Forget the Mini, meet Le Car

Long before legions of agitated Frenchmen started burning cars on the streets of Paris, the only car they held a torch for was Le Car, otherwise known as the Renault 5.

Long before legions of agitated Frenchmen started burning cars on the streets of Paris, the only car they held a torch for was Le Car, otherwise known as the Renault 5. That most dreadful and yet, simply perfect piece of Franglais was, thankfully, only coined years after the Cinq had been launched to acclaim in Europe, and was used only briefly in a vain effort to make this ground-breaking supermini palatable to North Americans.

Sadly, Le Car arrived on US shores at the same time as a high tide of patriotism, brought on by the impending bicenntenial celebrations of 1976, was washing over its citizens, and the car was always viewed with as much suspicion as an illegal alien who'd hopped over the border fence. That North American misadventure should not, however, detract from the otherwise wonderful story of the supermini that didn't just break the mould, it recast it altogether.

Design aficionados will tell you the Mini, that icon of British mass production, was the car that did most to change the face of post-war motoring, but the numbers simply do not back up this claim. While Sir Alec Issigonis' Mini took four decades to sell five million units, the Cinq trumped that figure in only a dozen years and went on to sell more than nine million in 24 years of production. In truth though, the Renault 5 was far more culturally significant than even those huge numbers imply. Simply, it made small cars desirable to everyone and was greedily gobbled up by fashionistas, farmers and families alike.

Launched in 1972, the car's roots rest in the late Sixties, when Michel Boué, a talented young staff designer at the French car maker, decided to redraw the boxy Renault 4 in the shape of something more modern. It took Boué two days of spare-time scribbling to complete his sketches. He had not been commissioned to retread the 4, but simply shrugged his Gallic shoulders and got on with it, because he thought it was the right thing to do. In turn, the Renault bosses took just two minutes to green light the Cinq, passing his initial treatment almost without alteration, a virtually unheard of vote of confidence in his masterpiece.

Boué's genius was to mix cutting edge design with tried and trusted technology. That smooth body shape - with its plastic bumpers, flush headlights and concealed door handles - may have looked impossibly futuristic in the Seventies, but many of the mechanical parts underpinning it, such as the dash-mounted manual gearstick you played like a trombone, were lifted directly from the aforementioned 4.

This marriage of convenience was also to produce another entirely unexpected result: a Renault you could actually rely on. An intoxicating blend of old and new, the Cinq remained in production until the mid-Eighties when Renault accepted it was time for some change. Its successor, the upgraded SuperCinq, was completely redesigned under the skin, although its aesthetic stayed true to Boué's original vision.

If you remain unconvinced about the car's impact, you should also know that Renault introduced a performance version of the Cinq a few months before the first Golf GTI arrived. In doing so, Renault had not only created the supermini sector, they'd also launched the first hot hatch too. Both segments remain hugely important staples of the modern car market. There is, however, one sad footnote: Boué was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1971, aged 35, a year before the Cinq began its extended charm offensive. nmarch@thenational.ae

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