The 1973 oil crisis had a profound effect on the American auto industry. Notably, it enabled Japanese automakers who built smaller, more efficient cars to establish a secure foothold in North America, generally at the expense of Detroit’s big three. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler responded by launching smaller cars, but American Motors Corporation (AMC) didn’t have the resources to quickly bring a compact model to the market so it found itself in dire financial straits.
Desperate, AMC looked to ink a deal with an established automaker on the other side of the Atlantic. Many companies were considered, but PSA Peugeot – Citroën stood out from the pack. Engineers, designers and businessmen were sent from Paris to Detroit to hammer on the terms of an agreement between the two companies.
A Renault executive named François Doubin heard that AMC was looking for a partner and discreetly arrived at the company’s headquarters in February of 1978. He met with several AMC executives who explained precisely what kind of cars were looking for, how much they were willing to pay, and how fast they needed the models. Doubin immediately flew back to Paris to meet with Renault’s top brass, and he returned to Detroit 48 hours later with a list of what the Paris-based automaker was willing to provide.
Impressed by Doubin’s swift actions, AMC abandoned the deal with Peugeot and chose to work with Renault. The two parties decided to initially sell both the 5 and the 18 in the United States through AMC’s dealer network, but they quickly realized that building either alongside the Eagle in Kenosha, Wisconsin, wouldn’t be possible for logistical reasons. Instead, both cars were to be shipped from France.
Eager to increase the size of its North American operations, Renault gradually bought a 46-percent stake in AMC. At the time, the local press joked that Renault had become “the fifth-largest American automaker.” Pierre Semerena, one of Renault’s top executives, was a lot more serious when he pointed out that “for Renault, buying part of AMC was a deal that was too good to pass up. For AMC, selling almost half of its business to Renault is a last-ditch effort to stay afloat.”
Introduced as a 1981 model, the 18 was fitted with a series of add-ons to comply with safety norms in the United States, including five-mph bumpers on both ends, market-specific headlight, and side market lights on the rear quarter panels. The sedan was renamed 18i, while the station wagon model was christened 18i Sportswagon.
In Europe, the 18 was available with a wide palette of four-cylinder gasoline- and diesel-burning engines. In the United States, the only unit available at launch was a fuel-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder that made 81 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 86 lb-ft. of torque at 2,500 rpm. Front-wheel drive and a four-speed manual transmission came standard; a five-speed was a $199 option, and a three-speed automatic added $395 to the 18i’s $7,398 base price. Buyers could choose between the base 18i and a more posh trim called Deluxe.
Renault made no major modifications to the 18i until the 1983 model year, when the base model was dropped and the five-speed manual transmission was added to the list of standard equipment. The following year, the 18i sedan was given the axe due to a general lack of demand and the 18i wagon was renamed simply Sportswagon. It was upgraded with more standard features (including a leather-wrapped steering wheel, A/C and a black roof rack), and it was fitted with a more powerful 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine.
The final major update came in 1985. In a last-ditch attempt to boost sales, Renault launched a limited-edition version of the Sportswagon called Touring Edition that came standard with 14-inch alloy wheels wrapped by Michelin radial tires, an upgraded stereo with a cassette player, power door locks and front windows and leather upholstery. It carried a small premium over its regular-production counterpart, which cost $9,895 that year.
Phased out after the 1986 model year, the Sportswagon was replaced early in the 1987 model year by the short-lived Medallion, which was essentially an Americanized version of the Renault 21. Renault again offered the Medallion as a sedan and as a station wagon.
Precise sales figures aren’t available, but the 18i failed to live up to the expectations that Renault had set for it in the late 1970s. It’s surprising because the 18 was a robust and well-built car, and the press was generally fond of it. In September of 1980, Popular Science wrote that the 18i was “unusually comfortable” and that the 1.6-liter was “lively and responsive.” Other magazines praised its sporty handling and the wagon’s roominess.
The photos above were kindly provided by Renault’s archives department.