Know Your Dauphine – Your Life May Depend On It

[Ed. Note: This Submission Thursday post is brought to you by loyal hoon Alff. Thanks for this excellent article.]

1961 Renault Dauphine Owners Manual CoverMy friend Harry owns 17 cars.  Harry inherited many of these from his father, who kept most of his daily drivers.  Taken individually, none is remarkable unless you go in for the likes of Mavericks, Citations and Plymouth Horizon TC3s (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  It is a great collection, however, in that every decade from the 1930s on is represented.

As if to show that he had not completely lost perspective, Harry’s dad did unburden himself of what he considered to be the worst car he ever bought, a 1961 Renault Dauphine.
1961 Renault Dauphine French American PrincessFor the few of you without a passing knowledge of this fine car, it is much maligned.   The listeners of Car Talk voted it the 9th Worst Car of the Millennium, a car which was “truly unencumbered by the engineering process” and which compelled one voter to write, “From a historical perspective, it’s a shame that the French spent their Marshall Plan dollars on automaking.”
Fortunately for us, Pops held on to the owner’s manual, which Harry recently discovered while sorting through old issues of National Geographic.  This gives us the opportunity to learn firsthand what Renault had to say to its adventurous American customers, without the actual pain of ownership.
The inside front cover provides us non-Canadians with a helpful translation of Dauphine as “Princess”.  In Franglish marketing prose that would make Don Draper weep, Dauphine buyers learned that like a real princess, she had the “petite simple beauty of a lady who doesn’t have to wear jewels to prove her beauty.”
Reviewing the specifications and maintenance schedule we discover that, also like a real princess, she was high-maintenance and ill-suited to the demands of the workaday world.
Consider these service intervals…

  • -Daily:        Check Oil (hint: look under the car)
  • Every 3000 miles:      Gap points, lube distributor, clean spark plugs, tighten manifold and carb mounts
  • Every 6000 miles:      Adjust valves, tighten fan belt
  • Every 10K miles:    Replace spark plugs

In addition, owners were advised to return to the dealer for service “inspections” after the initial 600 and 1000 miles.  The 600 mile servicing included removing the governor (new owners were not to drive faster than 45 mph) and changing engine oil and transmission fluid. Have a look at these specs:

1961 Renault Dauphine Owner's Manual - Specs

Are there ever any winners in the battle between 1397 lbs and 32 bhp?

La Dauphine was not without her innovations.  Take the optional Ferlec automatic clutch, for example:
A few years later, the Germans would encroach on French territory with VW’s introduction of the similar AutoStick in 1968.

A few years later, the Germans would encroach on French territory with VW’s introduction of the similar AutoStick in 1968.

1961 Renault Dauphine Owner's Manual - Prison DoorThe Renault may have also been the first car to introduce rear seat child safety locks.  Perhaps their engineers anticipated how badly passengers would want to escape.
Those French are a horny bunch, no?

Those French are a horny bunch, no?

1961 Renault Dauphine Owner's Manual - Shift PatternPage 31 reads, “WARNING: Your children will have no idea what a conventional 3-speed shift pattern looks like.”
Another section of the crumbling manual describes in exquisite detail how to perform importance maintenance procedures such as adjusting the valves and carburetor.  I wish current automakers would appreciate the apparently quaint notion that some owners would find such information useful.
I don’t know how Harry’s father’s relationship with La Dauphine ended but I know the break came quickly.  Dad was a lawyer and small town judge who kept meticulous records for all of his vehicles.  The notations for this one end with the 1000 mile service, suggesting that he said “au revior” in well less than a year.
[thanks again Alff!]

By |2009-12-17T06:30:38+00:00December 17th, 2009|Submission Thursday|0 Comments

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Jeff Glucker is the co-founder and Executive Editor of He’s often seen getting passed as he hustles either a dark blue 1974 Mercedes-Benz 280 or 1991 Mitsubishi Montero up the 405 Freeway. IG: @RedusernabJeff
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