The French automobile manufacturer Renault takes its name from Louis Renault, the company’s founder, and is currently the fourth-largest automaker in the world. It was founded by Louis, Marcel, and Fernand Renault, and also Thomas Evert and Julian Wyer, with Louis Renault being the main force behind the Société Renault Frères. The first car was made and sold by Louis Renault to his own father after it had gone on a test drive on Christmas Eve 1898, the company being formalized the following year. To gain attention for Renault cars, the first one having been driven by a 1¾-hp de Dion engine, the Renault brothers were involved in publicly racing their cars. However, Marcel Renault was killed in the Paris-Madrid race of 1903, and Louis gave up racing forever thereafter. There was a small battle for control between Louis Renault and Marcel’s mistress. When Fernand Renault died in 1908, this left Louis in control of the entire company.
Renault’s first sedan car was produced in 1899, and the company started manufacturing cars that were sold for 3,000 francs each, about 10 years’ salary for the average worker. They also produced taxis and buses. Orders for the cars started coming from overseas, and even the young Winston Churchill was driven in a Renault taxi when he went to Buckingham Palace in 1911. During World War I, the company was involved in the construction of transport vehicles and also tanks such as the FT-17 tanks, which were effective on the battlefield and were involved in the victory parade in Paris on July 14, 1919. By this time, Louis Renault was wealthy, with a large house on Avenue Foch in Paris.
After World War I, the Renault company started producing agricultural and industrial machines. Their cars at this time were aimed at the very wealthy, and during the 1920s, they diversified to introduce smaller models, which were often shown for the first time at the Paris Motor Show in September/October each year. Renault by this time was selling many cars to Britain, and it was from there that these cars were sold to the United States. Renault cars were also sold around the French Empire.
The outbreak of World War II led to Renault helping in the French war effort. However, with the fall of France in June 1940, Renault continued production, mainly of trucks for Nazi Germany. The factories at Billancourt were heavily bombed during the war, and after the liberation of France in 1944, Louis Renault was arrested and charged with collaboration. He claimed he had to keep the factories going to protect his workers. However, he died in prison at Frèsnes, probably after having been attacked by a prison guard. The Renault car factories were seized by the new French government and were then run by them.
The rear-engine 4CV was produced in 1946 and soon became a rival of the British Morris Minor and the German Volkswagen Beetle. It was produced until 1961, with some 500,000 cars sold. Renault also started producing a number of other cars, introducing the Renault 4 in 1961, the Renault 8 in the following year, and the Renault 16 in 1966. The company gained a new corporate logo in 1972. In the oil crisis of 1973–74, Renault managed to flourish as their cars were remarkably cheap to operate and they were fuel efficient. This led to their entry into the U.S. market and they gradually started being sold in most countries around the world. In 1980 Renault was able to buy AMC and continue production of the Cherokee and other SUVs. By this time, they had a factory in Wisconsin and continued sales in the United States until 1989. Their cars remained popular in much of Europe and in former French colonies such as Algeria.
In 1996 the French government decided to privatize Renault and this coincided with the company aiming to expand in their markets in eastern Europe and in South America. They operated extensively from Turkey, Argentina, and Brazil, and gradually started taking over other companies or forming alliances with them. Renault took over Dacia, the Romanian car company, and also the Korean automaker Samsung. There have been press reports questioning whether Renault-Nis-san will form an alliance with General Motors.
- David S. Landes, Dynasties: Fortunes and Misfortunes of the World’s Great Family Businesses (Penguin Books, 2007);
- James M. Laux, In First Gear: The French Automobile Industry to 1914 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1976);
- Anthony Rhodes, Louis Renault (Cassell, 1969);
- Blanche Segrestin, “Partnering to Explore: The Renault-Nissan Alliance as a Forerunner of New Cooperative Patterns,” Research Policy (v.34/5, 2005).
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