Renault Le Car Lives on…in Iran
By Andy Bannister
One of the more memorable attempts to interest the great American public in French cars was the persistent but doomed marketing of a tiny hatchback called the Renault Le Car, which now seems just a quirky footnote in motoring history.
Amazingly, though, the model – first launched in Europe in 1972 and usually known as the Renault 5 – lives on in the unlikely setting of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
With its radically simple, forward-looking styling and full length sloping rear door, the little French car was actually one of the great pioneering European hatchbacks, selling in huge numbers in France and across Europe over a long career lasting until 1984. Economy was its raison d’être, and its base engine was just 845cc.
Best suited for zipping around the back streets of Paris, the smallest Renault of its day was a bizarre choice of model to export to the USA, where it arrived in 1976. With federal bumpers and inset round headlights, which ruined the styling, it was much misunderstood and failed to tempt many buyers away from their Honda Civics.
Worse still, in a misguided attempt to capitalise on the model’s French origins, the Renault 5 title in the US was soon changed to Renault Le Car, emblazoned on the sides in large letters, to the bewilderment of French speakers (car actually means coach in French). In later years, these baby Renaults were sold through AMC showrooms, and boasted a five-door model with a 1.4-litre engine.
The model died in 1984, although a much enlarged second-generation Renault 5 was available in Europe until 1996, by which time it had been eclipsed by the more modern Clio.
Somewhere along the road, however, the original 5 went into production in Iran under the auspices of a company called Pars Khodro, which still makes it.
Iran’s market has traditionally being closed to imports, meaning such oddities are more common than you might think: until recently the Paykan, a variant of the 1960s Hillman Hunter, was the country’s best-selling car.
The Renault 5 was originally sold in Iran under the name Sepand in a form little-changed from the French original. More recently the model has been renamed simply the PK and limited exports have taken place to neighbouring countries such as Syria.
Pars Khodro itself is now a subsidiary of another Iranian manufacturer, SAIPA, which successfully manufactures various versions of the Kia Pride (better known to Americans as the original Ford Festiva). Somewhere down the line the PK apparently acquired the Kia Pride’s mechanicals and floorpan – which has necessitated a wider track, leading to the latest model having slightly odd proportions – together with other modern features such as air conditioning.
Around 2006 a supposedly new version of the PK was launched but, with the exception of new wrap-round rear light clusters it looks pretty similar to the five-door version of the French original.
Pars Khodro also assembles more modern Renault models, notably the Megane and the increasingly-ubiquitous Dacia Logan. It seems possible the Logan may eventually supercede the PK as the choice of economy-minded Iranians.
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