Renault's history is a modern epic, with heroes and traitors, victories and defeats, glory and shame, successes and failures. It is a reflection of the 20th century.
The company was formed in 1898. The assets were a technical breakthrough, the so-called direct-drive gearbox, and a small two-seat car, the Voiturette. Both were created by 21-year-old Louis Renault.
Born in 1877 to a wealthy family of Paris merchants, Louis Renault was a self-taught mechanic with a genius for invention. His older brothers, Fernand and Marcel, founded Renault Freres in 1899 to allow Louis to launch his enterprise. The first workshop was located on the outskirts of Paris in Boulogne-Billancourt, where Renault headquarters are still located.
Like other auto pioneers, the Renault brothers used automobile racing to make their name. In 1900, their victory in the Paris-Bordeaux race resulted in 350 new orders. But in 1903, Marcel Renault was killed during the Paris-Madrid race.
Despite the tragedy, the company continued to grow. The company was named Societe des Automobiles Renault in 1908. Louis Renault controlled 100 percent of the company after Fernand died in 1909.
By 1906, annual production was over 1,000 units. Mass production had begun the year before with an order for 250 8hp, 2-cylinder AG type taxis from a Paris cab company. The model would become famous during World War I, when it was called the 'taxi de la Marne.' It was used to transport French soldiers to the battle at the Marne river in September 1914.
Boosted by World War I, Renault became the biggest privately-owned industrial concern in France. Billancourt was transformed into a giant workshop for the French armies, producing shells, trucks, engines, aircraft and ambulances. Renault's work force jumped from 4,400 people in 1914 to 22,000 in 1918.
Louis Renault became an industrial tycoon. In 1917, he was decorated as a national hero after convincing the French to adopt his FT17 light battle tank, quickly dubbed 'the tank of victory.'
After the war, Louis Renault decided to organize his company into a 'big corporation' to meet growing competition from abroad. During the 1920s, a more integrated manufacturing organization, new assembly lines, a credit division and diversified production, including boats, locomotives and planes, were introduced.
In 1929, Renault began construction of a new factory on Ile Seguin, in the middle of the Seine, in front of its Billancourt facilities.
During the 1920s, battles broke out between Renault and another French industry tycoon, Andre Citroen. Citroen admired Henry Ford and followed his production methods. In 1919, Citroen had become France's leading manufacturer. Ten years later, in 1929, Citroen made twice as many cars as Renault: 103,000 vs. 54,000.
The rivalry ended with Citroen's financial collapse in 1934 and Andre Citroen's death in 1935. But Louis Renault refused to take over Citroen, which was purchased by Michelin.
Meanwhile, the economic and social crises which hit France in the 1930s resulted in a sharp drop in car production.
At the same time, according to author Jean-Louis Loubet in his Renault, 100 Years of History, Louis Renault grew more solitary and suspicious of others. He refused to share his absolute power.
After the 1940 armistice, Renault was preoccupied by keeping his factories active and agreed to work for the German Army. He was arrested on September 23, 1944, for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, and, already ill, he died a month later. De Gaulle's government took over the Renault factories.
On January 16, 1945, a government bill established the 'Regie Nationale des Usines Renault' and appointed Pierre Lefaucheux as the first chairman. The new Renault was 100 percent state-owned, but it had 'to behave in financial and accounting matters in accordance with the rules used by other companies,' according to its charter.
Post-war recovery was swift, thanks to the 4CV or quatre chevaux, a 'popular car' secretly developed during the war as a response to the Volkswagen Beetle. By 1961, a total of 1,105,000 4CVs had been produced.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Renault's growth was steady: 100,000 units in 1949, 500,000 in 1961, 1 million in 1969. Plants were built in France, Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Mexico, Romania and other countries.
Strong management helped. Pierre Dreyfus provided firm leadership as chairman from 1955 to 1975.
Renault also became a model of social progress for worker benefits, such as paid holidays, for the whole French economy.
The two oil crises of the 1970s did not fundamentally alter the pace of expansion. In 1980, as Bernard Hanon replaced Bernard Vernier-Palliez as chief executive, Renault built 2 million cars and was Europe's leading carmaker. It had bought French truckmaker Berliet, got a 10 percent stake in Volvo, taken over Mack Trucks and American Motors Corp. in the US, opened more plants in France, and even entered Formula One racing with a revolutionary turbocharged engine.
But a crisis was looming. Global expansion and an ambitious product strategy, marked by the introduction of the Espace minivan in 1983, were offset by high costs and overstaffed plants. In 1984 the crisis hit: a FF12.5 billion loss and FF57 billion in debt, equivalent to 50 percent of sales.
Hanon was fired by French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, whose top assistant at that time was Louis Schweitzer. Georges Besse started Renault's restructuring by cutting 21,000 jobs, closing factories in Mexico and South Africa. His murder in the autumn of 1986 was a shock for Renault. But Raymond Levy continued his policy. AMC was sold to Chrysler and the Ile Seguin plant was closed. A better market and new products such as the R19, R21 and Clio helped to restore profitability.
Levy also proposed a merger with Volvo. The plan failed in late 1993, mainly because of political interference. The failur convinced Louis Schweitzer to push through the privatization of Renault.
Editor's note: Renault, Cent Ans d'Histoire Renault 100 Years of History by Jean-Louis Loubet, ETAI, Paris, 1998, was broadly used for this article.