Historiography: The French in America

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All Photos by Randy Stern, except otherwise noted

Do you remember the time when French cars were a thing in America?

At one time, American foreign car customers would walk into a showroom to see a Peugeot 504, a Renault 12, and a Citroen DS side-by-side. There were contrasts in design – a modern sedan that could be ordered with a gasoline engine or a diesel, a fastback four-door that offered high value which some quirks, and a 15-year-old design that foretold the future of the automobile. Yet, it was not unusual for a foreign car dealership to offer these three makes, alongside an assortment of British, Italian and/or Swedish cars in a single location.

As the 1970s came along, Citroen would cease selling their unique products here, leaving Peugeot to make it on their own. Renault would soon morph into American Motors, finding a larger dealership network to sell both French and Wisconsin-made products stateside.

A century ago, the French were seen as innovators in the automotive world. Both Peugeot and Renault had very expensive offerings stateside upon their arrival in the early 1900s. While Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were seen as pioneers in the automobile back in Germany, the French advanced the breed by taking what they learned from them and moving engineering and technological know-how further. For a time, the French built the best cars in the world.

By the 1920s, it became clear that there were a lot of offerings for those who want to drive a car. The French were leaders in exports to the USA, as they made vehicles that suited American customers better than British or German cars. Clearly, American automakers dominated the market throughout the 1920s and the buying of foreign cars were often discouraged to ensure the strength of the economy. Rolls-Royce did build in the USA, which was an advantage they had over the French.

The Great Depression created deep wounds across the automotive industry. Imported cars were hit the hardest. Losing the USA market did not sit well with the French – in particular Renault, Peugeot, and Citroen. Makers of more luxurious products, such as Delahaye and Bugatti, concentrated on very small volumes to engage wealthy American customers until the run-up of World War II.

After World War II, the French automotive industry was devastated. France was struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of the war, with many people short on money with taxes rising on essentials, such as oil and petroleum products. The automotive industry shifted towards affordable and smaller vehicles than before – just to get the French back on their feet and on the road again.

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Citroen already had the 2CV – a simple small machine with a two-stroke engine and thin construction. It would be one savior in the rebuilding of the French economy. Renault would join in with their rear-engine 4CV. It was still lightweight, but different than the front-engine 2CV by offering a more robust body and more modern fittings. Peugeot countered with the new 203, which was a slightly larger car than the Citroen and Renault.

In returning to the USA, the French took different approaches to re-establishing their customer bases. Citroen held back the 2CV in favor of the Traction Avant. The larger, classical car positioned Citroen towards the mid-to-upper part of the imported car market, facing Jaguar, Rover, and Mercedes-Benz. Sadly, the Citroen did not attract American car buyers with its charms. Not with flashier domestic offerings that were priced less than a Traction Avant. Citroen was already losing to Jaguar, as the latter became the leader in imported luxury from Europe.

Renault watched how Volkswagen entered the USA market with the “Beetle” and began to dominate the small imported car segment. These were low volumes compared to the domestics, but they held their own in efficiency and economy compared to “smaller” American cars. Renault responded to the Beetle with the Dauphine by 1957. The British and Italians already countered Volkswagen, yet neither of them had the flair of the Renault to even challenge the “Beetle” on its own merits. The Dauphine had plenty of advantages, including the rear swing axle. If one car challenged Volkswagen for small import car superiority in sales – Renault would take the second spot behind the Wolfsburg miracle, despite a mix of applause and criticism.

Peugeot introduced the 403 in 1956 to our shores. The design was more conventional and a bit upmarket. It returned Peugeot back into this market, even though some would complain about the price while praising the car itself.

By 1956, Citroen replaced the aging Traction Avant with the futuristic DS at their showrooms in the USA. While it became a sensation in France and parts of Europe, American customers simply scratched their heads. The car was completely complicated to American consumers. The way one would drive it was counterintuitive to the way Americans cars operated. Yet, it had a lot of advances that would eventually see their way into automobiles decades later, such as individual pneumatic suspension. The DS was a vision of the future that would continue to keep Citroen on sea level for the next 18 years.

There was an additional player from France that would join in the fun stateside. Chrysler took control of Simca in 1958 after a series of mergers of smaller French companies and an association with Ford. The Aronde did not sell in the same numbers as the Dauphine and 403, but it was a small start for the brand in the USA. Their growth would come with later products in the 1960s, including those sold alongside Chrysler, Plymouth, and Imperial.

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You would think that French cars would become part of the import car renaissance in the USA. Sadly, the French and every other European automaker experienced a slump in sales at the end of the 1950s. In October of 1960, two boatloads of Renault Dauphines were turned back from the USA due to overcrowding of unsold cars at their New York port holding lot.

One problem that persisted was a saturation of imported brands in the USA by 1960. While we saw the end of Packard, Nash, and Hudson by 1958, consolidation of the domestic brands was an initial signal towards further consolidation of the American market. Studebaker did not make it through the 1960s, and American Motors were simply plodding along. Chrysler ended DeSoto and Ford said goodbye to Edsel, while Continental consolidated back into Lincoln.

The French remained resilient through the 1960s. Yet, the opportunities for growth based on home success and a modern design movement were for the taking in the North American market. Renault, Peugeot, and Simca introduced products based on modern design ideas of the mid-to-late 1960s. The Renault 12 and 16, the Peugeot 504, and the Simca 1100/1200 helped France’s cause on this side of the Atlantic.

There was a twist in the plot for imported cars in the USA around 1970. The Japanese began to penetrate our market with cars that were more efficient than their European counterparts. The build and mechanical quality appeared to be better. Reliability was indeed a measurement when a Toyota Corona was matched up against a Renault 12 or any given Italian, British, or (West) German competitor.

Citroen was also dealing with their own problems. They entered into an agreement of ownership of Maserati, which may help their cause stateside, as well as globally. This tie-up provided us with an influx of Meraks and Ghiblis but also produced a luxury coupe called the SM. The SM modernized the design of the DS, but with a Maserati V6 up front providing more performance over the four-cylinder DS cars. The two-door hatchback actually won praise in the USA, becoming Motor Trend’s Car of The Year for 1972.

The flip side of the SM was the fact it would not meet the newest emissions and safety regulations imposed by the Federal Government. No Citroen would ever meet these standards because of money problems stemming from the deal with Maserati. By 1973, Citroen would leave the USA market.

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The same fate would fell on Chrysler’s Simca. The 1100/1200 also could not meet Federal regulations, so it would also be dropped from Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships. Simca would return but in the USA-produced Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon. The design of both vehicles came from Chrysler’s French operations, yet produced at the Belvidere, Illinois plant with complete USA specifications and Volkswagen engines.

This left Renault and Peugeot to fly the French flag on US soil. Renault was holding strong against Volkswagen and the Japanese, as they expanded the lineup with an American-specification version of the 5 called Le Car. Renault’s small hatchback was more of a curiosity than an actual competitor to anyone, yet they sold enough to customers that understood exactly what Renault concocted for many markets around the world.

Peugeot entrenched themselves in the mid-priced foreign car market with Volvo, Saab, and Audi. The 505 arrived as a larger car compared to the older 504. It pushed the diesel version, alongside an adequate gasoline engine. Eventually, the 505 would the 604’s Douvrin V6 as a performance version of their mid-sized sedan. Peugeot did not find a lot of buyers for their flagship 604 since the market preferred the 505 and its competitors at the price point Peugeot was asking for it.

For a couple of decades, Renault had ties with American Motors. As the former merger of Nash and Hudson ran into money problems, Renault stepped in to create more investment to keep the company afloat. The main prize for Renault’s control of AMC was Jeep – which is a prize unto itself. Part of the agreement was to build French-designed models inside AMC’s Kenosha, Wisconsin plant and to fund development of a slew of new product Jeep was about to introduce during the 1980s.

By 1983, Renault already refreshed their lineup with the 18i and Fuego being sold alongside the Le Car. Kenosha was building North American versions of the just-released Renault 9 and 11 called the Alliance and Encore. While the designed looked familiar to any Renault customer worldwide, they received US-market touches from bumper skins to Americanized interiors. Sales were successful for the new Wisconsin-made Renaults. In fact, the Alliance won Motor Trend’s Car of The Year for 1983 – the last for any French car manufacturer.

As the 1980s continued, the writing was on the wall for the French in the USA. The Japanese just entered into the premium car market with Honda’s Acura brand. Lexus and Infiniti were just a few years away. On the value side of the market, Hyundai arrived with “cars that made sense.” The new Excel was in the same size class as the Alliance and Encore, but with lower prices compared to the Renaults.

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One major event occurred when Chrysler bought American Motors from Renault. Clearly, it seemed that Chrysler wanted Jeep than the rest of the Renault/AMC business. Actually, there were two additional items Renault brought from Southfield to Auburn Hills. One was a great team of designers, engineers, and marketing people who had a different approach to creating vehicles from a platform standpoint. The second was one of those platforms Renault was developing for North America – the car that would become the Eagle Premier. That platform would eventually be the basis of a new design philosophy Chrysler would employ in the 1990s – Cab Forward.

Renault understood what American customers wanted aside from the Alliance/Encore. They had the Renault 25 stripped of its body with an Americanized three-box design and a conventional engine mount for the final drive going to the front wheels. The Premier was to position Renault against the popular Ford Taurus. One criticism was that the Premier looked and felt too conservative against the ground-breaking Ford and the latest General Motors mid-sized W-Body cars. That would eventually evaporate when Chrysler took the Premier’s basic design and created the trio of the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde, and the Eagle Vision.

The last time a car with a Renault badge sold in the USA was in 1987. Anything with the Renault diamond would be supplanted with the Eagle nameplate and badge. For a short period of time, Chrysler was in the business of selling French cars, thanks to the Eagle Medallion – also known as the Renault 21.

Peugeot held on through the 1990s with a new sports compact sedan – the 405. The small sedan was popular in Europe, but it had a tough competitive set to sell against. The BMW 3-Series was the leader in this class. Clearly, the 405 was no 3-Series, but it did have a weapon worthy of enthusiast interest. The Mi-16 had a potent dual overhead camshaft, 16-valve four-cylinder engine that was engaging and downright mean.

The 405 Mi-16 was not enough to keep Peugeot in business stateside. By 1992, they were gone. The French have left the USA market.

1991 Peugeot 405 S
Photo by William Maley

Or, have they? The lineup of Daimler’s smart cars was built in France. So is today’s Toyota Yaris. Volkswagen-controlled Bugatti builds their amazing 1,500 horsepower Chiron not far from where they began building their famed race cars decades before.

Nissan is in an alliance with Renault, which enabled the Japanese automaker to rethink their compact car lineup by combining platforms with their French counterparts. The Tiida, sold as the Versa in the USA, began life as a platform for similarly-sized Renaults. You might even see some French influence when the next wave of Mitsubishis will be released.

The latest Buick Regal signifies the last Opel product to be sold by GM stateside. In fact, Opel is now part of Groupe PSA, the parent company of Peugeot and Citroen.

While the French may still have a toe in our sand, the automobiles they once sold here should be remembered. You may deride their lack of quality or their quirkiness in operation, but there was once a time when they ruled the automotive universe. This is a fact not lost on the current state of the automotive industry.

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