Rear-engined R8 first Wheels Car of the Year
The Renault R8 was Wheels Magazine’s very first Car of the Year back in 1963.
Imagine if Holden had launched the EJ model in 1962 with four-wheel disc brakes.
Think how motoring writers and the public would have been amazed by this world class investment in driver and passenger safety.
Dream on . . . Holden would never have done that.
But four-wheel disc brakes were standard on the Renault’s economy car the R8 in 1962.
No other car maker in the world offered four-wheel discs on a mass production, affordably priced car.
That makes the Renault R8 one of the most significant cars from that era.
However, in 1965, when Renault’s Spanish affiliate FASA-Renault introduced its own version of the car, you guessed — it came with drum brakes.
And here’s another twist to the tale. The R8 sedan debuted with a water-cooled 1100cc rear engine, despite the fact Renault had released the front-drive R4 hatchback a year earlier.
Basically, the R8 was a new body on the popular “Dauphine” frame, which in turn was based on the 4CV.
Why continue with the rear-engine configuration?
Well, it seems that Renault was hoping rear-engine cars would continue to be popular in Europe and the USA.
Indeed, VW was selling boatloads of Beetles at home and in America. And the Chevrolet Corvair was doing well too — or so GM would tell you.
So, why not continue with the engine in the rear? It made sense.
If it did not work out there was always the front-drive R4 to fall back on.
A two-way bet. That’s what I call smart.
While the Dauphine was soft and rounded, R8 was angular and upright and this gave it a little more interior space.
Having four-wheel disc brakes in such a small economy car was BIG news at the time.
Remember, this was when Holden, Valiant or Falcon did not even have front-wheel discs as an option — just useless drums.
R8s were assembled in Melbourne and it had the honour of becoming Wheels’ first car of the year in 1963.
Then, in 1964, came the most legendary R8 of all — the race-bred Gordini.
With a 1100cc engine, the Gordini was only available in blue, with two white ‘GT’ stripes over the bonnet, roof and boot.
And a race/rally icon was born.
Later, the engine size was increased to 1300cc.
The R8 Gordini introduced a cross-flow hemi head, two twin-choke Solex carbs, four-branch exhaust manifold, servo brakes, twin rear dampers, 50mm lower suspension and larger 8-inch headlights.
In Australia, Bob Watson won the 1970 Rally Championship and was runner-up in 1971 in a Gordini.
R8s also competed in the 1965 International 6-Hour Touring Car Race, 1966 Touring Car Championship, 1979 Rallycross Championship and 1973 Hardie-Ferodo 1000.
R8 was built or assembled in France, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania, Venezuela, Mexico, Algeria, Morocco, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Its final year of French manufacture was 1971. Spanish production ended in 1976.
By then, over 1.3 million had been sold.
David Burrell is the editor of Retroautos.com.au
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