1959-1968 Renault Caravelle: “A Dream Car Come True”
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.
Love it or hate it, the styling of the Renault Caravelle was memorable. Enough so that the ’61 Amphicar cribbed the overall design! (the Amphicar folks beg to differ on this-ed.) Even the stiff-upperlipped Brits didn’t hesitate to use the scooped-out headlights for the MGB
Did the Ford Mustang borrow its bodyside scoop/sculpture from the Caravelle?
While most of that may sound like sporting hardware, it was in fact more impressive on paper than in practice. For instance, even though French tuning wizard, Amadee Gordini, massaged the overhead-valve “Ventoux” four with his considerable skill, he managed to wring just 40 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 47.8 Ibs /ft torque at 3300 rpm from its meager 51.5-cubic-inches (845 cc). The gear lever, though floor-mounted, had a vague, rubbery shift action, and the independent rear suspension consisted of simple swing axles. With its rear engine – which Europeans at the time considered the “only way to go” in a small car – the Caravelle had 4O/6O front / rear weight distribution, and a vicious tendency to oversteer. The last was typical of rear-engined cars, something Volkswagen had long since learned about, and Corvair owners would confront in the Sixties.Renault attempted to mitigate the touchy handling with “Aerostable.” Auto historian James M. Flammang described it, in the Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-1990, as a new suspension [that] combined conventional coil springs and shocks with unique rubber pads and pneumatic bags, which varied the flexibility of the springs according to the load…. Under minimum load, and with the driver riding alone, the flexible coil springs would give a soft ride. As load increased, the depression of the springs rose, sending the auxiliary suspension into action. That suspension consisted of rubber pads surrounding the rods of the shocks and, at the rear, pneumatic bags filled with air at atmospheric pressure. Pistons compressed those bags in proportion to the load.”
But what the Caravelle lacked in spirit it made up for in style. Riding the same 89-inch wheelbase as the Dauphine, it carried crisp lines with rather lengthy overhang; at 167.8 inches, it was 12.8 inches longer than the Dauphine. Peaked rear fenders ran forward to scooped headlight bezels in a blunt, undercut nose that seemed to imply an aquatic intent. On the original cars, grilles in the trailing edges of the side recesses just ahead of the rear wheels channeled cooling air to the engine bay; on later models, these were eliminated. Offerings included a four-seat coupe and two-seat convertible, the latter available with a removable hardtop. Weight ranged from 2395 to 2525 pounds.
Then changes were made in midstream: Early roofs had a rear-sloping, Karman-Ghia -like shape that severely limited headroom in the little back seat; the design later embraced a squared-off roofline more accommodating to rear-seat passengers.
The division between “early” and “late” models came in mid-l962, when the Caravelle saw some major changes. Most were the result of adopting improved chassis components from the company’s new R8 successor to the Dauphine including longer radius arms for the swing-axle rear suspension, to better control wheel movement, a more robust front suspension, Lockheed disc brakes front and rear, and most importantly, a larger engine. Replacing the long-stroke Ventoux engine, a new “Sierra” four displaced 58.3 cubic inches (958 cc) by way of a squarer bore/stroke ratio, and wore an aluminum cylinder head. This resulted in 51 bhp and 55 Ibs/ft torque. (This engine would be bored out to 67.6 cid/1108 cc in ’63, and while horsepower remained at 51 at a lower 5200 rpm; torque was upped to 65 Ibs/ft at a more useful 3000 rpm.) The radiator was moved from the front of the engine compartment to the rear, where it drew in air through louvers in the tail. This allowed the rear bulkhead to be moved back about five inches, liberating more space inside. These modifications resulted in a much improved Caravelle, and many felt the car’s introduction should have been postponed until the changes were made.
Indeed, the early versions did nothing to bolster Renault’s sagging quality image, which dashed any hope of sales building up again. In fact, total Renault sales in the U.S. (Dauphine, R8, and Caravelle) had faltered to only 12,106 in 1966.
Caravelles nonetheless continued to trickle into the U.S. for a few more years, and while production didn’t cease until July 1968, it’s doubtful any were sent to the U.S after 1967. As mentioned before (and obvious by its specifications), the focus of the Caravelle was styling, not performance The early 850-cc models were dreadfully slow by American standards of the day: O-60 took an agonizing- 23.8 seconds, a while top speed was a paltry, long-awaited 83 mph. Post-’63 1100-cc models were quicker: 0-60 in 17.6 seconds, 90mph top speed. The flip side of these unsporting numbers was terrific fuel economy; 40-mpg averages were not uncommon. Unfortunately, money saved at the pumps was often spent at the garage, as Caravelles inevitably maintained ongoing affairs with their friendly, prospering mechanics.
Not surprisingly, the same characteristics that attracted the few buyers in the Sixties make the Caravelle an alluring choice in the Nineties. Styling, of course, is first on the list. Despite – or perhaps because of – the unusually lengthy overhangs, the Caravelle strikes a dashing pose even today. And while its uniqueness no doubt appealed to many original purchasers, the ravages of time- amplified by the vulnerability of French sheet metal to rust–have thinned their already meager ranks to the point that Caravelles are as scarce as hen’s teeth. Of course, that means that finding one in the first place will likely involve a lengthy search, to say nothing of finding parts. But if you revel in the unique – and aren’t in any particular hurry this expression of French Chic may be just the ticket for cruising à la francaise. In Paris, anything was possible in the late Fifties.
And indeed, here’s the brand-new Renault Caravelle (note the scoops just ahead of the rear wheels), ready for launch by a young Sammy Davis, Jr. The photo flatters the late Sammy, but the stand propping up the Caravelle makes it look shorter and taller than it really was. Note the available hardtop hanging overhead.
©1994 Collectible Automobile Magazine