If I were a betting man I’d be prepared to wager a small sum that most of the French cars you can think of are quite small. The most famous, such as the Citroen 2CV, Peugeot 205 and Renault Clio, are quite small, and although French manufacturers also build medium-sized family cars in large numbers they seem unwilling to produce anything significantly bigger unless it’s an SUV or an MPV.
When they do, sales in the UK, at least, are usually poor. For one reason or another, we don’t seem to want a French badge on anything that would dwarf a Ford Focus.
However, this has not stopped the French from building more substantial vehicles from time to time. France has produced a greater number of large saloons and hatchbacks than most of us realise.
The Royale was one of the grandest cars ever built, not only in France but anywhere in the world. More than 20 feet long, and with a 12.7-litre engine, it was furiously expensive, which didn’t really matter because it was intended mostly to be bought by heads of state.
Unfortunately, it was introduced in the late 1920s, just before the start of the Great Depression, when even heads of state had to keep an eye on their budgets. Production was well within single figures.
The car may have been a failure, but its engine wasn’t. Hundreds were used to power French trains which continued in operation until the 1950s.
Hispano-Suiza’s name is based on the fact that it was a Spanish company with a Swiss engineer, the brilliant Marc Birkigt.
However, it also had a successful French subsidiary, which among other things was responsible for a lot of the production of the H6. The H6 was designed as a luxury car, but it was also powerful enough to win races.
In December 1999 it was announced that the DS had been voted third in the Car of the Century awards, behind the Model T Ford and Mini but ahead of the Volkswagen Beetle and Porsche 911.
Produced from 1955 to 1975, it had swooping bodywork, hydropneumatic suspension, cornering headlights and high-level rear indicators. These are familiar features today, but at the time they made the DS seem like a car from another planet.
The SM of 1970 to 1975 was nearly as outlandish as the DS, and unlikely as this may seem it had a Maserati engine (Citroen having recently taken on ownership of Maserati for what turned out to be a brief period).
At 2.7 litres the engine was relatively small, due to heavy French taxation on larger ones. Even so, it wasn’t until 1990 that Citroen put a more powerful car into production.
Launched nearly two decades after the DS, the CX seemed fairly conventional in comparison, but in its own right it was still more innovative than most cars of its size, and was named European Car of the Year in 1975.
The CX remained on the market until 1991. Some versions, including the GTi Turbo and the diesel-engined Turbo-D, were impressively quick, and the CX built up a reputation for doing well in tough rally raids.
XM production overlapped slightly with that of the CX. The newer model was named European Car of the Year in 1990 and remained on sale for a decade after that.
It was a big step forward from the by now old-fashioned CX, and later XMs with three-litre 24-valve V6 petrol engines at last outpowered the SM of many years earlier.
Despite all this, the XM was never a big seller in the UK, where the very idea of a large French car by now seemed almost ridiculous.
Citroen launched the C6 five years after the demise of the XM. This was an exceptionally high-quality car with an almost unbelievable amount of rear passenger room and, in the case of petrol-engined models (but not so much the diesels) excellent ride quality – a key feature of most large French models.
Unfortunately, it never really caught on here, and there are reports of drastic unreliability from people who bought their examples secondhand. Production stopped in 2012. After an almost uninterrupted run of over half a century, starting with the launch of the DS, Citroen has not sold a comparable car in Europe since then.
It does sell a car called the C6 in China, but it has nothing to do with the model shown here.
In its early days, Peugeot was known for building small and medium-sized cars. The 601 was an exception, being considerably bigger than the Type 183 which it theoretically replaced.
The 601 was available with several body styles, but the engine was always a 2.1-litre six-cylinder.
Production lasted only from mid 1934 to the end of the following year. It would be four decades before Peugeot made a return visit to the upper end of the market.
Peugeot’s next large car was the 604, introduced in 1975. It had very little connection with the 601 except that both cars had six-cylinder engines.
The one used in the 604, sometimes known as the Douvrin engine, was developed jointly by Peugeot, Renault and Volvo and appeared in a great many cars including the DeLorean DMC-12. Another option was an extremely early example of a turbo diesel fitted to a European car.
The 604 was reasonably successful to begin with, but sales faded during its ten-year production line. Peugeot, however, had got the taste for building large cars, and waited four years rather than forty to launch its next one.
Closely related to the Citroen XM but with very similar styling to Peugeot’s own, smaller 405, the 605 arrived in 1989.
This was another large French car which struggled to make an impact outside its home country. The 605 remained in production for ten years, but had been abandoned by the end of the century.
It was a similar story with the 607, which like its predecessor lasted for ten years without making more than the smallest dent in the public consciousness.
Unlike the 605, the 607 had the advantage of not looking almost exactly like a much cheaper car in the same showroom, but few people in the UK can have been aware of it. Or, as one journalist put it, “If you started at Land’s End and asked everyone you met to name the first Peugeot that came to mind, you would probably be north of Inverness before you found anybody who gave the 607 as an answer.”
Roughly halfway through its life cycle, in late 2006, Peugeot said it expected to sell only about a thousand 607s in the UK the following year, though this was higher than Citroen’s estimate for the C6.
Peugeot 508 (first generation)
In 2010, just when it seemed that Peugeot would never make a successful large car, the company launched the 508. Related to the Citroen C5, it was considerably better than the three models which had come before it.
The range included the 508 RXH, an estate with greater than standard ride height and a hybrid powertrain consisting of a diesel engine at the front and an electric motor at the back.
Although the effect wasn’t as impressive in real life, Peugeot could – and did – reasonably claim that the RXH was a 200bhp car with four-wheel drive and very impressive official fuel economy and CO2 figures.
Peugeot 508 (second generation)
A new 508 came along in 2018, and almost immediately won awards for its styling, which was more modern and adventurous than that of any previous large Peugeot.
Media opinion was very varied (particularly on the subjects of practicality and the driving experience) but at least the car was being written about as a realistic rival to other cars in its class, which had not always been the case with its predecessors.
Once described as “the most glamorous of all the Renaults”, the 40CV was a large luxury car built between 1911 and 1928.
As well as appealing to the wealthy and fashionable, it was quick enough to win the 1925 Monte Carlo Rally. Heavily modified versions set 24-hour speed records that year and in 1926.
In the 1930s, Renault used the suffix ‘-stella’ in the names of its most expensive and luxurious cars. The first of these, and the immediate successor of the 40CV, was the Reinastella.
It was more modern than the 40CV, which had been designed before the First World War, and even larger. The Nervastella and Vivastella which followed were slightly smaller, but still very imposing.
The Reinastella name was used again in 1992 for a flying concept car designed to meet the needs of drivers in 2328. It was displayed at Disneyland Paris for ten years.
Renault 20 and 30
Renault was nationalised after the Second World War and concentrated for many years on building small, inexpensive models. In 1975 it ventured back into the large-car class with the 30, one of the first cars to use the six-cylinder Douvrin engine co-developed with Peugeot and Volvo.
The most expensive Renault of its time, it was joined by the 20 (pictured), which was cheaper and had a smaller four-cylinder engine and different headlights.
In 1984, the 25 took over from the 20/30 as Renault’s flagship model. The company put a lot of work into aerodynamic efficiency with this car, but was more cautious with the styling, which resembled that of the smaller 18.
Production stopped in 1992 to make way for the Safrane.
Although it was a completely new model, the Safrane was similar to the 25 in that both had very unadventurous styling.
Faced with enormous opposition from the German manufacturers which by now had this sector of the market almost to themselves, the Safrane was abandoned in 2000 and replaced shortly afterwards by a car which no one could describe as unadventurous.
Renault Vel Satis
Once the Safrane had been discontinued, Renault’s then chairman Louis Schweitzer admitted, “We have to acknowledge that it was a flop in major markets for the top of the range, such as Germany. We learned our lesson and in future we will emphasise our originality, putting forward distinctive designs that stand out from conventional saloons.”
The result of this policy was the Vel Satis. Renault’s design team, now led by Patrick le Quement, really let rip, producing a shape which resembled absolutely nothing else on the market.
It didn’t go down well with the British public. Renault produced the Vel Satis from 2002 to 2009, but its UK arm gave up in 2005 due to very low sales. A successor called the Latitude was launched in 2010 but has never been sold here.
At around the same time that it created the Vel Satis and the controversial second-generation Megane, Renault brought out the even more unusual Avantime.
Developed by Matra, the Avantime was a sort of cross between an MPV and a coupe, though without the interior space of the former or (despite a three-litre V6 engine) the sportiness of the latter.
Although it still has its supporters, the Avantime was not a success. Renault gave up on it after just two years.