Monday, October 31, 2016

1956-1968 Renault Dauphine

"Paris-styled . . . family-sized . . . and a dream to drive . . . the sensational Renault Dauphine has taken America by storm! Thousands of new owners acclaim it the finest low-cost way to beat today's high cost of driving."

This Dauphine from Havana sure has seen better days, but it still keeps marching on. Which is remarkable, as outside Cuba the Dauphine generally isn't a car which is remembered with fondness.

Meant as a successor to the Renault 4CV, the "heiress apparent" — that's the English meaning of Dauphine — followed the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive formula of its predecessor, but a roomier cabin and modern styling made it a proper automobile that well suited the higher expectations of car buyers in the mid-1950s. The combination of extravagant construction and fashionable design made it a "no-brainer" — at least on paper — for anyone that looked for a progressive car. And in the 1950s, everyone seemed to appreciate progress. Thus, the Dauphine became very successful. Two million cars rolled off the French assembly lines between 1956 and 1968, while factories in Brazil (75,000 units) and Argentina (97,000 cars) made the little Renault omnipresent in Latin American countries.

Initially, the export to the U.S. was promising for the nationalized RĂ©gie Renault, accounting for roughly ten percent of the production volume and providing the French government with well appreciated foreign currency. Selling a staggering 91,073 copies, the Dauphine even became America's best-selling import car of 1959. But then, reality should kick in and bring the American infatuation with the cute French automobile to a sudden end: a chaotic spare parts distribution caused trouble and made Renault dealers even strip down their new cars for spare parts. Meanwhile, more and more customers discovered that the nonchalant French build quality and poor performance were underwhelming even by the lowest American standards. Already by 1960, many Dauphines could only be sold with massive discounts, and because the imported cars were often stored for months close to the seaside, early corrosion became a massive problem that further undermined the trust in the French product. Other French brands should severely suffer from that mistrust, too.

In Cuba, there are still quite a few Renault Dauphine around. Not that the people particularly like them here. But in spite of all their obvious flaws, the precarious economic conditions make keeping these cars alive, at all costs, quite inevitable.

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