A Tale of Two Saloons

Europe in the post-war period was a paradise for motor sport enthusiasts – regardless of your vehicle, chances were that you could race it, be it on a disused airfield, the public roads or a circuit. Of course it took a while for things to get organised, but it wasn’t long before manufacturers were exploiting this wealth of sporting opportunity to garner publicity for some fairly unlikely vehicles.


Renault’s little Dauphine saloon would become a prime example of the ‘race on Sunday, drive on Monday’ mentality, scoring several high profile victories straight out of the box. The Dauphine was developed as a successor to the then ubiquitous 4CV, and set new standards for interior comfort and durability, not to mention modernity of design, the result of rigorous testing and a painstaking attention to detail. Spurred on by the immense success of Renault’s compact and affordable family saloon, not to mention post-Suez concerns over petrol supplies, rival firm Simca were busy developing something distinctly more angular in response. The 1000 appeared at the 1961 Paris Salon, importantly beating the rumoured ‘Super Dauphine’ to the marketplace, it was available only in red, white or bleu [sic], and rapidly became highly successful, thanks not only to its modern appearance, but to useful touches such as fold-down rear seats and doors that opened at right-angles. Performance too was a factor, as even after former Simca employee and race-tuning specialist Amédée Gordini had worked his magic on the Dauphine’s little 845 cc engine, it struggled to outperform its 944 cc rival.


Renault were extremely quick to react and, less than a year later, in June 1962 the ‘Super Dauphine’, now called the R8 appeared, a challenge to the Simca in every respect, from its en vogue boxiness to the 956 cc engine. Constructed on the Dauphine chassis, the R8 retained the rear-engined, rear-wheel drive layout, eschewing the trendsetting hatchback of their R4. Whilst this was regarded as something of a backward step, the R4’s pioneering engine cooling system was carried over, and it became the first economy car to feature disc brakes all-round which, along with the Dauphine’s extant rack and pinion steering proved to be performance enhancing refinements. Indeed, the Simca with its drum brakes (discs would finally be fitted to the front wheels in ’69) and unresponsive worm and roller steering, a source of much criticism, suddenly looked rather old-fashioned in comparison.


Nevertheless the Simca continued to sell strongly, especially in the export market and, thanks to an association via Fiat, with famed tuning specialist Carlo Abarth, 100 examples were customised to racing spec, and proved highly competitive during the ’62 season. Given their success, four variants of the Abarth enhanced 1150 were set to enter full production the following year, with upwards of 55hp (compared to 40hp in the standard model), disc brakes and, on the top of the range 1150 SS, a six-speed ‘box, along with a tacho and oil pressure gauge.  Sadly this formidable little car was to be short-lived, for that same year Fiat sold their controlling interest in the company to Chrysler, who swiftly cancelled the project.


Ironically, that same year “Le Sorcier” (The Sorcerer) Gordini was working his magic on the R8, and in doing so was creating one of the most significant cars in French motorsport history, but more of that next week….


“There were, of course, accidents aplenty, a couple of them fatal, but the fierce competition brought such names as Denis Dayan, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Alain Serpaggi  and Jean-Pierre Jabouille into the limelight and is remembered today as one of the most closely contested racing championships of all-time.”


With the Abarth collaboration at an end, and managerial changes in progress, Simca focused their attentions on larger saloons, their 1300 and 1500 ranges successfully replacing the popular Aronde. This left a sizable gap in the market for something small and sporty, aimed at the younger generation, and at the Paris Salon in October 1964 Renault’s, frankly insane, answer appeared.


Originally available only in French Blue with the two signature white stripes, there was no mistaking the R8 Gordini. Thanks to a cylinder head of Gordini’s own design, the 1100cc engine now delivered a staggering 95 hp (almost twice that of the top-of-the-range Major), good for 105 mph and enough to see off a Mini Cooper. Though the suspension was beefed up and lowered, a servo assist added to the brakes, with all that power to the rear wheels, not much weight, and a notorious swing axle, there was little that could really be done to make the Gordini any less of a handful, but unsurprisingly it was these very elements that made it so popular. Mechanically straightforward, and with most parts interchangeable with the standard model, the R8 Gordini was advertised as the ideal car for the motorsport enthusiast on a budget, and with the works’ rally team giving the all-conquering Coopers a run for their money there were bound to be plenty of takers.


La Coupe Nationale Renault 8 Gordini was the brainchild of journalists Georges Fraichard, Paul Dupuis and Alain Bertaut, whose magazines, Action Automobile and Moteurs, provided support along with Renault themselves and petrol company Elf. The championship began in 1966, coinciding with the release of Gordini’s even quicker 1255 and 1296 cc versions, and aimed to give the next generation of French racing drivers the first step towards a professional career, by letting them demonstrate their talents on a series of challenging circuits (along with rallies and hillclimbs in the first year) in equally matched machinery. The Gordini Cup became an enormous success, with heavy press coverage and large crowds drawn by the spectacle of twenty (or more) cars being driven with an unsurprising combination of skill, exuberance, bravery and flamboyance. There were, of course, accidents aplenty, a couple of them fatal, but the fierce competition brought such names as Denis Dayan, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Alain Serpaggi  and Jean-Pierre Jabouille into the limelight and is remembered today as one of the most closely contested racing championships of all-time. Unfortunately for Renault, the racing success of the R8 would not be continued with its successor, the front-engined, front-wheel drive R12 Gordini, introduced in 1971, which simply proved ill-suited to the demands of circuit competition and was retired after just three seasons.


It’s fair to say that Renault’s immensely popular R8 had rather eclipsed the Simca 1000 over the latter half of the sixties, the “Régie” certainly reaping the benefits of their successful racing programme in terms of domestic profile and sales. Simca however, had not been idle, their little car proving enormously successful in the export market, and having lent its chassis and mechanicals to the pretty, but gutless, Giugiaro penned Coupé 1000, in much the same way as the Dauphine/R8 running gear had been utilised in Renault’s stylish Caravelle/Floride range. Complaints over the performance of the 1000 range continued, but it wasn’t until 1967 that the restyled Coupé received a boost in power to 1204 cc and 82 hp, good for 100 mph and with servo assisted disc brakes, suspension and steering to match. Had Abarth still been tinkering with Simcas the 1200S might well have been truly spectacular, but as it was the task fell to Radbourne Racing in the UK who briefly picked up where the Italian had left off.


The little 1000 meanwhile had been suffering from a severe lack of development, with gradual increases in performance generating ever more wayward handling characteristics, a situation addressed by a full overhaul of suspension, brakes and steering for 1969. It was to prove timely, for the introduction of the costly Renault 12 was to effectively spell the end for the Gordini Cup, and it didn’t require much imagination to see that Simca’s new 1000 Rallye might be able to fill the gap left by the beloved R8. The Simca Racing Team would provide much the same opportunity for aspiring drivers, and much the same spectacle for fans as the Gordini Cup. The Rallye models would remain in production until 1978, by which time it had evolved into a fully-fledged racing car, every bit as popular as the R8 had been in its heyday.


For two boxy, unassuming little saloons, the R8 and the 1000 proved not only extremely versatile, but also immensely characterful, and in France they have attained much the same iconic status we reserve for the Mini. Few cars have endeared themselves to so many: from the families to whom they were simply day-to-day transport, to the racers who campaigned them, and the mechanics who worked upon them, they were reliable, fun and easy to fix or even customise. Refined they weren’t, but then when was the last time you saw anyone go misty-eyed in fond recollection of a BMW 5 Series?


First published on discoveryuk.com

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