As fans at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed marvelled at the Renault-Riffard Tank racing around the track with Michel Leclère at the wheel, few could have known that the retro-futuristic looking car had, until a year earlier, been a static display piece at the Briard Museum – and that only after it had been rescued from the scrapheap some 50 years before.
The car’s somewhat chequered history entered a new chapter at the beginning of 2018 when it was snapped up by Renault Classic at the Rétromobile auction. At the time, it was in no fit state to drive: the engine block was cracked, the radiator leaked and the body was damaged with a number of bumps adding to its general wear and tear.
The task of restoring this fabulous machine to its former glory fell to François Chiron of the Renault Classic team. He spent a full six months to prepare it for that first spin at Goodwood and subsequent appearances at the Mornay Festival (with Chiron himself as driver) and at the Epoqu'Auto show in early November. At the three-day show, the visiting public were left open-mouthed when they saw what was previously thought to have been an ‘extinct’ Renault model.
The backstory of the Renault-Riffard Tank is a long and complicated one. The original tubular chassis came from an early 1950s Guepard and the engine from a Renault 4CV (1063, AAC Ferry n°6, twin Weber 32 carburettors and with lighter weight and more balanced mobile equipment). Its rear axle was borrowed from the Renault Juvaquatre, and its “wireframe” front axle was taken from the first generation 4CV. The whole package was covered by elegant bodywork that was right on trend with the prevailing fashion.
The Guepard/4CV hybrid was driven by Paul Bobet in the 1954 Bol d’Or, but a crash saw Bobet turn to renowned engineer Marcel Riffard to help rebody the car with a view to taking on the world speed record for 750cc models.
Riffard was born in Argentina, but it was in France that he made his name as a pioneer in aviation technology, gaining skills and knowledge that he later transferred to the building of cars. Riffard was working for Caudron when Renault bought out the aircraft manufacturer, and the mathematician and aerodynamics expert was included as part of the deal. Caudron-Renault prototypes came hard and fast under Riffard’s leadership, and soon he was using his talent to create the bodywork for a specially-designed Nervasport. The car headed for the Montlhéry circuit, where it beat three world records across all categories and nine international records in the 3- to 5-litre category.
Riffard’s influence was soon felt on the production line, too, where the cars’ profiles started to soften and get more sleek. In 1956, Riffard enlisted coachbuilder Heuliez of Cerizay to build the aluminium wing-shaped body seen today, which was directly inspired by the aviation industry. To that body and the Renault 4CV engine and rolling elements he added a five-speed “Claude”-type gearbox and a Renault Juvaquatre rear axle : the Renault-Riffard Tank was born.
Under its new guise the Renault-Riffard competed at Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry several times in 1956 before being taken on by the Agaci driving school after another crash. Here it was unused and almost scrapped in 1968 before being rescued and displayed in Briard. Seen by thousands of visitors over the following years, few could perhaps have imagined that one day it would be restored to its racing best some 51 years later, all thanks to the Renault Classic team.