Why you’d want a Renault Dauphine
Pretty to look at and entertaining to drive, the Dauphine was a great global success for Renault. It catered for customers who could afford to spend just a little extra to get a car more ‘special’ than the base-model 4CV, and later Renault 4.
The tight turning circle, fuel economy, surprisingly spacious four-door interior and large front boot also made Dauphines ideal for use as taxicabs – and an Uber-style launch in London led some black-cab drivers to ram them when they saw them!
Lightweight construction was one of the Dauphine’s secrets, giving it great performance for its size and power – but the very thin steel (22/23-gauge on non-structural panels) rusted through in a few years – or less in severe environments.
Poor-quality steel, even more rot-prone than normal, afflicted 1959-’63 models; Dauphine survival numbers are low because of rust extermination and it should be top of your list of things to check when buying. Ask yourself: is rot present, has it been hidden and, if repaired, has it been done safely and correctly?
Built in the world’s most highly automated car factory of the late 1950s, turning out more than 200,000 examples a year, the Dauphine’s advanced features included an automatic choke, steering-column lock ignition/starter, childproof door locks from 1961 and, on Gordini/Export models from ’64, all-disc brakes.
From the start, tuning parts were offered by Renault through the Gordini brand, to boost power and offer four-speed or even five-speed gearsets that fitted in the standard three-speed housing – although the tuned engine made the handling distinctly tail-happy.
Competition success followed: the Dauphine team finished 2-3-4 in the GT/Special Series class of the 1956 Mille Miglia and Dauphines won the ’57 Tulip Rally, ’58 Rallye Monte-Carlo and ’59 Alpine Rally.
Dauphines were assembled worldwide, including in Acton, London, but poor quality control contributed to the end of assembly there in 1961. Elsewhere production continued for longer, especially in Argentina where it remained into the 1970s; some current parts supply, especially panels, emanates from Argentina.
Meanwhile, Renault developed the stylish rear-engined theme with the Floride and Caravelle coupé and convertible, both of which were based on the Dauphine; while even more desirable, they are unfortunately equally rust-prone.
Images: Will Williams
Renault Dauphine: what to look for
See above for trouble spots
Look for excessive engine oil leaks and heavy breathing (or knocking) that can indicate the wet-liner ‘four’ is nearing rebuild time: new pistons and liners are still available and easy to change. Check the left side of the block, 3in above the sump, for cracks. The fibre gear in the camshaft drive gets noisy when worn.
Poor performance and economy are usually down to a worn carburettor; units are available, as are parts for the normally reliable automatic choke.
Michelin tyres are excellent but cost more than £100 each; Toyos or Nankangs are cheaper. Brakes seize if rarely used and kingpins wear.
Until ’62, most cars were three-speed with non-synchro first, so practise your double-declutching. Four-speed gearbox is well worth seeking out.
Seat materials or good used parts can be found at French autojumbles, although not for Acton-built cars; even so, body is more critical than trim.
Renault Dauphine: on the road
Low weight and low gearing give the Dauphine a lively feel if the engine is in good fettle; a worn engine and/or carburettor means lacklustre performance (check also for exhaust smoke and oil leaks).
The camshaft is driven by a chain of three gears, the middle one fibre to keep noise down – if the geartrain is noisy, the fibre gear is failing. A full engine rebuild shouldn’t cost more than £1500 and parts are readily available, but a cracked block is expensive to repair.
Transmissions improved significantly during production and you have to be a purist to like the original three-speed without synchro on first; four-speeds are much more usable. The optional Ferodo-made Ferlac electro-magnetic clutch is clever and there’s no need to avoid it; club experts know how to set it up. If engagement is abrupt, it needs to be realigned soon.
Electrics were 6V until 1962 and are perfectly adequate if kept in good fettle (low-energy LEDs can help), but later cars’ 12V systems
are better and cheaper to maintain.
Rubber-cone auxiliary springs (Aerostable suspension) were added in late 1959 on French cars, from mid-1960 on British-built ones, alongside softer coil springs.
This was meant to allow compliance for unladen and fully laden conditions (a full load of passengers and luggage weighs half as much again as the car itself), but was not a great success and was abandoned for 1962. The rubber cones are hard to find now, so conversion to standard suspension may be wise.
Renault Dauphine price guide
- Show/rebuilt: £10,000
- Average: £5000
- Restoration: £1000
- Show/rebuilt: £15,000
- Average: £7000
- Restoration: £2000
- Show/rebuilt: £40,000
- Average: £25,000
- Restoration: £5000
Renault Dauphine history
1955 Dec First production Dauphines built
1956 Feb Dauphine launched
1957 Sep Gordini model added with four-speed gearbox, 36bhp
1958 Sep Compression raised, vacuum advance added: 31bhp, better performance and economy
1959 Sep Aerostable suspension introduced
1960 Nov Four-speed ’box optional on standard cars (Deluxe Dauphine called Ondine in France)
1961 UK assembly at Acton ends; Gordini Deluxe launched in the UK
1962 Compression raised again, 12V electrics, Aerostable and Ferlec dropped, three-speed goes all-synchro; LHD Rally 1093 model with 55bhp @ 5600rpm and 87mph top speed
1964 Gordini gets all-disc brakes and all-synchro four-speed
1967 French production ends
1970 Argentinian production ends
The owner’s view
“When I was 18 my father bought a Dauphine,” recalls Stuart Kitchen. “It was the sexiest thing on wheels at the time, but he sold it after 18 months because my mother couldn’t cope with the non-synchro first – and it had already started rusting.
“Eighteen years ago I decided to relive that memory and my wife bid on this one for me at auction. It has led a sheltered life, covering only 46,000 miles in 58 years.
“It’s never been restored and I had the engine rebuilt just as a precaution at 45k, and had the radiator re-cored because it was running hot.
“Unfortunately, I now need to replace the original door seals – they went sticky last summer. It’s a 1963 French-built car with four-speed ’box and 12V electrics: we took it to the 50th-birthday gathering in France.”
Greater weight and dated styling but 37bhp 948cc – then, from 1962, 48bhp 1098cc – engines and 12V electrics. Rust is the killer.
Sold 1956-’71 • No. built 847,491 • Price now £2500-12,500
More torque but no more power from the unburstable air-cooled flat-four, with 6V electrics and a four-speed gearbox.
Sold 1954-’64 • No. built 7,267,899 • Price now £5000-20,000
Renault Dauphine: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
Prices have gone a bit silly in France for verified examples of the rare Rally 1093 model, but Gordinis and regular Dauphines still represent good-value, usable classics – provided you keep on top of the rust bug.
Restored cars aren’t as light as originals – they may not be as lively, either. Make sure repairs have been done properly.
Great looking and surprisingly spacious; most parts are available and affordable
Rampant rust from new destroyed Dauphine survival rates and still blights many today
Renault Dauphine specifications
- Sold/number built 1955-’67/2,150,738
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 845cc ‘four’, with Solex carb
- Max power 27bhp @ 4250rpm to 36bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 49lb ft @ 2500rpm to 48lb ft @ 3300rpm
- Transmission three/four-speed manual, optional Ferlec electric clutch, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear swing axles; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes 9in hydraulic drums (101/5in discs for Gordini from 1964)
- Length 12ft 11in (3937mm)
- Width 5ft (1524mm)
- Height 4ft 9in (1441mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 5in (2267mm)
- Weight 1428-1456lb (649-662kg)
- 0-60mph 28-40 secs
- Top speed 67-74mph
- Mpg 37-45
- Price new £689/821 (1960)