By Rod Ward
Out of the many dozens of car makers in France, and the many hundreds in Europe, in the early years of the 20th century, who could have predicted that a century later Renault would be one of the few survivors? Louis Renault was an unconventional and controversial figure. He was a semi-literate and tongue-tied mechanic who was vilified by the French left-wing press between the wars for exploiting the workers to build his personal fortune, yet he was admired by many others for founding an industrial empire which had contributed vast amounts of munitions to the Allied war effort in the Great War. By contrast, in the Second World War Renault’s industrial might was exploited by the occupying Germans, leading to accusations of collaboration with the enemy. With the Liberation of France, his enemies got their chance; Louis Renault was imprisoned, his factory was confiscated and nationalised, and he died from his treatment in prison. Louis was oblivious of external circumstances; his concerns were only with his factory and his Renault brand. This was, at the very least, naïve, but his obsessions were with engineering and with ensuring the survival of his company. After 1944 the factory and its products were taken out of the hands of the Renault family and nationalised. The story of the company falls into four eras. Louis Renault led the early creative phase, in the postwar years Pierre Lefaucheux built up an automotive industrial powerhouse, and from the 1950s Pierre Dreyfus oversaw the development of a range of world-beating designs. Finally, the 21st century saw Renault and Nissan joined in an international Alliance led by Louis Schweitzer, and then by Carlos Ghosn.