In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Volkswagen Beetle was the top selling foreign car in the United States. But the much-loved German import did not lack for competition. During this time period, a large number of foreign automakers sought to penetrate the American market and did so with varying degrees of success. Among those jockeying for position in the American marketplace was Renault, an internationally renowned French automaker based in Billancourt, France. During the late 1950s-early 1960s, the French firm marketed a car that was for a short time the Volkswagen Beetle’s most serious competitor in the United States: the Renault Dauphine.
First introduced at the 1956 Paris Auto Show, the Renault Dauphine was a small economy sedan designed to compete directly with the Volkswagen Beetle. The Dauphine and Beetle had some design characteristics in common. Both cars employed a rear-engine, rear-wheel drive setup and both were equipped with swing-axle independent rear suspension. In most other respects, the Dauphine was designed to be a more modern alternative to the Beetle. Instead of an air-cooled engine like that found in the Beetle, the Dauphine was fitted with a water-cooled inline-4 engine, which displaced 845 cc (51.5 cubic inches) and was good for 30 horsepower. A three-speed manual transmission came standard, but the Dauphine could also be ordered with a Ferlec automatic clutch, which permitted gear changes without a clutch pedal. In contrast to the Beetle’s two-door body, the Dauphine featured an arguably more convenient four-door body shell. Renault also offered a performance variant of the Dauphine tuned by Amédée Gordini, which came equipped with a more powerful engine (good for 37.5-40 horsepower) and a four-speed manual transmission.
The Dauphine made its American debut at the 1956 New York Auto Show. When a sharp recession hit the United States in 1957, sales of the Dauphine unexpectedly took off and it became the Volkswagen Beetle’s most serious competitor. American customers were attracted by Dauphine’s cute looks, low sticker price ($1,645 in 1957) and excellent gas mileage (claimed to be capable of exceeding 40 miles per gallon). Led by the Dauphine, Renault became the #2 selling import make in the United States in 1957, a position it would hold for several years.
Although the Dauphine was initially well received by the American motoring public, owners soon became disenchanted with this car. The Dauphine was widely criticized for being too slow and underpowered for American driving conditions. Unlike its competitor, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Dauphine earned a reputation for being a low-quality car. American owners found the Dauphine to be mechanically troublesome and its body prone to rusting. Also in contrast to Volkswagen, Renault lacked a well-organized American dealer network for servicing its cars. This combination of factors caused Renault’s American sales to drop dramatically from a peak of 91,073 in 1959 to 12,106 in 1966. The Dauphine was withdrawn from the American market in 1967 and Renault ceased production of it in 1968.
More than 200,000 Renault Dauphines were imported to the United States between 1956 and 1967. Even though a significant number of them were brought to American shores, surviving examples are rarely seen today.
Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 675, 677-680.
Dauphine, Renault: Renault: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Alliance, Alpine, Caravelle, Dauphine, Eight, and Encore, ca. 1950s-1986, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Dauphine, Renault, Régie National: Renault: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Alliance, Alpine, Caravelle, Dauphine, Eight, and Encore, ca. 1950s-1986, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1318-1319.
Ward’s 1960 Automotive Yearbook, Twenty-Second Edition; Detroit, Michigan: Ward’s Automotive Yearbook, 1960, p. 177.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.