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  • The lonely man at the top of France's industrial world

    Automotive Pioneer
    Feb. 12, 1877-Oct. 24, 1944

    Stephane Farhi
    Automotive News Europe

    Louis Renault entered automotive history late in 1898 with a technical breakthrough, the so-called direct-drive gearbox, and a two-seat car, the Voiturette. He was 21 years old.

    He was the last of five children in a wealthy family of Paris merchants. When he decided to start building cars, his older brothers Fernand and Marcel joined him with their capital and experience. In 1899 Renault Freres was launched on the outskirts of Paris in Boulogne-Billancourt, where Renault continues to have its headquarters.

    Racing their cars brought great success to Louis and Marcel. Their 1900 victory in the Paris-Bordeaux race ended up in 350 new orders. However, in 1903 Marcel was one of 10 drivers to die in a miserable Paris-Madrid race. Six years later Fernand also died, leaving Louis Renault to carry on alone. Loneliness marked his last years and his death.

    World War One was a watershed for him and his company. Already rich and successful, he became an industrial tycoon. Employment at Sociéte des Automobiles Renault had grown from 4,400 people in 1914 to 22,000 in 1918. Billancourt was a giant workshop for the French armies: shells, trucks, engines, aircraft, ambulances.

    After the war, competition intensified. Renault became a limited corporation, diversified production, and established a credit branch. But the 1920s were also a battlefield between Renault and another French industry tycoon, Andre Citroen.

    Both men admired Henry Ford, but Citroen was the first to implement an assembly line, and he was the volume leader in 1919. By 1929, Citroen made twice as many cars as Renault (103,000 against 54,000) and was the technical leader, with cars like the famous 1934 Traction, which used front-wheel drive and a monocoque body.

    But Renault won on financial grounds. Citroen spent himself into failure in 1934 and died in 1935, leaving Louis Renault on top of the French industrial world.

    It was a lonely summit. Renault was unable to share his absolute power. After difficult strikes in 1936 and a collapse in French car production, he became lonesome, suspicious, and ill. France surrendered to Germany in 1940, and he agreed to work for the German army. He was arrested on September 23, 1944, after the Germans left Paris, and he died a month later in strange conditions at the prison in Fresnes.