Friday, May 21, 2010

1959 Renault Dauphine

I've always wanted to write about a Dauphine. I'm finally getting my chance.

The Dauphine was Renault's first try at selling cars in volume in the US. Initially it did quite well. Then the reality of the car set in. This was not a car built for the US style of driving. Complaints mounted and sales plummeted. In the US Renault never recovered from the Dauphine debacle.

The stock Dauphine was notoriously slow. 0 - 60 took 32 seconds. I'll write that again... 0 - 60 took 32 seconds. (Time magazine, in naming it one of the 50 worst cars of all time, said that it had "a rate of acceleration you could measure with a calendar... which would put the Dauphine at a severe disadvantage in any drag race involving farm equipment." The Cars of Coolhaven website - a very cool site from The Netherlands and one worth checking out - called the Renault Dauphine Gordini "as fast as an aging turtle". A great description for this, the performance version of the Dauphine.) The stock 845cc "Ventoux" engine put out a whopping 32 HP. They also were notoriously bad handling cars. (According to my father - I was either not born yet, or was too young to remember this - we had a neighbor who won a Dauphine on a TV game show. My dad was going somewhere with him and the neighbor managed to get the car sideways not once, but twice, during the ride. - Once on the Long Island Expressway. I have no idea how he accomplished that - My father was not a man who saw humor in stuff like that and refused to ride in the car again. But, I digress...)

The car being offered on eBay is not a Gordini Dauphine, but has a Gordindi engine and transmission in it. Amédée Gordini was an impressive engineer. Most of the cars he built or tuned were amazingly quick and handled incredibly well. The best he could do with the Dauphine was get another 5 HP out of it, bringing it up to 37 (later he managed to get 40 out of it). I can't find any 0 -60 times for the Gordini tuned Dauphines, but I assume they may have gotten to 60 in 25 seconds. Maybe.

This car is an amazing original Dauphine. Most Dauphines found their way to junkyards pretty early in life. Some were just left in fields where they rusted away. A very small number have been restored by Renault fans. Very, very few turn up in this condition; original, intact and not too rusty.

So what, it's a survivor, but its still a slow, ill-handling, car, right? Before filing it as just another weird, Just a Car Geek car, take a good look at it...

Renault wanted this car to compete with the VW in the US. In theory it should have not only competed with VW, but it should have blown it away. It had 4 doors, it's rear mounted engine was water cooled - which meant it had non-toxic heat - , it had a great riding suspension and, in comparison to the 1950s VW, an almost classy interior. Most of all, it had style. The VW was a tub with 4 fenders (I'm not knocking them here, that's just what the were), the Dauphine has curves, creases, folds and lines. Look at the hood, the front bumper, the rear chromed air intakes, the sliding rear windows... Renault spent time designing this car and it's designed in a way that only the French could and would design a car. In a weird way, a very weird way, it's a masterpiece.

Despite its problems in the US, the Dauphine was a very, very succesful car for Renault. They sold over 2,000,000 of them. Several other manufacturers built them under license, including, believe it or not, Alfa Romeo. (Alfa called it both Dauphine and "Ondine" - You can see some pictures here.)

All cars are a piece of history. This car is a huge piece of Renault history, both good (Europe and elsewhere) and bad (United States). If I had extra room and extra cash, I'd buy this car. I would do very little to it. I'd fix what needs to be fixed and give it a quick buff and puff. That's it. I'd drive it once or twice a year, whenever I need to be reminded of A) A time when cars had real personalities and B) How far automobile engineering has come in the last 50 years.

This is not the best car ever built, but it's still a cool old car that deserves to be preserved.

Located in Santa Monica, CA, click here to see the eBay listing.


Jon said...

Regarding the design of the Dauphine, I ran across a Panhard Dyna with a similar design.

I never imagined the Gordini was that slow. That was an eye opener.

Anonymous said...

In 1965 I purchased a red 1959 Renault Dauphine. My first car. Drove it daily from Watertown Ct to Thomastonp Ct where I worked in the Seth Thomas clock factory as a stock boy. Car was fast going down to the factory & impossibly slow going back. A rise from 446 feet to 620 feet aove sea level. Stripped a timing gear (made from something close to particle board) and a local passing farmer towed me to his barn where he had 6 Renault's in various stages of dis-repair. Replaced my stripped gear for nuthin' - probably out of pity. Before that winter I sold it and got a 1959 Corvette. The disparaging remarks here don't begin to describe what a piece of s**t this car was. It cured me of eating croissants for decades.