Renault 9 1.4/ Renault 11 TXE

When asked to name which period of the 20th century contributed most to the world of style, certain decades spring quicker to the mind than others for their suavity, taste or flair. But turn the question around and ponder which of the decades inflicted the worst eyesores onto the aesthetic world, and the finger of accusation is almost always aimed at the Eighties for its atrocious crimes in the name of fashion.

In 1980, padded shoulders and power suits had replaced all the frill and frippery of the Seventies, and a clean minimalism was taking over. Tastefully grey offices, solid black furniture; the Eighties was a concerted international effort to suck every molecule of happiness out of the world in one massive slurp. Electronic music was doing its level best to kill off any pleasure obtained through music, and if it weren't for the balls-out rocking of Heavy Metal and the carnal acts that went with it, we'd have all died out years ago under a wave of celibate epicenism. Combine that with the global fear of the newly-identified HIV, and it's a wonder anyone in the Eighties wanted to have any physical contact at all.

Unfortunately for us, at the peak of this joylessness Renault managed to squeeze out two new babies onto the market; the twin edition 9 and 11, designed to tap into the small saloon market that was growing at the time, electing to win the title of Dullest Car Possible. They succeeded.

These days, making a dull car is easy; anyone with a wind tunnel and a laptop can do it, which is why everyone is. But at the end of the Seventies the Art of Bland was in its infancy; designers were still getting their hands dirty with ink sketches and clay mock-ups, and even with the largest of committee-driven design processes there was still a chance that a modicum of charisma could creep in and imbue the product with some sort of personality. To test whether it was possible to destroy any last vestige of emotion the designer ever had, Renault spent 14.5 million hours on discovering the most comprehensive method of fun-removal possible, and pitted their rigorous joykill system against the best of the best in modern design, one Robert Opron.

Opron had been the creative force behind some of the most majestic French vehicles in existence, most importantly the Citroen SM and the Citroen CX, before the level of artistry forced the parent company to collapse in on itself in 1976. Following that implosion, Opron was brought in to lead Renault's Project L42, the special mission of which was to design a four-metre-long saloon that would be Renault's first attempt at a World Car (why, I have no idea; the VW Jetta was already 4.2 metres long, and the 9 and 11 were targetting the same market sector). With the benefit of hindsight, this seems a fairly sensible thing to do; all the other manufacturers were doing just that, and the Japanese were having a fair success getting their units into the lucrative American market. But Renault had just had their fingers burnt with the really rather lovely Renault 14 (which the public hated), and needed a rigorously-planned solution to their problems. None of the slapdash paint-on-canvas-after-breakfast-in-bed approach to designing a car; they would meticulously and thorough poll the car-buying public on every possible aspect of their dream saloon, and then do the most crushing thing possible; feed the results into a computer.

The Renault 9 (the saloon) was the first car from the diamond-nosed manufacturer to feature CAD heavily in the design process. The result was the perfect balance in mundanity; lots of straight lines and flat planes that it was essentially featureless; there was absolutely nothing about the Renault 9 that could cause offence to anyone in any way at all. It was perfectly proportioned; nose just long enough, windscreen angled just so, boot sticking out just so far past the wheel arch, but not in any shapely or flirtatious way. The New Romantic movement that was sweeping Europe at the time had washed any element of gender from the Eighties, and the Renault 9 was caught up in this whinging plod of androgyny, completely de-sexing its design and leaving the 9 sterile. It might as well have been sold inside a giant condom.

It must have been painful for a man such as Opron to see his creative flair emasculated in this way; to have his hands bound so tightly in the name of consumer satisfaction, and any penchant for curves and waves utterly eradicated by a bleeping blooping computer. However, the endeavour paid of, and those seven thousand man-years committed to the project resulted in the Renault 9 winning the 1982 Car Of The Year award, sweeping the floor with its rivals, which included among others the Volkswagen Passat and the Opel Ascona.

The Frenchman's lust for curves was finally unleashed with the 11, the hatchback version of the sedan 9. This model was permitted a rounded glass bubble over the tailgate that turned the sober librarian image of the 9 into a slighter perter office secretary, but one so flat-chested and thin-lipped your wife wouldn't be the least bit jealous. Paired together, the 9 and 11 utterly dominated the blandwagon market, disappearing into traffic jams and cluttering up car parks all over the globe before disappearing in a whimper in 1989.

Despite the current penchant for Eighties retro, it's doubtful whether art students in the future will laud the 9 and 11 as masterpieces of the Golden Age of Plastics; these cars are so instantly forgettable that I'd be amazed if anyone remembers them now, or even recognises the few that remain. Even Renault's pathetic attempt to add a Gallic flair to them (with the wholly inappropriate "Broadway" trim level for this particular 9, and the long-distance 1.7litre TXE version of the 11) couldn't add enough sparkle to add them to the cultural consciousness, and a 1985 facelift known as Phase 2 did nothing to imbue them with any charm borrowed from the revamped Renault 5. In this sense, as Dullest Car Possible, these two Renaults are victims of their own success, and, like ra-ra skirts and Michael Jackson's white glove, will hopefully never make a comeback.


Anonymous said...

Ok the 9 and 11 wernt the most charismatic cars but the went very well and handled really well. Were the chasis basis for the super5 the r21 r19 laguna and megane. Those little cars sold about 6.6 million units sowhile not the most sexy cars the 9 and 11 were underrated when in production and will hopefully be remembered

Anonymous said...

If there's a connection to the numbers and the kings, it would be like so:

renault (lodewijk) 5: the lazy
renault 9: the saint

Wouldn't be the owrst descriptrion of the 900 cc or when you really went mad 1108 cc 5; your descriptions fit well enough, so I won't add arguments. In wich case the absence of success of the 14 is explained ...

Anonymous said...

Now I just described the 9 .. wikipedia

Lodewijk XI werd getypeerd als le plus terrible roi qui fut jamais en France .. voila.

ANd they did sell it in America (as AMC). Wahnsinn!
Plus Bernard Hinault as your face, in your face, less sociable than Putin and Lorne Green together ..

Boo Long said...

Great cars in every way, just a bit dull styling.
Did you realise the brand-new floorpan and suspension of the 9 was the basis of all small Renaults for the next 20 years? R11, Supercinq, 19, Clio, Megane, Kangoo ... All were basicaly the R9 floorpan and suspension clothed in various shapes of body and with more modern engines as time went on.
That is not what happens to bad car designs!