Chassis. Coupe. Grille. Limousine. Chauffeur. Carburetor. Garage. Piston. Marque. Automobile. Ever wonder why so many of terms from the automotive world are of French origin?

The vast majority of the early mechanical innovations that made modern cars possible were German. Rudolf Diesel and Karl Benz developed the practical internal combustion engines and rudimentary drivetrains (roller chains, transmissions, etc) that, uh, paved the way (sorry) for the auto industry to develop. Americans like William Durant, Henry Ford, and other now-forgotten early pioneers in the industry are generally credited with advancements to the process of building cars more than of cars themselves; Ford's legendary Model T was, even by contemporary standards, a brutally primitive vehicle. Advances in the flair and styling of automobiles are largely due to the efforts of Italian (and some French) coachbuilders in the 1920s and 1930s.

So why all the French words? German makes more sense, since the automotive systems themselves were mostly invented and advanced there.

The simplest answer is that in the very early days of the industry – from 1890 to around 1910 – French companies dominated the production of cars in Europe. They may not have been coming up with many technological breakthroughs, but they did a better job initially of translating the German innovations into finished products. Armand Peugeot, for example, founded the eponymous company in 1890 making simple but functional cars with German Daimler-Benz engines. The Renault brothers did the same in 1898. Other now-forgotten marques that produced popular cars in the early years included Bollee (a locomotive manufacturer), Delahaye, Hotchkiss (founded by an American expatriate), Voisin, De Dion, and Bugatti (the name of which has been resurrected and is often but incorrectly thought to be Italian).

Unfortunately for France, while its companies may have gotten into the game first the products of those early manufacturers were superseded fairly quickly by British (Rolls-Royce), German (Daimler and later Mercedes-Benz), and Italian carmakers. For example, the much publicized 1907 Beijing-to-Paris auto rally was dominated by an Italia and a Spyker (Dutch) despite being sponsored and heavily hyped by French newspapers. The only part of the French auto industry that impressed anyone, in fact, was a tire company founded by a guy named Andre Michelin.

Since Renault pulled out of the US in 1987 – swallowed up first by American Motors and then Nissan – there have been no French cars brands sold here. If older Americans have any memory of brands like Renault, Peugeot, and Citroen it is unlikely that they were positive. The standard joke is that French cars combined the very worst of everything Europe had to offer: Italian quality (which is to say "terrible"), Eastern European styling, and German pricing. No one who laid eyes upon Renault's "Le Car" or drove Peugeot's somewhat attractive but legendarily ramshackle 405 Sedan would suggest a great American yearning for the return of French brands to our shores. The less said about Franco-American monstrosities like the Renault Alliance the better.

Being an early adopter does not guarantee success, but in the case of the auto industry it does guarantee strong representation in the glossary of industry-specific terminology.

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46 thoughts on “NPF: FRENCH CONNECTION”

  • Sorry to get all nit picky – the only thing worse than a car geek is a gaming geek- but some of the perception of French cars are wrong. Renault has not been swallowed by anyone.It had a mutual share holding with AMC and actually took over the rapidly failing Nissan.
    While the French don't sell in the U.S, they do pretty well in most other world markets.

  • Good one, Ed.

    In spite of their absence from America, French marques are going strong in Europe. The likes of Peugeot and Citroen have a reputation for making decent, middle-of-the-range cars.

    By contrast, the once-mighty UK auto industry hasn't really existed since the 1990s. It was killed by mismanagement, bad industrial relations, clumsy government intervention, malign government neglect, and straightforward asset-stripping.

    The UK has plenty of manufacturing plants for Ford, Honda, and the like; but most of the "British" marques such as Land Rover and Jaguar are owned by overseas companies. The manufacturer of the iconic black taxis was recently bought by a Chinese company. The largest remaining British-owned car maker is probably McLaren, who are, shall we say, a niche player.

    The saga of incompetence that was British Leyland in the 1970s and 1980s has a certain morbid fascination in its own right.

  • The same was true of aviation's infancy- words like fuselage, aileron, empennage (old-timey term for the control surfaces at an aeroplane's tail) etc. And the US Expeditionary Force during WW1 would have been nowhere without SPADs and Nieuports for their pilots to fly. Thru the inter-war years and the early days of WW2 the bloom was definitely off the rose but France definitely got its mojo back during the Cold War. If countries weren't buying warplanes from the USA or USSR, France was there to fill the gap.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Thanks for the history lesson!

    As for French cars, when I was a kid in Queens, NY City, we had a guy down the block who had a Citroen, and we neighborhood kids used to try to watch him come and go, because the car's hydraulics would lower it when he parked, and raised the car when he went to leave.

    We thought it was the coolest thing!

    Little did we know, that wasn't hydraulics lowering that car, it was that the car sucked! ;-)

  • In Canada both Peugot and Renault were low-priced cars where they did well in the 70's and 80's. The Renault 5 in particular was the ultimate first-car as it cost less than $5,000 at the time. Both brands featured spartan interiors and average reliability but for those looking for a good deal, they delivered. In the 80's the Japanese brands with improving quality for similar products killed the category for the French.

  • @Jaime: Indeed. In the 1990s, the Eurofighter project was a boondoggle so hideous it would impress even the Pentagon. It was a joint UK/Italy/Spain/Germany project which finished massively behind schedule and over budget. (It is now, finally, in service, under the name Typhoon in the UK.)

    The French left the consortium early on and developed their own next-generation figher aircraft, the Rafale. It was perfectly adequate for its role, much cheaper, and ready much earlier.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    I'm French and thus compelled to be an asshole about this, but… thanks for the cool NFP and… yeah… sorry about the Peugeot.

  • French manufacturers still make some some wonderfully odd models that I wish we had the chance to get here in the US. If I could buy a Renault Avantime, I'd do it in a flat second, no question…

  • My first car was a Peugeot, I owned a R5 (LeCar or LaCinq) and almost bought a 2CV Citroen. The R5 cost me $3200 new and got 50 mpg on the highway. I would drive from Chicago to Dixmont, ME. for about $17.00 for gas. When I tooled around French Canada the only way someone could tell I was a visitor was the Illinois plates and my atrocious French. Chicago French is much worse than Franco-Ontarian!

  • I'm sorry but the British made the worst cars. Austin, Morris, Triumph, Rover, Jag You Are, Vauxhall. Always in the shop forever.

  • @Dave Dell: After a long history of ineptitude, British car manufacturers no longer exist (except for a few tiny niche players like McLaren). Some of the old brands have been sold on to more competent overseas companies. The new Mini is made by BMW and generally considered a pretty good car for its size, albeit somewhat overpriced. Vauxhall is now owned by General Motors, and they're still pretty bad.

  • I was once tossing a football around with my pop and uncle as a lad in SE WI, late 80s, when a stretch limousine Renault Alliance came 'round the bend and right down the block past us. We were SPEECHLESS.

  • Back when I was a kid I somehow saw FIA rally on TV and loved it. And somehow I knew that you could get the R5 Turbo here, maybe there was a brochure at the dealership, and I begged my dad to buy one which he wisely didn't.

    For those not familiar w/ the R5 Turbo, it was a LeCar but with the engine where the rear seat used to be and RWD with giant rear flares. Looked like the Group B monster I saw on TV.

  • The Peugeot car might not be fine (have really no clue), but the Peugeot bicycle is quite nice (older models, that is).

    Also, I'll admit to losing my French proficiency, but isn't "voiture" the word for car in French?

  • Daniel Pinkwater had a great essay about owning a French car. He said that, if you own a French car, other areas of your life are guaranteed to be happy because the car will essentially fill up your quota of misery.

  • Saw a road test on a Peugeot estate hybrid, no exotic flat motor embedded in the transaxle, they just put an electric motor between the rear wheels, hybrid and all wheel drive, with a minimum of exotic parts. No, I'm not going to join in with France bashing.

  • You know what would be perfect for this post? The song by Peter Lehndorff. "Peugeot". Old Car Talk fans may remember it. It should be playing on continuous loop in the background.

    The whole thing is roll-on-the-floor funny, but the only bit of the lyrics I could find is this:

    I drive an old Peugeot, but I don't speak French
    I carry jumper cables, I carry a wrench
    It quits when it's raining, and it stalls when it's dry
    And the damn thing blew up on the 4th of July.

    Whoopee ti yay, parlez-vous Francais?
    Whoopee ti yo, will you fix my Peugeot?

  • Several parts we take for granted on cars were developed originally for bicycles, chains and pneumatic tires being great examples, and paved roads were originally designed for bicycles as well. I don't know that this adds to the conversation, but I find it interesting. I also own a Peugeot bicycle, though having been converted into a fixed gear the frame is the only part I can say is truly Peugeot. I still love it.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    Those Frogs may have given us all those Frenchified auto words, but they still say le parking for "parking lot."

  • bobbie the fig says:

    Click and Clack (the famous NPR radio "tappet brothers") used to say that when it came to cars, the French copied nobody and nobody copied the French.

    Morley Safer once called them and complained he had trouble finding a mechanic to work on his 405 Peugeot. They couldn't stop laughing and suggested he junk that heap and buy a real car. Like a Mercedes. He did.

  • Hmm, second favorite car I ever owned was a '76 Peugeot 504 sedan (that we got with 75kmiles and ten years under it's belt). It died 5 years later, but mainly because we ran it into the ground right after Peugeot pulled out of the US market, leaving us with no parts to fix it. We still have the little Lion from the steering wheel on a shelf somewhere, and the dashboard clock (an electromechanichal one with a comforting tick-tick-tick heartbeat) lived on in the Honda for many years later.

    Their diesel wagon version was well-nigh indestructible. Ours had it's quirks, but mainly because we were too poor at the time to get it fixed right (for example, the windshield leaked, mainly because it had been replaced at one time by incompetents).

    OTOH, the next car we had was a '81 Honda civic that lasted for 20 years before being traded in for a new VW diesel sportwagen in 2010. The Honda ran well for all but the last few years of it's life when things just started breaking badly. (And it had Satan's own Carburetor, which was an enormous pain in the ass to tune up so it would pass emissions testing.

    The VW has performed flawlessly, but hell it's german and a diesel, I expect that…

    At least none of them had Lucas electrics…

  • Daniel Forbes says:

    Dear Ed:

    Sorry if stepping on toes posting this here, but I've spent 15 minutes failking to track down an email address for you. Here's the email I'd like to send, starting with this subject line: Compared to Orwell, Amis & Waugh, novel sparked by free-speech lawsuit against the NYPD.

    I write in the spirit of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson: "Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government."

    Here’s one advance reader’s comments on Derail this Train Wreck, soon to be loosed upon the world.

    Not too far in our dystopian future, Mitchell Fremson finds himself a mobile island of sanity battling the winds of a police state gone haywire. Armed only with courage, and principle, and one of the wryest wits to emerge on the literary scene in decades, Fremson leads us on a rollicking and riveting ride along a path at once horrifying and all too plausible. Some may compare Daniel Forbes to Orwell, but the better comparisons are to Kingsley Amis and J. P. Donleavy and Evelyn Waugh – panoramic, biting satirists who recognize a world so mad that only comedy can truly capture its chaos. Derail this Train Wreck is literature’s answer to the “War on Terror.” – Jacob M. Appel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, The Biology of Luck, Winner of the Dundee International Book Prize.

    I've also received endorsement from William T. Vollmann.

    It’s forthcoming from Fomite Press, a literary press with some sixty titles under its belt.

    A few bleak years hence, an ill-stitched, back-bench Cheney of sorts has burrowed his way to the presidency. The police-state hammer falling on short and tall alike, wars rage, Boots deployed like empties tossed from a car window. Americans keep their head down, grasping for the illusion of anonymity in a surveillance state.

    His marriage kaput, Mitchell Fremson is too heart-broken to seek apathy’s embrace. When he draws a small line in the sand, a skittish cop spills blood, and Mitch is nailed on every front page in town. Slowly, a movement starts to coalesce around his protest against suspicionless search.

    Escaping a cretinous assassin, he flees New York for Washington where he becomes enmeshed with those consumed by America's (future) resource wars. A blast-concussed, National Guard private recruits Fremson to help halt production of a fatally flawed new Army vehicle. A soul-sick Special Ops sergeant gradually reveals the damage he's both inflicted and incurred. And then there's the hero's fumbling pas de deux with a no-nonsense, femme fatale of an Army major. Awash in public and private Terrorism profiteers, this hapless civilian is called to sacrifice all to save countless soldiers' lives.

    Chilling and laughable and auguring what waits down the tracks, Derail this Train Wreck traces one hounded soul’s late growth to manhood in a country grown ugly. Voicing some odd species of demotic highfalutin, the hero punches above his weight.

    All well and good and destined to be a small stone down a deep well unless I can somehow drag it into the light. Here’s Chapter One, excerpted by the classy Brit lit magazine, berfrois.

    The book was sparked by getting slammed by the cops (see below). It's grounded in resisting an over-arching government. It's also belly-laugh funny, and I think worthy of a review at Gin and Tacos. Give Chapter One a look-see. Should it appeal, I’d be delighted, obviously, to send you a copy. The darn thing packs a wallop.

    Thanks so much (and there’s a bit of bio below),

    Daniel Forbes

    Testifying before the House and Senate, Daniel Forbes publicly undressed the White House with his disclosure of its sub rosa propaganda campaign that paid the TV networks $22-million. Published by Slate, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The Huffington Post, Wired and Alternet, his journalism has won awards from Columbia University, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Drug Policy Alliance. He’s appeared on ABC, the BBC, CNN, Fox, NPR and Democracy Now.

    A book much of our contentious times, Derail this Train Wreck (a title deliberately tied in knots) was inspired by an NYPD assault. Forbes’s subsequent, successful free-speech lawsuit against Lincoln Center and the cops was cited by the NYCLU as bolstering free-speech case law. He and his wife kept a phalanx of cops and guards at bay with a simple, principled refusal.

  • schmitt trigger says:

    Back in the early 60s, one relative who had spent some time in France brought back a Peugeot 403.

    It had some bizarre stuff, like a four-on-the-tree gear shifter, and dials with funny names like "EAU". The radio had something weird itself, but I cannot recall exactly.

  • Renault was the car of choice when I lived in rural southern Spain, where the trusty vehicle traversed the hills and countryside well. Had to overhaul it once and was fortunate that the local family owned mechanic shop let me use their facilities while providing advice and other support such as ordering parts, which were readily available.

    Later, in Northern Europe (the Netherlands and Germany), I drove both Peugeots and Citroens, none of which belonged to me, so didn't have to pay for maintenance. It was a long time ago, so I don't remember which one had the hydraulic lift, but one of them did. Whichever, whatever, they cruised the autobahn equal to others, or at least kept up speed.

    Shit, who cares? All I know is those Frenchie conveyances provided reliable transportation and I didn't have to maintain them, except for the Renault noted above.

    All that aside, would go with German and Japanese engineering and design were I still able to own and maintain a car.

  • I only know the name Peugeot because it was a name of a building that I had to go to for some reason – maybe to file some papers? – in Luanda when I was there on business years ago.

  • Having been the proud owner of both a 1959 Hillman Minx convertible and a 1974 Peugeot 504 diesel, I would grudgingly give the automotive technical edge to the French, and as much as I enjoyed the eccentricity of both vehicles, I would strongly advise against the purchase of British or French vehicles as reliable transportation. That being said, I'd love to have the little Hillman back just for fun.

  • The first steam powered vehicle may have been the French Cugnot tractor in the mid 1700s, so the French have a long history of powered land vehicles. The French also did a lot of research on engines and engine power. Carnot more or less invented thermodynamics in the early 1800s. The Fourier transform was developed to better understand heat transfer. The automobile engine was developed in the 1860s and early versions were patented and manufactured by the French, Belgians and Germans.

    A friend of mine's family had a Peugeot in the 1960s. It was a pretty good car. He also had a Peugeot 10 speed bicycle which was a rarity back in those days of Sturmey Archer 3 speeds. The car had an engine crank that you could slip into place and crank start the engine if the battery ran out. It also had a sunroof which could slam shut in a accident, so my friend's farmer used to joke that guillotine was French for sunroof.

    We drove a Renault 10 on one of our European vacations, and were pretty happy with it. More recently, a friend of mine had one of those bouncing air sprung Citroens, and I have to admit it was a pretty snazzy looking car, just right for a guy who wore a fedora. I really don't know why French cars never got more love. I always gathered it was the English cars that were notorious for their mechanical problems. We once saw an MG parked on the street with a bumper sticker noting that "all parts falling off this vehicle are of the finest English workmanship".

  • Oh, yeah, and not that it matters shit, but I once owned an MGB convertible, British Motor Racing Green, with a leather cockpit and hardwood dash. Pushed a button to kick it into overdrive. 3 carbs in a row. Fun racing down Seattle streets and kicking it on the northern backroads, not so fun paying mechanic bills. That old Renault in southern Spain on the other hand . . .

  • I remember the TV ads after the Renault-AMC merger.

    "French Engineering!!! American Manufacturing!!!"

    presented without irony.

  • I always thought the most maligned manufacturer was FIAT as it was the acronym for: Fix It Again Tony. ;)

    Peugeots, Renaults and Citroëns are quite popular here in Aus. and I have several friends who either own or aspire to own one.

    AMC. Now there's a name I haven't heard in years—at least since 2012.

    But as a manufacturer: WT…. Pacers and Gremlins? The Eagle—had a one of those—was a fantastic concept, just shittily executed. No surprises there. Effectively it was rebirthed by Subaru and I can see echoes of it in the XV and newer Outback lines—sorry don't know what they're called in the US. It's just… well… Japanese. Same thing Mazda did with the Lotus Élan, which was a beautiful car, unfortunately it held its fluids worse than a sieve.

    As a side note, Citroën during the Depression structured the business so that he could avoid layoffs.

  • The AMC Eagle is the direct ancestor of the modern car-based SUV. Prior to the Eagle all 4wd (American) vehicles were pretty much based on truck chassis, such as the Jeep Wagoneer.

    The success of the redesigned Cherokee and all the follow-on SUV's started with the Eagle.

  • English cars were known for oil leaks and electrical problems mostly. Most of them used the notoriously unreliable Lucas electrics.

    "There is a Prince of Darkness and his name is Lucas."

    "Why do the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators."

    "Why does the sun never set on the British Empire? Because they don't trust their cars in the dark."

    It's been said that the headlight switch on a Triumph had three positions:

    "Off", "Dim" and "Flicker"

  • Pugeot story – next door neighbor had a diesel. At some point his glow plugs started going bad and it was going to cost him (I recall – could be wrong) around $600 to fix. this was around 1983 so that was a lot of cash. He just cranked it over for about 15 minutes until the glow plugs caught – this at 6am, just outside my bedroom window. Damn I was glad when he got that fixed.

    In the mid-60's my dad got my mom a 60 MGA. We did all the work ourselves and it ran like a top (though we did seek professional help on the carburetion). Once, though, my brother pulled it up to a Pizza Hut and the left front wheel assembly fell onto the ground. turns out the bolts had sheared away from the assembly (weirdness, as they were fully screwed in). Second, I was driving it with my girlfriend and the car kept vibrating more and more and I slowed more and more, until I saw the right front wheel shoot off ahead of me and the car fell onto the disk brake. Lug nuts had unscrewed themselves. Loved driving the car, though.

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