Louis Renault was born in Paris on February 15, 1877, the fourth of six children born into the bourgeois family of Alfred and Louise-Berthe Magnien who owned a small drapery firm on the Place des Victoires. Renault had a typical bourgeois upbringing with the attitudes and prejudices that would stay with him his entire life including a distrust, even fear of the working classes. Young Renault did not care much for school and found solace in things mechanical to the disappointment of his father who wanted his sons to become successful businessmen. His passion for mechanics brought him into contact with the newly appearing automobile, spending any free time he had at the workshops of Léon Serpollet. He attended Lycée Condorcet and at the age of 19, was working as technical draftsman at Delauney-Belleville. Renault even applied for work at Panhard et Levassor but as the story goes was turned down by Levassor himself, telling the disappointed young man that “No amateurs were wanted”.
A chagrined Renault decided to build his own car in a small workshop he arranged at the back of the family property in Boulogne-Billancourt. at the age of 21, he created his first small motorcar and on Christmas 1898, Renault drove up the steep rue Lepic on Montmartre in Paris with his Voiturette, equipped with a revolutionary direct-drive transmission which was quite a feat for its time. That same evening he took 12 firm orders for the vehicle. The car mounted a De Dion-Bouton 1 cylinder 273 cc, air-cooled engine producing 1.75 hp. Drive was through the rear axle with 3-speed gearbox + reverse, Brakes on rear wheels and on the propeller shaft. Dimensions: length 186 cm, width 110 cm, un-laden weight 200 kg. The car could reach a top speed of 32 km/h. A patent for the direct-drive system was applied for in 1899 and upheld in 1905. It’s estimated that royalties from the patent were not less that $200,000 per annum.
Together with two of his brothers he founded Renault-Frères and in the first six months of 1899 they had already built eighty cars. The Type C was Renault’s first four-passenger car. After several mechanical and physical modifications, the car was launched in 1900. The car was presented in the 1900 Mondial de l’Automobile at Paris, presenting for the first time Renault Frères as an automobile maker. In 1903, Renault began to manufacture its own engines; until then it had purchased them from De Dion-Bouton. De Dion’s chief designer had joined Renault after a disagreement over the design of a four-cylinder engine. The first major volume sale came in 1905 when Société des Automobiles de Place bought Renault AG1 cars to establish a fleet of taxis. By 1907, a significant percentage London and Paris taxis had been built by Renault. Renault was also the best-selling foreign brand in New York in 1907 and by 1908 the company produced 3,575 units, becoming France’s largest car manufacturer.
Early on the brothers recognized the value of publicity that participation in motor racing could generate for their vehicles. Renault make itself known through succeeding in the first city-to-city races held in Switzerland, producing rapid sales growth. Both Louis and Marcel raced the Renaults and at the 1901 Paris-Bordeaux race they came in first and second in the voiturette class. Their greatest victory came on the 29th of June, 1902 at the Paris-Vienna motor race where Marcel Renault’s 35 hp Light Car came in first overall. Marcel’s average speed was an astounding thirty-nine miles and hour which included crossing the Arlberg mountain range. Flushed with success both drivers entered the 1903 fateful Paris-Madrid race.
In the small village of Payré near Couhé-Vérac, about 17 kms after Vivonne, between Poitiers and Ruffec, occurred Marcel Renault’s tragedy. He had left Versailles one hour after his brother Louis, driving his 650-kg 16HP Renault, proceeding in the dust raised by Leon Théry’s Decauville #4 which came ahead of him. Marcel didn’t see the yellow flag announcing a dangerous curve and a rail crossing, arrived too quickly, he lost control of the car getting his wheel into the gutter and crashed against a tree. Théry stopped his Decauville in order to help Renault and his riding-mechanic Vauthiertrapped in their car, which albeit crumpled was not destroyed. No doctor was at hand, but Théry tried to find one at the next village and sent him pedaling back to the place of accident by bicycle. Unfortunately Marcel Renault succumbed to his injuries two days later.
Louis Renault would never drive again. Still Renault maintained their involvement in motor racing, highlighted by Ferenc Szisz winning the French Grand Prix in a Renault AK 90CV in 1906. It would be seventy-three years before they would win the French Grand Prix again. Louis Renault took full control of the company during the same year when Fernand retired for health reasons. Fernand died in 1909 and Louis became the sole owner, renaming the company Société des Automobiles Renault. The company employed 2500 workers producing 4500 vehicle a year. Renault fostered its reputation for innovation from very early on as evidenced by a 1902 patent for a centrifugal supercharger. At the time, their cars were luxury items and the price of the smallest Renaults was 3000 francs; an amount equal to ten years pay for the average worker. In 1905, Renault after visiting the Ford automobile factory in America decided to introduce the same mass-production techniques and scientific management, also called Taylorism, after its author Frederick Winslow Taylor, in France. Initially fearing a loss of jobs staged a strike that was quickly suppressed.
The French Compagnie des Automobiles Square, later called “G7” (because its vehicles were registered by the G7 prefecture), was founded March 4, 1905 by the Baron Rognat. In 1905, after a series of trials, the company choose the Renault Type AG1 FL and placed an initial order of 250 taxis. a further 1,100 were exported to London. Soon 50% of all taxis in London were Renaults and by 1914, three-quarters of the 12,000 Parisian taxis are Renault AG vehicles as well. These would later play a famous role in defense of the nation.
In 1907 Renault began building airplane engines; the first being a V8. Rolls-Royce would base their first aircraft engines on the V8. Renault also manufactured buses and commercial cargo vehicles in the years leading up to World War I. During WWI, the French War Ministry called on Renault to contribute to the war effort and entrusted it with 31 contracts, including ambulances, aircraft engines and shells.
On September 6, 1914, during a pivotal battle, early in the war with the Germans threatening to cross the Marne river and march upon Paris the military governor of Paris, General Joseph-Simon Gallieni, sought to extricate from France’s choked rail system the Army’s 7th Division. It was arriving from the frontier to join the 6th Army defending Paris. Told of a shortage of army motor vehicles and drivers, Gallieni said “Why not use taxis?” All Parisian taxis and their drivers were immediately assembled at the Esplanade des Invalides. “What about the fare,” asked one of the taxi drivers. Compensation eventually did materialize at 27% of the meter reading.
The lead column of about 150 empty taxis left Paris that night under a Lieutenant Lefas and went to Tremblay-les-Gonesses for further orders. Advance was slow, breakdowns occurred, and no orders awaited him at the Tremblay, only puzzlement from the duty officer. About 4 am. on September 7 the expedition of now supplemented to over 400 vehicles was directed to Dammartin to await further orders from the 6th Army. In issuing rations to the taxi drivers it was a revelation that over twenty Frenchmen did not drink wine, and there was no water to be found. Patience prevailed at Dammartin while more empty taxis arrived from Paris. Finally the entire convoy, including stray trucks, limousines, and racing cars, drove to a rail siding to load the arriving infantrymen of the 103rd and 104th regiments. Departure for the front was at dusk. Soldiers tried to sleep and drivers strained to see the road without auto lights. Most of the cabs were sent back to take a second load. Each trip by a vehicle brought 5 soldiers close to the front ready for deployment. By September 8, two days after Gallieni had his brilliant idea, the taxis of the Marne had transported about 4000 badly needed soldiers to reinforce the 6th Army facing the Germans at the crucial point of battle near Nanteuil. With Paris saved … for now.
The Renault FT17 Light Tank of 1917 was a revolutionary design. Until then, Louis Renault declined any involvement in tank production, claiming his lack of experience with tracked vehicles and other commitments. However, as an engineer he was taken up by the challenge. After a meeting with Colonel Estienne, the French “father of the tanks”, at the Hotel Claridge in Paris., Renault started a practical study for a light vehicle, easy to manufacture with a reduced, unskilled workforce (factories had been depleted then by mass drafts and enlisting). The core idea for a light tank came from Estienne himself. Instead of cumbersome armored boxes, he imagined an immense fleet of cheap “bees”, five or six light tanks for the price of a single St Chamond heavy tank. Two features of the Renault FT17 tank stand out, the rear mounted engine, separated from the fighting compartment by a firewall, and the revolving turret which had been used previously on armored cars.
Bedsides providing tanks to French British, American and Italian forces the tanks were eventually exported all round the world. These tanks remained in first line many years in these countries, to the point that two Afghan FT17s were found in relatively good condition during the war in Afghanistan. By the end of the war Renault was now employing 22,000 workers. In 1918 Louis Renault was awarded the Légion d’honneur and married Christiane Boullaire nineteen years his junior. Competition between Renault and Citroën was fierce but an even stronger foe was on the horizon, the Ford Motor Company.
On October 24, 1944, Louis Renault, giant of early motoring and arguably the greatest single name in French auto history, died in a hospital in the Rue Oudinot, Paris, having been transferred there from prison at Fresnes. Officially, cause of death was given as urine in the blood, but according to eyewitness and family accounts, the previously wiry little 67-year-old had been tortured and beaten. A nun at Fresnes testified that she saw Renault collapse after being hit over the head by a jailer wielding a helmet. An X-ray organized by his family indicated a broken neck vertebra.
Louis Renault had been accused of wartime collaboration. Some 40,000 French died at the hands of vengeful compatriots in the confused aftermath of the Second World War, and Renault was a high-profile scapegoat needed by the post-war administration to demonstrate its political direction and resolve. But there are those who to this day regard him not as a collaborator but as a hero, and his end as an enduring national scandal. But for his efforts, Renault factories and employees would have been shipped to Germany. When France was attacked in 1939, Renault was sent by his government to America to ask for tanks. He returned to find a Franco-German armistice in place.
By Ian Morton – The Telegraph
12:01AM BST 14 May 2005
In 1945, the French government nationalized Renault as Régie Nationale des Usines Renault, Peugeot and Citroën were left untouched. In subsequent years, the Renault family tried to have the nationalization rescinded by French courts and receive compensation but all to no avail. Fernand Gabriel, winner of the 1903 Paris-Madrid race was working at the Renault factory at La Garenne-Colombeson on the 9th of September 1943 when it was bombed by the allies, he did not survive the attack.