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The cars we loved.

1976-1983 Renault Le Car: The Right Car For the Wrong Time?


1978 Renault Le Car

1978 Renault Le Car

By the mid 1970’s, Americans were just getting used to the ideal of a small car. The first fuel crisis of the early part of the decade would warm reluctant Americans to the concept. Often times, a compromise was a given for the buyer of a small car. The American Motor Company (AMC) had offered up a few innovative “small” cars that were big in roominess and lacking in some aspects of execution. They were rear wheel drive (sometimes all-wheel drive) and were great preludes to smaller cars, but were more compact than sub compact. AMC needed help in bringing a small modern car to market. Enter Renault, one of Frances largest car makers. The partnership with AMC saw Renault gaining a controlling interest and getting its foot in the door of AMC large North American dealer network.

1982 Le Car Interior

1982 Le Car Interior

Renault’s answer was the Le Car or “The Car” translated to English. The Le Car was a supermini, or sub compact as its known in America. That was a class of car common on the tight spaces of urban Europe, but almost unknown in the wide open spaces of America. In places like Boston or New York the concept had its appeal, but most of America still wanted bigger cars, even when they were supposed to be small.  The small car was still seen as a penalty box. For all the Le Car’s charms, it would not change that perception in America.

French cars had been known for style and a certain amount of mechanical sophistication. The Le car lacked the style (if you don’t count ugly as a style), but it was cleverly engineered and had some charm. A small 55hp 1.4 L inline four was pushed deep into the engine bay creating space up front for the spare tire. American cars had dash mounted shifter, creating even more space in the cabin, making the Le Car seem big inside and small out (an illusion many small cars do today). Even with a boxy shape, a low drag coefficient of 0.37 was achieved assisting in the 41 highway and 26 city EPA fuel economy figures.  0 to 60 was nothing to write about, but the Le Car did find its way to SCCA racing events. In 1977 the Le Car racked up a few 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishes to dominate the showroom stock C class (for a short while at least). There were faster versions of the Le car in Europe called the R5 Turbo, but very few ever made it to the States. 

1981 Renault Le Car Sedan

1981 Renault Le Car Sedan

The Le Car never really caught on, despite favorable reviews. compared to it’s main competition (Civic, Chevette and Rabbit) the Le Car was quite sophisticated with its fully independent suspension, fancy Michelin steel belted radials and sporty interior. Renault often touted its Le Car as a luxurious subcompact compared to its rivals. The claim was more than ad fluff. Clever packaging that made for a longer wheel base, but shorter overall length. While much of the competition made do with leaf spring type rear suspensions, the Le Car’s longer wheel base combined with an independent suspension meant a smoother ride, all while being able to squeeze in to small parking spots in crowded cities. Advertising claimed that the Le Car represented the opposite of Detroit’s ideal of a small car, that being a large car shrunk down and features taken away. Most Le Cars sold in America did come with a high level of kit, not common in smaller cars like full instrumentation and rack and pinion steering. Many even had sun roofs, air and 3 three speed automatic transmission. A four speed manual was standard.

In 1980 changes to the grill and new square lights modernized the overall look, but the Le Car could not keep up with the quickly evolving German and Japanese subcompacts. A five door hatch was introduced in 1981 in an effort to improve sales, but the death bells were ringing for the Le Car in America. By 1984 a new larger sub compact built-in Wisconsin replaced the Le Car. Although the Le Car was dead in America the R5 continued in Europe in some form or another until 1996.

European Renault Le Car

European Renault Le Car

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2 comments on “1976-1983 Renault Le Car: The Right Car For the Wrong Time?

  1. BrianL
    March 18, 2012

    I had a LeCar and it was everything the review says it was. Years ahead of the then Japanese imports in design, execution and build as well as ride and features. It ran circles around the Civics that friends were grabbing and yet the ride was so nice, I had no problem using it rather than my Olds Toronado for trips exceeding 100 miles in each direction.

    When I wanted to add a radio to mine, I figured the cutouts were in the dash but covered up by the padding. I pulled the padding and found a THICK steel dash, it was to be a job cutting through it. Finally found the Renault used an underdash console for the radio option but, that dash convinced me that Renault had a serious and not an economy el cheapo in this thing. As I found as I owned it, the steel in the body, chassis, underpinnings, etc. was thicker and heavier than most cars I compared it to. Fenders and hatch had no give, unlike the Japanese and American cars of the time, including the upscale models.

    I did not baby the LeCar at all, having gotten used to pushing a Mini Cooper S and it proved as much fun to push as the Mini but far more reliable. There were few options to get more power from but little things like a Mallory ignition and slightly larger exhaust and other little tuning and boltons such as an air cleaner with more volume moving ability had a noticable affect without emptying the wallet.

    I’d love to have another. The only weak point was the shifter bushings that seemed to wear and need repalcement every year; about a hour repair. It was funny that the bushings were the weak spot as I had a Nash Metropolitan (Nash became part of AMC) and it had exactly the same problem. Very odd.

  2. Michael Murphy
    July 4, 2016

    I had a 1980 Le Car. I liked that is had a longitudinally mounted engine and FWD. Almost like a mid-engine Porche in reverse. It also had a aluminum block with replaceable cast iron cylinder sleeves which seemed like a great idea. I had if for 3-4 years, but then I needed a bigger car as I was became a contractor. I did use if as a carpenter for several years with a Sear trailer. You had to keep it tuned up or it would run rough. Also, had to replace most of the exhaust system 2-3 times. Despite that I loved it. Drove in from ME to IA and back several times. It was really quite a comfortable car for a road trip. Once pulled a 1000 lb. plus trailer from NY to IA with three passengers. It did just fine. I thought is had a serious coolness factor, but I’ve always been attracted to the unconventional. Viva Le Car.

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This entry was posted on July 18, 2011 by in 70's Cars, 80's Cars, AMC, Renault and tagged , , , .
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