The Paris Motor Show is not only about the latest cars – Renault’s first ever, the Voiturette, was there too. And the car has an extraordinary story behind it
The Paris Motor Show is mostly associated with the latest car launches, yet this year the other end of the time scale was represented with Renault’s first ever car on display.
The Mondial de l'Auto is held in Paris’s Porte de Versailles exhibition centre and is one of the biggest events of the motoring calendar. It traditionally features a variety of new machines from the world’s leading car companies, but this year’s also boasted Renault's first ever produced automobile, the Voiturette. It was manufactured between 1898 and 1903.
Renault was founded in 1899 as “Société Renault Frères” by aspiring engineer Louis Renault and his brothers Marcel and Fernand.
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The first Voiturette, meaning Little Car, had already been designed and built by Louis in 1898 and according to legend he never intended to sell it. Instead he used it for personal travel, including to a Christmas party in Paris on Christmas Eve in 1898. There his friends teased him about his curious machine, so Louis demonstrated the Voiturette’s abilities by driving it up the gradient of Rue Lepic several times with a friend of Louis’ father riding as passenger. The passenger was sufficiently impressed to buy the car!
Twelve more cars were sold that night and the company was founded a few weeks later. The first stones of what would become a vast empire thus were laid.
The car had a De Dion-Bouton 1 cylinder engine, which allowed it to reach a top speed of 20mph (32kmh) and had a 3-speed gearbox. Continental tyres were used for the car, a brand still used for several modern Renaults today.
The Type A Voiturette was set apart by its simplicity. It was reliable, easy to maintain as well as easier to manufacture than its competitors. And its commercial growth was vast – in 1899, 60 people made 71 of them; by 1901 output had rocketed to 290.
The Voiturette Type A also had success in road races, the Renault brothers driving the car themselves. They triumphed in the Paris-Trouville, Paris-Ostend and Paris-Rambouillet in 1899 while in 1901 Louis won his first international race, the Paris-Berlin.
There was a host of subsequent Voiturette models. The B model added doors and a roof – Renault perhaps inventing the sedan in so doing. This was followed by the four-passenger Type C which was itself presented in the 1900 Mondial de l’Auto at Paris, establishing Renault as an automobile maker. There then were the Types D/E/G which featured upgraded engines and chassis changes.