It’s no exaggeration to say that the idea of an impartial and customer-focused car of the year award was a truly revolutionary concept back in 1978. Other magazines – and, indeed, separate ‘democratic’ organisations – had run car of the year awards in the past, but they rarely catered to the average man or woman in the street.
This was clear to see in our own awards' inaugural year, when a supposedly representative collective of automotive magazines from different countries in Europe voted the Porsche 928 European Car of the Year – a car that we called "sensational" but one that also happened to cost more than an average semi-detached house.
And, remember, this was a time when the UK had just recovered from an energy crisis and was heading into a long winter of discontent. As we said at the time, a "rich person’s car of the year" wasn’t going to help anyone.
This, then, was the event that turned our attention to forming a new Car of the Year award. One that would involve no "ballyhoo, just a well-intentioned hope that these pointers [would] help people achieve more satisfactory motoring".
Where it all started
When you set about trying to find a car that will provide someone with ‘satisfactory motoring’, you obviously run the risk of choosing a car that has all the character of emulsion paint. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with our inaugural winner.
Launched in 1975, the Renault 30 TS was almost too forward thinking for its own good. Under the bonnet lay a 2.7-litre V6, the largest engine fitted to a Renault since the Second World War, which drove through either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. Performance was brisk, but fuel economy was far from what you’d call frugal. Not ideal for a country coming out of an oil crisis.
Buyers, however, fell in love with the Renault’s upmarket ambiance and generous standard specification, with power-assisted steering, Quartz-Iodine headlights, electric front windows and central locking all prominent features. And not only that, the Renault was somewhat of a pioneer, being one of the five-door hatchbacks to dominate in a sector occupied by saloons.
Our 1978 Car of the Year
The 30 TS’s Achilles heel was without doubt its thirsty 2.7-litre V6 engine, which restricted sales in both mainland Europe and the UK. A more economical 1.6-litre petrol joined the range just six months after launch, but it wasn’t until the arrival of the 2.0-litre Douvrin engine in 1977 that the luxury hatch really took off.
With 110bhp and a 0-60mph time of 12.7 seconds, the 20 TS proved faster than the Ford Cortina 2.3 Ghia, Ford Granada 2.3GL and Rover SD1 2300 when we performance tested them in April ‘78. And according to Renault, “no other luxury car, at the price, [had] as many features fitted as standard as the Renault 20 TS”. Indeed, power steering, electric front windows, halogen lights, central door locking and a laminated windscreen were a big deal in the executive class.
And just like the Skoda Octavia today, the Renault proved easily the most practical car in the class thanks to its unique hatchback design, with the 30 TS beating both the Rover SD1 and Audi 100 Avant to the market by over a year.
We said at the time:
“It handles tolerably well. It has plenty of space, comfortable seats and rides superbly. Further more, for the price it is well equipped and includes the versatility of a fifth door and folding rear seats.
The Renault’s high level of equipment and overall ride comfort easily outpoints the top of the line VW Passat.
To our minds, it is a much better buy than its V6 stablemate, the 30 TS which costs £1100 more.”
What’s the Renault 20 TS like today?
Step inside and you’re treated to a virtually limitless panoramic view thanks to remarkably thin A pillars, and a plush suede seat that you sink into rather than sit on. It’s a bit of a culture shock swapping between our 2017 award winning BMW 5-Series and the 20 TS such is disparity between safety provisions.
That said, you never feel at risk in the 20 TS due to a distinct lack of blind spots and the fact that you’ll probably never be going fast enough to have a big accident. Not that the 20 TS is slow you understand. In fact, the 2.0-litre 110bhp engine is remarkably grunty, and the light and surprisingly precise four-speed manual ‘box makes rowing through the gears an absolute pleasure.
No, the reason you won’t have a big accident is that driving the 20 TS feels more like piloting a 1970s lounge rather than a French hatchback. The ride is absolutely marvelous with laughably soft springs, but the damping lacks the same control as more modern machinery. Therefore, sudden bumps result in quite a bit of pogoing and sudden changes of direction have the 20 TS leaning through corners like a double decker. The phrase ‘cornering on the door handles’ has never been so apt.
Instead, it’s better to just sit back and cruise, rather than chase speed. And once you do, it’s easy to see why the 20 TS was such a popular model. At a cruise it’s beautifully refined with little wind or road noise, and thanks to that ingenious hatchback design rear space would still be considered competitive today. In short, it was a terrific all-rounder.
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