December 13, 2008

Great Automotive Failures*: AMC/Renaults

*Part 1 in a series.

American Motors Corporation didn’t have a whole lot going for it by the time the 1980s rolled around. Their Jeep division was more or less keeping the operation going and their somewhat less than stellar cars such as the Concord, Spirit, and Eagle were plagued by typical, gaudy, late 70s styling courtesy or designer Richard Teague, and aging drive train component designs – some of which dated to the 1960s. Fortunately for AMC, they were rather resourceful and had friends in a lot of places - most significantly with Renault of France. Renault had been selling AMC products abroad for decades such as the Torino in Argentina.

Renault had more or less “bailed-out” AMC from near imminent demise by taking controlling interest in1982. Renault utilized the AMC dealer network for their own cars and sold the Fuego and 5 (“LeCar”) along side the American products. Renault management started working closely with AMC and decided to sell the Renault 9 (and later 11) in the US market as the AMC/Renault Alliance and Encore, respectively. Interestingly AMC/Renault had chosen to produce the car in the States rather than simply have it imported from France. Manufacturing took place in AMC’s Kenosha, Wisconsin plant (which was inherited from Kaiser) and the interior was re-worked by their master of tackiness, Teague, to cater more to American tastes.

It seemed like a relatively good idea. The Renault 9 was voted European Car of the Year and became Renault’s best selling car. AMC was also in need of more economical cars in their model line up. The Renaults, with their 1.4 or 1.7 liter engines, were indeed economical, achieving over 50 miles per gallon depending on transmission, and they seemed to be a superior design to other American made compact cars of the time such as the Ford Escort. 

Unfortunately, shortly after the Alliance and Encore came to the American market, it became evident that the build quality of the Wisconsin produced French cars were rather lacking. Reliability issues popped up frequently and the reputation of the Renaults began to decline fast. Attempts by AMC/Renault to boost sales with the Alliance convertible and hot-rodded GTA (with 2.0 L 95hp engine) versions didn’t help much either. Especially considering the rising popularity of increasingly more reliable Japanese imports from Honda and Toyota. The writing was on the wall. 

The attempts to sell other Renault products such as the 21 (called the Medallion, and later Eagle Medallion in the US) also failed due to the poor image of the French carmakers products. The AMC/Renault partnership was going to Hell in the proverbial hand-basket and Renault also found themselves in a bit of a financial crisis by 1987 that was certainly not helped by their American counterpart. Renault dumped AMC to Chrysler, who was more than happy to get the Jeep division. The Alliance and Encore ceased their US production at that time and the Medallion would putter on for another two years as an Eagle until Chrysler killed it off too (along with the Eagle Premier, which was based upon the Renault 25 but never marketed as a Renault in the US.) The last vestige of the AMC/Renault partnership was the Jeep XJ Cherokee which had been designed with the help of Renault engineers in the early 1980s. May they all rest in peace (or pieces).


Ronan said...

I think the built quality issue has to do with where they were built. I can say from experience that they're good cars in France, you still see 11s and 9s on the road. Maybe less 21s and 25s. And the 5 has a cult following.

Interesting too is that Renault was one of the pioneers of a now-common trend for foreign manufacturers to build their cars stateside. Toyota did it in the 80s too, as did VW.

I. R. Rothwell said...

I'm inclined to agree that a lot of it has to do with being built in the US, but also, I think that the French probably tend to drive them a little differently than Americans would - especially considering how inexpensive they were when sold here. I mean it's sort of how in Europe, an 2.0 VW Golf would be looked upon about the same way as a fair sized Oldsmobile or Mercury or something of the sort here.

That reminds me, why the hell doesnt VW import the Polo?