Driving Renault’s 1929 Nervastella
Buried in the marginalia of Picasso 1932, the hugely popular exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, is a small, faded black-and-white photograph of Pablo Picasso at his pomp, standing alongside his Hispano-Suiza H6B limousine. From his Champs-Élysées apartment, the feted Spanish artist would venture forth in his chauffeur-driven automobile journeying as far as Normandy to paint his lover in his dilapidated châteaux. From his offices just down the River Seine from the City of Light, Louis Renault the automotive industrialist would have watched such grand automobiles and their famous, well-to-do owners with envious eyes. This era marked the apogee of the super luxury car with Bugatti, Isotta Fraschini, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Lincoln, Packard, Duesenberg, and Cadillac all vying for the attentions of the wealthy, and Louis wanted a piece of the action.
By the 1930s Louis had taken sole control of the company, Renault Frères, that he’d formed with his brothers in 1899. Marcel died racing a Renault in the 1903 Paris-Madrid race and Fernand, who’d long suffered from digestive problems, died in 1909. Louis’s automotive empire included vast limousines, desert-striding double-drive charabancs, tiny two seaters, elegant roadsters, ordinary family saloons, tractors, and even tanks during World War I. In 1928 Renault made 45,809 cars at its factories at Île Seguin on the Seine and Boulogne-Billancourt. It was efficient by the standards of the day, but complex. Louis struggled to compete at the bottom of the market for tiny, cheap people’s cars, just as he did at the top of the market to match prestige car makers.
Just like today’s non-premium cars makers, Louis devised a clever sub-branding marketing strategy to get on terms with the prestige marques. He created a new luxury sub brand, Stella—Latin for star. When the new 7.1-liter, 17-foot-long, 5,000-pound Renahuit debuted at the 1928 Paris Motor Salon it was the largest Renault of the time, though it carried no Renault badging. Its massive 75-hp straight-eight engine also marked a distinct change for Renault in that its radiator was in front of, rather than behind, the engine—which meant the end of Renault’s distinctive coal-scuttle bonnet. When it went into production the following year badged as the Reinastella, it had rakish lines and a top speed of 87 mph and even appeared in Hergé’s Tintin adventures in The Blue Lotus.
The following year Renault launched the smaller Nervastella with 14.6 inches cut out of the wheelbase and a smaller capacity (but more powerful 98-hp) 4241-cc side-valve straight eight and a three-speed manual gearbox. The Reinstella’s steel chassis was largely adopted, with semi-elliptic-sprung front axle and a banjo-type live rear axle with twin cantilever springs and one transverse rear spring, along with hydraulic dampers and four-wheel drum brakes. It was offered with a range of different bodies including five and seven-seat saloons and a coupé de ville, along with a rolling chassis for coachbuilders.
“Fast, light and all the while being extremely robust, she responds to the wishes of those who would like a grand touring automobile, that doesn’t have huge cylinders,” reads the Nervastella brochure, clearly referring to rivals’ use of V-12 and even V-16 engines.
Nervastella was a grand looking car, but it sold in tiny numbers, with one estimate suggesting that less than 2,000 Stella models were made in total between 1930 and ’37. Factory bodied Nervastella models sold for between 48,000 francs for the coupé and five-seat saloon, and about 75,000 francs for a seven-seat limousine—in today’s economy, that’s $81,000–$126,000. This car, which belongs to the Renault Collection museum, was one of 20 special-bodied cars; in this case by Paris-based coachbuilder Henry Binder and it would have cost a lot more.
Considering that the whole Stella project was launched in the Great Depression, it was, to put it mildly, brave. But Louis persevered with his luxury sub-brand until 1937 and the onset of World War II, so presumably they made some money, although buyers of the previous year’s models received a 2000-franc discount, which perhaps shows how hand-to-mouth the operation was.
First impressions of this Binder-bodied car are its huge size. The factory made racier-looking coachwork, but Binder’s is upright and deeply conservative, with a lustrous black finish, although the basket-work effect on the rear body partially relieves the bulk. The terms for these old coach building styles is confusing. This is a coupe de ville since strictly speaking, a landaulet should have a folding rear roof. It’s a style sharply derived from horse-drawn coach days and the chauffeur sits on the leather seat tight behind the big ebony steering wheel in the open, with passengers enclosed in the soft blue velvet upholstered carriage-like rear compartment.
Despite its box-like dimensions, this is a jolly cabin with a rear seat of delightful plushness and comfort. On the upholstered walls are all the extras a young gadabout of the 1930s might wish for: a speaking tube to issue instructions to the driver, a calendar, footrests, and a writing set. The windows all open except the rear square of glass which has its own metal hatchback. Luggage would have been carried in fabric-covered steamer trunks strapped to the rear.
The chauffeur isn’t as squashed as in rival luxury cars of the era, but you need to arrange yourself carefully into the cockpit. Unlike its predecessors, the Nervastella is left-hand-drive and the chrome gear lever and handbrake sprout out of the centre of the floor like levers in the floor of a railroad signal box. The rest of the car is as charming as it is well maintained by Renault’s historic engineers; the instrument panel is simply delightful in a way that modern cars designers strive for but seldom manage.
A big electric starter turns eight coffee-tin-sized pistons gently in their bores and the exhaust softly booms with the single carburetor slurping like a tramp drinking coffee from a saucer. I point the nose out of Renault’s factory and museum in Flins and head off into the small town of Elizabethville.
Bombastic and slow revving, the big engine demands you take your time with the three-speed transmission, but this is a demonstrably well-engineered and high-quality machine. The steering is heavy, but it doesn’t pinch up as the car rolls like big 40CV Renaults from the previous decade. You have to put your shoulders into it, but you don’t have to surprise the Nervastella into corners, though with its 52-foot turning circle, it’s best to plan a couple of days ahead. Similarly the brakes, which were excellent for their time, still constitute only a vague intention to slow and they also pull markedly to the left.
Despite its spritely 3300-rpm red line, the eight cylinder is really all about torque. You can leave it in top gear right down to walking pace, but the shift lever is light and positive and it’s easy to make silent changes despite a lack of synchromesh.
And that ride quality is simply sumptuous, with the most lovely, long-legged gait on undulating Routes Nationales, you feel the Nervastella could run forever and it was hard not to think of heading out to the coast for lunch as Picasso was once wont to do in his Hispano-Suiza.
Renault’s first dip into prestige car making proved that while it could easily match the quality and design of its rivals, it lacked the thoroughbred background (and dare I say it, badge snobbery) to gain traction in the market. In some ways the Nervastella remains a charming and good-looking historical footnote. History doesn’t record what Louis thought of his upmarket badge. He died in October 1944, desperately ill and under arrest for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, but the Stella name would have been unlikely to have survived WWII anyway, as throughout the hostilities Renault was run by prestige rival Daimler-Benz.
Since both companies have also struggled to create upmarket badges of their own (think of Renault’s Alliance partner Nissan’s Infiniti marque, or Mercedes-Benz’s first recent attempt to reinvent Maybach), perhaps they might have been advised to read the history books. But what was it that Henry Ford said about history?