacia. This new market structure lead to Renault being a renewed force in the automotive world and has set them on track to profitability once again.