Why French car makers now lead the way, by Gavin Green

Published: 12 October 2009

The best thing about the recent 2009 Frankfurt motor show was evidence that the French have regained their automotive flair. Renault, which creatively has slept through most of the last decade – so much for its créateur d’automobile reputation – was at the forefront of the EV (electric vehicle) revolution, and Peugeot/Citroën’s offerings also showed innovation (Peugeot BB1, Citroën Revolte).
Although the French did not invent the automobile, and nor did they popularise it, they have probably done more than any other nation to kick-start car creativity. The Germans have packed in more technology, the Yanks have done more to cut costs, the Japanese gave the world the assumption of mechanical reliability, and the Brits have done much in terms of stately design and, occasionally, clever tech. Yet the French have been the true revolutionaries. (This may be because they initially embraced the motor car most enthusiastically and had the world’s best road network – and still do.)

From Systeme Panhard (which previewed the front-radiator/front-engine/rear-drive morphology, de rigueur with all cars until André Citroën’s efforts, and still common) to the Bugatti-designed Peugeot Bébé (the first small car that offered most of what a large car did, but reduced in scale to make it more efficient); from Citroën’s Traction Avant (the first successful mass-made front-drive car) to the even more beguiling DS (the most modern car of all time); from innovative early hatchbacks (Citroën’s 1954 Commerciale, the Renault 4 and the Renault 16) to pioneering people carriers (the Espace, never mind that it was conceived by a Brit). The French even begat Europe’s diesel revolution, which has done more to reduce vehicular CO2 emissions than all the electric hybrids and EVs will do over the next decade (even though diesel fuel is the worst skid-inducer on the road, as many maimed motor- and pedal-cyclists know).

Yet, for the past decade or so, the French makers have been hibernating. Today’s Renaults display not a single spark of inventiveness. Indifferent reactions to recent novelties: the Avantime, Vel Satis and the style of the previous-generation arse-shakin’ Megane seemed to snuff that old Regie boldness. Peugeot/Citroën’s most innovative machine is the 107/C1, today’s most intelligently minimalist car. Which is actually a Toyota.

Over at Citroën, the comeback has been gathering pace. The C4’s ingenious stationary-hub steering wheel, the packaging and glazing of most new Picasso MPVs, the return to form of the big Citroën saloon (never mind that no-one apart from Nicolas Sarkozy has bought a C6). Heavens above, Citroën at last seems to be proud of its heritage again, judging by its new ads. It wasn’t so many years ago that the Parisian maker, under the influence of owner Peugeot, was trying to eradicate its history, Pol Pot-like.

When Citroën’s historic genius was extinguished in the ’80s (although the flames were being extinguished, by Peugeot, well before), the technological development of the car suffered; so did the French industry’s reputation for revolutionary zeal. At Frankfurt, there were signs that French creativity may be on the verge of a long overdue and glorious comeback.

Mind you, is Renault’s wholesale gamble on the future popularity of the EV right? I suspect it is and salute its boldness. Renault’s laser-sharp focus contrasts with the German makers’ blunderbuss approach to tomorrow’s powertrain – to preview and develop a little bit of everything and hope that you’re right at least once. That’s a far more expensive and less efficient strategy. But if Renault is wrong – and no other car maker is gambling on EVs to such an extent – then its creative comeback will be very shortlived.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience