The Renault 5 Roller Coaster

When it comes to the Renault 5, I challenge you to name another car that has risen to such lofty heights, mired it’s way through such underwhelming mediocrity, and sunken to such dismal lows. Try as I might, I can think of no other automotive platform that has taken such a journey. It was designed as an entry level front wheel drive economy car by a guy (Michel Boue) that died before it’s initial release in 1972, invaded North American shores with the cheesy “Le Car” moniker in 1976, became a rear wheel drive World Rally Championship contender in 1981, and ultimately lingered on in one uninspiring form or another until it’s unceremonious death in 1996.

Join me for a brief ride through the highlights and lowlights of the Renault 5:

Remember those dismal lows I spoke of earlier? Behold the “Lectric Leopard”! A company named U.S. Electricar removed the drivetrain from new Le Cars, replaced it with 16 golf cart batteries, 15 horsepower electric motors, and claimed a top speed of 50 mph (which I’m guessing was clocked with a full charge, downhill, in a hurricane), and offered them for sale. It’s only speculation on my part, but I imagine the sales invoices for many of these might have been signed in crayon, in the visiting rooms of mental institutions.

Now the good stuff! The rear wheel drive, rear engined R5 Turbo! This is truly the high point of the Renault 5 legacy. To make a long story short, Renault removed the engine and transaxle from the front of the car, and mid-mounted a 1400cc turbocharged Cleon engine, powering the rear wheels. Introduced in 1981, this radical transformation of the Renault 5 was deemed necessary to compete with the Lancia Stratos in World Rally Championship racing. And thanks to the goodness of WRC homologation rules, just under 3600 of these were sold to the general public throughout a 4 year production run, with up to 350 horsepower in race trim.

And now having come full circle with this final 1996 model, the platform was really showing it’s age and the sportier models had been killed off earlier in the decade. At this point the 5 had gone from basic transportation, to rally hero, and back again to dreary, if not downright hateful basic transportation.


Rotten gas and rusty wishes,
Skip Cambre