The cars we loved.
By the mid 1970’s, Americans were just getting used to the ideal of a small car. The fuel crisis of the early part of the decade (and the one to come towards the end) would make reluctant Americans more accepting of the small car and all the downsides that came with it. AMC, being one of the companies who might have helped in the concept of small car compromise 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 dealer network.
To date French cars had been known for style and a certain amount of mechanical sophistication. The Le Car was a sub-compact that lacked style but would at least have some mechanical distinction and plenty of charm. The name Le Car, meaning “The Car” in French was marketed as a city car during a time when the concept was quite new to most people in America. In places like Boston or New York the concept had its appeal, but most of America with its wide open spaces could not see the need for such a small car beyond great gas mileage. 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.
The Le Car may not have been the most attractive small car on sale in America, but it was one of the most sophisticated. 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 shifters, creating even more space in the cabin, making the Le Car seem big inside and small out (an illusion many small cars do today). A low drag coefficient of 0.37 assisted 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. 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 Michilen steel belted radials and sporty interior. Renault often touted its Le car as a luxurious compact compared to its rivals. The claim was not so much a stretch due to clever packaging that made for a longer wheel base, but shorter overall length compared to Civic and Chevette. The longer wheel base combined with a 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 equipped with many standard features, not common in smaller cars like full instrumentation and rack and pinion steering. Many even had 3 three speed automatic if not sporting the standard four speed manual.
1n 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.