Groupe Renault aka Renault Group, but legally Renault S.A. is a true car maker of France as you’ll learn below. As a company, they produces a range of cars and vans (and in the past trucks, tractors, tanks, buses/coaches, aircraft and autorail vehicles) on a multinational scale.
In 2016 Renault was the ninth biggest automaker in the world (production volume) and in 2017, the Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi Alliance had become the world’s biggest seller of light vehicles. Renault group is made up of the namesake Renault marque (below) and subsidiaries, Alpine, Renault Sport (Gordini), Automobile Dacia from Romania, and Renault Samsung Motors from South Korea.
ACMAT, Panhard General Defense and Alpine could be named among French car brands associated with Renault. Since ACMAT makes (cross-country) tactical military vehicles, and Panhard General Defense is better-known for its armored fighting vehicles and jeep-like four-wheel-drives only Alpine really belongs in the car category. Both ACMAT and PGD are divisions of Renault Trucks. Alpine gained recognition for its racing and sports cars equipped with rear-mounted Renault engines.
Renault Part 1
Founded in 1899; 123 years ago and headquartered in Boulogne-Billancourt not far from the capital, Renault has a lot to be proud of. The Renault–Nissan Alliance built their popularity in Europe and Asia through Quality, medium-priced sedans and SUVs.
The product range varies, the Logan and the Duster are their top selling sedan and SUV, but includes family cars like the Twingo supermini and Espace MPV. The Renault Scenic is a practical car with solid, consistent sales, but they also have sports models.
There are three key factors in Renaults early success. First it was founded by three brothers, Louis, Marcel, and Fernand. Louis Renault was a brilliant automotive mechanic and designer with experience under his belt before founding his own company. Marcel and Fernand ran the business. Having competent and trustworthy business partners really helps a company get up and running, and that’s what they did in 1898 when they sold their first car, the Renault Voiturette 1CV, to a friend of their fathers.
The second key factor in their success were taxis. In 1905, just two years after the Renault began making their own engines, they made their first large sale to a taxis company in Paris. These vehicles were later used by the French military to transport troops during World War I which earned them the nickname “Taxi de la Marne.” Renault would go on to supply taxies in London and New York.
The third factor in their success was racing. I the early 1900’s racing was the way you got exposure and the Renault brothers were keenly aware. Both Louis and Marcel raced company vehicles, but Marcel was killed in an accident during the 1903 Paris-Madrid race. Louis stopped racing but the company continued participation with great success winning the first Grand Prix motor racing event in 1906.
By the end of 1909, only Louis remained alive, (Fernand died of illness). Louis visited a Ford plant in 1905 and began adopting modern production techniques to increase production and reduce the cost of his cars to the public. The company never really got out of the commercial vehicle market adding busses and commercial trucks to their line up. Louis’s engine designs were so innovative even Rolls Royce patterned their aircraft engines off his V8 engines.
The combination of great design, modern production, and experience with commercial vehicles made Renault a natural pick for military vehicles in both world wars. Louis would go on to create the revolutionary Renault FT tank that would earn him and his company the Legion of Honour.
Side Note: Renault introduced new models at the Paris Motor Show that was held in September or October of the year. This led to confusion about model years. For example, a “1927” model was mostly produced in 1928.
The US Stock Market crash and Great Depression were hard on all car companies even in Europe. Post WWI Renault reworked their tank design into a tractor and went into agricultural equipment. The Great Depression caused to spin most of his extra companies off to their own concern and kept the car business close to his chest. He needed to compete with some of the fuel efficient cars coming out of the rebuilt Germany. Early in the 1930 Citron surpassed Renault in both innovation and total sales but Citron got hammered by the Great Depression while Renault’s other military and farm equipment saw them through without going bankrupt.
Side Note: There was a particularly bad labor strike among Autoworkers in France from1936 to 1938, which Renault put down via firing 2,000 workers.
Renaults handling of the worker strike would come back to bite him. Under German occupation Louis refused to make tanks, instead sticking to trucks. His factory was leveled by allies anyway, twice. When the war ended Louis attempted to rebuild, in Billancourt, which happened to be a stronghold of the resistance party. In the wake of German occupation France became divided between the Communists and the Anti-Communists. As an industrialist Louis wasn’t popular in Billancourt and Billancourt was not popular with the de Gaulle presidency.
Louis was accused of supporting Hitler, turned himself in. He was arrested and died in prison awaiting trial. The French government took over the company, the only one they federalized, and has never given it back to the family despite repeated attempts to get compensation.
Under the leadership of Pierre Lefaucheux, Renault experienced both a commercial resurgence and labor unrest, that was to continue into the 1980s. The injustice didn’t end for the Renault family. In secret Louis continued to work on his ability to compete with the super affordable VW bug and the Minor. He created the rear engine 4CV which Pierre Lefaucheux launched with great success after Louis died.
Renault built to a million cars a year under the French Government control, often because the person they put in charge of the day to day operations ignored the Government’s odd demands, like ending car production to concentrate on trucks.
The story goes on, and is one for the history books but we’ll leave it for now and talk about some of the companies Renault acquired over the years.
Founded in 1955 by Jean Rédélé. Headquartered in Dieppe, France.
The Alpine car marque was created in 1954, after founder, Jean Rédélé, had some success racing his modified Renault 4CV. Redele went from garage owner in Dieppe to car manufacturer after class wins in a number of major events, including the Mille Miglia and Coupe des Alpes. In 1955 he became a pioneer in auto glassfibre construction and produced a small coupe, based on 4CV mechanicals, called the Alpine A106, which he sold under the name Alpine (pronounced Al Peen in France).
The company has been closely related to Renault through its history, and was bought by it in 1973, and the Alpine competition department merged into Renault Sport in 1976. Production of Alpine-badged models ceased in 1995, was relaunched with the 2017 introduction of the new Alpine A110, then in 2021 Renault announced that Renault Sport would again merge into Alpine.
The 70s saw rally wins at Monte Carlo and they built factories in several countries including Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Bulgaria. The 80s saw more variety of car for more kinds of racing, ultimately Alpine would begin creating F1 & F2 cars as well.
One problem that plagued Alpine was that the rights to the name Alpine in the UK were owned by Sunbeam. Eventually mega conglomerate Stellantis would end up owning the rites to the name in the UK in 2021 ending any chance that Alpine will ever sell their under their own name.
Alpine’s motorsport division, made up of the Alpine subsidiaries Alpine Racing Limited and Alpine Racing SAS. In 1976, the Alpine competition department was merged with Gordini to form Renault Sport. Alpine-badged racing activities re-emerged in 2013, as part of the promotional activities for the launching of Alpine roadcars. With the help of Signatech and Oreca Alpine has entered and racked up wins in World Endurance and Formula One throughout the 2000’s.
Founded in 1899 we could have put Berliet in the category with other defunct French car makers, but they were part of Citroën (1968-1974), and it was eventually Renault (1974-1978) who closed them down so we’ll include them here.
Founded by Marius Berliet in Vénissieux, France this care maker’s emblem is one of the more puzzling features of the company, although certainly not the only oddity.
The company produced Automobiles, buses, military vehicles, trucks. Apart from a five-year period from 1944 to 1949 when it was put into ‘administration sequestre’ Berliet was in private ownership until 1967 when it then became part of Citroën.
Berliet took over the plant of Audibert & Lavirotte in Lyon in 1902, having experimented on cars for 8 years. Some of his experimenting was on single cylinder engines, then twin, and his first manufactured models were four cylinder. By he was also offering 6 cylinder upon request.
Berliet had to expand his factory during WWI as the French government began ordering trucks for the Army. While Renault and a company called Latil also made trucks to fill the need, the Berliet CBA became the iconic truck on the Voie Sacrée, supplying the battle front at Verdun during 1916 with 25,000 of these 4/5 ton trucks. The number of workers increased to 3,150, and a new principle factory was built between Vénissieux and Saint-Priest.
After WWI Marius Berliet was faced with a good problem. He had wartime factory capacity with no army contract. He needed to rebuild his market so he gambled on making one truck model and one car model. He chose his 5 ton CBA that he made for the army as the truck model which meant he didn’t have to retool part of his factory.
For the car he tried a slick trick and copied a popular American Dodge model with it’s torpedo-shaped body and high headlights, which he called the “Berliet Type VB.” While the car was initially well received the engineers who performed the copy didn’t take into account that American steel is stronger and they reliability issues in early models.
By the time they had fixed the issues and repaired the damaged to their reputation, Berliet was 55 million in debt. The banks took over for about ten years though they left Marius in operational control. He diversified his car offerings by 1925, to five models–all 4-cylinder, and by 1929 he’d regained financial control of the company.
Berliet spent the great depression economizing, reducing models, reversing course on their new 6-cylinder models, switching to diesel, and by 1939 they stopped making through own bodies. The last few hundred Berliet Dauphines produced used the body of a Peugeot 402 with a custom made Berliet hood/bonnet and radiator grille.
The End of Cars
Regular passenger car production for Berliet officially ended in 1939 and Trucks continued. The Germans discovered around 20 new cars in the factory when they took over, and those were quickly requisitioned. Under German occupation, the Factory cranked out 2,330 trucks for the Nazi’s.
After the war, enough car parts were found around the factories to assemble another 65 sedans.
Marius Berliet, who died in 1949, had however refused to recognize legal actions against him after the war. Likely as a result, the company was given back to Marius Berliet’s son Paul in 1949, in stark contrast to the fate of the Renault family.
Berliet manufactured the largest truck in the world in 1957, the T100 6X6, which they turned into everything from dump trucks to delivery “loris.” A separate company called MOL Trucks of Hooglede, Belgium bought the design rights and began making two models of the truck as well.
The End of Independence for Berliet
In 1967, Berliet was taken over by Citroën, Berliet share holders got Citroën shares in exchange for their Berliet stock. Citroën itself had been owned by Michelin since 1934 following it’s own cash crisis. After the 1973 oil crisis, Michelin decided to divest itself of these two companies and concentrate on tires. They sold Berliet was to Renault in 1974, and Citroën was sold to Peugeot.
Renault proceeded to merge Berliet with Saviem to form Renault Véhicules Industriels in 1978. Elements of Berliet continued for a time, a bus, an armored personel carrier and an engine design, but the Berliet brand was phased out at that time.
Renault Part 2
In 1994, plans to sell shares to public investors were officially announced after coming to the conclusion that the company’s state-owned status was a detriment. After privatization the company expanded into markets in Eastern Europe and South America and supported it with infrastructure investments including a new factory in Brazil and upgrades for its infrastructure in Argentina and Turkey.
Renault’s financial problems were not all fixed by the privatization. Deputy President, Carlos Ghosn, was given point on fixing them and he created what would be called the “Renault Production Way” based on the Japanese system of producing cars. He also cut costs by reducing the workforce, revising production processes, standardizing vehicle parts and pushing the launch of new models off for two years.
If you are tempted to believe Ghosn a hero we should mention that Brazilian-born Lebanese businessman (and citizen of France) is currently an internationally wanted fugitive. But that’s topic for a few paragraphs from now. Ghosn was at various points the CEO of Michelin North America, chairman and CEO of Renault, chairman of AvtoVAZ, chairman and CEO of Nissan, and chairman of Mitsubishi Motors Ghosn was also the chairman and CEO of the Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi Alliance, earning him the nickname, “Mr. Fix-it.”
Renault searched for a new partner to cope with an industry that was consolidating, and they landed on Nissan. Starting on 27 March 1999, the Renault–Nissan Alliance is the first of its kind involving a Japanese and a French company, including cross-ownership. Also in 1999, Renault bought a 51% majority stake of the Romanian company Dacia for £408.5 million. The next year, Renault acquired a controlling stake of the newly formed South Korean Samsung Group‘s automotive division.
To finance its inversions and acquisitions Renault sold its industrial automation subsidiary, its 50% stake in bus/coach manufacturer Irisbus, it’s Véhicules Industriels to Volvo, and its agricultural machinery division, Renault Agriculture, to CLAAS. Thought it took much of the 90s and 2000s to accomplish the moves concentrated Renault’s manufacturing on cars and buses.
Renault developed a reputation for distinctive, outlandish design. The second generation of the Laguna and Mégane featured ambitious, angular designs that turned out to be successful, The 2000 Laguna was the second European car to feature “keyless” entry and ignition. What didn’t work for them was their upmarket/luxury models they tried to create–the Avantime and the Vel Satis. Although the latter inspired the design of their biggest success, the second-generation Mégane.
In 2008 Renault acquired control of Russian carmaker AvtoVAZ, which would give them the distinction of being the most experienced European car maker in the Russian market and eventually give them a giant headache. But first, in 2010, Renault–Nissan announced an alliance with Daimler that would give them a dominant position in Diesel powered small cars.
Also in 2010, Renault opened their zero emissions factory near Tangier, Morocco, with an annual output capacity of 170,000 vehicles though they expect to increase output to 400,000 in the future. Renault formed a joint venture with Dongfeng Motor Group named as Dongfeng Renault, in 2013 and was back out of that deal by 2020.
Renaults Return to Financial Woes
Renault now believes that small (B-segment) diesel cars in Europe and some mid-size (C-segment) will no longer be diesels by 2020. However, the pandemic has thrown off the world market of everything so it’s hard to tell what’s really causing the latest round of financial distress for Renault.
Two things we do know: Friday, 13 January 2017, Renault shares fell as the Paris prosecutor started an investigation into possible exhaust emissions cheating. Renault denied any foul play but recalled 15,000 cars for emission testing and fixing.
November 2018, Ghosn, now CEO, was arrested by Japanese officials for allegedly underreporting his Nissan’s salary. This lead to a dizzying series of regime changes at the top of Renault until January 2020 when they settled on Italian Luca de Meo as its new CEO.
Now the plan to recover from the pandemic is in full swing with eliminating 15,000 jobs worldwide (10% of their workforce), and dividing its automotive division into four business units: Renault, Dacia and Lada, Alpine, and its new “new mobility services” called Mobilize.
A Final Controversy
With the February 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine most western businesses pulled out of Russia. Renault got their but not fast enough for their critics. They were able to sell their interests in AvtoVAZ to NAMI with the option to buy it back at some point in the future.