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Renault History

The Renault brand is one of the oldest remaining car manufacturers in the world, indeed more Renaults complete the prestigious London Brighton Veteran Car Run than any surviving car manufacturer.

However where did it all begin....well with a teenager in his parent's shed.

This is the first in a series that has run in both Direct Drive and Renotes, the full story can be read on line (over a number of issues) or by buying back issues where they are available.

It accompanies the online time line of motoring history on line with 

This is no simple exciting tale of just a poor boy making good, i.e., rags to riches in one generation. But rather of a quite well-placed, middle-class young man manically inspired to take full advantage of all the opportunities presented to him and making his own history when they weren’t. 

In view of his long autocratic rule over his manufacturing empire and even his vehicle design, it is quite surprising to learn that our story began with a rather dull, indolent and shy young man who was given every educational opportunity. But despite the absence of scholarly success or any real formal engineering training, he translated from within himself an inspired craftsman’s appreciation of mechanical engineering into the practical application of state of the art engineering. The products of his inspired design genius during the formative years of the automobile, combined with his conservative reliance on robust and sturdy no-nonsense fabrication are as much venerated today by Renault Frères, almost a century later, as they were admired by his contemporaries.

The road to fame in engineering manufacturing especially in the automobile and aeronautical industries during their infancy is littered with design genii who failed because of insufficient understanding of either financial management or marketing skills.

It is therefore all the more interesting to observe that throughout the whole of his life Louis never let himself be inhibited by his own complete lack of understanding of monetary matters and he left all his financial affairs to his brothers in the early stages and later on to competent and trusted subordinates as his enterprise blossomed.

The key to his success, one might suggest, was an innate peasant guile which despite his own middle-class upbringing must have leapt a generation. This coalesced his unique qualities of outstanding ‘craftsmanship’ with that rare ingredient ‘craftiness’. His single-minded application to his chosen métier coupled with his jaundiced eye, led to the design and construction of outstandingly reliable motorcars during the whole of his adult life.

Louis’ father, Alfred Renault, had himself built up, from nothing, a large drapery business and small button manufacturing enterprise in the Place des Victoires, Paris. He had a family of six children of which Louis was the fourth son born in 1877. Two of Louis’ elder brothers, Fernand and Marcel, were a source of much satisfaction to their father in that not only had they both studied hard at school but had, as was expected of them in that era, joined in his expanding business affairs.
It was extremely disappointing for Alfred to realise that his fourth son Louis manifestly displayed, from a very early age, no interest in buttons and drapery but was only concerned with things mechanical. For all his scholarly indolence Louis had been interested in all things of a mechanical nature right from his early school-days and on one occasion had played truant so that he could hide in the tender of the Paris-Rouen train at St Lazare station. He was not found until the train was leaving a tunnel and the engine driver had no alternative but to take him on to Rouen. Louis wanted to see how a railway locomotive was driven at first hand and the means by which energy generated by steam was harnessed to locomotion.

By the age of 12 he began to haunt the Serpollet workshops and would spend long periods staring in through the doors. It was not long before these visits were brought to the attention of Monsieur Serpollet himself, who, being a kindly man, eventually asked this strange lad what he wanted. When he discerned Louis’ fanatical interest in mechanical motion and burning desire to have a ride on his invention Serpollet invited him aboard for a short test run. This was to be Louis’ first and almost last car ride because as they were speeding along, or so it seemed to young Louis, at 18 mph near the Quaie la Rapée, a front wheel came off and spun away into the River Seine. The vehicle veered off and it seemed inevitable that it must also crash into the river; fortunately the vehicle was brought to a standstill by a heap of sand. Louis was quite unperturbed by this incident and was more than thrilled when the great Serpollet actually suggested that he should help him to refit the wheel so that they could drive back to his works.

Alfred Renault deplored Louis’school examination failures and almost complete inability to spell. He could never really get himself to accept the fact that he had a son who enjoyed mucking about like a common mechanic and did not take his son’s inventive genius seriously. It is surprising, therefore, that at the age of 14 Louis was able to persuade his father to allow him to use the old toolshed at the bottom of their garden in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, as a workshop. His father also went so far as to buy him an old Panhard engine which he cut his teeth on in his new engineering facility.

In 1891 as Alfred Renault lay dying he sadly expressed his disappointment in his son Louis and was convinced that he would never amount to anything.

Shortly before being conscripted for military service, at the age of 19, Louis made it quite clear to his brothers Fernand and Marcel, who had taken over the family business on the death of their father, that he had no intention of joining them. Instead, he joined Delaunay-Belleville, the boiler-makers, where he surprised his family by getting through his mechanical draughtsmanship exam.

Louis Renault entered the army as a private and left it with the same lowly rank. He displayed no ‘other rank’ leadership qualities during his military service and his gauche manners probably denied him access to a commission despite his bourgeois background. In fact he remained a private in the military reserve and was called to the colours in 1914 still in that rank even though by then he was a very rich, successful captain of French industry. Nevertheless, he did not waste his time during his conscription in 1896, but used it to put his inventive mind to work by designing an automatic system for raising and lowering firing range targets so that one man could operate the lot whereas previously it needed one man per target. He followed this with a field searchlight of his own design mounted on a Voiturette chassis complete with generator, and also a design for a collapsible bridge.

On leaving the army at the end of his conscription he had saved enough money from his pay to buy himself a ¾hp De Dion-Bouton tricycle. In his shed in 1898 at the age of 21 Louis gave birth to the Renault legend by conceiving a practical means of ‘Direct Drive’. This was the revolution of the day. It was a transmission system which would replace all the noisy and power consuming belts and chains in general use at that time.

The ‘Direct Drive’ transmission that Louis Renault designed consisted of a three forward speed gearbox plus a reverse gear, with top being ‘direct’, joined, by means of a prop-shaft, to the rear axle which contained a crown-wheel and bevel pinion and differential running in oil enclosed in a casing. Whilst the concept of the differential was not Louis’ he was possibly the first to incorporate its practical application and this system is basically that still in use today. Louis originally intended to sell this idea to one of the existing companies and decided, therefore, to fit it to a small car so as to demonstrate it in action. For this purpose he stripped down his De Dion tricycle and converted it into a small two-seat Voiturette with four wheels, a tubular chassis, the De Dion ¾hp engine and his own transmission. He was very aware that with such a small engine the power-to-weight ratio was very important and consequently lightness had to be a key point.

His quadricycle first ran in 1898, but only a few close friends knew this. On Christmas Eve the car was ready and so he drove it from his garden workshop to join his friends in a pre-Christmas celebration. He climbed the very steep rue Lepic to Montmartre with ease, astonishing everybody who saw him. There is still today, an engraved tablet in the wall at the top of rue Lepic commemorating this feat. In fact, this Voiturette weighed 770 lbs and could carry two people at 30 mph. It climbed hills well and returned a remarkable 47 mpg.

On re-joining his friends he let them try the little car up and down the hill. They were all so impressed that Louis finished the night with deposits and orders for 12 more cars. This put him in a quandary because he had no money of his own, the deposits were small and he had never contemplated becoming a manufacturer. Fortunately his brothers Fernand and Marcel immediately saw the potential of this little vehicle and decided to set up a company with a capital of 60,000 gold francs to which they both subscribed a half share. The company was inaugurated as Renault Frères with head offices at 10 avenue du Cours, Billancourt, Seine, on February 25th, 1899 with the express purpose of manufacturing automobile vehicles and exploiting patents taken out by Louis Renault, the first of which was his ‘Direct Drive’ transmission (patent No 285743, dated February 9th 1899). Louis was not invited to be a director because he had no money and his brothers looked upon him as too young. Half of the original capital was used to buy a Weger-Richmond steam engine, a new lathe, a screw-cutting lathe, a grinder and a gear cutter. Some old sheds were moved from Seguin Island to avenue du Cours to extend the workshops and a hut was erected for the Company offices.

Neither Fernand nor Marcel Renault were mechanically minded and so Fernand ran the family drapery and button business whilst Marcel took on the management of Renault Frères founded in 1899 giving Louis complete freedom over the engineering side. Fernand did, however, take on the chairmanship of Renault Frères Ltd., in London, from 1902 until his death in 1908.


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