Founding and early years (1898–1918)
The Renault corporation was founded in 1899 as Société Renault Frères by Louis Renault and his brothers Marcel and Fernand. Louis was a bright, aspiring young engineer who had already designed and built several prototypes before teaming up with his brothers, who had honed their business skills working for their father’s textile firm. While Louis handled design and production, Marcel and Fernand managed the business.
In 1903, Renault began to manufacture its own engines; until then it had purchased them from De Dion-Bouton. The first major volume sale came in 1905 when Société des Automobiles de Place bought Renault AG1 cars to establish a fleet of taxis. These vehicles were later used by the French military to transport troops during World War I which earned them the nickname “Taxi de la Marne.” By 1907, a significant percentage of London and Paris taxis had been built by Renault. Renault was also the best-selling foreign brand in New Yorkin 1907 and 1908. In 1908 the company produced 3,575 units, becoming the country’s largest car manufacturer.
The brothers recognised the value of publicity that participation in motor racing could generate for their vehicles. Renault made itself known through succeeding in the first city-to-city races held in Switzerland, producing rapid sales growth. Both Louis and Marcel raced company vehicles, but Marcel was killed in an accident during the 1903 Paris-Madrid race. Although Louis never raced again, his company remained very involved, including Ferenc Szisz winning the first Grand Prix motor racing event in a Renault AK 90CV in 1906.
Louis took full control of the company as the only remaining brother in 1906 when Fernand retired for health reasons. Fernand died in 1909 and Louis became the sole owner, renaming the company Société des Automobiles Renault (Renault Automobile Company).
Renault fostered its reputation for innovation from very early on. At the time, cars were luxury items. The price of the smallest Renaults at the time were 3000 francs (₣); an amount equal to ten years pay for the average worker. In 1905, the company introduced mass production techniques and Taylorism in 1913.
Renault manufactured buses and commercial cargo vehicles in the pre-war years. The first real commercial truck from the company was introduced in 1906. During World War I, it branched out into ammunition, military aircraft engines (the first Rolls-Royce aircraft engines were Renault V8 units) and vehicles such as the revolutionary Renault FTtank. The company’s military designs were so successful that Louis was awarded the Legion of Honour for his company’s contributions. The company exported engines to American automobile manufacturers for use in such automobiles as the GJG, which used a Renault 26 horsepower (19 kW) or 40 hp (30 kW) four-cylinder engine.