Thankfully, we’ve had better success ejecting their unwanted wares from our shores than the French have had warding off the relentless juggernaut of Disney, McDonald’s and Miley Cyrus.
So, grab your clothespin, affix to your nose, and walk with me down memory lane a moment:
* Renault Le Car -
A sad little machine that could give a Yugo self-esteem lessons, the Le Car (also known as the Renault 5 in Europe) was launched in 1972 with the slogan, “Hello, I’m the Renault 5, in town and on the road . . . .They also call me Supercar.” A rather audacious claim given the 850 cc, 36-hp engine that powered the original. (My riding lawn mower has 25 hp – and is probably about as quick.)
Later models were offered with a noxious 1.6 liter diesel that smelled worse than the car itself looked.
The Le Car sold through 1985 in the U.S. – and actually sold fairly well. Some three million were built, all told – proof that quantity and quality are often not synonymous.
Luckily, only a few remain roadworthy today – and they’re easy enough to catch and smash, if you come across a survivor.
Imagine a moped without the sex appeal – or the performance – and you’ve got a handle on the 2CV.
It germinated in the mind of company founder Pierre Boulanger, who wanted to create a car that would “… carry two peasants and 100-pounds of potatoes. . .” The result was the TPV – Toute Petit Voiture – the early prototype of the 2CV that would appear after World War II.
Unfortunately, it was not a casualty of that conflict.
The original 1948 2CV – “Deux Chevaux” – featured a 9 hp air-cooled engine, canvass roof, no door locks or ignition key – and a pull-start system that made it easy for anyone to jump in and steal the thing. Not that it ever crossed anyone’s mind to steal a 2CV, since it would be faster – as well as more reliable – to get away on foot.
The 2CV became ubiquitous in postwar Europe, where the unlucky losers of the Big One weren’t in much of a position to motor around in Series 62 Caddies or 283 Power Pack ’57 Chevys – and had to make do with this well-named “peasant’s car.”
* Renault Alliance -
This 60 hp K-car wanna-be was probably the car Adam Sandler had in mind when he wrote his beautiful ballad, Piece of Shit Car.
In a move whose astutenesss rivaled that of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana “Purchase” – whereby America got most of the land West of St. Louis for pennies per acre – AMC wheedled Renault into dishing out $350 million in early 1980s dollars to acquire a 46.4 percent stake in the company that brought the world such exemplars of style, engineering and quality control as the Pacer X (with genuine Levi jeans seat covers), the Gremlin, and – of course – the Matador.
Even though AMC was on the ropes, the French were sold on the idea of exploiting AMC’s still-large dealer network to hock their Pepe Le Pew chariots. But things didn’t turn out so well for AMC – which went belly up a few years later.
Nor for Renault – which eventually fled the U.S. market, never to return.
Fuego means fire – like the blue flame that comes from you-know-where.
Built from 1980 through 1993, the two-door Fuego is about as hot-roddy as French-made sports cars get – 64-hp engine, 99-mph top speed. Look out!
A “high performance” turbocharged version was added to the mix later on that upped the ante to 107 hp, and gave the car a top speed approaching 120 mph flat out. Right there with a new Hyundai Accent – but without the Hyundai’s build quality.
There are still a few die-hards left who lovingly preserve the few Fuegos that rust – and sledgehammer-wielding prior owners – didn’t claim.
* Renault Rodeo 6 -
Convertibles are fun because you can feel the wind through your hair – but the Rodeo 6′s 75 mph top speed made it hard to get up much of a breeze. On the upside, the 38 hp, 845 cc engine did get good gas mileage. Basically a Le Car with a Jeep-like (and extra shoddy) body, the Rodeo 6 is still in favor as a beach-mobile on the French Riviera and similar locales, where its open-to-the-outdoors cabin is ideally suited to the Homeless Guido lifestyle.
Strap on your speedo and climb aboard!
* Peugeot 505 diesel -
The Peugeot boys began by making coffee grinders and sewing machines more than 100 years ago – and the company that bears the family name ended up building a car with an engine that sounded very much like a sick coffee grinder – only slightly more powerful than a high-end sewing machine.
The Peugeot 505 sedan was actually not such a bad car – if you exclude the breakdown-prone 2.5 liter, 64 hp diesel engine and sketchy frogified electronics. Straining like a late-stage Marlon Brando running up a flight of stairs after a full plate of fettuccini Alfredo, the 505 diesel eventually struggled to a top speed of 90 mph. Getting to 60 mph required the patience of a Buddhist Monk on qualudes – though later turbocharged models almost broke the Beetle Barrier with an 18 second run.
The 505 lingered like Limburger until the mid-1990s – though thankfully not in the United States.
* Citroen DS -
French president and national icon Charles de Gaulle escaped an assassination attempt while riding in a DS – though it’s possible the assassins were shooting at the car, not de Gaulle.
Citroen fans credit the getaway to the DS’s self-leveling “hydro-pneumatic” suspension system – which enabled the car to keep going even with two tires shot out. Fortunately for de Gaulle, he didn’t need a fast ride to the hospital – because the DS needed 15 agonizing seconds to reach 60-mph – and could barely get into the three digits on top (106-mph screaming at redline).
Still, the car had a presence – in the same way a Pontiac Aztek does. People stand transfixed when one passes by, unable to avert their eyes – as if Tony Soprano’s crew just dumped a body in the middle of the road.
The DS was built for almost 20 years, from 1955 through the mid-1970s. It remains perhaps the most obviously “French-looking” car to most people – and the one you’d most want to disassemble and then rebuild inside the cramped office of your least favorite college professor.
Throw it in the Woods?
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