Governments have a patchy record when it comes to getting involved in the car industry. There have been a couple of successful bailouts of Chrysler (the recent one and another at the beginning of the 1980s) by the US government, which saw the car maker recover and pay back its state loans ahead of time.
Britain, by contrast, has an appalling record, from the ill-fated creation of British Leyland to using state subsidies to insist on car factories being built in unemployment blackspots, with predictably disastrous results. Much the same happened in Italy, when the government insisted state-owned Alfa Romeo build a new factory in the impoverished south of the country.
Even, in the last couple of years, when Jaguar Land Rover went to the government for a loan during the credit crunch, ministers insisted on having a say on future strategy. JLR, wisely, turned them down.So, with such a poor record of intervention, I was amazed to read reports that the French government has insisted that Renault boss Carlos Ghosn ensures that Renault makes the development of new upmarket models a ‘priority’.
Admittedly, the French government still has a 15 per cent stake in the car maker, but reports suggest that ministers have used Ghosn’s recent managerial disaster to force Renault into making concrete plans for the replacement of the Laguna and Espace and perhaps even the Vel Satis.
Ghosn is not in a strong position to resist after he oversaw the sacking of three senior executives for allegedly leaking secrets about’s Renault’s vital electric vehicle programme. Shortly after they were kicked out, it transpired that the three were innocent and Renault bosses had been hoaxed.
Patrick Pelata, Ghosn’s right-hand man, resigned to be replaced by Carlos Tavares. According to reports, the French Government used its leverage as a shareholder to force Ghosn to agree to both spend more time in France and to ramp-up domestic production and, most controversially, finally commit to replacing Renault’s fading big-car range.
The French government has a point, though. Renault looks like it is allowing itself to slide gently downmarket, concentrating on new versions of the Clio and Twingo, as well as building up the Dacia brand.
Having failed spectacularly to head upmarket with the Vel Satis, seen the Laguna’s sales collapse and watched as the ageing Espace is overtaken by the Ford S-Max, you can understand why Renault strategists might prefer to concentrate on winning the potential European market for battery-powered vehicles, rather than trying to compete in the shrinking Mondeo market and against the might of the German premium brands.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked a senior Renault boss if he knew what the next Laguna looked like. He said he didn’t, because the company was still deciding on a ‘concept’. With the French government on Ghosn’s back, the decision on how and when to re-invent the Laguna and Espace, at least, can no longer be put off.
Personally, I’m glad I’m not a Renault product planner. Building a successful big Renault is going to be a hell of a job.