Frenchman Louis Renault built his first passenger motorcar in 1898. By 1913 Renault had grown into one of the largest French car producers, building 20% of cars made in France. Its early cars (prior to the outbreak of WW2) were well built if slightly uninspiring. Models ranged from small family cars, taxi cabs (most cabs in Edwardian London were Renault), luxury models to rival Rolls-Royce and commercial vehicles.
By 1945 Renault had become a nationalised company and began exporting cars in large numbers of its new post-war range. Landmark models from Renault have included innovating models as diverse as the Renault 4, 16 (one of the first family hatchbacks), 5, 5 Turbo (one of the finest "80's hot-hatches"), 25, Espace (first European "people carrier"), Clio, Clio Williams and the Megane.
In 1898 Louis Renault used the engine from his De Dion-Bouton quadricycle to power a tiny front-engined voiturette that he had designed. It had shaft drive, with direct drive in top gear, and was one of the definitive designs of the early motorcar era.
Production of similar cars by the Renault Frères began in 1899 and sales were brisk. Early models had De Dion-Bouton or Aster engines and radiators on the bonnet sides, but from 1903 the firm was making its own power units and dashboard-mounted radiators were introduced in 1904 – a Renault feature well into the 1920s. The firm won many early motor races, with its ultimate success being victory in the world's first Grand Prix race at Le Mans in 1906.
By 1907 Renault was the largest French manufacturer of motor vehicles. Until the Great War the cars were most often seen in the form of the twin-cylinder models, both as private cars and taxicabs, although various larger models were also available. Renault became state-owned in 1945.