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Le Project: 1980 Renault Le Car

Who remembers the Renault Le Car? It was the little French automobile that was really a Renault 5 that was rebranded and sold through American Motors dealers in the 1970s and 1980s. Though popular on its home turf, it wasn’t so much on U.S. soil even though it offered great gas mileage at a time when that had become increasingly important. This 1980 edition had a new engine installed five years ago but barely runs now after overheating. Located in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, this interesting little car is available here on eBay where bidding has only attracted $1,025 thus far.

The Renault 5 was sold in France from 1972 to 1996, but in the U.S. from 1976 to 1984. At first, it was offered by Renault’s dealer network of 250 locations, but when they produced lackluster results, Renault cut a deal with AMC in 1979 to sell the little machines on their lots, which had a broader reach at 1,300 dealerships. That’s when the decision was made to rebrand the car in North America as Le Car. So, both Renault and AMC were both winners in the deal, right? Perhaps, but sales in the U.S. never topped 37,000 units. As the 1980s rolled on, the two companies would get further involved and AMC built the Alliance in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Le Car was not only economical, but it performed well, too. With a 1,289-cc inline-4 that produced 50 to 60 hp (depending on the year), it was a major player in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) “Showroom Stock Class C”. It’s doubtful that the seller’s car ever won any awards, but it’s managed to survive for 43 years, though it’s going to need a lot of work now.

This little vehicle received a new motor in 2018 and we’re told it “drove like a rocket” (was the replacement stock or souped up?). However, after an overheating incident, the compression is low in three of the four cylinders and will need some further work. A Weber carburetor kit comes with the deal, along with an old radiator and three extra wheels and tires. The clutch was also reworked five years ago, and the tires and brakes are thought to be good.

The interior looks quite nice, but the body and paint are going to need attention. There’s rust present in several places, but if it ends up being too much to patch, how hard would it be to locate any replacement sheet metal (if it goes that far)? This interesting artifact has only had two owners according to its AutoCheck report, and that may help explain why it still exists today. When was the last time you saw a Le Car?


  1. Howard A Member

    Oh, these were dismal days for my hometown brand. AMC had sunk to a new low. Just think for a second, what despair we went through, a what now? we gasped. Okay, Renault wasn’t Toyota, AMC desperately needed some econobox, and quick. The LeCar seemed like a good fix and it was. Coming from Milwaukee, I remember, AMC dealers were failing fast, and these were sold by the most unlikely dealers, with poor results. A prominent Pontiac dealer, falling on hard times with gas guzzlers, took these on to bolster sales. Far as the cars go, I think they were good cars, not great, but just what we needed. Simple wheels that got outstanding mileage, regardless of the “comforts” we had to do away with. Like all these small cars then, the metal, if you can call it that, was thin, and many had rust from the dealer. Pretty obvious, the original motor puked, was replaced and not driven. They, like most things French, got picked on, but I thought they were not bad cars, regardless of the AMC affiliation. The Alliance that followed, boy howdy, that’s a different story.

    Like 8
    • JustPassinThru

      They were not good cars. They were almost as bad as Yugos. Two years seemed to be all they would last.

      In my salad days, on foot and broke, I saw one for sale, $500 at a local Pontiac dealer. I went over; the floor-walker sales-kid (fresh out of high school and in a Men’s Wearhouse suit) took me over to the object of interest.

      We fired it up, and I got it going down the street. With 28,000 miles on it, something was definitely loose in the chassis; and when I stepped on the brakes (at 18 mph) a loud grinding noise and shudder went through the purported car.

      “Just stop,” the kid said. “This car is not for sale. I’ll walk back and get you a ride; but don’t drive this any further.”

      We were only three blocks from the dealer, so I just walked back with him. He hadn’t anything to offer in its place – they wanted that thing GONE.

      My experience was probably typical. I noticed they came, and they went, and left little trace. And this one…guy replaces a motor and the replacement burns out? Definite Yugo vibe going on…

      AMC really picked a winner in that search for a parent corporation to help it out…

      Like 7
      • That AMC guy

        I remember many years ago seeing one of these with the custom license plate “LE JUNK”.

        Like 7
      • alphasud Member

        Actually AMC did pick a winner. Had it not been for the Renault cash infusion we would have never seen the Jeep Cherokee XJ and ZJ. I think it’s no dispute those were great rigs.
        No doubt the LeCar was never a Honda but it was a success in Europe and fit the needs of the buyer. I think it boils down to a failed attempt to integrate AMC with Renault which created poor dealer support. If they created a separate dealer and support and been in tune with the American public it might have worked.

        Like 9
    • George Veenstra

      No, they were one of the worse cars ever made. As a car dealer who witnessed the fleeing as one arrived at the auction block. There were few that compared to an empty block as the LeCar.

      Like 3
  2. RayT Member

    I must say I never had any overheating issues with my three “stock” R5s. They had aluminum heads on iron blocks, so I’d guess low coolant, a water pump failure or any number of other causes would bring trouble. Have to keep any eye on those temperature gauges!

    Oddly enough, just removing/bypassing the emissions controls would add noticeable power (don’t ask how I know). Renault did a genuinely lousy job adding a bunch of vacuum lines, an air pump and messing with the timing to make these “clean.”

    One of the “comforts” one didn’t have to give up was ride quality. These were about as smooth on the road as any midsize car, and the seats were amazingly good. I had a friend who transplanted R5 seats into his Datsun 510. Later, he bought a complete R5….

    So not the best cars ever, but certainly not as bad as many make them out to be. For the (current) price, I’d be seriously tempted if it were closer. If overheating is this car’s worst feature, I suspect a relatively easy fix

    Like 11
    • alphasud Member

      I agree this would be a fun father and son project to pull and rebuild the engine. I’m sure you can still source R5 engine parts. And if you are not in an emissions required state you could definitely have fun with this one. I also agree not being close to this car is my saving grace. “Look, French squirrel”. Crap there goes another grand from my wallet!

      Like 4
      • RayT Member

        I don’t know if they are even possible to find these days, but the Euro-spec R5 Alpine engine of course bolts up to the engine mounts and bellhousing and requires nothing more difficult than a slight re-routing of exhaust pipe and throttle linkage.

        I bought a car that had been so converted and the difference between 56 horsepower and 93 was just plain stunning.

        It’s too bad the parts from the old Renault Racing catalog are no longer available. They had Alpine engines, 5-speed transaxles, those neat slotted Alpine wheels, heavy-duty antiroll bars, torsion bars, etc., etc.

        Like 5
    • Mark P.

      Had that issue with mine. Water pump failed on a subzero night. Thought I could limp home a short distance, but it didn’t work. Found out later they used a pressurized cooling system that was an SOB to repressurize once this happened. Pulled the Temp Valve and it ran fine afterward. Had a lot of adventures in mine & managed to get it to 140,000 miles before I drove it to a junkyard.
      Wasn’t really built for the way we drive cars in the US.

      Like 4
  3. Vair Nut

    I had a brand new Red Stick 1987 GTA convertible and loved it. I had 0 problems and my only complaint was keeping and finding tires for it. This was the early days of narrow sidewalls for me. Loved that car. Turned heads, handled like a rocket on rails and even got decent gas mileage when I kept my foot out of it. I got a decent trade in for it when it was time to get married and start a family. I used to see it from time to time the following summer. Whoever the new caretaker was always kept it looking new.

    Like 6
  4. Joshua

    My brother had a car like this in 1987 but we did not call it a LeCar we called it a Leaker because it leaked oil, anti-freeze, transmission fluid and windshield washer fluid. He loved it, me not so much but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you buy it just put a pee pee pad under it.

    Like 5
    • Kevin Griffith

      Went to the German Grand Prix races in 1978 & 1979. Watching the Renault 5 race was a blast!

      Like 3
  5. Bud Lee


    Like 6
  6. DW

    Fun fact: the “last known AMC dealer” located in Pikeville NC, decided to close up shop as opposed to selling Renault cars. Said dealership is now a mere shell of itself but there are a few unsold AMC’s on the lot. Google “Collier motors” for more information.

    Like 4
    • JustPassinThru

      The owner died a few months back, and the family or executor is clearing the lot. I’d be surprised if there’s still any cars left…the dealership structure was a mold-encrusted health hazard with a collapsing roof; and the cars that were there were stored either in the open…with grass coming through the blacktop of the lot…or inside, while the roof slowly succumbed to nature.

      Kind of a sad story. I read about it a long time ago – the guy was really sold on Nash cars, was proud to be a Nash dealer; and thought modern AMC was pretty good. But the Renaults…I believe in a Youtube video interview, he said he sold a few Alliances, and customer complaints were such that he just decided he’d only order AMC models. When AMC discontinued passenger cars, he wasn’t allowed to only order Jeeps, so he surrendered the franchise and thought he’d sell and fix used AMCs.

      Like 4
  7. Frank Drackman

    Circa 1981 a friend of mine traded in a nice 74′ Monte Carlo for one of these POS’s, remember blowing his doors off on the Interstate in my Pinto (he was in the LeCar, not the Monte)

    Like 8
  8. Yblocker

    The French Vega.

    Like 5
  9. AndyinMA

    I would have said I haven’t seen one in 30 years but last Thursday I saw one at a car show in north reading mass. It was great to see something other than the usual stuff!

    Like 5
  10. Maggy

    Sawzall , soil and flower seeds. You’ll be the talk of the town.

    Like 3
  11. CarNutDan

    My cousin had a yellow LeCar at one time. I think they are cool looking for a economy car. Back when Renault made these there was a company converting these into electric cars called lectric leopards. Google it.

    Like 2
  12. FrankD Member

    Now go find a R5 Turbo upgraded by SUN in Kalifornia. Thrill ride!

    Like 2
  13. Roy Marson

    I have owned several “Le Cars” as rental cars. They ride like a dream, grea gas mileage and perform well. However, they did blow head gaskets or so I thought…

    A mechanic familiar with the cars set me straight. They have a seal problem with the slide in piston shafts, not head gaskets. Seal these and they run great.

    Like 3
  14. Steveo

    R5 Turbo would be nice to have.

    Like 2
  15. Big C

    French garbage cans. AMC had a knack for making really bad, bad choices.

    Like 3
    • Karl

      French garbage cans. Love it! I remember the first one I ever saw thought it was ugly as sin and they never changed!

      Like 1
  16. Mike J

    Had a Renault Alliance in the early eighty’s. What you saved on gas you spent on mechanic’s to keep it going. Hard Pass.

    Like 2
  17. Norman "Pete" McGill

    Buy American ,a least you won’t need all those metric wrenches.

    Like 1
    • 67Firebird_Cvt 67Firebird_Cvt Member

      My 2017 F350 has metric bolts.
      Had to buy a new set of sockets.

      Like 2
      • maggy

        Metric nuts and bolts were a transition in 1978 -79. I remember replacing Idler arms and other various front end parts on GM cars from the 78-79 era at Firestone in the mid 80’s which were common wear parts and sometimes I used a metric socket and wrench and sometimes SAE. After late 79 it was all metric.That’s when I went to the Snap on guy on the truck and had to buy those dang metric sockets and wrenches. I remember changing two idler arms in one day on 2 different 79 Pontiac Bonnevilles and one was metric and one was SAE..It was either 5/8 bolt heads and 3/4 nuts or 15mm bolt heads and 18mm nuts.

        Like 3
  18. Jack Gray

    I never had Le Car, but I did have a used ’68 Renault R-10 with the rear water cooled engine and 4 speed trans. Drove that thing from South Jersey to Florida in ’76 and got 42 miles per gallon at the top end of the speed limit on I-95. Really comfortable seats and ride. Traded it in a few years later for a ’73 Renault Station Wagon, 1st year they went to front engine/front wheel drive. It, too, was a comfortable riding car, BUT the trans seals leaked like a sieve and had to be replaced twice. When a bolt broke holding the valve cover and sprayed oil all over under the hood, I got it fixed and traded it on a new American car 2 days later!

    Like 1
    • Yblocker

      My sister had 68 R-10, good little car. But 73 wasn’t the first year Renault went to front engine/front wheel drive, it was about 69, maybe earlier, in the R-16.

      Like 1
  19. MikeH

    Had one of these in France and loved it. It wasn’t fast but it was a blast to drive. Get behind a slow truck on a two lane road and slingshot it. Lay back 10 or 15 car lengths and when you saw an opportunity to pass coming up, you floored it. By the time you got to the back of the 18 wheeler, you were going 60-65 mph. If there was a car coming, you back off and try again. I don’t think you could roll an R5, but I came close. As the old saying goes: it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. They only made
    5 1/2 million of them–can’t be too bad.

    Like 1
  20. C Force

    I call it “Le Turd”,the French version of a Yugo.I remember seeing one of these on a episode of the A team.they cut it up and turned it into a armored car.a scrapper when it was new.

    Like 0
  21. 370zpp 370zpp Member

    Also in the early 80s, I worked at a Volvo dealership that also sold Renault. Our mechanics hated to see those Alliances and Encores come on. They didn’t even want to work on them. And for good reason.

    Like 1
  22. Sterling

    my sis had a used one for 5 years and head gasket was all she had to do to it. Know a family that got 4 Alliances (junked ones)after they recalled them, for parts. last fall i saw them taking some parts off of them. so all these years there still keeping one going off all these parts cars. i thinking there kids get the car and have to keep it going before giving it to the next kid learning how to drive. R5 is better than the Alliance! Alliance had a Elc dash that would go out on them. at less you could still drive without a dash back then. now i do not think you can.

    Like 2
    • Roy Marson

      I also have an Alliance convertible with the 1700 engine. It is an “interference engine” meaning that if the timing belt breaks, the valves hit the pistons. Mine did just that. But bought a parts car, pulled its engine and put in mine. Runs perfectly.

      Moral: With interference engines, change the timing belt every 30 K miles or 3 years.

      Like 0
  23. CCFisher

    Bizarre little cars. 3-bolt wheels (3 bolts is the minimum quantity required to hold the wheel in place – apparently, French engineers don’t believe in redundant safety), different wheelbase left and right due to the staggered transverse torsion bars in the rear suspension, and a front-wheel-drive transaxle ahead of the longitudinal engine.

    Like 2
  24. Chris Cornetto

    As the saying went..never buy a French car unless you live in France
    I had a 66 Caravelle but that a tale for another day. In the 80s at the yard they were called Le Turd. Folks drove, dumped, and gladly gave them to us for junk.. Matchbox made a little yellow one that rear hatch opens. Being older now cars like this require special treatment. It survived, it was crap long ago, a sad time for cars in general. They rusted, motors in some were…some exploded on impact, some sprayed for mosquitoes and some you could run faster up hill. I have an Opel Cadet, it requires patients and understanding and yes it is crap in many ways but it survived and so should this one. I have enough or I would buy it. The one plus today is psychiatrists and defense attorneys are cheaper than restoring cars. Many of us car people need the psychiatrist..

    Like 0

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