Know Your Dauphine – Your Life May Depend On It

[Ed. Note: This Submission Thursday post is brought to you by loyal hoon Alff. Thanks for this excellent article.]

1961 Renault Dauphine Owners Manual CoverMy friend Harry owns 17 cars.  Harry inherited many of these from his father, who kept most of his daily drivers.  Taken individually, none is remarkable unless you go in for the likes of Mavericks, Citations and Plymouth Horizon TC3s (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  It is a great collection, however, in that every decade from the 1930s on is represented.

As if to show that he had not completely lost perspective, Harry’s dad did unburden himself of what he considered to be the worst car he ever bought, a 1961 Renault Dauphine.
1961 Renault Dauphine French American PrincessFor the few of you without a passing knowledge of this fine car, it is much maligned.   The listeners of Car Talk voted it the 9th Worst Car of the Millennium, a car which was “truly unencumbered by the engineering process” and which compelled one voter to write, “From a historical perspective, it’s a shame that the French spent their Marshall Plan dollars on automaking.”
Fortunately for us, Pops held on to the owner’s manual, which Harry recently discovered while sorting through old issues of National Geographic.  This gives us the opportunity to learn firsthand what Renault had to say to its adventurous American customers, without the actual pain of ownership.
The inside front cover provides us non-Canadians with a helpful translation of Dauphine as “Princess”.  In Franglish marketing prose that would make Don Draper weep, Dauphine buyers learned that like a real princess, she had the “petite simple beauty of a lady who doesn’t have to wear jewels to prove her beauty.”
Reviewing the specifications and maintenance schedule we discover that, also like a real princess, she was high-maintenance and ill-suited to the demands of the workaday world.
Consider these service intervals…

  • -Daily:        Check Oil (hint: look under the car)
  • Every 3000 miles:      Gap points, lube distributor, clean spark plugs, tighten manifold and carb mounts
  • Every 6000 miles:      Adjust valves, tighten fan belt
  • Every 10K miles:    Replace spark plugs

In addition, owners were advised to return to the dealer for service “inspections” after the initial 600 and 1000 miles.  The 600 mile servicing included removing the governor (new owners were not to drive faster than 45 mph) and changing engine oil and transmission fluid. Have a look at these specs:

1961 Renault Dauphine Owner's Manual - Specs
Are there ever any winners in the battle between 1397 lbs and 32 bhp?

La Dauphine was not without her innovations.  Take the optional Ferlec automatic clutch, for example:
A few years later, the Germans would encroach on French territory with VW’s introduction of the similar AutoStick in 1968.
A few years later, the Germans would encroach on French territory with VW’s introduction of the similar AutoStick in 1968.

1961 Renault Dauphine Owner's Manual - Prison DoorThe Renault may have also been the first car to introduce rear seat child safety locks.  Perhaps their engineers anticipated how badly passengers would want to escape.
Those French are a horny bunch, no?
Those French are a horny bunch, no?

1961 Renault Dauphine Owner's Manual - Shift PatternPage 31 reads, “WARNING: Your children will have no idea what a conventional 3-speed shift pattern looks like.”
Another section of the crumbling manual describes in exquisite detail how to perform importance maintenance procedures such as adjusting the valves and carburetor.  I wish current automakers would appreciate the apparently quaint notion that some owners would find such information useful.
I don’t know how Harry’s father’s relationship with La Dauphine ended but I know the break came quickly.  Dad was a lawyer and small town judge who kept meticulous records for all of his vehicles.  The notations for this one end with the 1000 mile service, suggesting that he said “au revior” in well less than a year.
[thanks again Alff!]

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  1. P161911 Avatar

    My father actually speaks fondly of the Dauphine that he owned as a GI stationed in Germany in 1968. He was the 4th or 5th GI owner, having bought the car for $150 or so. His had the auxillary hand crank and would start on even the coldest mornings. He kept it for several months and sold it to yet another GI for $150 or so when he replaced it with a new Triumph Spitfire.
    I remember seeing the service intervals listed in a 1970s Chevy truck manual. It had different service intervals listed for different driving conditions: normal, severe, dusty, and one where the transmission might be submerged. If the ttransmission was to be submerged, the fluid change interval was daily!

  2. engineerd Avatar

    It looks speedy in the video — after they speed up the camera.
    [youtube FYbiaCRwwAU youtube]
    I know the Dauphine isn't particularly powerful, speedy, or even desirable. However, I still kind of like 'em. I guess I like them in the same manner that I like other maligned cars. I guess I have a soft spot for the underdog.

    1. Tanshanomi Avatar

      I've always though the Dauphine body was rather garofalo. I can totally picture a 'busa powered tube frame with Cragar SS wheels under that shell.

      1. Alff Avatar

        "Garofalo"? You mean that you secretly find it attractive in a librarianesque way but don't want to admit it to your buddies? If so, I whoeheartedly agree with your assesment and your use of the term.

        1. joshuman Avatar

          It fits. I'm calling the OED to add the word to the lexicon.

        2. Tanshanomi Avatar

          I actually got it from Jalopnik:

          It's based on a comment made by POLAЯ:

  3. Tanshanomi Avatar

    "With the switch centered, the clutch is inoperative."
    That's—um—handy, I guess. Although I can't say that I've driven other cars and said, "If only there was a way to make my clutch inoperative."

  4. joshuman Avatar

    I like that it has a town horn and a road horn. I'm completely wrong but imagining a scooter's beep beep and a train air horn.

    1. Tanshanomi Avatar

      I've always said cars need a "friendly horn" and an "angry horn."
      Beep-beep! (Hey! I know that jogger! How ya' doin'!?)
      HONNNK! (Nice lane change, buddy! Too bad I was taking up that space with my car!)
      Beep-beep! (Excuse me, did you notice that the left turn arrow is green?)
      HONNNK! (The flippin' light's been green for twenty seconds, lady! Quit wiping your baby's snot in the back and crawl back into the drivers' seat!)

    2. muthalovin Avatar

      meep meep and bwwwaaaa bwaaaa. I like it.

  5. scroggzilla Avatar

    "Reviewing the specifications and maintenance schedule we discover that, also like a real princess, she was high-maintenance and ill-suited to the demands of the workaday world."
    Like other princesses, she liked to go to Africa for PR building excersizes.
    <img src=""&gt;

    1. Tim Odell Avatar
      Tim Odell

      Do not, under any circumstances, stop posting old race pictures.
      Although, if you add width=500 to your embed, we can avoid those pesky horizontal scroll bars. Might be able get out to 600px wide.

    2. engineerd Avatar

      It always amazes me how some cars of dubious capability on the street also are taken on rallies. I've seen Dauphine rally pictures before and it blows my mind ever time.

      1. Tim Odell Avatar
        Tim Odell

        Alfas and 1st gen RX-7s have been bafflingly successful in LeMons.

        1. Alff Avatar

          I know what I'm doing with my Spider, if …. I mean when the time comes.

  6. Joe Dunlap Avatar
    Joe Dunlap

    I worked in a Renault dealership in the early 70s. The Dauphine, and it s successors the R8, and R10 were as quirky as quirky can get. A pushbutton operated automatic was available, which used the standard 3 spd. manual with shifting operated by servo motors controlled by an analog computer the size of a travel bag, and a clutch mechanism filled with iron powder that solidified when an electrical current was applied to it. Engine revs during the shift were controlled by a govenor, probably the same one mentioned in the article. They all did share the one wonderful trait common to all French cars of the period, a very soft ride. You didnt get anywhere quickly, but you did so in comfort. Hey, only 3 lug nuts per wheel, whats not to love?

  7. muthalovin Avatar

    I love the gearshift diagram (H???? Obscene) and the big, bold, red warning below.

  8. BGW Avatar

    The 600 mile servicing included removing the governor
    So this was a California car, then?

  9. Gladys Flenner Avatar

    It is not really my practice to publish commentary, but I believed I might say that this was excellent.

  10. Rufus Rockymore Avatar

    I Really enjoy the way in which you write…thanks for publishing

  11. Pinky Allen Avatar
    Pinky Allen

    If you look at the specs of other contemporary cars, the Dauphine wasn't much different- the VW required about the same maintenance. The really bad thing about the Renault was the way the rear axles were located fore and aft. As the car aged and the axles wore, the axles were free to move in such a way to steer the car, and numbers of rear engined Renaults ended their days hurtling off a highway backwards. This includes the R8 and R10.

  12. Pinky Allen Avatar
    Pinky Allen

    As for the Ferlec, many European cars were offered with it, the Isetta, DKWs I believe, Mercedes had a type of Ferlec, all essentially like the Automatic Stickshift VW sold on Beetles and Karmann Ghias. And which is worse, to be folded up in a Dauphine or impaled on the steering column in an Impala? Ever drive an early 60s American wagon at speed, with scary over steer? All this has to be taken in context. Two places the Europeans were at a disadvantage, with one on the high speed highways where the little 4s had to operate at full tilt. Any 50s 6 cylinder American car is going to have not too different acceleration than the imports- 20 seconds to 60, up to 30 seconds 0-60 for a 1951 Plymouth. The second was with rust through of the thinner body panels.

  13. Michael, Sydney Avatar
    Michael, Sydney

    Good grief, xenophobia is rife in North America!
    The Dauphine, and the successors R8 and R10 were spacious, economical and comfortable. The R8 was the first production car in the world with 4 wheel disk brakes and the rack and pinion steering was sharp and precise, unlike most American cars of the period. The R8 was a major force in Rally where reliability and strength are important.
    French cars post war were by and large brilliantly designed for their target market and whilst they might not have been the answer to every Americans prayers they were very successful in their home market and had huge export sales in Africa and Asia. Have you ever wondered why US cars had very little success in those markets? In the sixties my French rides (Renault and Citroen) would run rings around American style jalopies on rough Australian roads.
    For heavens sake guys, don't criticize what you don't understand.