The Renault 5 Deserves More Accolades For This Small But Very Influential Design Detail

When was the last time you thought about the Renault 5, or as we in America called them, the “Le Car,” which was AMC French for “the Renault?” It’s probably been too long, and that makes me cross, very cross indeed. I want to make us all consider the Renault 5 right now to appreciate a little design detail that has become so incredibly common on modern cars that I bet you don’t even see it. Lemme show you what I mean.

I think Michel Boué’s design for the 5 was remarkable in many ways, but for the moment I just want to focus on one detail: the 5 was one of the earliest cars to use moulded plastic bumpers (Pontiac’s Endura bumpers were earlier) and while that’s important, it’s not the materials of these bumpers that make them significant.

What’s significant is that the bumpers were designed in such a way that they formed the front lower part of the front wheelarches and the trailing edge of the rear wheelarches. Here, look:

Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

See how the bumpers form the lower part of the wheelarches and bodywork? That’s not how cars were usually built back around 1972. Take a look at a similar competing car of roughly the same era, this Volkswagen Polo:

Photo: Volkswagen

All-metal wheelarches in the usual bodywork, tacked-on bumpers. This was the norm then, and well into the 1980s.

By the 1990s, though, things were changing. And by “changing,” I mean nearly every car was becoming more like the Renault 5 in this one specific way:

Photo: Honda

This Honda, of course, is just one example, but by the 1990s pretty much every car was using this method of construction: the lower parts of the front and rear wheelarches are formed by the moulded plastic (and, by the 1990s, usually body-coloured) bumper.

Photo: BMW

It’s not like this innovation was just limited to small economy cars — today, it’s on pretty much everything, like this BMW here.

It’s pretty much standard practice now, and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, the humble Renault 5 was the first car produced in real quantities to come up with this extremely clever idea.

I think, for that, we should all take a moment and donate some props to the little 5, the car that changed automotive design in a huge and yet quiet way.