The Renault Dauphine was built in secret and then sold over 2 million units

The Renault Dauphine was built in secret and then sold over 2 million units

After World War Deux, Renault and it’s factory were in the precarious situation of both being in tatters. The factory had been destroyed and their founder Louis Renault had passed away. The company was in bankruptcy and the French Government had nationalised the company, however Pierre Lefaucheux was now at the helm of the company and had already defied the Ministry of Industry & Production by allowing the 4CV to go ahead.


The Ministry wanted to force Renault to focus solely on Truck production and it was also furious with Renault who had built the 4CV prototype in secret during the war and then brought in Ferdinand Porsche of all people to help with it’s design. However to Lefaucheux this didn’t matter, it had sold over 500,000 units and he was stubborn in his stance to keep Renault moving on car production.

The Renault Dauphine was brought about during a conversation between Lefaucheux and an engineer, Fernand Picard, who had been the lead engineer on the 4CV. Although both were very happy with the progress of the 4CV, Lefaucheux saw that the standard of living in France was rising after the war and soon the population would be looking for a sleeker styled and more up market car.

In 1949, Picard began development with his crack team of engineers who would spend five years developing the car, known as “Project 109”. He had a few strict instructions. Some were to do with the specification of the car to be built, it had to have a top speed of at least 68mph/110kmph (for motorway cruising), have 4 seats, perform better than 40mpg/7 liters per 100km and have some strong colour choices for the more opinionated female buyers. There was one other strict instruction which would make things more difficult, Picard could only bring the car out for testing at night so no one else outside of his team would be aware of its development and alert the government.

So for five years, they tested this car in the secrecy of night and they were testing it against the German engineered Beetle to ensure that it was of top quality for the time. The engine was the initially the same 4 CV (748cc), CV standing for cheval vapeur or horsepower, engine from the Renault 4CV, however Lefaucheux and Picard found this engine insufficient and instead opted for a 848cc engine, which gave the car its new nickname among the team, the 5CV.

Lefaucheux followed it’s progress carefully, having meetings in the middle of the night with the team to ensure its secrecy was upheld. Sadly, he never got to secure and see its release first hand, he was killed in an automobile accident on February 11, 1955, when he lost control of his Renault Fr├ęgate on an icy road and was struck on the head by his unsecured luggage as the car rolled over.

In November 1955, the company unveiled the car to the press, at the time using the name “5CV”, as interestingly it was going to be called the Corvette, however Chevrolet had just unveiled their Corvette in America and registered the name. It’s final name came about at a dinner hosted by Picard where a guest remarked that the 4CV was the “Queen of the Road” and Dauphine is the feminine form of the French feudal title of Dauphin, the heir apparent to the throne. Very Clever.

The Dauphine went on to sell over 2 million units from it’s first sale in 1956 to the last sold in 1966 and became an incredible success which would be followed by the Renault 8. It was a truly beautiful car and moved away from the boxy shape of a lot of the cars in France at the time.

That being said it did have some quirks and set backs, I mean it was the 50’s and France are still known for…let’s say…”electrical mishaps”. Many owners have said that with the lights, wipers and heating running the alternator couldn’t keep up, however Picard had thought of this and had included an old wind start on the engine, so you could start it like the cars of yester-year.

In terms of performance this car had a whopping 32hp and could happily sit at 70mph, however getting there was an issue for two reasons, first being its 0-60 time was a mind numbing 32 seconds and the second issue was that the original models with the three speed manual only had a synchronizers on the 2nd and 3rd gear. This issue was solved in the later year entries with the the 1st gear getting synchromesh in 1961 as well as a four speed option being introduced.

Another issue was the drum brakes, which were known to fade, so if you had a 1956-1963 model it would be a wild ride downhill, luckily they brought in the disc brakes shortly after.

The car was a massive hit, with one rolling off the lines ever 20-30 seconds when in full swing and wasn’t just produced in France. In Argentina it was built under license from Renault by Industrias Kaiser Argentina, who under regulations had to add an extra bumper bar, it was also built in Australia, Brasil, New Zealand, Spain and as the base model for an electric car the Henney Killowatt. However in two places it was never sold as a Renault, in Japan it was sold as the Hino Contessa 900 and more interestingly in Italy it was sold as an Alfa Romeo!

In Italy Alfa Romeo built the Dauphine Alfa Romeo under license between 1959 and 1964 in Portello, Milan. Differences with the French model are: electricity (Magneti-Marelli) 12 Volts, special lights, and the logo “Dauphine Alfa Romeo” or “Ondine Alfa Romeo”.

All issues aside, this was a beautiful car and without a doubt, one of the more interesting car development stories. I hope you enjoyed reading (or watching) this! Thanks for stopping by.