RENAULT: the Twingo queen and her bees

In 2023, it celebrates the 30th anniversary of its first launch: Twingo has become a companion for many of us, and a friend we have often come across over the last three decades. The car has become a companion for many of us, and a friend we’ve come across many times over the past three decades. Cheeky, smiling and cleverly offering the bare necessities, it has made its mark in an environment where ABS was still not a thing, GPS was very rare and yellow headlights had just been abolished.

This old-engine chip (like the DS in its time) amazed the 1992 Paris Motor Show, like the Citroën reference in 1955. 30 years later, LIGNES/auto takes a look at this Renault unlike any other, to explain that this queen was surrounded by bees that made up quite a hive, without which she might not have seen the light of day, and would not have given the creative impetus that Renault enjoyed at that time. To pay homage to this queen, we have lifted the lid of the beehive for a journey back in time to better understand and put into context the intelligent little Renaults from 1975 to today…

“There’s a bit more, shall I put it on anyway?”

The VBG programme – for Véhicule Bas de Gamme – took off on 14 March 1975, four months before the official presentation of the large Renault 30 with its V6 engine. In March, a meeting was held between the Research Department, the Methods Department, the Costing Department and the Product Department. The first ambition was to design a small, very roomy vehicle, with a production cost of one quarter less than that of an R12 TL. But it is of course the R5 which is in the sights of the VBG. The project had to be worth 1,000 francs less than the R5 TL’s 13,760 francs in 1975, i.e. a median price of 12,760 francs.

The first set of specifications was drawn up by Jean-Marie Souquet’s team and the working group of the research and development departments, as was the product: “The aim was to demonstrate that, in a given constrained volume, shared between passenger and baggage areas, it was possible to vary the layout and the distribution of baggage and passengers. The result of the work is a new approach in the company, namely a presentation not of automotive products, but of a product intention. The VBG is a place to relax, it is accessible to all because it is inexpensive and easy to use, it is welcoming because it is extensively fitted out, it is owned more than it is owned, and finally… it allows you to move around “Ouf!

Robert Opron, head of Renault design from 1975 onwards, would later explain to me that “we didn’t want to use oversized parts from existing models. We needed a small three-cylinder engine and everything had to be designed specifically to make this vehicle a success. The cost price of manufacturing therefore went off the rails, while at the same time the Renault 5 was successful at a lower cost, thanks to its R4 platform. The VBG programme did not come to fruition at the end of the 1970s, but this did not mean that it would die out. It would evolve into a programme capable of succeeding the R4.

A boss with pencils

Robert Opron took his place at the head of Renault design, assisted by Gaston Juchet. Opron left Citroën after giving birth to the CX and in his cartons, he kept many projects of small and daring cars. He started to draw his own versions of the VBG programme, because at the time, nobody was shocked to see the boss taking his pencils to enter into an internal competition which has now disappeared… except for Lancia perhaps? One of his first models reappropriates the idea of the 2CV with an innovative window opening mechanism. Here, one half of the window pivots on the other, hence the name of this model: the “pivoting”.

VBG: Renault’s Panda

It is interesting to draw a parallel here between the study of all kinds of VBGs, which are all more innovative than the others, and that of the project of the future Fiat Panda, for which Giorgetto Giugiaro launched the bases in the same year 1976. Without them knowing it, the Italian designer and Gaston Juchet, number 2 of the Renault styling department, dealt with the subject of the small entry-level car with practically the same concept: a fairly cubic car, wide side protection strips and a compact size.

Opron goes wild

Competing in originality, the design boss (Opron) and his second in command (Juchet) proposed several models alongside that of Jacques Nocher. Here, the version with a vertical window on the rear panel designed by Robert Opron. We are no longer in a world of car styling, but in a real “product design” approach. Unlike Giugiaro’s Panda, Renault allows itself expensive innovations and clearly lets the designers go down quite innovative paths.

In addition, these models are supposed to be equipped with a new three-cylinder petrol engine in series production, all on a modern platform, which is also specific, and which therefore has nothing to do with the R4/R5. The work on a small modern Renault does not date from the Twingo, far from it!

Jacques Nocher enters the game

There will be at least forty scale models of this VBG programme. Here, the one by Jacques Nocher which highlights the advances in terms of interior modularity, the same ones that Renault has been working on for the last two years and which will be found on board the Espace of 1984 but also the… Twingo of 1993. The latter will in particular borrow the very famous sliding bench seat which the first mock-ups of the VBG in 1975 had treated with two independent seats.

Deschamps on the case

The VBG programme was running at full speed but was not convincing for budgetary reasons: the innovative little Renault was much more expensive than the R5 born six years earlier and Renault began to twist the programme in all directions to try and find a viable solution. It was then that some of the projects in the R5 replacement programme (the 1984 Supercinq designed by Marcello Gandini) adopted solutions pioneered by the VBG project. Marc Deschamps – between his departure from Bertone and his return to the coachbuilder to take charge of the design – designed the R5 Turbo for Renault but also this particular “Renault 2” which navigates between the VBG programme and that of the future Supercinq. Note that plaster is still a safe bet at the time.

From R5 to R4

In 1982, two years before the arrival on the market of the Renault Supercinq, which by then had found its style, the VBG programme drifted towards a replacement for the R4, rather than the R5. Back to basics and above all, to the more classic format of a five-door ‘box’. It was the X44 project that saw Matra, Gandini and the various Renault studios get involved. The project failed again…

The Piccola

Here was a bee that could have become a great queen! Much smarter than all her fellow bees, she had innovation written all over her. It was designed by the Italian master Gandini, who was at the time the privileged advisor of the “Régie Renault”. This machine made of composite materials is a concentrate of innovations as Gaston Juchet reminds us in his notes, “Marcello Gandini, because of his great technical competence and experience acquired at Bertone, was very good at leading innovative approaches that asked real questions to car architects with his “VBG Piccola”.

The Italian master started his project from a blank sheet of paper. The idea? To improve the cost price of manufacturing, not only by creating an ingenious product, but by totally rethinking its industrialization. With his Piccola, Marcello Gandini proposed to… raze the existing factories. His concept invented a front apron that acted as a structure, on which the whole car was assembled. Lightweight, it makes do with a small two-cylinder engine. Gaston Juchet noted at the time that “we followed this programme with a very interested eye. It was a sort of giant Meccano, with parts that you could assemble yourself in just one hour!

The very plain, one-piece moulded dashboard has the circular ventilation block at its centre, including the entire blower system and integrated controls. Just brilliant. But razing the factories while Renault is preparing for a dramatic year in 1985 and is in the midst of social conflicts, does not look good. Renault reserved the exclusivity of this study in 1984, not to produce it, nor even to advance the VBG programme, but by fear undoubtedly that a competitor would dare to take the plunge if it fell into its hands!

Exquisite sketch

The VBG programme left vacant when Gaston Juchet left in 1987 gave birth to a small, rather cubic, single-body model. It was designed by Jean-Pierre Ploué and although the spirit of the Twingo is there, two important themes are still missing: a more cheerful front end and, above all, a less narrow format, as this model is narrower and more cramped than the future Twingo.

Gandini on all fronts

While he has just signed the Supercinq and his proposals for the future Renault 9 are underway, Marcello Gandini is also working on the unibody concept of a hypothetical small Renault. Unlike Jean-Pierre Ploué’s model, the Italian’s is quite geometrical and banishes the curves. We find the plunging front window, a real signature of the designer, notably on the… Lamborghini Countach!


Jean-Pierre Ploué’s model, shown here in grey, was discarded in a wooden box and hidden in a room quite far from the Renault design centre. When Patrick le Quément arrived at the end of 1987, Gaston Juchet gave him the keys to this secret place and the newcomer discovered what was hidden in these boxes. Love at first sight is immediate. Le Quément believes in this car, on the condition that he revises the dimensions of this (too) frail model in view of a current project: the future Clio of 1990…

Even more original

Here is Jean-Pierre Ploué’s other proposal, slightly different with its rounded door jambs, slightly more stylish rims and the absence of a rear view mirror. On the other hand, the rounded door handle is in its (almost) final configuration. The design of the rear window is very different on the two proposals.

The Clio as a rival!

This is the one that almost killed the Twingo before the design work had even begun. As we have seen, Patrick Le Quément wants to make the little frog bigger by widening it and giving it more width so that it can take off its “small car” outfit. Thus, Le Quément opted for a format as large as that of the Clio, which was still under study. It was 1988 and the Clio was being tested by customers at the same time as a model of the Twingo. The sales team was beginning to worry about the fact that two cars as wide as each other were scheduled for 1990 (Clio) and 1993 (Twingo)…

Finally a smile

In 1988, during this famous customer test where the Clio was confronted with its future little sister Twingo, the latter adopted a new front face with its laughing eyes and rounded rear lights. On board, however, the instrument cluster still faces the driver. The hubcaps are practically definitive and the antenna, high up, requires a cable that is too long and therefore too expensive: it will be moved to the rear-view mirror to save a few cents.

A historic 24 June

On 24 June 1988, the (almost) definitive model that was to take part in the test with the future Clio was produced by Studio B with Jean-Pierre Ploué and Thierry Métroz. It can be seen that although the look is already present, the engine bonnet’s embossing at the level of the windscreen wiper will not be retained, while the three small air intakes in this same bonnet are not yet present.

This time, it’s the right one!

This photo shows the final Twingo on the right with all the features that would make it a success. The new Renault logo can be seen here, which will be inaugurated in 1992 by the large Safrane. The presence of Jean-Pierre Ploué’s first model reveals the wisdom of Patrick le Quément’s decision to make the car bigger so that it would not be considered a “small car”. Wider, taller and more livable, the final Twingo nonetheless retained the appeal of the model that had been produced five years earlier.

The queen of the Motor Show

After Yves Dubreil saved the project by drastically reducing the investments in the design and industrialization of the Twingo, the car with its talented design was finally presented at the Paris Motor Show. Not since the presentation of the Citroën DS in 1955 had there been such a large number of visitors to the car. Renault has succeeded in creating an innovative little car that is light years away from the origins of the VBG programme: the Twingo has an old Cléon engine, no technological innovations, but the money has been put where it shows: sliding seats and digital instrumentation in particular.

A desire for strong concepts

The predictor Raymond Lévy was convinced by Patrick le Quément who introduced strong concepts into Renault’s production products, very often fuelled by concept cars that are now mostly iconic. This photo from 1993 sums up the strength of Renault’s design at the time, with the Laguna concept car in the foreground (it must have been an Alpine…), the Scénic compact MPV from 1991 and the Racoon SUV from 1993. Alongside them, the Twingo embodies this desire for a strong concept and a strong style for future products.

A Twingo in the field

In the meantime, the design machine was still going strong. Even before it was known whether the Twingo would be a commercial success, a new project was launched: the W78, also known as the Ultra Léger Motorisé. This is a small, extra-urban and ultra economical car. This W78 project should allow Renault to “have in the range, an economical and light vehicle, in 4×2 for extra-urban use and all-road with a 4×4 option for use in low grip conditions (mountains)” says the specifications.

Like the Twingo, the ULM has only one engine (60 hp) and its weight does not exceed 700 kg. The project began in 1993 under the direction of Yves Legal. From July to October of that year, the design office imagined a demonstrator with its mechanics and bodywork layout. The bodywork was rather light, designed by Anne Asensio. The styling freeze was scheduled for March 1994, while marketing was planned for the end of 1996. But the project was stopped after the styling freeze.

Argos, the visionary Twingo

In 1994, the fourth concept car of the Le Quément era (the Z-04) can be considered as a manifesto. The first drawing of the Argos, signed by Jean-Pierre Ploué, was spotted by the design director. “At that time, designers still displayed their drawings behind them. Jean-Pierre Ploué had pinned up quite a few sketches behind him, and I immediately spotted one that wasn’t even the size of an A4 sheet. What appeals to me is the asymmetry. I am then in a logic of the year zero of design. I want to find a new intellectual path for Renault design. Jean-Pierre’s sketch reminds me of the Esprit Nouveau of the architect Le Corbusier.

And if Le Quément made Jean-Pierre Ploué’s 1986 Twingo rough, he did the opposite for the Argos: “when I went to G-Studio, which made the 1/1 scale model, I realised that it was much too wide! During the day, I had the model cut lengthwise in two to narrow it by a good fifteen centimetres in width! The Argos, designed on a Twingo platform, laid the foundations for a new, more streamlined design language. The 1998 Clio was to follow suit.

Fiftie misses the mark

If the Argos has technical genes with the Twingo, this is unfortunately not the case with the Fiftie, which is, among the bees in our hive, the one that missed the opportunity to become a real queen. Fiftie was designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 4CV. It is not based on a Twingo chassis, but on that of the brand new Renault Sport Spider (another Alpine-born project in the minds of the designers). With its rear mid-engine, the Fiftie cut itself off from possible industrialization to follow the lead of successful revivals, such as the VW Beetle.

However, Patrick le Quément recalls that the designer “Benoît Jacob drew an absolutely charming machine which managed to capture the essence of the 4CV’s good-naturedness in a coupé silhouette. Inside, Axel Breun, whom I brought with me from Volkswagen, kept things simple and brought wicker on board, where Isabelle Charles and Bénédicte de Sainte-Marie took care of the colours and materials. The Alpine factory in Dieppe was considered for the production of the Fiftie because “at the time, we looked a lot at the Japanese, who made many small series, but we quickly realised that it was not for us!

Ellipse, the major Twingo

Ten years after the presentation of the Twingo at a memorable Paris Motor Show, Renault has returned to the world of the compact car, this time with four doors, with the Ellipse. It is a programme which aims to be virtuous and to be in harmony with its environment. “We are in an extremely legitimate business for the brand: small cars” confirms Patrick le Quément. “This is an area in which Renault has always excelled. I advocate lightness, the most advanced miniaturisation while maximising the space on board for the same size.

“The Ellipse is a great little car, I love it, and we have succeeded in making a real challenge with this undulating floor in symbiosis with the modularity of the seats, and the total disappearance of the seats once they are housed in the floor. On the outside, it’s an extremely pure, simple design by David Durand,” who is now head of Dacia design.

Zoé, the Mini Twingo

In 2005, the Zoe we know today was not yet in sight. The 2015 concept car hides under its tiny front bonnet a 1.6 litre, 16-valve, turbocharged combustion engine developing 100 bhp. It’s a feat to have been able to fit it into this small 3.45 m long vehicle (the 2007 Twingo II is 3.68 m long). The interior architecture of Zoé is very radical. It is reminiscent of the Argos, with its asymmetry and three seats. The rear seat fits into a relatively comfortable space, alongside an equivalent volume dedicated to the boot.

En 2005, on n’évoque pas encore la Zoé que l’on connaît aujourd’hui. Le concept-car de 2015 cache sous son minuscule capot avant un moteur thermique de 1.6 litre, 16 soupapes turbocompressé, développant 100 ch. C’est une prouesse d’avoir pu le loger dans ce petit engin de 3,45 m de longueur (la Twingo II de 2007 mesure 3,68 m). L’architecture de Zoé est très radicale. Elle rappelle celle de l’Argos, avec son asymétrie et ses trois places. Le siège arrière se love dans un espace relativement confortable, au côté d’un volume équivalent dédié au coffre.

The latter can be accessed by opening the small left-hand side window, or more simply by opening the tailgate, which has an interesting kinematics, since the lower part of it covers the window, limiting its bulk when opened. The design of this interior is the work of Stéphane Janin, who three years later took over responsibility for the concept car studio from Michel Jardin in 2008. The two half-pavilions are made of glass inlaid with LEDs. Michel Jardin told me that this technical innovation was discovered during a visit to the Milan furniture fair. “It was when we saw a table with these LEDs that it all clicked! It was a specialist Swiss glassmaker who designed these two half-pavillons.

Wind, the Twingo convertible

In 2004, the concept car for a minimalist roadster was revealed under the name Wind. This name was retained for the Twingo roadster derivative with a “rotating” roof. This two-seater was designed under the code name W33 and was developed by Axel Breun and his team until production in 2010.

The base is the Twingo RS, its size is between that of the Twingo and the Clio, but its rotating roof imposes a strict two-seater architecture that will be fatal. However, the chassis was top notch and the roof integration was rather successful but the whole front end of the Twingo was not suitable for the exercise. The game was over with less than 15,000 units produced…

Any regrets?

The latest generation of Twingo has little in common with the queen of the Renault small car hive. However, it should be considered as an heir bee, even if lifting the rear hatch reveals a tiny boot where, in 1992 at the Paris Motor Show, all the visitors were ecstatic about the modularity and the space on board of the first generation of Twingo.

From now on, it is an engine that fits under the rear boot because this Twingo was born thanks to a medically assisted procreation by Mercedes. Mercedes and Renault have jointly designed the Edison platform for their 2 and 4-seater Smart cars. However, as the agreement was not renewed, the Twingo will die its beautiful (?) death. The future R5 E-Tech and R4 E-Tech will follow, with a slight – but tenacious – feeling of waste in terms of architectural audacity and creativity.

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