Louis Renault was a relative latecomer in automobile circles. When he produced his first car in 1898, the French car industry was already the biggest in the world. But if Renault did not pioneer the automobile, he brought new levels of sophistication. Innovation was to become a hallmark of the company he founded.
His first 1.75 hp model, the Voiturette (small car), was powered by a front-mounted, single-cylinder De Dion-Bouton engine. The car featured a modern transmission, with a three-speed gearbox, a shaft drive and a gear differential. The key innovation was direct drive for the top gear.
To promote the brand name and test new ideas, the company began racing. Renault Grand Prix cars won important races before the company withdrew from sport in 1907. It took 70 years for Renault to return to racing, with the innovative and successful 1.5-liter GP car, the first to use turbocharging.
Renault's early cars were characterized by a sloping bonnet, which accommodated a radiator mounted behind the engine. He concentrated on small models, but also produced some excellent large cars over the years, including a massive 9.1-liter Renault 6 that was produced until well into the 1920s.
The little two-cylinder AG model, which arrived in 1905, was immortalized by its decisive role in the early stages of the first world war. On September 7, 1914, General Gallieni requisitioned 1,200 Parisian AG taxis to transport soldiers to the battlefront on the Marne river, where the French army was able to halt German advances.
In the 1920s, Renault offered a wide range of models, but the best-sellers were the 950cc 6CV and the 1.5 liter 10CV.
During the 1930s, when France was still leading the European car industry in volume, Renault models were well-built and reliable, but lacked Louis Renault's early innovative thinking. The 8CV small-capacity Monasix (1.5 liter) and subsequent 7CV Monaquatre (1.9 liter) were smooth-running, middle-class cars.
They were followed by a range of evolutionary models with four, six and even eight cylinders, some with elegant coachwork. But the larger models lacked the image of other French prestige brands. Only with the 1-liter Juvaquatre in 1938 did Renault return to small cars, a class he had gradually abandoned starting in about 1928.
During World War II, Louis Renault initiated the development of a new and revolutionary small car, the rear-engined 4CV. He did not see the finished result. He was imprisoned in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, and died while in jail.
The 4CV helped to put France on wheels again during the first austere decade after the war. The little 746cc car also set the tone for two more rear-engined best-sellers: the roomier, 845cc Dauphine, and the Renault 8 and 10, last of the line of rear-engined cars that ruled at Billancourt for almost 25 years.
Pierre Dreyfus, chairman from 1955 to 1975, began an important restructuring of the model range that resulted in three advanced, front-wheel-drive models. The 1961 R4 did not just succeed the old 4CV, but provided a versatile answer to the Citroen 2CV. It remained in production for over three decades.
The 1965 R16 was the world's first medium-sized hatchback sedan. Its multi-functional features included many different seating arrangements. The innovations were rewarded with a European Car of the Year trophy.
In 1972, the trend-setting Renault 5 arrived. It was the first two-door model from a company where four-door models were a tradition. Other models were the Renault 12 sedan and two coupes, the 15 and 17.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Renault expanded in world markets. The 1981-1983 Renault 9 and 11 were assembled and sold in the US under the names Alliance and Encore by American Motors, which had been acquired by Renault.
The cars flopped and Renault slid into a decline. But the Espace, born out of a collaboration with Matra, became the world's first multifunctional minivan in 1984, just before the Chrysler Voyager was launched.
Renault entered the 1990s with a line of less-than-inspiring models that were not noted for high quality. But Chairman Raymond Levy launched another restructuring. The Clio, the successor to the Renault 5, became another best-seller and the trendy Twingo racked up sales of well over 1 million units since the beginning of 1993. The latest success story is the Megane, launched two years ago. Its wide range includes a hatchback, wagon, sedan, coupe and the Scenic, one of Europe's best selling minivans.