Louis Renault (1877–1944)

Louis Renault, like Armand Peugeot and André Citroën established a motor car manufacturing company that was influential not only in France but throughout Europe. He was born in Paris and when young visited the workshops of the steam-powered car manufacturer Gardner-Serpolet, which had been established by Leon Serpollet (1858-1907). His family had a leisure-time home at Billancourt, then on the edge of Paris, where he stripped down motor engines.

He assembled his first car, the Voiturette, in 1898, and soon had orders for 13 more models. On 25 February 1899 he formed the company Renault Frères, with his brothers Marcel (1872-1903) and Fernand (1865-1909). Marcel was killed in the Paris-Madrid car race in 1903, and Fernand died in 1909 leaving Louis Renault in sole charge of the company.

He prospered during the First World War making aircrafts, aero engines and artillery pieces, as well as a variety of motor vehicles. Renault himself were involved in the design of the successful Renault FT tank, introduced in 1918. His reputation was to some extent sullied by the artillery shells he manufactured on hydraulic presses rather than by machining on lathes. More than 600 French 750mm guns were destroyed in the course of the war by the premature explosion of shells. In the 1920s and 30s the Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt on the Île Seguin, downstream from the centre of Paris, grew to cover 100 ha and employed 40,000 people. It had its own coal-fired power station from 1928, and manufactured its own machine tools. It became notorious in the post-war period for its bad labour relations and for its role in events of 1968. The company has since moved production elsewhere but Renault’s original workshop is preserved at Billancourt, where the company archives are held in a former office building.

In the 1930s Renault expressed virulently Right Wing views on politics, was paranoid about the threat of communism, and displayed particular hatred for André Citroën, who was Jewish. He visited Adolf Hitler in 1938 and was a significant supplier of vehicles to the Wehrmacht before the outbreak of the Second World War. After the occupation of France his company provided the German armed forces with nearly 35,000 vehicles and he died while seriously ill and awaiting trial for collaboration. The company was nationalised but has since been returned to the private sector.