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.

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