1961 Renault Caravelle
1961 Renault Caravelle. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

The Renault company was founded in 1899 and within a few years was France’s largest automobile producer. It built a wide variety of cars and exported them to many countries. It even sold some large, luxury, slope-nosed Renaults in the United States and Canada in the early 1900s.

This gradually ended, however, and most North Americans didn’t become familiar with the Renault name until the company resumed selling cars there following the Second World War.

The first post-war Renault to land in North America was a tiny rear-engined, four door sedan called the 4CV. It arrived in 1949, but was really too small to enjoy much popularity in the wide open spaces of the New World.

To rectify this, Renault introduced the Dauphine in 1956, a slightly larger and much more attractive sedan intended to provide stronger competition to the Volkswagen than the 4CV did. Renault sales took off, in some areas rivaling the Volkswagen which was then on its way to becoming the undisputed small car sales leader.

Volkswagen was seeking a little more glamour, and in 1956 added the Karmann-Ghia to its lineup. It came as a stylish coupe and convertible designed by Italy’s Turin-based Ghia studio, and produced by German coachbuilder Karmann, builder of Volkswagen cabriolets. The Karmann-Ghia used standard Volkswagen Beetle running gear, thus combining beautiful Italian styling with proven VW sturdiness and economy.

Not wanting to leave the small, specialty market all to Volkswagen, Renault introduced the Caravelle, called the Floride in Europe, at the 1958 Paris auto show. It followed the VW recipe by being a sportier version of the Dauphine, and arrived in North America late in 1959.

The Caravelle differed from the Karmann-Ghia in one aspect however, in that its 850-cc (51.5 cu in.), overhead valve, inline four-cylinder Dauphine engine was tuned to produce 40 horsepower,
compared with the Karmann-Ghia’s 36.

The result was, according to Road & Track (8/59), better acceleration: zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 22.4 seconds for the Caravelle vs. 28.8 for the Karmann-Ghia. Top speed was about the same at 122 km/h (75 mph). At 760 kg the Caravelle was 38.5 kg (85 lb) lighter than the K-G.

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