In case you’re not aware, there’s a larger-than-you’d-think group of gearheads who are literally counting down the days until the first-generation of Renault’s delightful city car, the Twingo, is old enough to be imported to America. These people are not wrong to feel this way. The Twingo is fantastic, and the more we can get over here, the better off we’ll be.
For those of you unfamiliar with the first-gen Renault Twingo, I’m so sorry. Let’s make things better for you, immediately. The Twingo is a magical concoction, developed by Renault’s crack team of wizards and elegant witches, that combines raw human joy and practicality into a one-box city car.
The original goal for the Twingo was to replace the legendary Renault R4 in the 1980s with a minivan-like car. From there the goal evolved to be a very cheap entry-level car, restarting in 1987 with a preposterously low development budget.
Patrick Le Quément was the man in charge of the project, and he decided the fundamental proportions of the car—wheels at the extreme corners, and a novel, one-box design. Quément also, while working with a design team, was the force behind the Twingo’s distinctive and radically happy and frog-like face.
Giving the car a decidedly non-generic look was a huge risk; many people in Renault wanted the design toned down to the bland anonymity of so many other early ‘90s small cars, but Quément stuck to his guns.
A 2004 article in Fast Company describes the situation he was in:
Still smarting from le Quement’s shake-up, Renault’s engineers and product planners demanded he tone down the Twingo. Le Quement sent a note to his chairman. “The greatest risk is not to take any risks, and I ask you to vote for instinctive design against extinctive marketing,” it read. Levy’s reply? “I agree.” The Twingo was an instant hit in 1992, and the spark for nearly 20 influential concept cars over the next decade.
The gamble paid off, and the Twingo became a hit. Mechanically, it just had the 55 cheveaux-power 1.2-liter engine from the R5 (later a screaming 75 hp) driving the front wheels, but it was such a good, space efficient package (you could adjust the rear seat for more legroom or cargo room) and, more importantly, the thing just looked so damn happy you couldn’t help but love it.
Our own Raph says it looks perpetually chuffed. Our other own Justin said it looks like “you just gave it a gift.” They’re both right.
The lights are shaped like what happens to eyes when someone really smiles a non-fake smile. The car is adorable but somehow not cloying; it looks plucky and ready for fun. It always came in good, vivid colors, and it had the character that so many modern cheap cars have lost: an unashamed honesty.
It was a cheap car, everyone knew it was a cheap car, and nobody gave a shit, because the car was just too damn happy to care. A 2017 Nissan Versa sedan, to contrast, is also a cheap-ass little car, but its design says it’s ashamed of that.
The Versa tries to pretend to be a more expensive ‘aspirational’ sedan and fails, miserably; a Twingo is what it is, and couldn’t give deux merdes what you think. It’s just happy to be out, ferrying you and your crap all over town.
Oh, and the name, I’m told, comes from a combination of twist, swing and tango, and has nothing to do with twins or going.
Later generations of Twingos sort of lost the program, though the most recent one is an interesting, fun, rear-engine design, so perhaps Renault has gotten its mojo back.
Mojo or nojo, you still can’t get the latest Twingo here, but, as we said before, that’s okay because the first ones from 1993 are finally old enough to come across the ocean without getting hassled by the man.
I’m excited to see which eager Opponaut is going to be the first to drag one over—whoever it is, they’re making a great decision.
Bring on the Twingos.