Whatever happened to the Renault 12

I’d clean forgotten about the Renault 12 until approximately 8.57pm on Saturday 10th April 2010. A Twitter-based discussion over the Triumph Dolomite veered off in the direction of old Renaults. Then, a small debate over the existence of the Renault 13 led me into the virtual path of the Renault 12, a car that has long since left the filing cabinet in my head. But now it is back.

Renault 12 TL
The photographer bemoaned another miserable day

It is fair to say, that I was never a big fan of the Renault 12 when I was growing up. It looked like a miserable car and everyone I ever saw driving one, looked equally as miserable. So I came to the conclusion that either the Renault 12  was so bad, it made you feel miserable or it was only appealing to miserable people. Either way, I saw it as a miserable car and I’m actually feeling rather depressed writing this paragraph, so I’ll move on.

Over the course of 11 miserable years between 1969 and 1980, some 2.5 miserable, I mean million, Renault 12s were built. That’s like the entire population of Toronto, all driving Renault 12s. What’s amazing is that on the official Toronto website, they compare their city’s population to the number of Renault 12s sold globally. Allegedly.

But what of the Renault. It was always envisaged that the 12 would be what is often referred to as a ‘world car’. The new Fiesta is a prime example in 2010, but as the swinging 60s made way for the 70s, this was a true ‘world car’. Away from the French homeland, the 12 was manufactured in far-off climbs, such as Brazil, Australia and Argentina. It was also built and badged as a Dacia in Romania, with the Denem being sold as recently as 2004. Indeed, it was a Dacia Denem that allegedly found itself lodged in the front of James May’s Lamborghini on the Top Gear trip to Romania. That James – he’s always had a thing for Dacias.

But back to the 12. It is hard to believe now, but the family Renault was generally lusted over by businessmen in the 1970s. As Britain fell in love with the motorway, so the sales-rep fell head over heels for the 12, attracted by the comfy seats, soft suspension, reliability and high spec. A little French flair in comparison to the Escort or Cortina. Yep, the Renault 12 was everywhere in the 1970s, although by the 1980s it was beginning to find itself lodged firmly within the ‘Bangers Under £500’ section of the local rags. The rot had set in. Quite literally.

Today, Renault is synonymous with making cars for the petrolhead, with the Renaultsport Clio, Megane and Twingo lighting up trackdays and B-roads. But all of these need to bow down and worship at the feet of one of the coolest fast Renaults of all time. The Renault 12 Gordini.

Renault 12 Gordini
Reasons to be cheerful…

Now this is more like it! Introduced in 1970, the 125 bhp Gordini had twin Webers, disc brakes all round, uprated suspension and a choice of pastel colours. Each had double white stripes, but it is the French Racing Blue version which does it for me. I’m suddenly not feeling so miserable anymore. But there’s nothing like a piece of bad news to bring you crashing back down to earth with a bump. The Gordini was never sold in the UK and there are no right hand drive versions ever built. What were they thinking? It would have undoubtedly given the Capri and RS Escorts a run for their money and would have certainly cheered up my walk to school. Sorry Renault, I can’t forgive you for not importing this. Miserable company. I mean come on, look at it…

Racing Renault 12 Gordini
Reasons to be cheerful, part 2

The Gordini wasn’t the only ‘hot’ version of the 12. In South America, the locals were treated to the Alpine, a rally-inspired edition that included a fibreglass bonnet, race-spec suspension and a 1.4 litre engine generating some 108 bhp. Despite being very well received by the motoring press, only 493 were sold. Cost was one issue, with the basic price some 40% more than the TL version. I’m not so sure that cost was the only issue. For me, it lacks the style and flair of the Gordini, looking, as it does, like Mad Max had spent too much time in Halfords. However, an urban myth does suggest that if you squint hard enough at the picture, it does magically transform into a Lotus Esprit JPS edition. Go on, squint. Really hard. Move away from the screen if it helps. Bit further. Little more. Keep going. Getting it yet? Maybe try again later.

Renault 12 Alpine
1979 Lotus Esprit JPS

Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any Renault 12s for sale in Britain today. Rust has once again proved too much for the car. For a car that safely took our fathers between meetings and between trouser presses, this is a shame. It may have made me miserable as a boy. But I would let out a small cheer if I saw one tomorrow. I’d probably run over and hug the driver if it was a Gordini. Misery loves company after all.

One final thing. There is no Renault 13. Miserable lot.

Grateful thanks to Martin Bergner (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Martin.bergner) and Wurger90(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Wurger_190)for images

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Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.


  1. April 14, 2010

    The only Renault I ever cared for was the 5 Turbo 2… The 6R4 of it’s day, I’ve only ever seen three in the flesh… One in a museum, one in a showroom near Westbourne for most of my childhood, and one at the RenaultWorld Motorsport day at Silverstone in 2008… Where the ‘pilot’ was achieving the most insane drift angles ever!

    • April 14, 2010

      Ah, the Renault 5 Turbo. I know of countless stories of hapless drivers caught out by the turbo lag, normally mid corner or whilst overtaking. Ditch or hedge were the usual final resting place!

  2. September 24, 2011
    David Milloy

    Just checked ‘how many left’ – there are a dozen R12 Gordinis currently licensed in the UK. Even better, this number seems to be holding steady.

    Sadly, the R17 Gordini, another very worthy car, is in danger of extinction, with only two examples presently licensed and another one SORN’d.

    Random thought: didn’t the R17 – or at least some later versions of it – have Renault’s rather lovely and very supportive ‘Petale’ seats?

    • September 25, 2011

      I really must get a Renault 12 Gordini in my life…

      As for the ‘Petale’ seats – I’m going to have to Google that to find the answer. I’m not sure…

      What did we do before Google?! Surely we need to thank the search engine for keeping some old cars alive?

  3. October 4, 2011
    David Milloy

    Want to see some evocative period footage of R8 and R12 Gordinis? If so, point your browser here:

    The films can also be viewed on Renault TV on freesat and Sky.

    • October 4, 2011

      Gordini porn! Thanks for posting the link.

  4. August 10, 2014

    You should go to Turkey. There’s thousands of them still there!

    • August 12, 2014
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Right, that’s next year’s holiday sorted! 😉

  5. January 19, 2015
    Kurt Murray

    I once had a Renault 12. Actually two of them, a manual and an automatic. I remember it as a great little car. The handling was crisp, steering was precise. I am sorry I sold it. The manual transmission R12, in blue, was my favorite of the two. It wasn’t super fast, but it had style.

  6. March 29, 2015

    Sorry to be a pedant, but Right Hand Drive R12 Gordinis were made, here in Australia. All still survive (all 6 that is). They were converted by Renault Australia at their factory in Melbourne and used as competition vehicles in State and Australian Rally Championships. One even went to Africa for the Safari (but crashed). They are prized, restored and expensive now. The rest of us build replicas in R12 donor shells and raid the parts bins.
    cheers Keith

  7. January 29, 2016

    Renault 12’s were very popular in Spain and lasted forever. I remember getting a lift in one; around town it is possibly the most comfortable car ever with a lovely absorbent ride and soft yet supportive seats.

  8. September 22, 2017
    Mal content

    Wikipedia, ancient Jeremy Clarkson ‘jokes’, and time-honoured clichés. “never the twain shall meet”. Lovely stuff!


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