The cars we loved.
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.
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.
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.