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.
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 still has its headquarters.
World War I was a watershed for Renault and his company. Already rich and successful, he became an industrial tycoon.
Employment at Societe des Automobiles Renault had grown from 4,400 people in 1914 to 22,000 in 1918.
After the war, competition intensified. Renault became a limited corporation; it diversified production and established a credit branch. But the 1920s were also a battlefield for Renault and another French industry tycoon, Andre Citroen.
Both men admired Henry Ford, but Citroen was the first to implement an assembly line. Citroen was the volume leader in 1919.
By 1929, Citroen made twice as many cars as Renault and was the technical leader, with such cars as the famous 1934 Traction, which used front-wheel drive and a racing car 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 was lonesome, suspicious and ill. France surrendered to Germany in 1940, and Renault agreed to work for the German army.
He was arrested on Sept. 23, 1944, after the Germans departed Paris, and died a month later at the prison in Fresnes.