I’ve recently been revisiting some of my favourite Billy Wilder films, in particular, those starring Jack Lemmon. It’s been many years – literally decades – since I watched these films, but I hadn’t forgotten how great they were; indeed, still are. I’m talking about films such as The Apartment (winner of five Oscars), The Front Page, and most pertinently for this week’s Prime Find, Irma la Douce, with superlative performances from Shirley MacLaine in the first and third of those. I’m sure many ViaRETRO readers are familiar with these sharply observed bitter-sweet comedies, whose surface cynicism disguise a very warm human core.
Now I don’t know about you, dear reader, but for me one of the joys of watching older films, or for that matter, new films set in the past, is spotting all the now-classic cars, either being driven by the stars of the film, parked in the background or in the traffic. Irma la Douce, made in 1963, is set in Paris, so of course the cars featured are French and what caught my eye was the Renault Dauphine, in both police and civilian colours. Seeing the Dauphine on screen reminded me how few I’ve seen in recent years – one at last year’s Flywheel, the other during my visit to the Cité de l’Automobile in Mulhouse, and that’s been it. It also reminded me how chic these little saloons are.
The Dauphine is another of those everyday heroes we love here at ViaRETRO, yet rarely see nowadays. Renault manufactured over 2,150,000 of them in a long production run, starting in 1956 and finishing in 1967 – it’s hard to know how many there are in the UK now, but the Renault Classic Car Club claim 28 among their membership.
I like these small rear-engined, water-cooled four-door saloons – they’re different, and for their time, quite modern looking.
The name Dauphine is the feminine form of the French feudal title of Dauphin, the heir apparent to the throne – in this case, as Renault saw it, successor to the 4CV.
Its main rival was probably the VW Beetle, and it shared the rear-engine layout, though not the air-cooling, and was every bit as curvy, yet differently so. The Dauphine was basically styled to look like a smaller version of the Renault Frégate, the company’s executive model at that time.
Although the Dauphine is – to my eyes, at least – unmistakeably French, it was also built around the world, in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand and Italy – more on that last one shortly.
The Dauphine had a long gestation period, spending 5 years in development before it first appeared in 1955, going on sale during the spring of 1956. Designed as a more modern, more aspirational “people’s car”, it was bigger and roomier than the 4CV, but mechanically not all that different, using the same engine, but with capacity increased to 845cc and horsepower up from 19 to 32. However, it’s increased size and weight made it somewhat ineffective in traffic light drag races – the “sprint” from 0-60mph took a watching-paint-dry 32 seconds.
It had other issues, too – it’s heavily rear-biased weight distribution – 38/62 – made for sometimes unpredictable handling (compare this with c.1960 VW Beetle at 43/57 or early 60’s Porsche 911 at 42/58). It also suffered reliability problems, as well as extensive corrosion issues – in 2007, Time’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Neil even went as far as nominating the Dauphine as one of the 50 Worst Cars of All Time, saying that it could actually be heard rusting. But despite all this, it’s now a popular classic – especially within its home country. Over its lifetime, it spawned a number of offshoots, most unusually, the very odd one-off Michelotti coupé which Søren wrote about recently. In fact, the co-operation with Alfa Romeo went so far as to include building the Dauphine under license in Milan for five years from 1959 to ’64. It differed in only very minor ways from the original and was certainly no sportier. The Dauphine was also the basis for the very stylish and glamorous Floride and Caravelle models, as well as, most dramatically, the Alpine Renault A106 and A108.
Of course, Amedee Gordini was allowed to get his hands on the Dauphine and produced a 37bhp (!) version, though even this struggled to reach 80mph or 130km/h, and towards the end of its production run, a 1093 cc, 55bhp, 87mph or 140km/h version was made available in a limited-edition of 1,000 cars. However, I’m not sure I’d want the extra oomph with that weight distribution….
The Dauphine was however an undoubted sales success, passing the one million mark in just four years, and was one of the first popular European imports into the UK.
It seems then that there are a number of ways into Dauphine ownership. The most expensive – without straying into A106/108 territory – is invariably the Gordini option – these versions can now fetch £20,000 or more, and there’s a 1093cc version currently for sale at an eye-watering £42,000 equating to €47,500…
However, our Prime Find this week is a much more budget-friendly option. This 1964 Renault Dauphine, in a fetching pale mint green, is being sold by South Norfolk Classics in Diss for just £6,995 currently equating to approximately €7,850. If the photos are any guide – and there are many on the dealer’s website – it looks like a pretty decent, though not perfect, car. The exterior colour seems very fitting, though the leopard-skin print interior upholstery and door cards are less to my taste and indeed might put some people off. However, I’m sure less extravagant alternatives can be found, though you would probably need to look in France for factory spec alternatives. The mileage is recorded as a very moderate 68,000, but it’s not clear if this is verifiable. It’s a standard 845cc model, so even if none of its original 32 horses have escaped, it will be more suitable for gentle, sedate cruising along country lanes with the window wound down and elbow out, than for tearing around the track. It also comes with lots of invoices and service history, as well as original owner’s handbook and manual, and has a (superfluous but reassuring) MOT valid until April 2020. Here are some pictures we’ve borrowed from the dealers website:
As always, photos and descriptions are no substitute for inspecting the car in the metal, but if you’re looking for a budget entry into the world of classic cars that will stand out from the crowd and – if you’re useful with spanners and screwdrivers – will probably be relatively easy to work on, this Dauphine looks an interesting proposition. You can see the dealer’s ad and many more photos here: 1964 Renault Dauphine
With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us inspire by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
Just remember – Any Classic is Better than No Classic! We obviously invite our readers to help prospective buyers with your views and maybe even experiences of any given model we feature. Further to that, if you stumble across a classic which you feel we ought to feature as Prime Find of the Week, then please send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org