Grand Theft L’Auto

This is another piece in series about the war profiteers in the automobile industry.

The story of Renault family and the brand of Renault cars is the story mostly told about Louis Renault.

Louis Renault in 1919

Louis Renault was the fourth of six children born into the wealthy Parisian family of Alfred and Berthe Renault, born on 2/12 1877, he was fascinated by engineering and mechanics from an early age and spent hours in the Serpollet steam car workshop or tinkering with old Panhard engines in the tool shed of the family’s second home in Billancourt.

He built his first car in 1898 and later built one of France’s largest automobile manufacturing concerns, which bears his name to this day. Together with two of his brothers, Marcel and Fernand, he founded Renault-Frères on 2/25 1899.

Renault-Frères factory at Billancourt

Lucrative Renault brothers:

Marcel, Louis and Fernand, from left to right

Not caring about the numerology about the date of company’s foundation at all at this point, in the first half of 1899 already 80 cars were built, so they say. The best way to promote your cars is to join in races and try to win, which was the case with Renault brothers from 1899 to 1903.

Renaults’ first race

Demand increased, unfortunately with allegedly heavy price to pay for it – in 1903 Marcel Renault crashed and was killed during a race. By 1909 another of founding brothers, Ferdinand Renault was found dead in his New York apartment:


As it can be learned from the NYT obituary, the source of wealth from which automobile experiment was drawing its roots was Louis’ father, Alfred Renault’s textile business. “The automobile company was merely a side issue”.

As early as 1909, reliable Renault taxis were a familiar sight on Paris streets. But they entered legend as “the taxis of the Marne” in September 1914, when a thousand were commandeered to whisk 3,000 French soldiers to the front with such speed that they surprised the German forces and halted their advance.[i]

WWI Paris Taxi
Renault taxis used for military logistics

During World War I his factories contributed massively to the war effort notably so by the creation and manufacture of the first effective tank, the Renault FT tank, but his engines were as well used in aviation and Renault cars for logistics:

Although no-where near as heavily armed or as imposing as the British heavy tanks, their (relative) speed and the sheer quantity of them made this dinky little device a devastatingly effective asset. Renault produced approximately 3,600 of them, and more than half of the tanks used by the Allies during the war were FTs.

Crucially for the firm’s future interests, World War One inadvertently gave Renault the tools it needed to create commercial vehicle off-shoots with. Its first tractor, for example, was heavily based on the FT tank. Renault’s various commercial vehicle sub-divisions still exist today, although most have now been separated from the car company (as in example US truck brand Mack).

But Louis was even more lucrative businessman:

At the start of WW I, in August 1914, in response to the then acute shortage of artillery ammunition Renault suggested that car factories such as Renault could manufacture 75mm shells using hydraulic presses rather than with the usual longer and costlier lathe operations.[ii] The resulting shells helped overcome the shortages, but as they had to be manufactured in two pieces they were inherently weak at the base thus sometimes letting hot gases detonate the melinite inside the shell. Over 600 French 75mm guns were destroyed by premature explosions in 1915, and their crews killed or injured.[8] “.

I wonder if Renault’s shells found a sales channel to German guns as well, killing fellow Frenchmen with yet another kind of shell’s application while doubling the profit. When engaged in a war, everything is allowed or so they say, with morality and ethics used by profiteers like Renault or Quandts merely as a bread-spread of its own brand.

In 1918 at age of 40 he married a Parisian lawyer’s daughter, 23-year-old Christiane Boullaire. The couple lived in splendor. In Paris they shared the sumptuous home Renault built at the end of the ultra fashionable Avenue Foch with their only son, Jean-Louis, born in 1920. (Renault also built a 7-floor apartment building next door as an investment.) The Herqueville estate reached its peak of opulence in the 1920’s, when he added a guest annex that had a gold-flecked mosaic swimming pool, turned a former cottage into his billiard room, and filled greenhouses with his favorite white orchids. The couple didn’t stop there, adding a flotilla of his-and-hers yachts, a restored ancient fort on Chausey, one of the Channel Islands, and Escampobar, a luxurious 65-acre seaside property that Louis built on the Giens Peninsula on the Riviera, near Saint-Tropez.

During the WW II occupation, Louis Renault was already planning for postwar production, one of the reasons he rebuilt his factory after the 1942 British bombing raids. As it was recorded, the Renault factories on Île Seguin in Billancourt had become top priority targets for the British bombers of the Royal Air Force and were ultimately severely damaged on 3rd March 1942.

Renault after the bombing in March 1942

There is now proof that Louis Renault was behind the development of the Renault 4CV, a four-door economy car that became the French competitor to the Volkswagen designed by Ferdinand Porsche, and that Renault secretly tested the prototypes during the Occupation. Released right after the Allied victory, it was the first French car to sell more than a million units, launching the company’s economic renaissance.

Renault didn’t live to enjoy that success. In 1944, during a frenzy of “purification” right after the Liberation, the founder of Renault was accused of collaboration. Friends urged him to leave the country, but Renault, furious about the allegations, was determined to prove his innocence. Convinced of the fairness of French justice, and having been given assurances that he would be interrogated and released, he presented himself voluntarily to Judge Marcel Martin at the Palais de Justice; when he returned five days later, on September 23, 1944, he was incarcerated in Fresnes prison. His already fragile health deteriorated rapidly — the family has always suspected beatings — and he was transferred first to a hospital, then to a Paris clinic, where he died a month later, on October 24 1944. As reported by Robert O. Paxton:

“Renault’s were the only manufacturer whose plants were confiscated permanently by the state, and indeed the Renault works, like the Berliet truck factory at Lyon, might have been returned to private hands, had M. Renault lived as long as M. Marius Berliet who built 2,330 trucks for the Germans but who stubbornly refused to recognize legal actions against him after the war. He died in 1949, and his firm remained in family hands.”

That is one side of the story, but then there is more[iii]:

“The activities of Louis Renault led to the spectacular expropriation of his company by the State; what is less well known is that he died in prison awaiting trial, and therefore was never convicted. The car manufacturer Marius Berliet suffered the same fate of expropriation. At his trial in September 1945, Berliet claimed in his defence that his company had produced fewer cars for the German occupiers than any other car producer: 2,239 cars for the Germans vs. 6,548 for French customers. This compared to Renault which had delivered 32,887 vehicles to the Germans and only 1697 to French clients, a pattern followed by Citroen (32,248 produced for Germans and only 2,052 for French clients) (Aron, 1974). Managers at Renault claimed, for their part, that they had deliberately slowed down production, producing 7,677 fewer vehicles than the target of 41,909 vehicles imposed by the German occupiers. The argument, however, cut no ice with the Confederation Generale du Travail (CVT), who maintained that the go-slow had been organized by the workers, not the management. Louis Renault may have been punished more for his attitudes than his actions, which were mirrored by those of many other employers. Robert Aron reports that when a Gaullist came seeking his support for the Free French, Renault is alleged to have replied “De Gaulle connaît pas!*” (Aron, 1974, 234).

In 2005, the Daily Telegraph said Renault had “felt that his duty was to preserve France’s manufacturing base. Military and Daimler-Benz officials arrived at the gates of his Billancourt factory to assess it for removal into Germany, together with its workforce. Renault fended them off by agreeing to make vehicles for the Wehrmacht.”[10] According to Anthony Rhodes’s Louis Renault: A Biography, Renault once said of the Germans “It is better to give them the butter, or they’ll take the cows.”[7] The 2005 Daily Telegraph report said Renault attempted to save his company from displacement and absorption by Daimler-Benz:[10] But for his efforts, Renault factories and employees would have been shipped to Germany.

Maybe, but just maybe, that was the only decision any moral and conscious man could have made.


[i] Full article can be found here

[ii] Wickedpedia link here

[iii] “Language, politics and society” , p. 46,47, excerpt here


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