They Used To Sell Renault In America, But It Didn't Go Well

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Back in the 1950s, everyone was optimistic. "We'll soon be able to go to space! We'll soon eradicate polio! We'll soon nuke the Russians," the People would say. Even the French were optimistic, though in their case that meant selling a small, rear-engined car in a sea of big chrome.

The most optimistic of all, though, was their advertising, as seen here in this ad for the 1958 Renault Dauphine. Maybe it was the fact that the announcer openly admits that he's getting help on the speed issue from some dodgy camera work, or the fact that he points out the Dauphine's "maneuverability in traffic" while it drives in a straight line, but I'm not exactly buying it. See how it accelerates, too, he says. Right past that doddering old truck. Everybody's an expert, he claims, including the announcer who can't properly pronounce Renault (hint: it's closes to "Ren-OH").


It's not just me though, smugly sitting here 55 years later, that's not buying it. The American public of the 1950s wasn't buying it either, despite their boundless optimism. Though the car met with some initial success, sales later became so slow that two freighters loaded with Dauphines making their way across the Atlantic were turned back en route, as there was no room on the docks in New York due to acres of unsold cars.


Not only was the promised acceleration completely lacking, with a 0-60 time of over 20 seconds, but a small, rear-engined French bit of weirdness wasn't exactly going to sell in the time of cars with names like "Oldsmobile Rocket 88" and "Imperial Crown." And then word-of-mouth spread that cars were basically waiting to turn into piles of rust, with steel that might as well have been made with nothing but French lace.

You could listen to me drone on about it, or you could listen to Renault themselves. In an epic ad campaign that you would probably never see the likes of today, Renault actually apologized for the car's numerous faults. Ten years after the Dauphine debuted, the company needed to convince people to by its new Renault 10, despite no one wanting one after their last experience with a French car. I usually don't like to go for big block quotes, but this time it's necessary:

We cannot blame anyone who swore they would never by another Renault.

When we first sent our cars into this country we ran into a sad situation.

We had, as they say in France, sold the skin of the bear before we put him on the ground.

Our cars were not fully prepared to meet the high demands of America where sustained high speeds are normal, where a heavy foot with the clutch is normal, and where people are not used to fixing their own cars.

More than a fair share of things went wrong with our cars. Less than a fair share of our dealers were equipped to deal with what went wrong.


Ouch. The boundless optimism was gone, though that could have also just been a sign of the times.

Either way, we had gone from camera tricks and optimism to honesty and apologies in only a decade.


Who said that era wasn't a time of progress?