Among the many highlights in Renault’s 120-year history is a little engine which became one of the most successful ever created in Europe. Originally named Sierra, but now known as the Cléon-Fonte, it was produced in phenomenal quantities in countries around the world for nearly half a century. All motoring enthusiasts should know about it, and if you don’t, you will soon.
Why it was needed
Renault had developed a small engine called named after its Billancourt factory in Paris for its first post-War model, the 4CV, and continued to use it for many years in small cars such as the Dauphine pictured above. It was produced in several sizes from 603cc to 845cc, which was enough at the time, but by the early 1960s it was clear that a more powerful alternative was required.
The Cléon-Fonte first appeared in the sportiest version of the Floride (or Caravelle as it was known in the UK and US), a sports car based on the Dauphine but with bodywork designed by Italian company Ghia. Introduced in 1962, it was named after the Cléon factory in Normandy – opened four years earlier and still going strong today – where most examples were built, and the cast iron (fonte in French) used to make the cylinder block.
The Renault 8
Just a few months after the high-performance Floride/Caravelle arrived, Renault launched the 8, a car that would now be thought of as a supermini. Every version used the Cléon-Fonte, initially in 956cc form, though the engine would later be enlarged to 1,108 and 1,255cc during the lifetime of the 8 and the longer but mechanically similar 10, introduced in 1965.
The ultimate 8 was the Gordini, a quick road car for its time and, when modified, very successful in racing and rallying. Renault also produced a less powerful but still sporty version called the 8S.
Manufactured between 1959 and 1980, the Estafette was, along with the contemporary Citroen Type H, one of the most popular and characteristically French vans ever produced. Its layout was the exact opposite of the ones found in Renault’s small cars of the period, with the engine at the front and driving the front wheels. The Estafette was originally sold with the old Billancourt engine, but was offered with the Cléon-Fonte as soon as it became available in 1962.
The A110 was a beautiful little sports car built by a Renault dealer in Dieppe using parts from the Renault 8. Earlier and less powerful versions used the Cléon-Fonte engine in a variety of sizes from 956 to 1,255cc.
An aside: the other famous Cléon engine
The Cléon factory also produced a larger, aluminium-block engine called the Cléon-Alu. It made its debut in the radical 16 hatchback of 1968 and was later used in other Renaults and early versions of the Lotus Europa. The Cléon-Alu’s moment of glory came in 1973 when it powered the Alpine A110s which dominated the inaugural World Rally Championship, scoring 147 points to Fiat’s 84 and Ford’s 76.
The 4 was the first front-wheel drive Renault car, though designed at a time when the company was still producing rear-engined model in large numbers. Introduced in 1961, the 4 was an immediate hit, saving Renault from the financial near-disaster which erupted the previous year. Most 4s used the Billancourt engine, but the Cléon-Fonte was added to the range in 1978 and remained there until the 4’s long production run came to an end in the early 1990s.
Perhaps one of the less well-remembered Renaults of its era, the 6 was launched in 1968 with the old Billancourt engine. Two years later, Renault added the significantly more powerful Cléon-Fonte, a move welcomed by people who felt that the 6 had been far too slow up to that point.
The first front-wheel drive Renault designed from the start to use the Cléon-Fonte engine (now in 1,289cc form) was the 12, which was built between 1969 and 1980. There was also a Gordini version, though unlike the 8 Gordini it was fitted with a modified version of the Cléon-Alu.
The 15 and 17 were coupes based on the 12 and produced from 1971 to the end of the decade. The most common engine was the Cléon-Alu, but the Cléon-Fonte was used for cheaper versions of the 15.
One of the earliest modern front-wheel drive superminis, the 5 was produced in two generations from 1972 to 1996. Several engines were available, including in the early days the old Billancourt, but most used the Cléon-Fonte, now in sizes up to 1,397cc and in some cases turbocharged for extra performance.
Renault 5 Turbo
Not to be confused with the turbocharged front-wheel drive cars, the 5 Turbo of 1980 was a high-performance mid-engined two-seater with huge front and rear wings. The engine, amazingly, was still the Cléon-Fonte. In forced-induction 1,397cc form it produced around 160bhp, over three times the output of the 956cc Floride/Caravelle introduced 18 years earlier.
Rallying 5 Turbos
The entire purpose of the 5 Turbo was to give Renault a basis for a top-level rally car in the 1980s. With increasing power from the Cléon-Fonte engine it won four rounds of the World Rally Championship, three of them in the hands of Renault’s legendary driver Jean Ragnotti. Unfortunately, this was the period when four-wheel drive cars, starting with the Audi Quattro, began to dominate the sport. Despite being an exceptionally quick car of its type, the rear-wheel drive 5 Turbo couldn’t keep up with those.
The 18 was launched in 1978 as a replacement for the 12 and was also partly based on it. It was the largest car fitted with the Cléon-Fonte, which was used in 1,397cc form for the slower and cheaper versions. Others had the Cléon-Alu or the Douvrin, developed as a joint venture between Renault and Peugeot.
Based on the 18, the Fuego was much better-looking and technically more interesting, with a very aerodynamic body and – amazingly for the early 1980s – keyless remote central locking. As with the 18, customers who wanted to avoid high cost or performance had the option of choosing versions with the 1,397cc Cléon-Fonte engine.
Renault 9 and 11
The 9 and 11 of the 1980s were saloon and hatchback versions respectively of the same car, a successor to the not particularly successful 14. The 14 did not use the Cléon-Fonte engine but several versions of the 9 and 11 did, even in turbocharged form. 11 Turbos were used in rallying, though not with the same success as the 5 Turbo.
The 9 and 11 were replaced by a single model called the 19, though this was offered with a wider range of body styles including cabriolet as well as saloon (known as Chamade) and hatchback. By the time the 19 was launched in 1988 the Cléon-Fonte was 26 years old, but it was used in several versions of the new car. It did not, however, survive the 19’s replacement by the first-generation Megane in 1995.
The last Renault to go into production with the Cléon-Fonte under its bonnet was the first-generation Twingo, launched in 1993 and never officially sold in the UK. The engine was replaced in 1996 by a new unit called the D-Type.
The Cléon-Fonte was used by Dutch company Daf in its 55 and 66 models. Volvo bought out Daf and continued to manufacture the as well as using the Cléon-Fonte in the larger 300 series (pictured). Ford inherited the rights to produce it in South American models before creating its own version called the CHT. Romania’s Dacia, whose first car was a locally-built Renault 8 and is now a Renault subsidiary, continued using it in the 12-based 1310 model, which remained in production into the 21st century.
Dacia finally stopped using the Cléon-Fonte in 2004. It had been in production for 42 years, and although Renault has no record of total numbers it has been estimated that around 27 million were built. The American Chevrolet small-block has gone past the 100 million mark, but the Cléon-Fonte is certainly one of the most widely used European engines in history and deserves to be remembered with admiration and affection.