The three Renault Brothers, Louis, Marcel, and Fernand would have probably spent their lives in relative anonymity, running the family textile business in the Boulogne-Billancourt region of Northern France if Louis, the youngest of the three brothers had not become entranced with the concept of motorised transportation.
Louis’s fixation with cars began in 1898, when he was just 21 years old and recently qualified as an engineer.
With pressure on him to bring his engineering skills to the family business, Renault instead insisted that he would like some time to investigate the potential of this exciting new industry that was captivating the world.
The young engineer wasted little time in putting his ideas in motion, building some prototypes that so impressed the rest of the family, which they decided to invest in the new project, establishing a separate plant in Boulogne-Billancourt, adjacent to their textile factory.
While the Renaults were confident that their new enterprise would be a success, just to be sure they established the company as a separate entity, the Société Renault Frères.
The family’s role in Renault was clearly defined with Louis given “ carte blanche” on design and production while Marcel and Fernand handled all aspects of sales, finance, and general administration.
With Louis having gathered very little in the way of practical experience, the Renault Corporation got underway tentatively, only selling their first car, the Voiturette 1CV late in 1898, and only then to a close friend of Renault’s father, Alfred.
Before he passed on the keys of the first Renault to its new owner, Louis took the brave step of driving the shining new car up the notoriously steep slope of the rue Lepic on Montmartre in Paris on a cold and wet wintery evening. The Voiturette 1CV made the climb with comparative ease, thanks to the direct-drive transmission that Louis had installed- the first of its type in the world.
That same evening, despite the cold and driving rain, Renault took no less than a dozen firm orders for the Voiturette 1CV
Once their duck had been broken, the Renaults began to sell their cars at a steady flow, while, at the same time, Louis was perpetually striving to improve the cars’ technical ability, appearance, and performance.
The first major technological breakthrough for the young company came in 1903 when they began to produce their own engines, ending their association with De Dion-Bouton, which while it had been a very worthwhile learning experience for Louis and his production team had also been an expensive one.
At the same time, Renault took over the coach production for some of the models they produced, an uncommon practice during these times as most car manufacturers would only assemble the chassis, preferring the body to be created separately by coach builders and added later.
These brave moves, which could be described as premature, mirrored a policy that was adopted by Renault throughout the years- setting up in-house production of components to decrease the possibility of being overly dependent on outside suppliers.
Renault's big break came in 1905 when the newly formed Societe des Automobiles de Place taxi company handed him the contract to build the first fleet of metered taxicabs.
Similar orders followed from taxi companies in London and New York. By 1907, Renault had produced two-thirds of all the taxicabs operating in Paris and half the cabs in London.
By 1908, Renault Freres was turning out more than 3,500 units annually, making them the largest automobile company in France.
Although Louis refused to retake the wheel in any racing events, the company remained active on the motor racing circuit for many years.
With Marcel’s involvement in the company sorely missed, Louis Renault was faced with another problem three years later, when his oldest brother Fernand began to suffer from health problems that became increasingly severe that they forced him to retire in 1906.Fernand passed away just three years later, at the age of just 44.
The loss of his two elder brothers meant that Louis Renault was left at the age of just thirty-two to run what had become the largest car manufacturing company in France, and among the most important in the World.
Among the first changes that Renault made was to change the name of the company to the Société des Automobiles Renault (Renault Automobile Company).
Undaunted by this massive task, Louis took and maintained absolute control of his firm for the next thirty-five years, proving himself to be a shrewd businessman as much as a brilliant technical innovator.
Though his time in absolute control of the company, Louis Renault strictly followed a disciplined path of self-financing all of the company’s subsequent growth, studiously avoiding any recourse to outside sources of capital.
When France became embroiled in the First World War, Renault was obliged to wind down production of private cars and vans, turning over the Boulogne-Billancourt plant and all of its capable staff towards helping the war effort.
During the war years, Renault produced hundreds of what was regarded as the World’s first practical tank, the FT as well as other pieces of heavy equipment for the French Army which proved to be among the best used during the destructive conflict.
As a result of Renault's policy of non-dependence on outside sources, Renault emerged from the war in a stronger position than many of their counterparts in Europe.
The company also learned they were capable of producing top quality heavy machinery, leading to the opening of a new division, providing agricultural and industrial equipment, which went on to become among the largest in Europe.
Renault’s policy of continuous but controlled expansion began to cause a knock-on effect on production space becoming limited.
To understand how to overcome the problem, Louis Renault made some trips to the United States, spending some time with Henry Ford at his massive plant in Michigan, picking up a lot of ideas on how to improve his production processes.
The immediate and major conclusion that Renault arrived at from his overseas visit was that he needed to centralize his production instead of having it staggered around his two major plants, one in Billancourt and the other in Meudon.
To reach his objective, in 1919, Renault began to slowly and inconspicuously buy parcels of lands on the Île Seguin Island, situated in the river Seine towards the southwest of Paris.
After he had acquired the entire island, Louis Renault invested a colossal sum of money constructing a state of the art production that covered the whole Île Seguin Island where Renault put into action the logistical practices learned in the US.
During the early Twenties, thanks to the extensive manufacturing facilities that they had at their disposal, Renault appeared to be ruling the roost in domestic car sales, capable of offering buyers a wide choice of options.
Despite the economy being strong, sales for the new models were not as Louis had hoped for, due to slow delivery times, caused by a combination of having to run a production schedule with so many permutations, lack of proper distribution facilities, and labour problems that the company was experiencing.
What didn’t help the situation was that Renault refused to compete in the " people's cars" sector which was growing in popularity, as money became scarcer towards the end of the decade.
As stubborn as he was driven, Louis Renault refused to accept the fact that with a choice of seven different models compared to the two or three that Citroen were offering at the same time, why his fiercest rival was slowly overtaking him in sales.
To Renault’s great chagrin Citroen eventually becoming the largest producers of motor cars in France during the early Thirties.
However, that situation was dramatically to reverse itself in 1934, when Citroen, severely overextended due to its owner’s Andre Citroen scant regard for careful fiscal management went bankrupt, and was rapidly acquired by Michelin Tire Company, their largest creditor.
Overnight Renault found themselves back at the top of the tree, not so much by the merits of the cars, and more by Louis’s strict insistence not to be dependent on France’s financial institutions.
The company, unlike Citroen, had successfully diversified into other areas, which helped to buy the time to see out the slump as well as look at the cars they were offering to the public and overcome the sales resistance they were encountering.
Renault eventually gave way to what should have been glaringly obvious, and by the late Thirties had downsized their range, albeit slightly, while offering two entry-level vehicles, the Celtaquatre which sold very well, but not enough to prevent it being replaced by the Juvaquatre in 1938.
After France had been overrun by the Nazis in 1940, all of the French car producers were forced to abandon producing cars and switch over to constructing military equipment, in particular, heavy vehicles for the Germans.
This meant that the Renault plants were legitimate and regular targets for Allied bombing, and they all suffered severe collateral damage, with the Billancourt plant being particularly hard hit.
Paris was liberated in August 1944, and Louis Renault was faced with the task of getting his factories back into production. Before he could get his sleeves rolled up, instead the industrialist found himself in custody, a supposed collaborator of the occupation forces during World War II.
Just 67 years old at the time of his passing, the often controversial Renault earned his place in history as one of the most innovative and socially conscious pioneers of the industry in France during the Twentieth century.
After his passing, the Société des Automobiles Renault, the company that Henri Renault personally nurtured through four decades was unceremoniously nationalised by the provisional government of France; the only company forced to work with Nazis to suffer this fate.
As was the mood of the times in immediate post-war France, the government appointed Pierre Lefaucheux, a former Resistance leader who had been held in of the Nazis' death camps for much of the war.
With absolutely no knowledge of car production, from day one Lefaucheux showed himself as a man of vision and judgment who was also prepared to listen.
This trait soon became apparent when the 4CV project was revealed to him, and he was made aware that Louis Renault had been clandestinely working on a project for the company, which had the Nazis discovered, would more than likely led to him coming before a firing squad.
Renault’s secret project was a next-generation “ people's car”, still known under its working title, the 4CV. The rear-engine 4CV captured the imagination of Lefaucheux, who gave the green light to put the vehicle into production.
The Renault 4CV was launched at the first post-war Paris motor show in October 1946 and was an outstanding success.
With a shortage of new cars around, demand for the 4CV was unprecedented, and with raw materials in short supply, a waiting list grew, which eventually reached as long as two years until raw material supply problems were ironed out.
To show how desperate the French were to take delivery of their new car, some of them were happy to accept their new car in “ Afrika-Corps” green paint left over from the Nazi occupation, originally meant for camouflaging trucks on their way to Africa.
Despite the not so pleasant paint colours and several other technical shortcomings, Renault had sold their half-millionth 4CV by 1954 with production ending finally in mid-1961, with more than a million having been sold.
Lefaucheux, who was awarded the Légion d'Honneur for his heroics during World War Two, lead Renault to consolidation and success well into the Fifties when tragically he lost his life in a car accident.