Classic cars: Renault Dauphine

The Renault Dauphine looked elegant, but its idiosyncratic handling was not for the faint-hearted, says Andrew Roberts

'A penny farthing a mile and you travel in style – the new Renault Dauphine!" Yes, the British motorist of 1957 was being offered family transport that came complete with a heater, twin courtesy lamps and an automatic choke, plus that all-important white steering wheel with which to complement the tasteful choice of pastel finishes.

The Renault Dauphine certainly possessed an undeniable sense of elegance, apart from that distinctive smell of baked rubber familiar to nearly every rear-engined Renault, Fiat and VW of this era. Unlike the solidly respectably Wolseley 1500, all Bakelite and leather upholstery, the Dauphine was a small car in which a housewife could dream of being the Audrey Hepburn of the suburbs.

From a 2007 perspective Dauphine motoring is not a prospect to be undertaken lightly – the doors tend to close with a not-terribly reassuring clang that causes the metal dash to reverberate, and its dimensions are so compact that it is incredible to think that it was often used as both a Parisian police car and a taxi.

True, the gearbox gives a crisp change that Minor owners could only dream of, and the ride is excellent, but the main problems with Dauphine motoring revolve around durability – or total lack thereof – and its handling. The novice Dauphine driver really shouldn't think of the car's Spanish nickname of "the widow-maker" when approaching a corner, and even fervent Dauphine fans admit that, while it probably oversteers rather less than a 1962-vintage VW 1100, sharp bends really do require a certain amount of attention.

Historically speaking, the Dauphine was a product of France's 1946 Pons Plan, whereby motor manufacturers only received supplies if they concentrated on small and medium-sized cars "for the masses". This caused the eventual demise of many a coachbuilt French marque, but it also resulted in a generation of small cars designed to interpret the Plan in very individual ways.

The Dauphine epitomised its maker's desire for a small four-door saloon with a performance and fuel economy to match the VW Beetle, and its origins date to 1951 when Renault began to develop a small car that would eventually replace the 1947 4CV and prove inexpensive to produce around the world. The styling would virtually be a scaled-down version of Renault's 2L Frégate saloon, the 4CV's wheelbase was increased by six inches and the engine capacity was raised to 845cc.

When the Dauphine debuted in 1956 (it was originally to be known as the Corvette until GM became irate) it proved an almost instant success across the globe: the new coachwork was deemed highly elegant, the price was low, and the Dauphine's overall size was still suitable for congested Parisian streets. As Renault's first genuine world car, it was built across Francophone Africa, in addition to Argentina (until as late as 1971), Brazil and Japan, where it provided the basis for the Hino Contessa.

In Europe, the Dauphine was manufactured in Belgium, Spain and in Italy by Alfa Romeo, who built their own Dauphine alongside the Giulietta between 1959 and 1964. However, the most high-profile market was that of the US. Early in 1958, Time magazine said: "The car that has come up fastest in the US market in the past year is Renault's Dauphine (Crown Princess). A snub-nosed 32-hp Sedan, it is low-priced, economical and small enough to shoehorn into a small parking space."

The Dauphine's US appeal was initially very strong as, for only $45 more than a VW, the American motorist could buy a four-door sedan with a cleverly crafted Manhattan urbanite image; advertisements in Playboy referred to "Le Car Hot". For a brief period the Dauphine was second only to the Beetle as the most popular imported car in the US – in 1959 it even outsold Volkswagen – but as soon as the US market had come to grips with the Dauphine's swing-axle manners and useless acceleration, they were pole-axed by its abysmal corrosion record. It would take only one New York winter of driving on salt-strewn roads to give a Dauphine front wings that resembled net curtains. Similar experiences were endured by British Dauphine owners, which would explain why the Renault Classic Car Club knows only 60 Dauphines, despite the Renault's considerable popularity in the UK.

Between 1957 and 1961, Dauphines were assembled at Renault's Acton plant and one powder blue example was driven by no less a personage than HM the Queen. Most notoriously, however, in July 1961 the Dauphine became Britain's first ever mini-cab. A shrewd gentleman named Michael Gotla argued that the 1869 Carriage Act only applied to cabs that "ply for hire" on the streets and that, by contrast, minicabs would respond to calls phoned to the main office. Given that the Dauphine was somewhat cheaper to run than an Austin black cab this invariably resulted in cheaper fares – and fights with traditional cabbies.

For those who really wanted to terrify themselves, 1957 saw the introduction of Amédée Gordini's re-engineered Dauphine, initially with 38bhp and, by 1961, an awesome 40bhp, plus a green and black steering wheel. One of the most attractive aspects of the Dauphine Gordini was the four-speed gearbox that was also offered on the de-luxe Onedin, while American Renault enthusiasts were offered a $165 Judson supercharger. This was designed to be installed without any chassis or body modifications, increased the maximum speed by 9mph and bumped up horse-power by 50 per cent.

By the early Sixties, Renault's supremo Pierre Dreyfus, mindful of the dangers of the mono-model culture that had nearly destroyed Volkswagen, accelerated the development of the R8, which in 1962 supplanted the Dauphine, replacing it altogether some six years later.

Many enthusiasts regard the R8 as a more comfortable and better handling vehicle, yet it lacked the Dauphine's cachet. Maybe it was that undeniably chic styling, or as the commercial's announcer proclaimed, the advantages of "performance and power at 70 miles an hour" and, better still, "the built-in heater couldn't be neater!" Quite.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice