Pepe le Pew . . . On Wheels

Other than the captive nations of the former Soviet bloc, no one built consistently awful – or downright bizarre – automobiles better than France’s Big Three: Citroen, Renault and Peugot.

Thankfully, we’ve had better success ejecting their unwanted wares from our shores than the French have had warding off the relentless juggernaut of Disney, McDonald’s and Miley Cyrus.

So, grab your clothespin, affix to your nose, and walk with me down memory lane a moment:

* Renault Le Car –

A sad little machine that could give a Yugo self-esteem lessons, the Le Car (also known as the Renault 5 in Europe) was launched in 1972 with the slogan, “Hello, I’m the Renault 5, in town and on the road . . . .They also call me Supercar.” A rather audacious claim given the 850 cc, 36-hp engine that powered the original. (My riding lawn mower has 25 hp – and is probably about as quick.)

Later models were offered with a noxious 1.6 liter diesel that smelled worse than the car itself looked.

The Le Car sold through 1985 in the U.S. – and actually sold fairly well. Some three million were built, all told – proof that quantity and quality are often not synonymous.

Luckily, only a few remain roadworthy today – and they’re easy enough to catch and smash, if you come across a survivor.

* Citroen 2CV –

Imagine a moped without the sex appeal – or the performance – and you’ve got a handle on the 2CV.

It germinated in the mind of company founder Pierre Boulanger, who wanted to create a car that would “… carry two peasants and 100-pounds of potatoes. . .” The result was the TPV – Toute Petit Voiture – the early prototype of the 2CV that would appear after World War II.

Unfortunately, it was not a casualty of that conflict.

The original 1948 2CV – “Deux Chevaux” – featured a 9 hp air-cooled engine, canvass roof, no door locks or ignition key – and a pull-start system that made it easy for anyone to jump in and steal the thing. Not that it ever crossed anyone’s mind to steal a 2CV, since it would be faster – as well as more reliable – to get away on foot.

The 2CV became ubiquitous in postwar Europe, where the unlucky losers of the Big One weren’t in much of a position to motor around in Series 62 Caddies or 283 Power Pack ’57 Chevys – and had to make do with this well-named “peasant’s car.”

* Renault Alliance –

This 60 hp K-car wanna-be was probably the car Adam Sandler had in mind when he wrote his beautiful ballad, Piece of Shit Car.

The Alliance was sold from 1983 to 1988 in the United States under the desperate partnership formed by liver-spotted, on life-support  American Motors Corp (AMC) and Renault.

In a move whose astutenesss rivaled that of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana “Purchase” – whereby America got most of the land West of St. Louis for pennies per acre – AMC wheedled Renault into dishing out $350 million in early 1980s dollars to acquire a 46.4 percent stake in the company that brought the world such exemplars of style, engineering and quality control as the Pacer X (with genuine Levi jeans seat covers), the Gremlin, and – of course – the Matador.

Even though AMC was on the ropes, the French were sold on the idea of exploiting AMC’s still-large dealer network to hock their Pepe Le Pew chariots. But things didn’t turn out so well for AMC – which went belly up a few years later.

Nor for Renault – which eventually fled the U.S. market, never to return.

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