He was born to well-to-do Jewish parents; his father had, as a young man, travelled widely selling textiles in Latin America. He later established a coffee exchange at Le Havre and subsequently became a banker. The young Dreyfus therefore grew up in an atmosphere of international trading.
After a brief youthful flirtation with Trotskyism and a period working for the family coffee business after his father died when Pierre was 17, Dreyfus fixed his sights on the civil service, encouraged by his mother, a respected teacher of English. He studied for a doctorate at the University of Paris's Faculty of Law and then moved to the City of London to learn about commodities. His studies also took him to Spain and Africa.
In 1936, as a worldly 28-year-old Doctor of Law, Dreyfus began a career that lasted for the rest of his working life. He was recruited by the Minister of Finance, Vincent Auriol (subsequently France's president in 1947-54) to join the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in the newly elected centre leftist Popular Front government. Dreyfus became an inspector general of industry, but the Second World War brought its upheavals and, during the German occupation, he fought with the resistance at Lot in the South of France.
After the war Dreyfus became involved with planning industrial strategy under Jean Monnet and, in 1947, was made chief aide to the Minister of Industry, Robert Lacoste. In 1948 Lacoste appointed Dreyfus to the board of Rgie Renault, the carmaker nationalised by the French government in 1945.
Renault's founder, Louis Renault, accused of collaborating with the Germans during the Occupation, had died in prison in 1944, thus paving the way for a state takeover. Revitalised under the dynamic and forceful Pierre Lefaucheux, with Dreyfus as his deputy, Renault's production soared in the post-war years, centred on the 4CV, introduced in 1947.
In February 1955, the chairman was killed in a road accident and Dreyfus appointed in his place. Initially Dreyfus was reluctant. He maintained that he lacked the stature for the job - a reference not only to his own slight, deceptively fragile appearance when compared with his predecessor's 6ft 2in frame. Dreyfus believed that his true vocation was that of a civil servant, rather than the high-profile chairman of France's leading car company. He was overruled although he confessed to knowing little about the motor industry, and astounded his colleagues at the outset of his 20-year stewardship of Renault by maintaining that he saw the business as a truly international one with a target of exporting half its annual output. In 1955 this stood at some 200,000 vehicles and, by the time of his retirement in 1975, production had risen to 1.4 million and Renault had become France's leading exporter of motor vehicles.
Before the war the company had a poor reputation for labour relations, and was a fertile breeding-ground for Communist agitation. Dreyfus was deeply committed to establishing a dialogue with the workforce whereby Renault offered long- term security and the most generous paid holidays in the French motor industry. Within months of his appointment, he had signed the firm's first collective bargaining agreement with the trade unions, providing employees with a three-week annual holiday and, in 1962, the company once again set the national pace by extending this to a four- week entitlement.
Dreyfus inherited the rear- engined Dauphine of 1956 from his predecessor, but saw the Renault 4 (1961) into production. With its practical rear door, it was the company's first frontwheel-drive car and some 8 million examples of this doughty workhorse have been built. The 4 paved the way for the now commonplace hatchback, a trend which was further underpinned by the arrival, in 1965, of the 16, a model which combined panache with innovation and its popularity on the roads of Europe proclaimed the success of Dreyfus's drive for exports. Later, in 1972, came the diminutive, chic and seemingly ageless Renault 5, of which over 5 million were built.
There were some setbacks. In the early 1960s an over-reliance on American sales and a transatlantic recesssion pushed the firm into the red, but still Dreyfus's Renault symbolised France's post-war confidence and growing industrial strength.
Pierre Dreyfus was to have retired in 1972, at the age of 65, but the French government urged him to stay and he continued in office until the age of 70, an endorsement, if one had been needed, of a job well done.
Pierre Dreyfus, motor industry executive: born Paris 18 November 1907; Inspector General of Industry and Commerce, Chief of General Inspectorate and Director of Cabinet to Minister of Industry and Commerce, 1947-49; Director-General, Rgie Nationale des Usines Renault 1955-75; President, Renault-Finance 1976-80; Minister for Industry 1981-82; married 1936 Laure Ullmo (one daughter); died Paris 25 December 1994.Reuse content