by Graham Robson,
U.S. Collectible Automobile Magazine, October 1994
Conceived at a time when Americans were beginning to embrace smaller, sportier European cars, France’s Renault Caravelle unfortunately suffered from a bungled launch and Renault’s own reputation for body rot.
Although big, luxurious Renaults had been imported into the U.S. in the very early 1900s, Renault didn’t enter the American postwar market until 1949 with the diminutive 4CV sedan (“saloon” in Europe). Riding an 83-inch wheelbase, it struggled with a tiny 760cc, 19-bhp rear-mounted, water-cooled engine. Despite a $1035 price tag and claimed fuel economy of up to 50 mpg, a top speed of about 55 mph made it virtually unsalable in the U.S. and indeed only 1402 crossed the Atlantic in 1949, just 374 in 1952. Renault tried again in 1953-by adding the 110 1/4 inch wheelbase, 60 bhp Fregate sedan, but its $2595 price tag was $398 more than a Buick Special, so it never got off the ground.
By 1957 however, Pierre Dreyfus, head of Renault, figured he had just what America wanted: the Dauphine. Introduced in France in 1956, it was intended to compete against the renowned Volkswagen Beetle. The 89-inch-wheel base Dauphine proved immediately popular in Europe and more than 200,000 were sent to the U.S. by 1960, but sales then took a nose-dive. Though partly because of droopy “three box” styling (which some thought “cute”), Renault’s free fall was primarily due to fragile Construction and rotten reliability Those problems would jinx the Caravelle in America, and eventually Renault itself.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen had introduced the Karman-Ghia in 1956, essentially a Beetle cleverly disguised as “sports car” by renowned Ghia stylists of Turin, Italy- its success prompted Renault to devise a similar car using the same formula. Spurred by the notion that a company able to do it once could repeat the performance, Renault contracted with Ghia to carry out a similar transformation on the dowdy Dauphine.
What happened in the next year or so is still something of a mystery, for although it was Ghia that had been commissioned to do the job, Frua of Italy also took credit for the styling and there was a brisk bout of legal action in Italy before all the ruffled feathers were smoothed back into place. What probably happened was that Ghia which was extremely busy at the time with other projects, subcontracted Frua to do some of the work. Since Ghia and Frua had openly joined forces to produce the Volvo P1800 coupe at about that time, the action was not without precedent.
In any case, an early prototype was shown at the Geneva Salon in March 1958, and the car was officially introduced in October at the Paris show. As Britain’s The Autocar magazine noted at at the time, “It is … clearly aimed fair and square across the Atlantic; but a lot of French men and women, too, are falling for its chic.” Called Floride in Europe the name was changed to Caravelle for cars headed to the U.S. The latter defined a light, fast, European ship from the 15th Century, but Americans more likely associated it with the first French-built jetliner of the same name that found favor with U.S. Airlines in the early Sixties.
Caravelle made its American debut at the New York Auto Show in December 1959 where 13,000 prospective buyers placed orders for what was billed as “A dream car come true.” However, the first production models wouldn’t reach the buyers’ eager hands until many months later. Renault made no secret of the’ fact that the Caravelle was built on the Dauphine platform. This meant the chassis carried a high-revving four-cylinder engine, rack-and-pinion steering, and a fully independent suspension. A threshed manual gearbox was standard, a four-speed optional, as well as an automatic Ferlec electromagnetic clutch for the three-speed.