The Rise and Fall of the Renault Caravelle

by H. DeWayne Ashmead, Ph.D.

It was love at first sight when I encountered the Renault Caravelle in France in 1963. Being unemployed did not stop me from haunting the Renault showroom on the Champs d'Elyses in Paris whenever I could. The upper floor of the showroom housed a small museum that chronicled the history of the Renault. On the main floor, the center of attention was focused on the Caravelle with other Renault models in the background. Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention to the cars in the museum, but I couldn't take my eyes off the Caravelle. I was particularly attracted to the body lines and the flexibility the 2 + 2 car offered with either a soft top or a hard top or as a convertible.

Three years later, in 1966, I returned to the United States and purchased a new Pontiac GTO, although I was still interested in the Caravelle. Ultimately, I visited a Renault dealer in Salt Lake City where a salesman described the virtues of this French "sports car". I particularly remember him telling me that the occupants would be protected in the event of a head-on collision because the spare tire was laid flat in the front luggage compartment.

Finally, in Salt Lake City, I drove the Caravelle for the first time. I walked away disappointed. Compared to the 6.5 liter engine that delivered 348 horsepower to my Pontiac, the performance of the Caravelle with its 1.1 liter engine and 54 horsepower was somewhat anemic. Had I known then what I know now, I may have gone ahead and purchased the car anyway. I shouldn't have judged the Caravelle against the Pontiac because the two cars were built for different purposes. In spite of the Caravelle's looks, it was built as an economy car not as a performance automobile. When pushed hard, its handling was marginal at best. It was not really a sports car; it just looked like one – a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Thirty years later I returned to the Caravelle and, for the first time, began to judge it on its own merits. By then, I had assembled a collection of thirty-six rare sports cars that interested me and decided to include a Caravelle in my collection. I began searching for a complete late production, low mileage example. Generally speaking, early and late production numbers are the most collectible cars of any mark. Nevertheless, I was not interested in the earlier production numbers because of the numerous performance improvements introduced on the later cars. These improvements, among others, included a larger engine, a Webber dual choke carburetor, improved cooling systems, better brakes, the addition of a tachometer and other gauges. Ultimately I found what I was looking for – a 26,000 mile example – in California. As I trailered the car back to Utah, I received many compliments on the car's design by people who didn't know the make of the car. This confirmed my opinion that the design was timeless, even if the car was under-powered.

Once the car was in my shop, I began directing its disassembly to commence a ground-up restoration (not a frame-off restoration because the car employs unibody construction). Concurrently I began research on the history of the Caravelle. To me a car is much more interesting if one comprehends what is behind a car and its development. I quickly discovered that nothing of consequence had ever been preserved regarding the Caravelle history. It was a car that was built, sold, and died. Very few held it in high esteem and certainly no automotive expert of any renown considered it worthy of his time. Classic Car Buyers Guide, a British publication, reported that the Caravelle had big rust problems, parts difficulties, and because of its swing axel, was "distinctly dodgy" in its handling. I found small pieces of information here and there, and as I added to the story bit by bit it became clear how Renault defined the market that they intended for Caravelle to capture and how, in my opinion, Caravelle missed that mark because the market changed during the gestation period, prior to its introduction.

One of the most interesting sources of information came from the recollections of Virgil M. Exner, Jr., a world-renowned automotive designer. A few months ago, Car Collector Magazine mentioned in passing that Exner had designed the Renault Caravelle. I subsequently located the retired Exner and conducted a series of telephone interviews with him. He filled in several missing pieces for me and made the picture of the Caravelle more complete.

The genesis of the Caravelle originated in Florida in 1956. Renault president Pierre Dryfus was vacationing in Florida when, during a visit with Ferand Picard, Picard challenged Dryfus to build a new car specifically for the American market. The Volkswagen was gaining popularity, as was its sporty companion, the Volkswagen powered Karmann-Ghia. Picard suggested the new Renault for the American market should follow the same pattern and be based on the Renault Dalphine (a director competitor of the Volkswagen) but have the sporty characteristics of the Karmann-Ghia.

The seed was planted, but it took too long to grow. Had the car been introduced immediately, it would have probably been a run-away success and possibly taken more of the market from Volkswagen or Karmann-Ghia due to its stylish convertible/coupe 2+2 design. A year after the discussion in Florida, the Renault board finally gave its approval to build a new car. Since Ghia had originally designed the Renault Dalphine, Dryfus met with Luigi Segre at Ghia in Turin, Italy to discuss this new project. I suspect the Italian designed Karmann-Ghia also had a great influence on Dryfus' desire for an Italian designed Renault, particularly a Ghia designed Renault. After several meetings which stretched out over a year, Dryfus ultimately commissioned Ghia (the same company that did the Karmann-Ghia project) to design the Dalphine companion car for Renault.

During this period, Virgil M. Exner, Jr. was serving in the US Air Force. In spite of his active military service he was also under contract with Ghia as an automotive design consultant. Segre submitted design parameters to Exner and requested design proposals partly because Exner was an American who understood American tastes, and also because Segre wanted a young American designer's continual input. (Exner had previously designed the successful Volvo P1800 for Ghia and was also involved in the design of the Karmann-Ghia.) The Caravelle is certainly not an American design. It follows the classic Italian designs of the late 1950s which, interestingly enough, Exner (an American) deeply influenced at the time.

Exner worked on the design for the Caravelle during the latter part of 1959. He sent his design renderings directly to Luigi Segre at Ghia. Segre liked what he saw and had his chief in-house designer Giovanni Savonuzzi make a clay model from Exner's drawings to show Dryfus and others at Renault what Ghia proposed. The management at Renault approved the Exner design and plans were made to build the car. Ghia fabricated the prototypes, or show cars, during late 1959. They were shipped to the United States and unveiled to the public in 1960 at the New York Motor Show. Known as the "Floride" in honor of the place where it was conceived, the car was an instant visual success. Over 13,000 orders were submitted to Renault, even though delivery would be months away and no one had test-driven the car.

Ghia built the first 1,000 cars in order to recoup its initial costs and sort out any production problems. It subsequently turned over the production of the Caravelle unibodies to Pietro Frua, another coach builder who was also based in Turin, Italy. Ghia had established a working relationship with Frua in 1952 and had previously subcontracted with Frua to make the Volvo P1800 bodies on behalf of Ghia while Ghia continued to produce the Karmann-Ghia. These Volvo sports cars were first assembled in England and later in Sweden using the Italian built bodies. The assembly of the Renault Caravelle followed the same pattern, except the independent coach builder was located in France. Renault itself never built the Caravelle.

Ghia, and later Frua, produced the Caravelle bodies as noted above. The Caravelle suspension, which was called the "Aerostable" suspension, was built by the French company, Chaussor. Renault supplied the engines and the swing transaxles which were based on the Renault Dalphine. Brissoneau et Lutz, a French coach builder which also made railroad cars, was responsible for assembling the Caravelle on behalf of Renault.

Once Frua took over production of the body, Pietro Frua also took credit for the final design of the Caravelle. This occurred about 1962 when the side vents to cool the engine were removed, and the roof line was squared up to give better headroom to the rear passengers. Frua wanted to be paid for redesigning the Floride. Of course, Ghia objected and a lawsuit ensued. While the parties remained acrimonious, the lawsuit was ultimately resolved and Ghia continued to take official credit for the Caravelle body design. (There are some publications that claim Frua designed the Caravelle, but Virgil M. Exner, Jr. dismisses this as nonsense. Excluding a few minor changes which have been mentioned, Exner personally designed the car that was subsequently manufactured.)

In addition to removal of the side vents and squaring of the hard top to provide more headroom, several other changes also took place in 1962: Displacement of the engine was increased from 845 cc to 956 cc to 1108 cc, resulting in the ultimate production of 54 bhp at 5400 RPM. That, of course, was with the Webber twin choke carburetor. Other carburetors had been employed with the smaller engines, each resulting in lower horsepower ratings (38 and 51). Drum brakes were replaced by disk brakes. The transmission became a 4-speed with all gears synchronized. The size of the fuel tank was increased. The name "Floride" was dropped with the 1962 changes and the car became known simply as the "Caravelle", both in France and the United States.

Bridget Bardot promoted the Caravelle for Renault during the 1960s. There was a saying in the early 60s that the French exported two things to the United States: Bridget Bardot and the Caravelle.

Production of the Caravelle ceased in 1968 and the car quickly faded into obscurity. Most non-Renault enthusiasts don't understand why when they first view the car. When they drive it, however, many feel that its performance (power, top speed, and handling) doesn't live up to its style.

In my opinion, Renault missed the market with the Caravelle. Pierre Dryfus was challenged to build a car for the American market in 1956. At that time, Americans were enamored with the Volkswagen and the Karmann-Ghia was the alternative to the stodgy "bug". It seemed logical to Renault that there was a market for a sporty appearing economy car to be a companion car to the Renault Dalphine. In 1956, there probably was. But by the1960s, Americans were changing tastes and it appears to me that Renault ignored the American trend towards faster, more powerful cars and continued to work on what was already becoming an obsolete project. General Motors recognized this change and began offering turbocharged Corvairs that, in some instances, gave Corvettes and Porsches a run for their money. Compact Oldsmobile F-85's with potent V-8s were also turbocharged and sold as Jet Fires. Modifying the Tempest, an economy car, Pontiac introduced the GTO muscle cars in 1964 and sold over 32,000 units the first year, followed by 75,000 in 1965 and 97,000 in 1966. Not to be outdone, Ford introduced the Mustang with its newly designed and now famous thin-walled 260 and 289 V-8s. Chrysler, which had developed the hemi-designed engine, started dropping its motor into Mopar cars with increasing frequency.

Enlarging the Renault Caravelle's engine size to 1108 cc in 1962 was too little, too late. The top speed of the car was 88 MPH (if you dared). Getting from 0 to 60 MPH took forever. The French sports car needed more power for the American market which is something Honda recognizes even today. It has a bigger and more powerful Accord for the American market than the European market. It is probable that more could have been squeezed out of the Caravelle engine with some redesign had Renault made the decision to reposition the Caravelle. After all, the Renault Alpine started with a 956cc Dalphine engine which produced 66 horsepower compared to the Caravelle's 51 horsepower. Still, none of this was a substitute for a bigger engine; in the 1960's, bigger meant faster. Renault understood this and while ignoring the Caravelle, ultimately increased the displacement in its 4 cylinder Alpine engine to 1795cc and obtained 170 horsepower. The Alpine won everything on the world rally stage. According to Quentin Wilson in his book, Cars: A Celebration, "It was as nimble as a mountain goat with sparkling performance", everything the Caravelle wasn't

And so, in 1968 when the Caravelle was discontinued – not updated with a new model – it quickly faded into obscurity. Unlike the Alpine, it had no racing history to fall back on. Nothing memorable had ever happed to it. It was just another car that was now obsolete. There was no healthy following that lamented its loss; just a few Renault enthusiasts. Consequently, instead of significantly appreciating in value as the decades roll by like the Alpine with a racing heritage has, to the general public it remains a little-known French sports car that never quite made it in America.