It’s a question posed by an exclusive chance to see behind the scenes of its vast classic collection, housed in one of its production plants west of Paris and comprising an incredible 750 vehicles, including road cars, commercial vehicles, tanks, racing cars and everything in between. The doors to this incredible living museum are usually closed but have been opened on this occasion to celebrate the firm’s 120th birthday.
Renault’s post-war history as a nationalised manufacturer and the genre-defining cars it built in this period are probably familiar. From rear-engined saloons like the 4CV, Renault 8 and Dauphine through to pioneering hatchbacks like the 4, 16 and 5 Renault has always had a knack for both reflecting and influencing the needs and tastes of car buyers at home and abroad. Lately, the Espace, Scenic, Twingo, electric models like the Zoe and the rebirth of the Alpine sports car brand have defined Renault’s recent history. But Renault was building cars for nearly half a century before all this. And this behind the scenes visit and tour of ‘le garage’ with social historian Jean-Louis Loubet is a revealing glimpse into an incredible heritage.
The 1898 Type A voiturette that started it all is a delicate, spindly looking machine but its three-speed transmission, shaft drive and differential were all cutting-edge technology for the time. Close by in the collection is a Type B, already boasting enclosed bodywork and replacing the handlebar steering with a more familiar wheel.
Placing the radiator behind the engine did away with the grille seen on most cars of the era, giving Renaults of the early 1900s and 1920s a distinctive look of their own – an instinct for style that’s carried through to the present day. Early icons include the AG1 that bagged the contract for a city taxi for Paris in 1905 (and was also sold to London for the same purpose), the stately 40 CVs and Reinastellas built to satisfy the tastes of the wealthy elite and the incredible Type MH 6 Roues, a multi-wheeled monster that helped slash the time taken to cross the Sahara. All of these and more are represented in the collection, a drive in the imposing six-cylinder Vivastella of 1933 underlining the fact that early in its history Renault was very much a luxury carmaker.