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Another visit to Oddball's
July 18, 2006, by Bill Cawthon
The automotive world is currently ablaze with the news of a possible three-way tie-up between General Motors, Nissan and Renault. Billionaire casino and entertainment investor Kirk Kerkorian, who owns about nine percent of GM, started the fire just before the July 4 holiday weekend with the news of a proposal that had been presented to Nissan management. By Friday, July 14, GM CEO Rick Wagoner had met with Carlos Ghosn, CEO of both Nissan and Renault, and agreed to a 90-day study of the proposal.
The proposal would create an alliance of the three automakers and is seen by those who favor it as a key strategy to heading off Toyota, which is currently on track to replace GM as the world's largest automaker. GM, Nissan and Renault currently account for about a quarter of the world's light vehicle market, more than twice the share claimed by Toyota. In addition, it would provide GM with a much-needed cash infusion of roughly $3 billion and would provide Renault and Nissan with a presence in new markets. Industry analysts also believe it would lead to further economies of scale in purchasing and production, though it's a bit hard to see anyone squeezing too much more out of GM's existing suppliers, which include bankrupt Delphi. Delphi is currently suing GM to regain favorable pricing considerations.
Of course, there may be some wisdom in the alliance. GM is pinning a lot of hopes on the new Silverado and GMC, contrary to every trend in the market, is rolling out a crossover that's about the same size as a Yukon. Even though $3.00 per gallon prices at the pump (in the U.S.) haven't made a major change in American driving or consumption habits, they have made a definite interest in their light vehicle choices. Of all the major light vehicle segments, pickups and large SUVs have taken the biggest hits this year. With widespread unrest in the Middle East and Africa, oil prices are hitting new records. This means prices at the pump will remain high and any new problems could drive prices far higher. This could translate into more idle capacity at GM, something that Nissan and Renault might be able to use.
However, the reality of the situation is that this is most likely a move by Kerkorian to oust Wagoner, GM's Chairman and CEO, who he believes is moving too slowly in improving the company's finances. Kerkorian would much rather see Carlos Ghosn, who engineered the turnaround at Nissan, at the helm of the partnership. Essentially it comes down to this: Kerkorian wants more money now, Wagoner wants to see an independent General Motors survive and remain a major force in the auto industry, and Ghosn would be very happy to head up the world's biggest auto company.
The latest twist in the tale came just this past weekend as rumors of Toyota's possible interest surfaced. Although company officials said the Japanese giant has no interest in a similar equity arrangement with GM, they did raise the possibility of other forms of cooperation. While Toyota has remained independent of mergers, they have had successful joint ventures with General Motors and might consider more such programs in the future.
Ah well, time to leave the real world and its uncertainties for a while and make another visit to Oddball's Autos. Since we've been discussing Renault, it's only fair to begin today's visit with one of their cars. Herpa makes a few Renaults, including the Alpine A110, the Twingo and the R4, but the problem is none of them were actually sold in the U.S. by Renault. There were some gray-market R4s that wandered in from Mexico, and an Alpine A110 or two has made its way into the States, so Oddball's does have one of each on the lot, but there is a much better candidate to be found in Herpa's Magic Collection.
In December 1964 the first Renault 16 was completed at the brand-new Sandouville plant near Le Havre, France. A little over a month later, on January 5, 1965, the car made its debut at a gala presentation on the Côte d'Azur. A revolutionary design for the time, it combined the sedan and station wagon and Renault marketed the car as a sedan-wagon. But Renault had actually created one of the world's first true production hatchbacks; a style that went on to become the most popular automotive configuration in the world.
Though it was classed as an executive car and praised for its spacious interior, the R16 was only about as long as a Chevy Vega. Equipped with the 1.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine, the new Renault had a top speed of just eighty-eight miles per hour, but it could cruise at seventy, something small European cars often had trouble doing. In 1968, a larger 1.6-liter engine gave the R16 a top speed of over one hundred miles per hour. The R16 used torsion bars to provide independent suspension at all four wheels and had front disc brakes. An interesting tidbit about these cars is that, unlike almost every other car in the world, the wheelbase of the R16 is almost three inches longer on the left side than it is on the right. This was due to the overlapping torsion arms in the rear suspension.
After going on sale in April 1965, the new Renault became quite a hit. It was named European Car of the Year in 1966, the first time that honor had been awarded to a Renault automobile. By the time production ended in January 1980 1,845,959 R16s had been built in factories around the world. Some were even built in Canada.
Unlike the R4, the R16 was regularly sold through Renault dealers in the United States from the 1968 to 1972 model years. The U.S. model had the larger 1.6-liter engine, but the new federal emissions requirements had choked the output down to about 70 horsepower meaning we lost the improved performance enjoyed by the Europeans.
Considering the Renault 16 came to the U.S. in the height of the era of the muscle car and had an engine about a third the displacement of the typical American V8, it was never a major sales success but it did have an impact on future American cars, including some that made their debuts while the R16 was still in production. The Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon can count the R16 as something of a godfather even though it's not in their direct lineage. The design of the European Chrysler Horizon, which was developed by Simca, was heavily influenced by the R16.
A few years after the introduction of the Renault 16, another French car to be found in Oddball's inventory took its first bows. Introduced in September 1968 at the Paris Auto Show, the novel Citroën Dyane 6 Méhari used Borg-Warner Cyclolac ABS plastic panels bolted to a tubular frame. Advertising for the car boasted that body panels were easy to replace and were available from any Citroën dealer.
Mechanically the Méhari, which got its name from a breed of dromedary, was based on the Dyane 6, one of the would-be successors to the legendary 2CV. This is very appropriate as the Méhari itself was a replacement for the 2CV Sahara 4X4. A total of 144,953 Méharis left Citroën assembly plants from 1968 to 1987.
One of the interesting things about the Méhari is the fact it was not only not designed by Citroën, it wasn't even initially supposed to be a Citroën. The Méhari was created by SEAB of Bezon, near Paris, and first offered to Renault. When they were turned down by La Régie, the company quickly built another prototype, using a Dyane platform, and presented it to Citroën. After striking an agreement with Citroën, SEAB undertook the initial production. Later, Méhari assembly was moved to the Panhard works in Ivry.
Equipped with a 602cc, two-cylinder engine, the Méhari made a nifty little beach buggy because it weighed only 1300 pounds. Its top speed was about sixty-eight miles per hour, more than enough for bouncing across sand dunes. The Méhari was less than eleven feet, seven inches long and just a shade over five feet wide. Classed as a truck, it was sold in the U.S. beginning with the 1969 model year and remained available to Americans until 1973 although official importation ended in 1970. As a truck, it avoided the new safety requirements being placed on passenger cars. In fact, it didn't even have seat belts and there was no rollover protection at all. The major concession to the U.S. market was a new grille with larger headlights to meet federal specifications. Considering its niche appeal, the Méhari was moderately successful in the U.S. Budget Rent-A-Car bought a small fleet for rental in Hawaii and actor Brian Keith drove one during an episode of The Brian Keith Show. Méharis also appeared in The Muppet Movie and The Omega Man.
Though it was marketed as a fun-in-the-sun vehicle, the Méhari wasn't really equipped for the role. The car was not waterproof and the frame needed periodic inspections for rust. In addition, the plastic body panels were not designed for long exposure to sunlight and were prone to cracking and deformation. The colors also fade quickly.
With all of these factors taken into consideration, it's probably no surprise there are probably less than two hundred surviving Méharis in the United States.
French modelmaker Norev has produced a new model of the Méhari. Norev is based in Vaulx-En-Velin and is best-known for its 1/43 scale diecast models. However, the company also markets a number of 1/87 models which are made in China, some of which are used as promotional models by French automakers.
The new Norev model represents a second-generation Méhari, produced from 1970 to 1977. The first-generation cars did not have doors and had minor differences in the placement and shape of the lights. The second-generation cars were the most successful of the Méharis, selling 87,774 copies in eight years. The third generation had a few more minor appearance changes and managed to rack up a still-respectable 42,505 sales in its last nine years on the market.
The Norev Méhari is actually a pretty nifty model and comes with a detachable plastic roof that even captures the folds of the real thing. There's a nicely detailed interior complete with the interesting Citroën shift lever. The only downside is that the model, like the real Méhari, may be a bit hard to find over here. There are a couple of sources for the larger diecast Norevs, but I haven't yet found one that offers the 1/87 models.
The same is not true of the Renault R16. It's available right here at Promotex Online and it's a real bargain at $6.50 for two.
Over the years, Oddball's has certainly grown. When I first displayed the scene about seven years ago, it boasted about 22 models. By the time I first wrote about it for Promotex (Welcome to Oddball's Autos) in 2001, there were 40 models and Oddball's had outgrown its original diorama. Today, that number is well over a hundred and looks to keep growing as modelmakers keep bringing out more classics that history shows were sold in America to satisfy our passion for almost anything with wheels.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant working with the information technology and hobby industries. He is an associate editor for Model Railroad News and writes a monthly column on the U.S. light vehicle industry. He is a member of the 1/87 Vehicle Club and the Texas Auto Writers Association.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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