French Cars Are Making a Comeback on American Roads

Après trente ans d’absence sur le sol américain, le groupe français Peugeot Citroën prépare son grand retour.
During the 1950s, Renault exported its Dauphine model to the U.S. and founded the Renault Incorporated subsidiary. ©

You may be surprised to learn that French automobile manufacturers are nowhere to be found in the United States, the world’s second biggest market behind China, where the French also have little or no presence. Another paradox is that the only French-made vehicles sold in America are marketed under two foreign brands: Smart, a subsidiary of Mercedes produced in Hambach in the Moselle département, and Yaris, made in a Toyota factory in Valenciennes.

Peugeot, Citroën (PSA group), and Renault no longer sell anything in the United States. The only French cars you will see are on reruns of the TV show Columbo, in which the inspector drives a Peugeot 403 vintage cabriolet, or in The Mentalist, which briefly featured a Citroën DS, originally produced in 1955!

Renault has resigned itself to being left out, seemingly satisfied by its indirect presence via Nissan, in which it has a 44% stake. But PSA is now preparing its triumphant return, emboldened by the recent revival of Opel, a floundering European subsidiary acquired from General Motors. This reentrance might be made with a bang in the case of a successful buyout of the Fiat-Chrysler group, which has been under negotiation for a month with the Agnelli family. However, proceedings seem to be off to a bad start.

From De Gaulle to Macron

Alternatively, a low-key return may be on the cards. In 2017, the Portuguese CEO of PSA, Carlos Tavares, launched a car-sharing system with vehicles made in America, Free2Move. In the second phase of this strategy, PSA cars will be introduced into the system’s fleets, and “if everything goes according to plan, we will sell our brand’s vehicles and possibly manufacture them in the region,” says a determined Tavares. The reconquest will be spearheaded by DS, the group’s new luxury brand adapted to specific American safety standards. Given the difference between U.S. and European regulations, ordinary French cars cannot be driven in the United States.

With its DS model, Citroën was the only brand to ever break through. However, it left the country in 1973 due to insufficient sales and was acquired by Peugeot, which then left America in 1991. At the time, Peugeot’s sales were paltry and the brand found itself at the bottom of all the performance rankings. The company had made a strategic error by trying to barrel into the U.S. market, selling several thousand 505s to New York taxi companies, but at a loss. As a result, its image took an irreparable hit.

A Peugeot 505, converted into a New York City yellow cab, in the 1980s. © Curiosités automobiles

In another unfortunate precedent, during the 1950s Renault sold tens of thousands of Dauphine models ill-suited to the local American climate. The color of its plastic parts faded and cracked in Texas, rust marks appeared on the cars in Louisiana, and some were unable to start in the cold temperatures of Maine. There was also little or no spare parts supply network. Some customers simply abandoned their car on the side of the road!

Ten Years to Bring the DS to America

Another unsuccessful attempt came in 1979 when Renault bought out American Motors, the fourth biggest U.S. manufacturer that, despite its struggles, owned the Jeep brand. French engineer François Castaing developed a new design and innovative engines to create the Cherokee and resuscitate the brand beloved by GIs. But the company’s means did not match its ambitions. In 1987, Renault sold American Motors to Chrysler for 1.5 billion dollars. At the time, Jeep was valued at one dollar, and today it is worth more than 20 billion!

“France is established in every luxury sector in the United States,” says Yves Bonnefont, director of the DS brand at PSA. “Automobiles are the only exception.” Looking forward, Bonnefont has given himself ten years to carve out a niche for the DS in America.

Article published in the June 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.