The interesting thing about history is that it often has repercussions on the future. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Renault’s announcement of the choice of the name Rafale for the next SUV coupé based on the Austral, is based on the 1934 Caudron-Renault C460.
For us design lovers, it refers rather to a “Rafale” design project for the X29 programme of the Renault 25 which was marketed in 1984. Concerning the styling study of the Renault 25, we think that everything has been said. This is not true. Alongside Gaston Juchet’s project, we know that there was a competing internal project, called Rafale. In fact, there were TWO Rafales… And did you know that the R25 was to be called the R40? And that it was shortened many times during the study, and even in emergency after the style freeze… It’s time to enter the world of automotive history through the front door.
A quick historical reminder: the X29 programme launched in 1977 was to replace the Renault 20 and Renault 30 duo (born in 1976 and 1975 respectively). The first model called “M” (above) was signed by the advanced design centre headed by Jacques Nocher. It is the work of French designer Marc Deschamps.
This model is long, low and passes the first customer tests at the end of 1978. In his notes, Jacques Cheinisse, the product manager, explains that “a new attempt was made in October 1979, with new proposals from Gaston Juchet for a two-box and three-box combination, and the modified M model. The results were disappointing: too estate or too sporty.
This “M” model therefore deviates internally towards several proposals signed by Gaston Juchet which are put in competition with a Gandini model, above. The latter was quickly discarded – it breathes a very Citroën perfume through all its pores! – and the programme finally retained Gaston Juchet’s version, which nevertheless had to evolve. Jacques Cheinisse specifies in his notes that “Gaston Juchet returns to his studies and makes the three-box evolve by working on the aerodynamics, and it becomes, thanks to the effect of transparency of the bubble in side view, a hybrid two-box-tri-box. It will be called the Bicaéro.”
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An important reminder at the beginning of the 1980s: the design centre was under the direction of Robert Opron, who had moved from Citroën (GS, SM, CX) to Renault in 1975. Gaston Juchet remained in charge of styling, while Robert Opron took charge of all group design. At that time, Renault’s styling department also designed trucks.
On the X29 project, the very discreet Gaston Juchet was quickly put in competition with his own advanced design office, directed by Jacques Nocher, where a talented designer joined the team in 1977: Jean-François Venet. Jacques Cheinisse explains that “the advanced design office was then working on an aerodynamic research project. The 1979 model (registered 112 RR 79, above) was not the size required by the X29 specifications: it was a little lower but above all longer. It was called the Rafale.”
Jacques Nocher and Jean-François Venet bring this transformed model (registration 402 RR 80, above) to the X29 programme, while all efforts are focused on Gaston Juchet’s proposal. Jacques Cheinisse remembers that “we wanted to test the Rafale aerodynamic model, but it had to be shortened first. In the meantime, in December 1979, we tested the Bicaéro in parallel with a three-body L29 model.” Below.
In 1980, while Gaston Juchet’s Bicaéro was evolving towards its final form – which would be the Renault 25 that we know today – Robert Opron decided to defend the rival internal proposal: the Rafale. For if the latter was for a time far too long and did not respect the hard points of the specifications, it evolved strongly under the direction of Jacques Nocher. But the Rafale suffered a blow: “It was perceived as a Citroën, sporty and close to the Bicaéro,” Cheinisse recalls in his notes.
Cheinisse continues: “At the end of the tets in February 1980, the Bicaero was chosen, with difficulty, because there was strong pressure from the style director (Robert Opron) in favour of the Rafale and Bernard Hanon seemed to hesitate. And in June 1980, without any particular argumentation, it was decided to reduce the length of the Bicaero by 10 cm for a second time! Robert Opron, who had not digested the sidelining of the Rafale, also revived the shortening of the Nocher-Venet model.” There was some confusion in the style and technical backstage, as some people thought that the Rafale had been chosen.
A second confrontation between the Bicaéro and the Rafale was organised in the basement of the Arsenal, in Nanterre. And there, surprise, the Rafale registered 402 RR 80 which adopts the famous bubble at the rear, similar to the one of Gaston Juchet’s proposal, is presented in front of the Bicaéro in company of a second version of the Rafale (registered 2811 2 RR 80, above) which abandons the bubble to the profit of a rear window designed in three sides which one sees below confronted with the first Rafale
The ‘2811 2 RR 80’ is very aerodynamic and differs significantly from the other Rafale. Opposite them, two Bicaéro are presented with the only difference being the treatment of their side, with or without protection. At the rear of his model, Gaston Juchet had a small spoiler hastily drawn to further refine his Bicaéro (below, the spoiler is waiting to be positioned), and thus counter the Rafale “bis” with a three-sided window. The Opron-Juchet battle seems to guide the genesis of the R25.
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Jacques Cheinisse concludes “that a final test of these shortened models was organised in December 1980 in France and Germany. The advantage of the Bicaero is real but the Rafale remains well appreciated too.” It is thought that the Juchet-Opron duel (the latter through the Nocher-Venet model) may yet turn to Opron’s advantage.
Cheinisse then closed the debate: “a complementary frontal test between the Rafale and the Bicaero was organised during which the superiority of the Bicaero was very clear. So the Bicaero’s style was finally decided in December 1980.”
The story could end there. That would be too simple, as Jacques Cheinisse points out in his notes: “We were not finished with the questioning. The style had been chosen in favour of the Bicaéro and frozen in the spring of 1981 after already two years of shortening phases! And then, one Friday evening in July 1981, Bernard Hanon was presented with an improvised project review by Pierre Tiberghien and he passed in front of the final hollow model of the R25. The length of the latter was around 4.70 m…. “
“Bernard Hanon was filled with doubt because the Peugeot 505 that was being marketed was only 4.58 m long. With the second oil crisis, the boss wanted to keep a low profile and decided with the design director that the R25 had to be reduced in size by 20 cm!” Fortunately, the bodywork and architecture engineers were able to make a counter-proposal that only modified the front and rear bumper, reducing it by about 10 cm. The project was FINALLY accepted!
Finally accepted? Yes, but what should we call it? “At the time, this was a subject that systematically led to a lively and endless debate,” recalls Jacques Cheinisse. “We were already asking ourselves whether we should stay with the system of numerical names and move on to names. We had already taken a step in this direction with the Fuego (above). But for the B29 programme (future R25) it was decided that we would stay with the numerical system. From then on, we could still keep the same 20 and 30 names, but the dealers did not agree.”
“We therefore proposed the designations R24/R36. The communication department argued that for the same investment in their field, we would have a greater impact if we had only one designation. We then worked hard on the R40, but we didn’t want to overvalue the services expected by the designation. In the end, R25 was chosen.”
Thanks to Jean-Marie Souquet and Jacques Cheinisse’s notes, which helped to put some order into Renault’s Rafale programme