Pioneers of French Automobile Models

The enormous number of automobiles from French manufacturers driving the streets is the first thing people notice when they arrive in France. The three largest national manufacturers are Peugeot, Citroen, and Renault, but which automobiles have truly made their stamp on French history and are considered classic French cars?

France was a pioneer in the automotive industry and is now the world’s 11th largest automaker by unit production in 2015, and Europe’s third largest after Germany and Spain. From the end of World War II to the year 2000, it had constantly ranked fourth. It accounts for 16% of all sales of French-produced goods. The French love for cars is in-depth just like their love for the most popular sports in their country. 

The history of automobiles in France is covered by the astounding breakthroughs below:

1. Fardier à Vapeur

The first self-powered road vehicles were powered by steam engines, and according to this definition, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot of France created the first automobile in 1769, which was recognized as the first by both the British Royal Automobile Club and the Automobile Club de France. In fact, it is considered the world’s first automobile.

2. Panhard and Levassor 

Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor are the first automobile manufacturer who successfully build a car using a Daimler engine in 1891.  Because they do not own a patent, Edouard Sarazin came into the picture. Aside from manufacturing cars, the partners started improvements and designs to the automotive body. Vehicles with a pedal-operated clutch, a chain transmission leading to a change-speed gearbox, and a front radiator were built by Panhard-Levassor. Levassor was the first designer to put the engine at the front and use a rear-wheel-drive system. This concept, known as the Systeme Panhard, quickly became the industry standard for all cars due to its superior balance and steering. Panhard and Levassor are also credited with developing the modern transmission, which was first put in their Panhard in 1895.

3. Renault Voiturette 1CV

Louis Renault and his brothers Marcel and Fernand created the Renault firm on February 25, 1899 as Société Renault Frères. He was an intelligent and visionary engineer who embarked on manufacturing several prototypes prior to collaborating with his brothers, whose expertise in business was developed in their father’s textile company. While Louis oversaw design and manufacturing, Marcel and Fernand oversaw the company. On December 24, 1898, the first Renault car, the Renault Voiturette 1CV, was sold to a friend of Louis’ father following a test drive.

Renault acquired the De Dion-Bouton and produced its own engine in 1903. The first large-scale sale occurred in 1905 when Société des Automobiles de Place purchased Renault AG1 automobiles to start a taxi business. The French military utilized these cars to carry troops during World War I, earning them the nickname “Taxi de la Marne.” By 1907, Renault had constructed a large percentage of London and Paris taxis. In 1907 and 1908, Renault was the best-selling foreign brand in New York. The company manufactured 3,575 cars in 1908, making it the country’s largest automaker.

Now, Renault is one of the major French car makers that ranks the ninth largest manufacturer in the world by manufacturing volume in 2016, according to the Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles. By 2017, the Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi Alliance had surpassed Toyota as the world’s largest light vehicle seller.

4. Berliet 20CV Demi Limousine

Berliet was a French automaker situated in Vénissieux, France, that produced automobiles, buses, trucks, and military vehicles, among other things. Founded in 1899, it remained in private ownership until 1967, when it was acquired by Citroen and amalgamated with Saviem to form the new Renault Trucks firm. By 1980, the Berliet brand had been phased away. The Berliet 20CV Demi Limousine was produced in 1903.

5. Lorraine – Dietrich 12 HP Torpedo

Lorraine-Dietrich was a French automobile and aircraft engine manufacturer from 1896 to 1935. It was founded when railway locomotive manufacturer Société Lorraine des Anciens Etablissements de Dietrich et Cie de Lunéville (known as De Dietrich et Cie, founded in 1884 by Jean de Dietrich) branched out into automobile manufacturing. The company’s manufacturing capacity was divided during the Franco-Prussian War, with one factory in Niederbronn-les-Bains, Alsace, and the other in Lunéville, Lorraine.

6. Avions Voisin C3 Cabriolet Transformable

Gabriel Voisin founded the Avions Voisin luxury automotive brand in 1919, and it lasted until 1939. Gabriel B. Voisin was an aviation pioneer and manufacturer who, in 1919, began building cars in Issy-les-Moulineaux, an industrial district southwest of Paris, employing Knight-type sleeve valve engines. 

7. Peugeot


Stellantis owns the Peugeot vehicle brand in France. The family firm that preceded the current Peugeot enterprises began in 1810 with a steel foundry, which quickly expanded to include hand tools, kitchen equipment, and eventually bicycles. Émile Peugeot applied for the lion trademark on November 20, 1858. In 1889, Armand Peugeot and Léon Serpollet collaborated on the company’s first car, a steam tricycle, which was followed in 1890 by an internal combustion car powered by a Panhard-Daimler engine.

Sochaux is where the Peugeot company and family originated. Peugeot has a big production facility and a museum in the city. In February 2014, the PSA Group’s shareholders approved a recapitalization plan in which Dongfeng Motors and the French government each purchased a 14% interest in the company. Peugeot’s automobiles have won numerous international prizes, including six European Car of the Year titles.

8. Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic

Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S. is a high-performance luxury automotive manufacturer and hyper sports car luxury brand based in France. The company was created in 1998 as a Volkswagen Group subsidiary and is headquartered in Molsheim, Alsace, France. Ettore Bugatti, who founded the original Bugatti automotive manufacturer in Molsheim in 1909 and developed sports, racing, and luxury cars, made the Bugatti name renowned.

Volkswagen AG, a German automaker now controlled by Porsche SE, formed Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S. as a wholly owned subsidiary in France on December 22, 1998. On the same day, the company acquired the design and branding rights to Bugatti from Italian industrialist Romano Artioli, who constructed supercars with Bugatti SpA in Italy between 1987 and 1998. 

In conclusion, there are still certain positive factors, such as the success of French automakers in international markets, the presence of a well-trained workforce, the fact that the domestic market is still unsatisfied, and so on, that will propel the French auto industry forward