France is famous for its food and drink: baked goods, love of cheese, wine and the invention of champagne. It’s capital, Paris, is the city of love and romance, home to some of the world’s greatest landmarks and one of the world capital’s for fashion.
The French people also boast… a long history of art, revolution and Empire. Under a 5ft something Corsican bloke called Napoleon, the French Empire colonised much of Africa and Southeast Asia.
Although they never quite adopted the talent for mechanical engineering that they had for baking, conquering and palace building (google “Versailles”), French production cars have historically been popular with drivers looking for thrills on a budget. Their love affair with motorsport, however, is legendary and can rival any other nation.
Despite its nation’s chequered history of wars, revolutions and vineyards; the French car market has been consistently developing and in 2018, announced more than a combined €100billion in revenue.
So, grab your baguettes firmly and hold onto your choux buns, as we dive into our Top 5 French Car Brands:
Founded 120 years ago by the Renault Frères Trois (“Three Renault Brothers”) of Fernand, Marcel and Louis Renault. Louis, a keen engineer and industrialist, enlisted the help of his older brothers for their keen business skills and formed the Renault Frères Company.
A year later, Louis and Marcel started to race their own cars - beginning Renault’s lifelong association with motorsports.
Renault has engineered many motoring triumphs - Le Mans 24 Hours winners, Formula 1 World Champions, Rally successes and the Renault FT, the world’s first effective tank.
Renault has been known in the modern era to produce family-orientated vehicles, from small hatchbacks to bus-like MPVs. Along with its Renault Sport division, the RS renditions have firmly forced themselves into the exclusive “hot hatchback” stable.
Since forming a strategic partnership with Nissan, and subsequently Mitsubishi, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance has become the world’s biggest seller of light vehicles; with the Renault brand alone selling over 2.5 million units globally, 43% of these being sold in Europe.
Peugeot. The village elder. The longest-standing of all the car manufacturing companies in existence. During the aforementioned reign of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of France… Peugeot was there. During the events of the French Revolution depicted in the longest-running West End Musical in history, Les Misérables… Peugeot was there.
The Peugeot family business was founded over 200 years ago by Jean-Pierre and Jean-Frédéric Peugeot. Originally opened as a manufacturer of coffee grinders and later bicycles. Many years later, Armand Peugeot decided to take the company into the direction of producing motor vehicles.
Decades - a century and a bit, even - later and Peugeot are now one of the largest automotive companies in the world. The flagship brand for the PSA Groupe; Peugeot can boast accolades in almost all forms of motor racing, with successful teams in Le Mans, Rally and previously as an engine supplier in Formula 1.
Peugeot has recently undergone a radical transformation in terms of their lineup and direction, which we have explored recently (Peugeot: The Revival).
DS was once a model range in the Citroën family but has recently been allowed to stretch its wings as its own brand. However, given their history together and, the very close ties they have with technology, design and production, we’re keeping them bundled them together for the purposes of this list.
Citroën was formed by André-Gustave Citroën in 1919. A 22-year-old Monsieur Citroën was on a trip to Poland, where he saw an innovative design for a chevron-shaped gear used in milling. He later bought the patent for the design’s use in steel and this revolutionised his production capabilities, being able to make a large number of small and cheap cars quickly. The chevron design of the helical gears later lent itself to the company’s logo, still in use today.
Citroën understood the power of good marketing and employed the actual Eiffel Tower to be the world’s largest advertising sign, displaying the name of the company between 1925 - 1934.
Citroën has developed many iconic vehicles over the years, including the cult-classic 2CV; a car which has the most perplexing faults-to-admirers ratio of any car in history. It is truly rubbish, yet it was monumentally popular and still continues to maintain a legion of loyal fans and even has its own racing series (search for “2CV Cross”).
Another iconic model was the Citroën DS, the first production car to use modern disc brakes, as well as other technological and engineering advances.
After many years, and FIA Motorsport Championships, Citroën has maintained its status as a brand that continues to progress and innovates. DS, now the premium brand of Citroën and the larger PSA Groupe, is also adding value - the combined efforts of both brands selling almost 1.1 million units across the globe.
The youngest brand in our lineup and a relative newcomer to the automotive world. Jean Rédélé was the youngest Renault dealer in France - based in the northern French town of Dieppe. In 1950, he started racing in Renault 4CVs, one of the few cars still produced following World War II.
Following inconsistent success in rallying, Rédélé and his 4CV began racing in the French Alps. Here, he achieved his greatest victories, beginning in 1954. A year later, he founded his own car manufacturer and named it Alpine - as a memento of where he experienced his first victory.
The close relationship with Renault, borne from Rédélé’s usage of the 4CV in his race victories and through his dealership, continued up until 1973 when Renault bought the company and turned it into a wholly owned subsidiary.
Alpine continued their standard operating procedures and forged their models on the underpinnings of Renault cars at their factory in Dieppe - the most popular of which was the A110 Berlinetta, one of the greatest rally cars of all time and winner of the inaugural World Rally Championship.
Production of Alpines ceased in 1995, before being relaunched in late 2017. Currently selling only one model - the sixth road-going model in the brand’s history (what have these people been doing?) - sales and critical reception of the new A110 are positive and growing.
Selling just 7 cars in the fourth quarter of 2017; 2018 saw over 2,000 models being shipped worldwide. 2019 is increasing the momentum with almost 1,300 A110s sold in the first 3 months, just in Europe! Hopefully, they’ll think about adding another car to their lineup.
Yes, it’s French. I know… Veyron’s and C4 Picasso’s fly the same flag. It’s also a very old company - dating back to 1909. Before Maserati, before Ferrari, before Porsche and way before Lamborghini, McLaren, Pagani and Koenigsegg. Bugatti was founded in the Alsace region of France by namesake Ettore Bugatti, an Italian-born French automobile designer and manufacturer.
Automobiles E. Bugatti started very successfully in motor racing. Along with Ettore’s eldest son, Jean, as a designer and test driver, Bugatti gained a strong reputation in a variety of racing series - primarily Grand Prix racing (the precursor to Formula One); the sensationally successful Bugatti Type 35 won the first ever Monaco Grand Prix.
Following the death of Jean at age 30, whilst testing a Type 57C Tank-bodied racer, Bugatti as a business never seemed to recover and was sold in 1963, becoming defunct. However, decades later, the brand was purchased by Volkswagen and was revitalised with the motoring world’s “Concorde moment”: the Bugatti Veyron.
Named after the original Bugatti’s long-standing test driver, Pierre Veyron, it was the first production car to have more than 1,000 bhp and had a top speed of 253 mph (the Super Sport version had 1,200 PS and a top speed of 268 mph; holding the “fastest production car in the world” crown for 7 years).
Despite its legendary status, Bugatti made a huge loss on each model sold. It is stated that Bugatti sold them for just £1million, yet it cost £5million to produce each car.
The Veyron was officially discontinued in 2014, Bugatti replacing it with the Chiron - named after the Type 35 racing legend, Louis Chiron - which can boast much better performance stats and aesthetics than it’s ground-breaking predecessor. The Chiron’s engine produces 1,500 PS and the car limited to 261 mph. Purely, because current tyre technology cannot cope with the Chiron’s delimited capabilities. The Chiron is the first model from Bugatti’s revival expected to make a profit.
Let us know if you agree with our choices or if you think we missed anyone out. Vive La France.