He may not have been everybody’s tasse de thė but the fate of Louis Renault seems to have been a little severe even by the standards of 1944. After founding the great automotive empire that bears his name, he was unfortunate enough to end his days in Fresnes prison and nobody is quite sure whether the death certificate was being completely frank in claiming it was just old age. He was exhumed 12 years later and they said it was probably pneumonia, but that wasn’t counting the broken neck.
The Affaire Renault was re-examined several times, and was the subject of a book in French by Jean-Paul Thevenet, which suggests that he was not so much a collaborator as merely imprudent, suffering the fate of many Frenchmen at the end of the war meeting his end at the hands of political enemies paying off old scores. The result, so far as France was concerned, was the creation of the Regie Renault with annual losses that reached £lbn in the 1960s.
Renault got into business with his brothers Marcel and Fernand in 1898, when he took the 1.75bhp engine off his De Dion Bouton tricycle and put it to better use in a four wheel car of his own (above). They set up in Billancourt, and between 1899 and 1901 won lots of town-to-town races. Louis was rather better than Marcel, not only winning more often, but managing to keep out of trouble on the 1903 Paris-Madrid in which Marcel got no further than Couhé-Vérac before being killed. (Marcel on the Paris-Madrid)
Fernand died in 1908 so Renault Frères became SA des Usines Renault with Louis in sole and somewhat autocratic charge. One of his engineers Maurice Herbster said he spoke little, made no jokes, didn’t smoke or drink indeed his only passion, apart from the factory was women, of which he seemed to enjoy a lot.
He hated administration, reduced offices to the minimum, and practically forbade tables and chairs, which he regarded only as an incitement to laziness and idle chat. Supervisors were allowed only a small desk on the factory floor with no chair. Where it was noisy they were allowed a box round the desk, but not big enough for two to stand and talk. Even the toilets were made small to discourage reading the paper.
Louis Renault was arrogant and obstinate. He disliked officialdom, and often quarrelled with it, for example when discussing with the army whether it should have 23 tonne or 13.5 tonne tanks. The army wanted the heavier, Renault favoured the lighter. “Je m’en fous, j’en fais un.” - I’ll make them anyway. And he did.
He was also imprudent. At the 1935 Berlin Motor Show he made no secret of his fascination with Hitler and the power he wielded. He had a two hour interview with The Führer which led to comment in France Soir. As late as 1938 he was talking to Hitler about entente between France and Germany, and was enthusing over the concept of the VW, which he wanted to adopt for France.
(Renault tank assembly - the Wehrmacht used thousands) (Reinastella of 1929, when Renault was up-market)
His reputation as a hard- liner with labour followed an ill-judged attempt to beat a strike in 1936. He tried to persuade the workers that he was going to plough the profits back into new plant and it was not in anyone’s interests to have pay rises or shorter hours. L’Humanité denounced him as an exploiter and he had to concede paid holidays, wage rises, and shorter hours.
Renault’s quarrel with the army was remembered in 1939 when Daladier, then Minister of Defence, bought trucks from the United States and Italy. His factories were requisitioned and in view of his suspected Nazi sympathies, he was dispatched to America. The image of Renault as pro-German was taking hold.
Following the occupation he was able to return and set up a tank repair service for the Germans. He was reinstated at Billancourt and the factory was geared for war production. Thevenet claims it was no more than his obsession with keeping things going that made him do it, but the left-wing movement in France, which made up the core of Resistance fighters, thought otherwise.
(Billancourt head office)
He made the mortal mistake of turning down the idea of a discreet Resistance cell within Billancourt. Told that De Gaulle, then leading the Free French from London, would like one, he remarked unforgivably, “De Gaulle, connais pas,” or roughly translated to modern English, “De Gaulle — Who he?”
Well into his 60s, Renault was now exhausted by the war. The Germans wanted more lorries, he didn’t want to be bombed again and suggested Renault trucks be made with Ford cabs to disguise them. He even tried to organise a strike, but the workforce refused, “Le Patron déraille” — the boss is unhinged.
(Bomb damage, Billancourt)
Following the Liberation, L’Humanité was after Renault again. It recalled the 1936 strike, and claimed that while France had been unable to make any weapons for itself, Renault had been producing them for the enemy since 1940. Under a new decree, L’Ordonnance sur Ia repression des faits de collaboration, L ‘Humanité demanded justice against traitors and profiteers of treason. An anonymous letter in the paper called for his arrest and the removal of his Grand Croix de la Legion d’Honneur.
The Berliet family had also been arrested and their truck factory taken over, De Gaulle managing to overcome his distaste for nationalisation by simply looking the other way. Louis Renault was taken to Fresnes prison “for his protection”, where he was guarded by the FTP resistance fighters, his traditional adversaries, not by the regular authorities. It was a brutal regime in Fresnes and his wife found him on several occasions suffering from beatings. By October 1944 he was seriously ill and two psychiatrists diagnosed senile dementia, yet there were inexplicable delays in getting him to hospital.
The official account of what happened to him is vague; the pages in the prison records dealing with Louis Renault are missing.
He died on October 24th.
(Post-war Quatre Cheveaux - the French were so keen on it they kidnapped the imprisoned Dr Porsche to help with the design)
Louis' family remained dissatisfied over the cause of death, and in 1956 his body was exhumed. Forensic evidence suggested pneumonia; there were no skull fractures even though his wife testified he had suffered severe head injuries. It was confirmed however, that there was a fracture of the cervical vertebra, consistent with a rabbit-punch to the back of the neck.
In 1949 an official enquiry found little evidence against Renault himself conceding that he had had little choice but to work for the Germans, and probably his worst fault was his obsession with his factory. A former colleague Fernand Picard observed wryly after Renault’s death, “He was hard, almost inhuman, he was so determined and his lifelong passion was the Usine Renault. Nothing else mattered to him.” Forty years later, he confided, “To have accused him of loving the Germans is absurd. Louis Renault never loved anyone.”
(Racing Renault. Later version of the 1906 grand prix car)