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History Hits: Renault/AMC LeCar

Vintage Ad

There are some things in the car world—as everywhere—that are mocked so often as to be cliché to poke fun at. These include making fun of the Prius model line, Mustang drivers and their *ahem* skills, and fart cans on imports, just to name a few. It isn’t often supercars or other high-end marques become so mocked on an industry-wide scale as to achieve such levels of cliché, yet in recent years the holy of holy’s, the Ferrari hypercar, has become one such unfortunate recipient of ridicule. No, this is not due to performance, or appearance, but rather the naming scheme Ferrari chose to use. The hybrid, halo hypercar that Ferrari fans were waiting for, following such cars as the F40 and the Enzo, was named…*drumroll*…the Ferrari LaFerrari. It doesn’t take a linguist to figure out that this translates into Ferrari “The Ferrari”.

Journalists and fans alike derided Ferrari for their simplicity, while on the flip-side I imagine customers enjoyed being able to say they owned “The” Ferrari, not just “A” Ferrari. Most likely unbeknownst to these owners, and surprisingly unmentioned by media, the LaFerrari walked in the preposition-using footsteps of a much humbler European predecessor: the AMC/Renault LeCar.

Le Car 3 Door
A three-door version of the LeCar, decals abundant. A 5-door modal was also extant late in life.

While I am sure Ferrari would not appreciate the comparison, there is no denying that the French LeCar chose the simple way out with its name before Ferrari chose that particular bullet. While the Ferrari is the epitome of automotive technology, the LeCar was on the other end of the spectrum. Starting life as the Renault 5, the car was introduced in Europe for the 1972 model year. Designed as a small, run-about city car, it excelled. Following a similar formula to the British Mini—small engines, lightweight to haul around, and a usable body—the Renault 5 was extraordinarily successful in Europe. Europeans appreciated the steeply sloped rear hatch, coupled with the equally steep dashboard design.

A late model LeCar, displaying the dashboard design.

While the Renault 5 was designed cheaply—it was one of the cheapest cars sold in many of the markets it entered—it did feature some technological advancements over previous cars. Borrowing the floor, frame, and some body panels from the body-on-frame Renault 4, the floor was welded to the frame and body panels, creating Renault’s first monocoque design. Also introduced on the Renault 5 were the industry-first plastic molded bumpers which allowed low-speed collisions to be soaked up with the bumper retaining its general shape, as well as being cheaper to replace. A trend picked up by most of the industry in ensuing years, this feature went a long way towards ensuring the small Renaults popularity in it’s home country of France.

After four years—and the successful introduction of the Volkswagen Rabbit to the American market—Renault decided that America was ready for its diminutive hatch. Utilizing ties with the American Motors Company (AMC) and their network of 1300 dealers, the Renault 5 was rebadged an AMC and given the cute, extraordinarily French name of LeCar. Featuring a 1.4L (almost) 55hp 4-cylinder engine, a manual transmission, four wheels (with a spare on top of the engine), the LeCar didn’t come with much else. For buyers, this was not much of an issue, as this allowed the LeCar to achieve 35mpg in the city and 28mpg on the highway; albeit those miles went by extraordinarily slowly with a 0-60 time of 15.0 Seconds not being uncommon. Again, buyers had a cushion for this blow, as the base price of the LeCar never strayed above $5,000 for its entire existence.

The AMC/Renault marriage spawned moderate success, and sales continued strongly for the first years of its life in the States. AMC was quick to capitalize on the success of the LeCar in Europe (as the Renault 5), advertising that “Millions of satisfied owners are our best testimonial”. Some, like the Larson family pictured in the header, clearly agreed, and a cult following built up over the years. At least one police department (in LaConner, Washington, near the Larsons; maybe the French-Canadian influence is stronger than once thought up there in Washington hmm?) fell under the spell cast by the LeCar’s charm and utilized three LeCars as police vehicles.

Le Police Car
He is looking much too proud, considering everything in the background can outrun him.

AMC was quick to utilize this in advertising materials, dubbing it “Le Police Car”. Eventually, combined with the rise of vehicles like the Civic and the Rabbit, other domestic manufactures took notice, and built their own competitors, such as Ford’s Pinto and Fiesta. In the ever-going circle of competition, these new models spurned development in the LeCar lineup. One such Pinto model that gained enough traction to garner interest by AMC was the Pinto Cruising Wagon, pictured below.

Pinto Crusing Wagon
Before the small crossover craze today—think Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V—active car owners could drive this creation.

This compact-based station wagon was successful enough for AMC to decide to develop their own version, instead based on a super-compact. Rather than trying to sex-up a station wagon by calling it something like the Cruising Wagon, Renault and AMC chose a much more forward naming scheme and named it the “LeCar Van”; perhaps in keeping with the models naming tradition.

Le Car Van
I’m not sure what you are supposed to be able to fit back there, but at least it will have a porthole to look out.

Development was not limited to such niche markets as supermini station wagons, and in 1980, the five-door LeCar was introduced, also bringing with it an automatic version, and a model-wide detuned 51hp engine. This reduction in power, which amounted to an almost 8% reduction in power, is due in large part to smog regulations, which were ever tightening.

Le Car 5 Door
The five-door models of the LeCar are surprisingly rare—as are all LeCars. The Crusher (nor Time) was not kind.

Included with this reduction in power was a front fascia redesign, which can be seen on the five-door model above. A squaring-off of the headlights, as well as a redesigned grille and bumper, changed the appearance of the car, amounting to the largest stylistic change across the years. Importation of the Renault 5 as the AMC LeCar continued until 1983, until a jointly designed model, the Renault Alliance, could replace it.

Sadly, the Renault 5 was discontinued in the States before we could get the best development of them all; the Renault Turbo.

Turbo Renault 5
Slightly modified and restored, this is a UK based Renault 5 Turbo.

The Renault Turbo was an odd creation, wherein the large, 1.4L engine was transplanted from the front to the middle, taking the place of the rear seats. During the transplantation, the engine is modified with the addition of a Garrett turbocharger, doubling the output to 110bhp. With the requisite wide-body to help feed the engine, the car still weighed little enough for that 110hp to feel potent.

The AMC LeCar is the oft forgotten pioneer of the utilization of the preposition in naming of a car model. Despite being designed as a slightly durable, still disposable, city car, the LeCar and its sister Renault 5 spawned a multitude of specialist models, achieving a modicum of a cult following. Liked the article? Hated it? Thought I was dead? Comment below and let me know!

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

2 thoughts on “History Hits: Renault/AMC LeCar Leave a comment

  1. I believe that this was the 1st car, or something very similar to it that I learned how to drive a stick in one day. It was my sisters car, a car she never desired to drive. Instead, my older brother used it to get around, and used Marine tactics i.e., a punch to my shoulder every time I stalled the car to expedite the learning curve. Did I mention that the training course began and ended on hills. Lots of hills. Good times…


    • Ah, I lucked out and learned on my own car (it was an $800 ticket to freedom…), but if I had to learn on someone else’s car, a LeCar wouldn’t be a bad choice. Burn the clutch out and it is, what? $25?


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