Classic Car

Renault 12

This Gallic wedge brought a touch of ooh-la-la to drab 1970s Britain. Even reps loved it, says Andrew Roberts

In the Eighties, shoppers at the Knightsbridge Sainsbury's were often treated to the sight of a black diplomatic car disgorging several menacing-looking occupants, all of whom had one target; dog biscuits. The dark-suited gentlemen belonged to the Romanian Embassy and it was their duty to buy food for the dog of their beloved leader, Nicolae Ceausescu.

What really lent the whole scene a farcical note was the embassy car – a Dacia Denem, which most Britons would have recognised as a Renault 12 clone.

When Renault embarked on project 117 in 1965, the idea was a car that had to be easy to produce, so it could be made all over the world. It had to be reliable for export and comfortable for France. It should be able to carry multiple variations. And the 12 would be front-wheel drive, with the longitudinally mounted engine ahead of the front wheels.

All this meant a prospective buyer would be faced with the 16's dash-mounted handbrake, a four-on-the-floor shift, the 1.3-litre engine from the R8 and styling that could only be described as idiosyncratic.

When the 12 debuted at the 1969 Paris show, some purists bemoaned the fact that Renault's original plans – a boot-mounted spare wheel; twin headlamps to the off side, with a single unit to the left – were abandoned in the face of marketing advice. Still, the 12 is one of few family cars that could never be called bland.

The four-door body was proudly described by Renault as "arrow-like", and for a model meant to rival the Citroë* Ami and the Simca 1100, it was surprisingly large – it was longer than a Mk 2 Cortina. But then, Renault's goal was to produce a sizeable family car of modest but respectable performance.

The 12 was launched in the UK in 1970, in time for a new era of imported cars being used by the fleet market. In the 1960s, Renault's UK sales had been healthy but it was the 12 that propelled La Régie to becoming the country's major car importer in the new decade. The Renault's robustness was a bonus; it even had a starting-handle bracket.

The 12 was also one of the most comfortable cars in the Escort sector. The bench seat of the 12L was sheer decadence, bettered only by the separate reclining articles in the 12TL.

The Renault 12 wasn't faultless – the steering was heavy, the handbrake was spectacularly awkward, it was rust-prone, and the performance wasn't great – but it was a car to be aspired to. Throughout the 1970s, Renault's UK brochures featured the tempting combination of vibrantly coloured 12TLs being lusted after by male models, all of whom hailed from the Englebert Humperdinck/Peter Wyngarde school of grooming.

From the five-door 12 Estate, to the 12TS with its foglamps and head restraints, there was a 12 for every taste, although the ultimate variant was never officially imported into the UK. The 1970 12 Gordini used the 1.6-litre engine from the 16TS, with twin double-barrel Weber carburettors, all-round disc brakes and five gears – Escort RS1600 salesmen were very thankful that a 125bhp 120mph version of the Renault 12 wasn't available with right-hand drive.

But the 12 was always meant to be a "world car", and it was built in Spain and Argentina. In Australia, the 12 was assembled in Melbourne until 1980. Meanwhile, Oyak-Renault of Turkey produced its own version until 1998. Ford of Brazil made the Corcel, a not unattractive combination of Mk 1 Escort styling with 12 underpinnings.

But the most infamous overseas 12 was produced by Dacia of Romania from 1969 onwards, with the 1300 for the hoi polloi and the 1300 Super Luxe (radio and twin wing mirrors) for the party elite. Dacia became fully independent of Renault in 1978 and attempted to sell "The Very Acceptable Dacia Denem" to a very unaccepting British public.

Meanwhile, the French-built 12 gained a minor facelift in 1975, together with the welcome option of cloth upholstery (a real sign of distinction in British suburbia in the late 1970s) prior to its replacement by the terminally bland 9 in 1981.

By the end of the 1980s the 12, together with the Fiat 127, the Datsun 160J Violet, the Simca 1204 and the Mazda 1300, seemed to be another example of a once-common import starting to vanish from the bargain section of Exchange & Mart.

Even Romanian production ceased in December 2006, in the face of EU legislation. Still, Romania gave the 12 its most recent bout of fame in the form of a bullock-driven taxi in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

But a vehicle that sold 2.5 million units deserves a more dignified memorial. In Britain, there are thousands of retired sales reps who fondly remember the day they handed back the keys to a Hillman Avenger GL to the fleet manager who then issued them a long-awaited midnight blue 12TS. Yes, now they had it all: the Harry Fenton suit, the hire-purchased ceramic hob and, most important, a reliable car with head restraints as standard. Who could possibly have asked for more?

Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
The spider makes its break for freedom
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer

    £35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

    Recruitment Genius: Concierge and Porter

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a customer focused, pro...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

    £27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

    Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Customer Support Technician

    £15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Waterlooville based softwa...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot