We were supposed to be going to the Conservatoire de la Fondation Berliet, a major museum based near Lyon, but this can’t be it, can it? We’ve just been chucked out of the back of our car on a blistering late-summer afternoon in the south-east of France. Standing outside two large corrugated farm out-buildings, we quickly realise the main farmhouse is alone in the countryside around us. The last village we drove through was a number of kilometres and a bottle of Evian ago.
“Et, voila,” one of our hosts says before ushering us through a door. We step into France’s long automotive history.
The unexpectedly unassuming buildings of the Conservatoire hide a treasure trove of vehicles inside. This is not your typical car museum. There are no guide books to hand and you walk wordlessly through the hot and air-less buildings led by what catches your eye.
From the wooden-framed wagons, buses and trams of the early decades of the last century; to gnarled and spikey small tanks that saw service in two world wars; and then onto the angular pastels of space-age and impractical-looking tractor heads, we walk through a century of failed experiments and landmark vehicles.
Berliet helped define engine, bus, truck and passenger car production in the country before it fell victim to the malaise in European manufacturing in the late-1960s. Bought by Michelin to merge with Citroen and then sold onto Renault in 1974; it still commanded more than half of the French market even as the last Berliet-branded trucks left the company’s plant in Lyon.
Trucks bearing the Renault marque, including more recent additions such as the Magnum and Kerax, are also housed in the buildings but dominating all that stand around it is the giant T100, a 103T 6×4 dumper truck that was the largest vehicle in the world when it was unveiled at the 1957 Paris car show. Only four of the giant vehicles were ever built but as the black and white pictures stationed by its giant wheels demonstrate, the T100 spent 23 years in Algeria before returning to France.
In fact, Berliet’s and Renault’s rich history in the region – and North Africa in particular – is laid out to you by the dusty photographs pitched around the Conservatoire. Spending an afternoon there you realise how much they have achieved in the region.
Close to the Conservertoire is Renault Trucks’ factory in Bourge en Bresse and its headquarters on the outskirts on Lyon. Many of the trucks assembled at the plant are likely to be in the Middle East a few weeks after an order has been received.
While the hour spent under the Conservertoire’s rafters details how this is a company with a long history in the region, a visit to the plant is a taste of why it has a promising future to look forward to. The two lines in operation diligently perform according to the best Kaizen production churning out trucks to order as we tour the factory floor. It is also here that it recycles used heavy trucks and converts them into the T X-Road tractorheads that have begun to filter into the Middle East market through its recently opened Renault Used office in the UAE’s Jebel Ali Free Zone.
Interloping with a select band of customers from the region, T&FME meets the company’s head of public relations Jean-Philippe Bertuzzi di Annibale to understand how the company found itself under the ownership of Volvo AB and, why, following a 2018 where sales bounced back by 25%, it is in its strongest for a number of years. “Our history started with Marius Berliet (b.1866/d. 1949), founder of the Berliet brand,” he begins.
The Berliets were at the time known as one of the foremost families of nearby Lyon’s famous silk industry and famed for their ribbons of silk to wrap around the hats of the great and good of Europe. Marius Berliet would spend much of his time in the closeby Alps and it was trip to the mountains, where he could escape the chuntering machines of his factory, that he chanced upon a mechanical engineering magazine that give him the inspiration that would change his and the destiny of the French automotive industry forever.
With the help of a local engineering firm, he began experimenting, and soon developed a one-cylinder truck in 1894. Although he sold his first truck to a fellow silk manufacturer in that year, it took three years for him to honour the order: “Lyon was at the beginning of the last century, the capital of the truck. The truck was born here in Lyon, France.”
Renault Trucks’ other major figure was Louis Renault who, like Berliet, was inspired by the German geniuses like Otto, Daimler and Benz to build his first small car in 1898.
“The year itself is maybe the most important date in the French automotive history,” says Jean-Philippe. “In that year in Paris, we had the first automotive exhibition where our two ancestors presented their first product. Everything started for both brands from that year. Producing separately; they began history of making cars, trucks, buses and coaches, construction equipment vehicles, military vehicles.”
It took many decades for the companies to join together but the process of their joining can be traced to 1978, when the French government merged Berliet with Saviem – the industrial and commercial vehicle business of Renault – creating a new brand called Renault Véhicules Industriels.
Jean-Philippe says the early years of the newly formed company were soon hampered by the purchase of Dodge’s truck business in 1983.
“What you know about Dodge today is cars and pickups. Unfortunately for us at the time, we bought the truck business,” he muses. “Those Dodge trucks were not very robust…And when a truck is not robust, there is warranty call and warranty call and warranty call… very quickly it was costing us a lot of money.
He continues: “That’s why four years later we decided to stop the Dodge truck activity.£
In 1990, Renault Trucks decided to enter the North American market, “and for that we bought one of the biggest trucks producers in the United States – Mack company.”
Today, Mack remains a member of the Volvo Group. He says proudly. “And when we entered the Volvo we did it with all the brands which were owned by us and Mack was one. When Mack arrived we decided to celebrate it and changed our commercial name from Renault Véhicules Industriels to Renault VI,” he pauses and grins. Between us, it was simply easier to say in English although it meant the same thing.”
After years of producing its own buses and coaches under its own original brand name, the company formed a new entity called Irisbus Company with one of its major truck competitors in Europe, Italy’s IVECO.
“Today, it’s only owned 100 percent by IVECO, so part of Fiat. At the time it was created in 1990, 50% of shares were IVECO and 50% shares belonged to Renault.”
Major changes were to follow at the turn of the century when, in 2001, Renault Group decided to become car specialist and depart the commercial vehicles sector: “And to be a specialist in cars they decided to buy Nissan Motors – Nissan cars. Where did they find the money? By selling us in 2001 to the Swedish Volvo AB Group which at the same time decided to be a specialist in industrial vehicles. But the Swedish company had to find the money. And where did they find the money? Selling Volvo Cars to Ford and today is owned by Chinese company Geely.”
With Renault VI reigning as Europe’s predominant truck manufacturer, this presented Volvo with a potentially pricey takeover.
“One of the consequences of being the leader was that we were very expensive,” he explains. “So, the money that they got from the selling of the Volvo Cars to Ford was not enough. So, that’s why the Volvo Group was obliged to transfer to the Renault Group, our previous owner, 21.6 % of their shares.”
A long-serving veteran of the company, Jean-Philippe recalls the challenge of meeting the demands of the one-time owner: “It meant that there was no decision which could be taken inside the Volvo Group without the agreement of our previous owners. But behind the Renault Group we still had the French government, which was for us, meant a quite secure situation.”
Ultimately combining the B2B world of commercial vehicles and the B2C ensured the arrangement would not last.
“You have to know that till the 12th December, 2012, Renault Group used to have more than 26 percent of the shares of the volume. The problem was managing stocks,” he says.
“We continued making trucks to order for our merchants. We don’t have trucks in stock. It’s when the customer makes the order that we will ask all our suppliers to produce components. And then we will assemble our customer’s trucks. You will see on the line that there is no stored up trucks. Every truck is different from the previous one.
“Whereas for the car business in Renault, they have cars stocking everywhere in Europe before they have customers. When you go to see a Renault car dealer you just asked for the car you want. And the first thing the guy will do is go to his computer to check if the car you want is parked somewhere in Europe. If it’s the case, then they will prepare it and then ship it to you. That means that they have produced cars before having customers,” he explains.
With 55,000 vehicles sold last year, Jean-Philippe believes that the company is in a very strong position, even if there is uncertainty in the global markets. He says that its success can be attributed to a number of factors, including support from Volvo.
“The first value of our truck is robustness – robustness of our trucks’ transport solutions and how we can insure you on the robustness about our Renault Trucks transport solutions. That’s why we are doing what you are doing today; opening the doors of our factories. What better than to see the processes of our different factories? We can have words. But visual information is better than words.”
“All the activities of Renault Trucks are certified 1S0 9001, but that’s not enough. All the suppliers there must be also be certified. The Renault Trucks World Network is also certified ISO 9001. This means all the drivers of the supply chain of the drivers must be certified ISO 9001. This is the only way for us to ensure our customers about the robustness, quality, the reliability of our trucks transport solutions.”
Carrying on his theme, he traces back to that hidden treasure trove of vehicles: “The robustness is also coming also from the history you see at the Conservertoire. (When you walk in) you can feel it in a few seconds. We have not been in the truck business since yesterday or 50 years ago but since 1894. “
Returning to the present and future for Renault Trucks, he says Volvo’s involvement has
been and will be crucial.
“I think the last thing which is making the robustness of Renault Trucks, is being member of the Volvo Group. Why? Because today, the Volvo Group is the European trucks leader with every range of trucks in its mix. It is the number two at the world level. This is also part of our robustness – to be a member of a leader. Because every time we have needed investment, millions and billions of euro the Volvo Group did it for us.”
As the talk comes to a close, he suggests a second value of customer intimacy.
“I hope you have felt it since coming here. The intimacy between between us; between our customers and us,” he says. “But what is customer intimacy and what does it mean?
“Always listening to hear what our customers are waiting from us. Always finding the right truck transport solution for the right profession. It’s on the field that we will discover the solution. Knowing the profession of our customer to always offer them the right trucks transport solution. Thanks to which they will answer positively to their own customer. They will keep their own promises to their own customers.”
He continues: “That’s why we have to be very innovative. And customer intimacy means to be close to you physically. How would we do it? Through the Renault Trucks World Network which is today made of 1,350 sales and service points; those are the people who are making the daily relationship between our customers and us.
“There are some people who do not want to see any more trucks on the road but a truck is very important for tge world’s economical life. No more trucks on the road. No economy at all. No more daily lives.”
He concludes; returning to the Conservatoire: “You cannot go to the future without knowing where you are coming from. Without knowing your past. We know thanks to the Marius Berliet Foundation.”