Luca de Meo loves cars. In recent years we have often mentioned how much the manager, who has now become CEO of Renault, has contributed to the development of very important models for this sector. He has been able to experience and touch the reality of different manufacturers more than anyone else. In the 1990s, at Renault, he contributed to the commercial success of the Clio and Twingo, both first-generation models.

In 1998, at Toyota Europe, he oversaw the launch of the first Yaris. In the 2000s he was in the Fiat Group with Serio Marchionne and then, after a period in the Volkswagen Group (not exactly a simple period given what he did with Seat and Cupra), he returned to Renault, where in just three years he managed to put the accounts back in order. Without going into too much detail on everything he has done, here we come to the present and the letter he wrote talking about the Renault 5, a very important project for him and for the relaunch of the brand.

He wanted to make the new Renault 5 'the backbone' of Renault's electric range, which is why it was on stage behind him (in the form of a concept car) while presenting the Renaulution plan. Here is what he tells 'car enthusiasts':

Thursday 2 July 2020, the day it all began. The story of a love affair with an orange mock-up. The story of the new R5. 

The day before, when everyone already had their heads on holiday - nothing more normal after weeks of lockdown, social distancing and mock-up life - I took to the road to work. To my great joy! After being appointed CEO of Renault in January, I had been waiting for this moment for months. Standing idly by is not like me. In my case, Covid was not to blame. There was a clause in my employment contract that I could not move from the Volkswagen Group, where I was managing Seat, to a competitor without taking a break. I had to adapt. I started to get serious when I joined the Billancourt office. I returned to the top management of the company where I had started my career in 1992, after completing my studies at Bocconi University in Milan. Renault is emerging from a long period of crisis. Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard, who summoned me - what a meeting! - has already started the work of relaunching the company. But the challenge looms large. Because the transition to electric mobility calls into question 140 years of certainties based on thermal engines.

In this interminable lockdown I have kept myself as busy as I could. I have read dozens of books and articles about the company, I have met an avalanche of former managers and partners who have spontaneously come to meet me. I did a lot of thinking. I thus gained an initial idea of the company's strengths and weaknesses. But, in reality, I still know little or nothing about it. For me, it is the products that are the crux of the war. I am dying to know what projects Renault's designers are working on. Especially on the electric car front. Starting from this basis, I will be able to get to the heart of the matter, to build a relaunch strategy. My first decision was to ask them to present them to me.

Luca de Meo scrive una lettera sulla Renault 5

Luca de Meo writes a letter about the Renault 5

A fluorescent orange mock-up

The day after taking up my new post, I head for the Guyancourt Technocentre, located south-west of Paris, some thirty minutes from the Billancourt site. It is in this heavily protected place that so many innovations of the Renault brand are thought up, realised and tested and the models of the future are invented. A concentration of grey matter that brings together 12,000 engineers, designers and technicians. I ask that all projects under development be grouped together in the same building. Among them are two small cars for international markets and a large electric model. But I must confess that I am not fully satisfied. I realise that a complete overhaul of the range will be necessary. Then suddenly, as I walk into the building, I see a life-size mock-up, which looks awfully like an R5.

Impossible not to see it, with that fluorescent orange colour! Moved by curiosity, I ask my interlocutors at the Technocentre: 'What is this? "Ė just the experimental work of a designer, François Leboine, an exercise in style,' they reply. This does not detract from the fact that the Group Design Manager, with some cunning, placed it in a spot where he was certain I would see it. "Ė a proposal for a small electric car," I am told, "but it was rejected, because the company does not want to launch into retro-design."  I take a long look at the object. It seems very clear to me. And immediately I make the decision. "Ė exactly what we have to do! Try to put this design on a platform with four wheels. It has to be a 100 per cent electric car. We will make the Renault 5!"

Of course, in making this decision, I think of the successful relaunch of the Cinquecento, which I had the joy of driving at Fiat in 2007. A planetary success! But it's certainly not my only source of inspiration, on the contrary... All the big car manufacturers have one or more models in their range that, more than others, represent their DNA. They are their classics. Among them Renault counts the 4L, the R5, Twingo, Espace and Kangoo. Some, like the VW Golf and Mercedes S-Class, evolve over the years without ever disappearing from the range. Others, like the 500 and Mini, return to the limelight after having long been eclipsed. And it almost always works.

In its early life, the Renault 5 made history for the brand. I bet it has all the credentials to do so a second time. There is a parallel with what is happening today that jumps out at you. In the 1970s, it was she who enabled the company to recover after the oil crisis and succeed in the transition to energy saving. Those were the days when it was feared that oil might disappear or, at the very least, become scarce and therefore very expensive. Fifty years later, the new Renault 5 is to become the symbol of another recovery, one that will propel Renault straight into the select club of electric vehicle champions.

Luca de Meo scrive una lettera sulla Renault 5

The sketches of the new Renault 5

Accessible, yet trendy

This insight takes me on a journey back in time, to the origins of a car that has become a cult. To get to know it better and draw more inspiration from it.  

In 1972, the year the Renault 5 was launched, I was living in Africa. I was five years old, but already everything with wheels fascinated me, I wanted to make it my profession. For my family, there was only Fiat. I remember my mother had a Fiat 127, the antagonist of the R5. But as we frequented French-speaking circles a lot, I had noticed that the mothers of my French friends had Renault 5s instead. To be honest, I was a bit too young to grasp the scale of it all. It was only a few years later, with hindsight, that I discovered the genius of this car. So much innovation and audacity in just 3.52 metres... crazy! A car bursting with modernity, embodying the spirit of the 1970s, an allegory of pop art. With its cute 'face', acid colours, shiny orange skai seats, three-door bodywork, plastic bumpers, never-seen-before side guards, integrated door handles...

The little Renault had immediately imposed a new concept: that of the affordable but 'trendy' car, a term not yet used in those days. At the same time practical and imaginative, useful and rewarding for the driver. To me, it reminded me a little of a miniature R16, that large family car that came onto the market in 1965 and which, long before the Golf, had innovated with its tailgate that gave it a look somewhere between saloon and station wagon. Just like its predecessor, the R5 was equipped with this valuable feature that enlarged the boot and facilitated access. Having an R5 didn't say much about the owner's standard of living. But it did say a lot about his lifestyle. For the first time, a Copernican revolution... the standing of the vehicle was not related to its size.

One had to dare to imagine such a cocktail! And they had dared. For a start, the designer, Michel Boué, one of Renault's ten studio stylists. A discreet person, who until then had not 'achieved anything remarkable and none of his ideas had been adopted', according to the head of the Research Department at the time. One could have hoped for a better debut... but Boué was a passionate man and a disciple of Raymond Loewy, a pioneer of industrial design.

The mantra of this French-American star was 'Ugliness does not sell'. His obsession was to reconcile aesthetics and practicality. His main clients were Shell, Coca-Cola, Studebaker, Lucky Strike... With this source of inspiration, Michel Boué presented two sketches for the top secret 122 project on 26 April 1967. All the ingredients were already there. Squared-off look, tailgate, 'bratty' grille, large glass surfaces... The author of this masterstroke described it as 'a small object with supple forms, in harmony with the feminine aesthetic'. Bold, but prescient.

Women wanted to emancipate themselves and go to work, there was a need for a second car in the family. More unique than rare, the model unveiled that day was almost immediately approved. Good first! To get straight to the point, the designer had relied on another Renault innovation, the Renaultrama, which allowed the 1/5th scale model to be seen in driving conditions, with a landscape running behind it. In short, a kind of virtual reality ante litteram!

Another man who took risks was the boss of the time, Pierre Dreyfus. Having immediately found the new little car 'fun and friendly', he said to himself "bingo!" This enthusiasm had spread to all the Régie teams that brought the project to life. Because, among other qualities, the R5 also had the ability to 'galvanise the troops'.

Renault 5 E-Tech Electric

 Renault 5 E-Tech Electric 

For ten years at the top

This confirms my idea that a car can have charisma. A unique case, to my knowledge, in the world of industry. A mix of seduction and conviction. That indescribable gift that distinguishes the person (in this case, the object) that has it from the masses. It is a theme more topical than ever in our industry, subject to so many existential questions. We must ask ourselves the question: how can we still make people dream with a steering wheel and four wheels? How to make the new generations fall in love with cars? How to reconcile passion and new environmental constraints?

The first R5 was, in all this, a magnificent source of inspiration. It was able to break the mould, while staying within its financial limits. It would have been easy to play the seductress with an unlimited budget. But it wasn't. The small city car had to get smart. The styling was revolutionary, but the mechanics traditional. Engine in longitudinal and not transverse position, transverse torsion bars at the rear, platform taken from the 4L, flat window panes, easier to work with.

The Renault 5 was also innovative from an industrial point of view. It was the first to take advantage of two technological advances that would revolutionise the automotive industry: computer-aided design (CAD) and the installation of the first industrial robots at the Flins pilot site. It was thus possible to contain development costs and concentrate investment on glamour.  

A winning bet because, in a short time, sales took off. By 1973, they had already exceeded 100,000 units, allowing them to take 5th place on the market. The following year, the R5 became the best-selling car in France, and remained so for nearly a decade! Until a certain 205 made its appearance. A total of 3.5 million units were sold until it was withdrawn from the market in 1985 (even this one got it right... with its last advert: 'Goodbye cruel world!'). Disproportionate figures!

To achieve this astounding result, the little Renault - and this is what I like about her too - had to fight like a lioness. It relentlessly challenged itself, tested new versions and broke new ground. The TS with its integrated perforated seats, the ultra-powerful Alpine, the body-builder Turbo with a mid-engine and monstrous mudguards, the saloon with a longer wheelbase and classic rear boot for the Spanish market, the TX with its exquisite finish, the five-door, the 'Le Car' for the American market. And even an electric version - even then! - developed in collaboration with EDF: lead-acid batteries, 80 km/h top speed, 110 km range.

From time to time, it made a misstep. But no matter! One is entitled to make mistakes and then it went on the attack again with a new armamentarium. All this audacity could be found in its advertisements, which appealed to a sense of humour and drawings. An absolute novelty, for those times, in the world of automobiles. Eyes instead of headlights, a mouth instead of a number plate: an astonishing anthropomorphism!

The Renault 5 was anything but a spoilt child: born a year before the 1973 oil crisis, it grew with the end of the Glorious Thirties. Many European models did not make it through this almost epochal change. But she did! She even allowed the company to ride out the crisis. As proof of its responsiveness, a GTL version came out in 1976. Designed to minimise consumption, it was the first car to drop below the symbolic threshold of 5 litres per 100 km.

So much drama - I must admit - sparked envy and jealousy. In Italy, but not only!  I know of many competitors who would have paid an arm and a leg to sneak into the R5's 'lair' and steal its secrets.

Natural descent

Today, I imagine her, from the height of her Olympus, looking tenderly and passionately at her little electric sister taking her first steps and saying to her, as in an advertisement of the time: 'Renault 5, une sacrée famille'! (what a wonderful family). This natural bond strengthens my conviction. Onwards and upwards!

Before I leave Guyancourt on 2 July 2020, I ask the teams to transform the orange mock-up into a real car as soon as possible. This means making a few modifications, but it is clearly feasible. During the summer, I discover the first sketches on a screen. In October, it is already ready. Laurens van den Acker's designers and Gilles Le Borgne's engineers took up the challenge at lightning speed. Not forgetting the contribution of Gilles Vidal, who took over as Renault design director in November. The pace certainly cannot be slowed down. The stakes are so high that the development time usually required for new models must be drastically reduced.

I want to make the new Renault 5 the backbone of our electric range. In fact, when I present the Renaulution plan on 14 January 2021, the model, which was already ready at concept-car level, is already on stage behind me. I chose it as a symbol of the Group's new strategy. And it had only been six months since the engineers got the go-ahead on 2 July! Incredible as it may seem, this is the very car whose series production would start in 2024!

I had already seen this with the return of the Fiat 500, some products are magic. There is no need to talk about it for weeks, everyone agrees on what needs to be done. And what needs to be done is done. There is no downtime. When teams revive a car that has left such good memories, they put a lot of love into it. It is a good sign for the future, because the customer sees and recognises all this love in the car.

Day after day, I follow the birth with passion. This is my deepest nature: I care about every detail of the new models. I am a freak, I am crazy about the products. I have toured the new R5 dozens of times during its evolution, observing it almost obsessively. Intensive and critical sessions that led to small and big changes. Like, for example, the gear lever on the steering wheel, the colour of which will be freely selectable.

I was inspired by lipstick cases to impose it! One of my obsessions is to make sure that the design of the car is identical to the initial concept. In my opinion, that is the only way to sell a dream come true. I took care of that myself and that allowed us to keep the small charging indicator mounted on the front bonnet. 

One of the most exciting moments of these three years of development was when I was able to take the wheel for the first time. On 3 July 2023, exactly three years after my first visit to the Technocentre, I was invited to drive it at Aubevoye, on one of our test circuits, a hundred kilometres from Paris. Nobody could recognise it because it was hidden by camouflage. I got behind the wheel flanked by one of the engineers in charge of the project. Pure happiness!

The performance and driving sensations are spectacular. I congratulate my co-driver on that day. His response is not lacking in humour. "Ė the boss's car, no mistake!"  Hear, hear... Is Renault returning to being the human, friendly and easy-going company it always was, especially in its heyday? I fervently hoped so. And I thought reviving a cult car would help. We are on the right track!

Renault 5 E-Tech Electric 2024

The reference to the Renault 5 of the past can also be found in the cockpit

Rich in software

Cult car, but in step with the times. Behind the familiar shape, the new Renault 5 actually has very little to do with the previous model. We have made precise choices that give it a distinct personality. In the electric vehicle market, revolutionised by Elon Musk's Tesla and now shaken by the innovations of Chinese manufacturers, there is no place for products that are neither meat nor fish. It is impossible to be content with putting batteries in a traditional body...

The R5 takes up the challenge by focusing on a segment that has been neglected for the moment by the new players: that of the small, accessible city car. Packed with software and innovations, it aims to democratise electric modernity. In this sector, it all starts with the platform. Its is designed exclusively for electric traction. I had a long discussion with Renault's engineers. Some were in favour of a car that could also mount an internal combustion engine.

But in the end, the advantage is considerable. We are the first to make this choice in Europe. This gives us an advantage of at least two years over our competitors. Concretely, there are only four battery modules in the Renault 5, a significant optimisation compared to the usual models... and the competition. The savings in weight and space are really important. 

I also insisted on making this model a concentrate of interactive technology. The idea was to make it a 'useful' and 'living' companion.

Why useful? It is the first car capable of feeding decarbonised energy back into the electricity grid. An expensive technical choice for the manufacturer, but a brilliant one for the consumer: according to our studies, the latter will be able to save hundreds of euros on his electricity bill. 

Why 'alive'? The car will have an avatar called Reno that will navigate between the dashboard and the driver's smartphone. A small character with Artificial Intelligence, able to give driving tips and provide information in advance about the landscapes one is driving through. It will live and learn. A way of bringing more humanity to the car. And also a pinch of self-irony that only the big brands can afford to have. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, but with different touches, this Renault 5 will also have a pop! And all the advantages of a big one: thanks to the on-board system, remote diagnosis and updates will be possible. 

With its competitive price, it positions itself as a real game changer in the automotive industry. With 320 km of autonomy!

Made in France

Have we said it all? Not yet. The product is clearly very important to me. But this adventure also has another side to it, which is fundamental for France and for Renault. That of industrial recovery and the fight against decline. 

From an economic point of view, it would have been - by far - easier to produce the new Renault 5 in low-cost countries. Internally, I was strongly urged to do so. Once again, I listened to everyone's ideas, but I resisted. And I decided.

The mission of this car is to re-establish the link between Renault and France. No more of the concepts of deindustrialisation and relocation of production that were stuck to us until three years ago. My reasoning is based on a conviction that will never leave me: when you buy a car, you buy a piece of a country's industrial culture. If you uproot it by going to produce it elsewhere, it loses its soul. Behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo, for example, you think of the Italian roads you drive on your holidays. Behind the wheel of a Renault 5, you have to project yourself into a French environment. I am convinced that consumers are very sensitive to this. Provided, of course, that it does not cost more!

I won't say it was easy, but we succeeded. We are going to revitalise 'Made in France' without losing our pens... from a financial point of view. The new Renault 5 will be assembled in Douai in the Haute-France region. A clear reference to the original R5, which was the first to come off the production lines at this plant. Nearby, we developed a large ecosystem dedicated to electric cars, which we called ElectriCity.

It has led to the creation of over 700 new jobs in the region and a university training centre to support our teams in this project. Thanks to this launch, more than EUR 10 billion has been invested, directly or indirectly, in the region. A major industrial project is underway, consisting of two assembly plants and two gigafactories for batteries, including that of Verkor, a French start-up. The aim is to reduce the carbon footprint of this device: 80% of the suppliers are located within a 300 kilometre radius. This also reduces logistical costs and ecological impact.

We have been hunting for three years for unnecessary expenses and looking for all means to reduce cost prices. Unceasing work. Thus, we have drastically reduced the number of components used to make the cars. When I arrived at the company, it used to take up to 2,600 for a small model. This number is now down to less than 1,300 on average for the new models and even less than 1,100 for the Renault 5. This has many advantages: the car is quicker to assemble and quality takes a big step forward. But above all, the development time of the models is reduced from four to three years. I think it can even take even less. But there is no choice. 

The automotive industry must necessarily become more agile in order to cope with the technological transformations that will take place at an accelerated pace. In the battery industry, for example, it is not impossible that some plants will become obsolete before they are even inaugurated.

In developing this car, we have already learnt a lot. But it is only the first link in a long chain. On the same platform we will soon make the Renault 4 (another Group icon) and an Alpine. Then it will be the turn of the Twingo Electric and many others. The family will grow at a fast pace in the coming years. But I will always have an eye - with great excitement - on Renault 5 E-Tech Electric. My first child with Renault.

Luca de Meo, CEO of the Renault Group

Gallery: Renault 5 E-Tech Electric 2024 in action