Our pals over at Car Design Archives have uncovered another absolute treasure cache—pictures of prototypes of the Renault Rodéo, the fun car-version of the Renault 4, much like what the Volkswagen Thing was to the Beetle, or the Citroën Mehari was to the 2CV, or Austin Moke was to the Mini. These sorts of deliberately minimalistic cars pose some interesting design challenges, and there’s one here—a version that didn’t make it to production—that I think had the potential to be a genuine design icon.
Just in case you, improbably, forgot what the production Rodéo looked like, here’s a couple of versions to refresh your memory:
They’re all based on the venerable Renault 4 chassis, the van version, and were normally FWD but you could get 4WD as an option. The one on the left is the earlier ‘70s-era one, and in the ‘80s they redesigned it to that striking-looking version on the right.
Looking at the earlier one especially, you can see that these were very much a response—perhaps even a knockoff?—to Citroën’s Mehari, down to the plastic body.
The design of that early body has some appeal in hindsight, but, really, it’s kind of a clunky, uninspired design. I would normally likely be far more forgiving, but after seeing what Renault was playing with in the prototype stages, I think it’s a lost opportunity.
It seems that the production design actually came from a subcontractor called ACL, a last-minute decision that kept the in-house designs from happening.
The first Renault Rodéo concepts were actually really, really awkward, with one looking sort of like a very worried boat combined with someone describing a Corvair over a bad phone connection, and another very awkward, overstyled dual-roll-bar model:
Yikes. Back into the catacombs with you, voiture laide.
Then, designer Robert Broyer drew this:
Hmm. Now we’re getting somewhere. Broyer’s design really embraces the possibilities of molded plastics, and isn’t trying to replicate what would be done in steel. This feels new and novel.
I think the result looks even better in reality than in drawings, a rarity in automotive design. The surface detailing of those stiffening blocks makes this feel like something new and rugged, something evocative of corrugations but more modern.
And that roll bar design that forms a U-like structure on both sides and forms the windshield frame and door openings I think is particularly inspired.
There’s all kinds of good details here—the molded-in step behind the door, the use of the spare tire as a rear bumper, the way it feels rugged and utilitarian yet fun and toylike all at the same time—I think it’s just brilliant, in much the same way that other icons of the late ‘60s and early 1970s design were, like the Olivetti Valentine typewriter.
Like the Olivetti, this Rodéo design had a certain honesty of materials, where the designer really explored what the new media could do, and reveled in it.
It’s so easy to picture how amazing these plastic Renaults could have looked cast in vibrant colors, buzzing all over beaches and resort areas and on farms and worksites.
I do think the eventual ‘80s redesign of the Rodéo got close to the vision of this original concept, but I still think there was a real missed opportunity here. This thing just feels like the sort of thing that would have showed up in museums and design textbooks for decades.