In 1898 Louis Renault used the engine from his De Dion Bouton
quadricycle to power a tiny front-engined voiturette that he had
designed. The vehicle was shaft driven and had direct drive in
top gear. In so doing he created one of the definitive designs
of the early motorcar era.
Production of similar cars by the Renault Freres began in 1899
and sales soon exceeded the expectations of all but the company's
founder. Early cars had radiators on the sides of the bonnet but
dashboard-mounted radiators were introduced in 1904 and were a
feature of Renaults well into the 1920s. Almost from the beginning
Louis and Marcel Renault were among those who raced their products.
They were outstandingly successful, the ultimate triumph coming
with the firm's emphatic win in the world's first Grand Prix at
Le Mans in 1906. The tragedy was the death of Marcel in the 1903
After Marcel's death Louis Renault came to own over 98% of the
company and with no one to restrain him he gradually became more
and more autocratic in his style of management. He strongly disliked
dependence on outside suppliers and from 1903 the firm was making
its own power units and buying in only such essential items as
ignition systems and tyres.
The engineering integrity of Renault's products, coupled with
the publicity that came from motor racing achievements, saw Renault
as the largest and most successful French motorcar maker by 1907.
This situation was not to change until after the Great War when
Citroen and Renault battled it out year after year for the leading
position. When France was liberated in 1944 Louis Renault was
accused of collaboration (probably unfairly, but these were turbulent
times) and he died before any trial was held. The firm was nationalised
in 1945 and today is France's largest motor vehicle manufacturer.