The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : 50 Years of the Renault 12 The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : 50 Years of the Renault 12
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50 Years of the Renault 12

In the 1970s, a Renault 12 was a vehicle that stood out in virtually any car park. The radiator grille was angular, there were height adjustment levers next to the headlamps (to compensate for heavy loads) and the roof sloped upwards over the rear passenger compartment. The cabin featured an under-dashboard handbrake (on the early models) and an elaborate vent extended across the full width of the dashboard. Best of all, the seats really did resemble armchairs. ‘You have to drive it before its true beauty is revealed’ claimed the advertisements.

Work on Project 117 commenced in early 1964 with a brief that included ‘a roomy interior, and a large boot’ while ‘a small engine will suffice’. Renault intended the new model to bridge the gap between the 8 and the soon to debut 16 although in practice 117 would serve as the eventual replacement for the former. Power was from a 1.3-litre version of the familiar “Cléon-Fonte” engine, and there was a live axle at the rear. The success of the 1965 Peugeot 204 served as a major impetus to the development of the new Renault. The 12 eventually debuted at the Paris Motor Show in October 1969

and its principal domestic rivals were the somewhat more conservative RWD Simca 1301 and Peugeot’s 304 which had made its bow one month before the Renault.

British sales commenced in the following year, and motorists probably saw the 12 as an alternative to the BLMC ADO16, the Ford Escort Mk.1, and three new models; the Hillman Avenger, the Triumph Toledo and the Vauxhall Viva HC. What the Renault offered in comparison with such worthy competitors was a certain presence – at 14ft. 3ins it was actually longer than a Cortina Mk. III, - and the social cachet of owning ‘a foreign car’. It was also comfortable, spacious and versatile.  

Two Renault 12's in a car park

The TL was the most desirable version to opt for as it was rather nicely appointed; a cigar lighter, a heated rear windows, boot and glove box lights, central armrests fore and aft and reclining front seats. By contrast the L was fitted with a bench and even lacked ashtrays for the back-seat passengers. Car magazine evaluated the entry-level 12 opposite the Fiat 128 in 1971. They concluded that while the Italian car ‘laid down a new set of standards that other manufacturers have yet to equal at the price’ the Renault ‘runs remarkably close behind it’ – high praise indeed.

The estate version was unveiled in the previous year (Autocar found it ‘remarkably comfortable, and easily adaptable as a load carrier’. 1970 also marked the launch of the 12 Gordini, a very tempting blend of the 1,565cc engine from the 16TS with twin Weber carburettors, modified suspension, all-disc brakes  (the ventilated front units were a “first” on a French car) and five-speed transmission. The top speed was 115 mph while one of the most popular choices of paint finish was “French Blue” augmented by white stripes.

The Gordini was never to be a familiar sight in the UK - it was not available in RHD form, and Renault made only 5,188 examples in four years – but even a black and white photograph in Motor caused many an Escort GT owner to suffer deep pangs of envy. The 12TS of 1972 was slightly more accessible but no less desirable with its dual-carb 1.3-litre engine, servo front brakes, tachometer, front headrests and a centre console incorporating a clock. The headlights with built-in iodine driving lamps were a typically thoughtful touch although many were attracted to their Renault dealer by those Fergat mock-Ro-Style wheels. ‘It is very well equipped, silent and smooth’, mused the scribe from Car.

By that time the 12 was fitted with a floor-mounted handbrake, a development welcomed by many a driver, and the TR with automatic transmission became available for 1974.  You could even specify your estate with Sinpar 4x4 for those journeys across the Sahara. A facelift in late 1975 brought about a slightly more conventional grille and logical dashboard layout, although the L still lacked reversing lamps and power-assisted brakes. After all, such a car served as an incentive to climb that corporate ladder. Some readers will also recall the “Renault Boutique”, which allowed the proud owner the opportunity to make his/her 12TL look really silly with an after-market “Sport-a-Stripe”.

When Renault introduced the 18 in 1978, the 12 range was reduced to the TL, the Estates and the three-door “Société” van that was sadly never available in the UK. French production ceased in 1980, but this was far from the end of the narrative. La Regie had always envisaged the 12 as a “world car”, and it was made in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Venezuela – and Romania.

The original Renault-Dacia product was the 8-based 1100 and the 1300, their version of the 12, left the Mioveni factory as early as August 1969. Ten years later the range was facelifted as the 1300 and 1982 saw a brief, well-remembered and not overly successful attempt at marketing the ‘Very Acceptable’ Dacia Denem in the UK. Alas, few Britons were tempted by the promise of the ‘new name in passenger cars’ and sales ended in 1984. Back in Romania, manufacture of the saloon continued until 2004 and its Pick-Up stablemate until as recently as December 2006.

Perhaps the 12’s principal legacy on this side of the Channel was that it was instrumental in Renault becoming one of the most familiar overseas car marques during the 1970s. The likes of a TS, a TL or even the humble L convinced so many people not just to place an order for their first FWD saloon but their first diamond-badged transport. The figures from How Many Are Left may be somewhat depressing - – but the impact of the Renault 12 on British motoring is undeniable.

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