Some people have a hatred of Renaults, particularly mechanics who seem not to like working on them.
Conversely, I have enjoyed almost all of my encounters with them, having set the bar high with an ’80s 5 GT Turbo that was a Classic & Sports Car pool car back in the day.
The older, rear-engined Renaults hold a particular fascination for me, perhaps because I’m fairly unfamiliar with cars of that layout, but I have always liked their cheerful character, light controls and general refinement, thanks to soft suspension and remote noises from sweet, willing, water-cooled engines.
These were two different names for the same car. At its launch in 1958, models built for the European market were called Florides, whereas US dealers, worried about offending the other states, got the same car badged as the Caravelle, a moniker borrowed from a contemporary French passenger jet – then all markets adopted the latter after 1962.
These cheerful 2+2s aimed themselves at the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and never pretended to be sports cars, rather pretty hardtop coupés or convertibles with fashionable Frua styling.
Flat-out building Dauphines for the masses, Renault subcontracted the job of making the Floride/Caravelle bodywork to Brissoneau & Lotz, then enjoyed reasonable success selling this rather pricey car to the growing French middle classes of the 1960s.
Here in the UK, the Floride was a true rich-person’s trinket, when you could have had a 2.4 Jaguar for £100 more, but apart from VW’s Karmann Ghia it had few rivals as a chic, pretty town car, and to a certain extent it justified the cost with its luxury trim, plush seats and a lot of attention to sound insulation.
The cars were well cast in 1960s films as the ‘kept woman’s’ runabout and, in The Day of the Jackal, the protagonist steals a Caravelle from his latest female victim in an effort to escape the gendarmerie as they close in.
And, although more famous for her Lancias, Brigitte Bardot had a Floride in her early days of stardom.
Launched at the Paris Salon in 1958, the Floride was based on the Dauphine Gordini floorpan with an 845cc engine.
It had a three-speed gearbox at first, with just 37bhp – or 45bhp in 956cc ‘S’ form, powered by the new five-bearing crank, overhead-valve ‘Sierra’ engine inherited from the Renault 8.
Either way, it must have been a real slug with the optional semi-automatic ’box and electromagnetic clutch, for which there were few takers, even as a £30 option.
With swing-axles at the back, handling was never going to be a strong point for this classic Renault, while the lack of disc brakes can hardly have mattered in a car that only did 76mph and took nearly half a minute to get to 60mph, even using 7000rpm as a rev limit.
From 1959, the Caravelle and Floride benefited from the latest ‘aerostable’ suspension developments.
With 60% of its weight over the rear wheels the handling still tended towards oversteer, but, because the model did not have meaningful rear seats, less load variation was required, and the swing-axle rear end could sit lower in a negative-camber position.
In fact, with their light steering and gearchanges, these were thoroughly pleasant little cars to drive.
I know, because I had one, a later Caravelle convertible with the bigger 1.1-litre engine, disc brakes (it was the first French car to have them) and the optional hardtop with the squarer roofline, as produced from 1962 to ’68 and contemporary with the boxy R8, rather than the more rounded Dauphine.
Due to a rusty fuel tank we never quite got our example to work reliably, but when it did run the Caravelle was a delightful classic car that would cruise at motorway speeds, cornered effortlessly and stopped well.
The intrusion of the front wheelarches into the footwell tended to skew your attack on the pedals, but I rather liked the handily sized front luggage bay, the air horns that sounded worthy of a Maserati and the general breezy charm of the car. And today I always smile when I see one.
Images: Renault/Tony Baker/Will Williams/Martin Buckley
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