Friday April 27, 2018
You will almost certainly see the term ‘import duties’ widely used in any book or article about foreign vehicles in the UK prior to the 1970s, for they did have a major impact on the car market. In France, the Renault Floride and Caravelle was the ideal smart second car for those who did not required four doors but on this side of The Channel it was more likely to be seen in re-screenings of That Riviera Touch than on the road.
The origins of the Floride/Caravelle range stem from Renault’s need to create a rival to the 1955 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. The commissioned Carrozzeria Ghia devised a 2+2 touring car based on the Dauphine - one that would immediately appeal to the motorist with Facel Vega aspirations on a more limited budget. The result was an exceptionally charmingly tourer which made its formal debut at the 1958 Paris Salon and if the 845cc engine did not promise blistering performance, the coachwork was the epitome of the word “chic”.
Meanwhile, Gitane-smoking young enthusiasts with Alain Delon haircuts noted how the optional four-speed gearbox was more suited to the new Renault’s image than the three-speed transmission. There was a choice of open or closed coachwork and Floride badging was used in Europe. For the vital US export territory Renault used the Caravelle name and at its 1959 New York Motor Show the sales team received in the region of 13,000 orders.
By the end of that year the Caravelle gained “Areostable” suspension with rubber cushions on the front and rear axles in order to combat grumbles about oversteer. For sporting motorists there was the Gordini version while performance continued to be an issue on the standard model - 0-60 in nearly 24 seconds was not ideal for the freeway.
Three years later Renault introduced a new incarnation of the Caravelle (the name was now used for all markets) based on the R8 saloon. the hardtop featured a higher roofline for extra rear seat headroom, a four-speed gearbox was now standard equipment and there even all-round disc brakes. Power was now from the 956cc “Sierra” engine and the radiator was now rear-mounted, liberating more cabin space.
In March 1963 Autocar evaluated the coupe version and concluded that ‘for those who require a car of attractive and sporty appearance combined with the ability to carry four adults on occasions, the Caravelle is worthy of consideration’. 55 years ago, car magazines really did sound like a headmaster signing off a school report although the elegant Renault was never destined to be a familiar sight in the UK; the price was £1,026 8s 9d which was several hundred pounds more than a MG Midget Mk. I or a Triumph Spitfire.
The Caravelle was fitted with a 1,108cc power plant in 1964, and two years later there came the “S” version with twin-choke Weber carburettor, ensuring that your Renault could now surge ‘into the 60’s in 19 seconds flat’. Production of all models ceased in July 1968 and 50 years later any Caravelle or Floride still has the power to beguile. In the 1950s and 1960s it was a tourer that promised an entrée into a Technicolor world of glamor and excitement. In 1961 Motor Sport’s scribe was so impressed by the Floride that he returned the test car to Renault GB in Acton:
with real reluctance. During my week's acquaintance with it this beautifully styled and finished little car had increased my social status and caused me to dream of attractive bronze-bodied young women, sun-lit beaches, Parisian boulevards and the flesh-pots of Florida. It's that sort of automobile, and why not?
Yes, the reality may have been a trip to the Southampton branch of Victor Value to stock up on Wonderloaf and PG Tips, but the dream was travelling towards the Cote D’Azur with Serge Gainsbourg’s Requiem pour un twister playing on the radio.