french car brands

What do the French car brands stand out for?

5 July 2022

Peugeot, Citroën, Renault – when it comes to the French cars, it is these brands which come to mind first. It’s no surprise. Each of these French car brands has incredibly rich history, where not only many models of city cars were present, but also… sports cars.


How has the history of the French automotive industry developed?

From shy beginnings to being a permanent member of the International Motor Show – the French automotive industry has gone a long way. It started in 1769. It is then when a French inventor, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, constructed the first in the automotive industry history vehicle with a steam engine. At the beginning of the 19th century, born in Paris, a constructor François Isaac de Rivaz created the first working a two-stroke combustion engine.

Over the years, the events in the French automotive industry accelerated. In 1860, Étienne Lenoir constructed the first actually usable engine fueled with a mixture of city gas and air. In 1884, Edouard Delamare-Deboutteville developed the first French car fueled with gasoline. Other factories implement the production of steam vehicles, and finally – in 1887 – Panhard et Levassor, was founded, one of the first proper car manufacturers in France.



In more less the same time, Armand Peugeot introduced on the market a four0whheel car powered by a combustion engine under license of Daimler, and already in 1896, it manufactures its own engines. Two years later, the Renault brothers sold their first car, and this how the “French cars” chapter of the automotive industry history started to accelerate.


Popular French car brands

Contemporarily, the French cars mostly consist of three brands, which were at some points i history quite closely associated with one another. Peugeot and Citroën were even created by the same group – Groupe PSA was founded in the 70s, when Peugeot decided to purchase Citroën, which was in financial problems at that time.

Today, PSA is a part of the Stellantis group, whose shares also hold the Peugeot family, Agnelli, and… France. The family automotive industry is supported – e.g. financially – by the French government. Aside from the mentioned brands, there is the third popular French brand – Renault. It closely cooperated with Nissan and Mitsubishi.



The company was founded in 1899. At first, the Renault brothers installed in their cars engines purchased from other manufacturers. However, they quickly shifted to their own production, and also… they also got engaged with sports. Not accidentally – the French cars taking part in races was an excellent advertisement.

An interesting – if one may say so – period for the French brand was the First World War. It is then when the company gained publicity, after… the government decided to commandeer 500 Parisian Renault taxis. They were utilised for delivering meals to the German front – with the additional support, the soldiers managed to stop the attackers progressing further into France.

In the interwar period, Renault again was producing the passenger cars, as well as tractors, it was also taking part in races. And it was successful – for example, in the prestigious Monte Carlo rally. The Second World War stopped the production, the factories were taken over, and after the war – nationalised. Gradually, Renault was rebuilding its power, by offering i.a. the 4CV model, of which for years, over 1.1 million of copies were manufactured. This car has even won the 24h Le Mans race.

The following years brought more models with the characteristic logo of the rhombus – the Dauphine, the Renault 8 and the 16. At the beginning of the 70s, the Renault 5 started to be manufactured, which turned out of be one of the greater hits in the history of this French brand. A bit later, the company started to manufacture cargo cars, and it also… returned to Formula 1. The Renault Twingo, the Clio, and finally the Megane and the Kangoo are the cars which are very well-known all over the world – sold in millions of copies.

The brands currently being a part of the group are:

  • Renault – the main manufacturer of the passenger cars
  • Dacia – a Romanian manufacturer, closely cooperating with Renault since the beginning, nowadays being a part of it
  • Alpine – recently revived manufacturer of the sports cars



For some time, in South Korea, there was also the Renault-Samsung Motors brand operating, whose biggest shareholder was the French manufacturer. Eventually, in 2022, it was liquidated.



It all started already at the beginning of the 19th century, when Jean Pierre Peugeot decided to produce bicycles. He himself did not live to see cars, but his inheritors did not let his name to be forgotten in the history of the automotive industry. Already at the end of the same century, the company started to experiment with self-propelled vehicles. This is how a carriage with a steam engine was created, and later – in 1891 – the first car. Besides, it was equipped with an engine produced under license of Daimler. The history has proven that it was a very good choice. Similarly to the presented some time later first Peugeot motorcycles and trucks.

Peugeot also focused on sports, and the company started to develop much better already after the end of the First World War. In 1929, a thing was started for which the company is known until today – the Peugeot models with the three-digit designation.

The end of the 50s of the previous century marked for Peugeot as the time of the first diesel engines, as well as the radiator fans. At the beginning of the 60s, the 404 models was introduced on the market, which was sold in over 2 million copies.



And just as Peugeot was considered a luxury cars manufacturer – sometimes compared to Mercedes – it all changed in the following decades, when the brand started releasing smaller, city cars, such as the Peugeot 104. A big step in the history of Peugeot was taking over – in 1976 – Citroën and creating Groupe PSA. Today, both brands are part of the Stellantis group.

The next successful models – 504, 405, 307, 607 – were very popular, which impacted sales. The year 2008 was a milestone, when 50 million copies of the car with the logo of a lion left the factory. Nowadays, Peugeot manufactures not only the passenger cars, but also the cargo ones, as well as bicycles and motorcycles, and even… electric tools.

peugeot 404

peugeot 404, source:



The third of the great French car brands has also a long history – Citroën. Its founder, André Citroën spent his youth in Poland, where he would get education i.a. in the textile factories in Łódź. It’s there where he was wooden gears, and some time later he developed his own – steel one.  The invention was gradually developed, and the gearboxes manufactured by Citroën were at some point installed in nearly every French car (and even in… the Titanic).



André Citroën started from a slightly different assumption than other French car manufacturers. The sports aspirations weren’t his thing. He deemed that high quality, sustainability and reliability would be a better advertisement.


Already in the 30s of the previous century, the Citroën brand was massive. However, it encountered certain problems and, eventually, it was taken over. It was bought by Édouard Michelin – by the way who was aided by the French government, which has supported national automotive industry for many years. The war slowed down the development plans of the French brand, but when the operations on the front were ended, Citroën’s business accelerated.

The Citroën 2CV started to be mass-produced, which looked peculiar, even for an early French car – but its construction was simple and the car was surprisingly practical. Later – in Paris – the Citroën DS was presented, which also amazed other with its looks. This time, purely in a positive way. However, it did not save the company from further financial problems, which in 1976 led to the brand getting taken over by Peugeot.

The models such as AX, CX, and XM belong to the more recent history. Similarly to the Xantia, the Saxo and the Xsara. The beginning of the 21st century brought a whole series of the passenger cars whose names started with the “C” letter. Nowadays, Citroën produces not only the passenger cars, but also the utility ones, and more frequently the hybrids and the electric vehicles.


DS Automobiles

The DS series is inseparably connected with the history of Citroën. At first, the truly revolutionary model presented in the 50s was produced by this brand, later – in the 21st century – the whole series of slightly more prestigious Citroën cars was released.

In 2014, the owners of the PSA group came to the conclusion that it was high time they had founded their own prestigious brand, modelled on the Japanese manufacturers. That’s how the then-model range was separated from the newly created brand – DS Automobiles. At first, it prospered on the Chinese market, later, gradually the distinction between Citroën and DS spread onto other markets as well.



What other car brands originate from France?

French cars consist of not only the three biggest brands. There’s also a range of incredibly interesting – older and newer – car manufacturers which are definitely extraordinary. Probably everyone has ever heard about at least one model of the French brand Bugatti, and the crazy history of the Ligier brand deserves attention.



Ligier is a brand whose history, from today’s point of view, is almost absurd. The company was founded in 1968 by a racing driver Guy Ligier, who many times competed in i.a. the prestigious 24h Le Mans race. The Equipe Ligier team, belonging to the Ligier brand, won nine Formula 1 Grand Prix races, and in 1980 became even the world vice-champion. And the same year, the company developed the first… mini car.

Its production was a great success – despite the initial odds, it turned out that this direction of manufacturing was meant for Ligier. It’s nearly ironic that the cars of a brand which used to construct fantastic F1 racing cars, today can be driven by anyone. Moreover, the driving license is not required to drive them.



Nowadays, hardly anyone remembers about this brand. However, at one time, Simca produced a few really interesting vehicles – besides, two of them received the Car of the year title (it was the Simca 1307 model in 1976 and the Simca Horizon in 1979). Let’s start from the beginning – the company was founded in 1934 and it existed until 1980, when its factory was taken over Peugeot.

At first, Simca produced small cars under license of Fiat, later it cooperated with i.a. Chrysler and Ford. Similarly to many other car brands – there were many transformations and the ownership structures changes. Let’s finish with a note that the awarded models were sold also as Chrysler and Talbot.



The name of the brand leave no doubts at allMicrocar started its business from manufacturing small cars, driving which did not require the driving license, and this is what  the company deals with until today, although not independently anymore. The founded in 1984 brand after nearly two and a half decades was taken over by… Ligier Automobiles.

So, when it comes to the so-called microcars, the French representation is truly strong, firmly dominating the market. After all, the French have in their offer a model for literally everyone – the driving license is not required. For some it sounds exotic, for others – seems like a reasonable offer. And at the same, it’s yet another peculiar chapter in the French automotive industry history.



The older automotive enthusiasts perhaps still remember the EB110 model, so distinct from everything else that the automotive industry had ever offered. Its successor – even more extreme compared to the previous one – the Veyron model is pure history, when it comes to the speed records. A car which can easily reach 400 km/h has become nearly synonymous with the Bugatti brand. Besides, this brand has an incredibly rich history.

The founder – Ettore Bugatti – was born in Milan, but he settled in the French Alsace… but at the turn of the 20th century this area was occupied by the German Empire. Today’s Bugatti Automobiles – based in the French Molsheim – is part of the Bugatti-Rimac company, and it constructs the performance cars. Literally – the produced during 2016-2022 Bugatti Chiron reached the stunning speed of 490 km/h.

bugatti chiron

bugatti chiron, source: źródło:



Alpine is a French sports cars manufacturer – the company founded in 1955 was prospering very well, however, after 40 years is was closed. Before that happened, it would amaze the market with its sports remakes of the Renault models. Jean Rédélé was the founder of Alpine, who was… a Renault dealer.

He started his business as a hobby – and soon later it turned out that the cars he manufactured were doing great in races. This made the dealer and constructor to develop his business – and the Alpine brand became famous. The most famous car – the Alpine A110 – amazingly went down in history of the motor sports.



In 1955, the company was closed, but has reopened in 2017. It also has in its offer a new car the new A110 model, clearly referring to the previous model of the same name.


French cars in rallies and races

Let’s start from the top tier – the Formula 1 racing cars. For years, the Renault F1 team has participated in the most prestigious series of races. It has constructed its own vehicles, as well as offered engines to others. Today, it functions under the name of BWT Alpine F1 Team. Renault has won 2 Formula 1 world champion titles.

French cars – but not only them, as the drivers from France as well – have been amazingly successful also in the WRC (World Rally Championship). Currently, the most entitled drivers are indeed French – Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier

Throughout the years – these two as well as other rally drivers – have driven various cars, among which there have been models such as the Citroen DS3, the C4, the Citroën Xsara WRC, the Peugeot 206 WRC, and even further into the past – the Peugeot 205 and the Renault Alpine A110.

Renault has even its own series of rallies, in which models solely of this brand can participate. It’s yet another piece of evidence that although the French car brands are associated primarily with the city cars or reasonable in general, they still don’t lack ambitions, which keep the French automotive industry excited!


What makes the French cars stand out from other countries?

Nowadays, every new car is the result of cooperation between the solution providers and the subassemblies from practically all over the world. The French cars are, therefore, primarily European cars – but for the reasons of history, certain characteristics are assigned to them. They’re sometimes less, and sometimes more correct.

The French cars from the beginning stood out for their originality. it did not always have much in common with usefulness, and history has witnessed many French cars which would make people from other countries scratch their heads.

Say what you like, but you cannot deny the extraordinarity of the appearance of the Renault Avantime or the Vel Satis, the travel comfort of the Citroën cars equipped with the hydropneumatic suspension, or even the non-standard center console projects – let us remind that it is still the most popular French car brands that we are discussing.



Stereotypes on the French cars

The mean state that the French cars stand out also for the never-ending issues with the electricity, and the sporadic tendency for spontaneous combustion. Well, there’s some truth in it, although in the case of the French cars it can be said that it resulted to a large extent from the advanced, although not always perfected, solutions.

Today, the cars of every popular French brand are well-known in all Europe, and they co-share many solutions with other models. And just like before the key to the trouble-free usage was finding a good car mechanic familiar with the French cars, in the recent years, it doesn’t matter much anymore.


French car brands in other countries

It can be said with confidence that the French are local patriots – and they mass-purchase cars which were manufactured by a French company. However, the cars of the former PSA and Renault are also popular outside of France.

They are exported to many countries – especially to Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and the UK. Poles also eagerly buy French cars – the wide selection of the city cars seems to be almost meant for the needs of the Polish customers.

The compacts from France can be seen on the polish roads on a daily basis – such as the Renault Clio, the Citroën C3, and the Peugeot 208. From time to time, one can also notice a less standard model – like the Peugeot RCZ, the Renault Laguna in the coupe version, the Citroën C6, here mentioning only the slightly older cars. The selection, when it comes to the French cars, is in Poland wide, they can be found on the secondary market and in car dealerships – so everybody can find something that will suit them.



Are you interested in this article? Also check out the products offered by autoDNA – a leading provider of vehicle history reports in Europe and the US. A VIN check can help you guard against additional costs associated with buying a car with an unknown past. The service is available 24/7 all year round – all you need is Internet access and the VIN number of the vehicle you want to check.


Also read other articles in our series:

  1. “What Polish cars have been driven?”
  2. “What are the Italian car brands like?”
  3. American car brands – check which cars are from USA”
  4. “What are the German car brands like?”
  5. “Which Japanese car brands are popular?”
  6. Car brands – who do they belong to?”
What do the French car brands stand out for?
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What do the French car brands stand out for?
Peugeot, Citroën, Renault Each of these French car brands has incredibly rich history, where many models of city and sport cars were present.
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