In 1956, Renault introduced the world to the Dauphine, a rear-engined economy car that succeeded the pint-sized successful post-war 4CV. With its remarkably small size, beautiful aesthetics, and fantastic practicality, it was an immediate success, having sold more than two million units by the time production ended 11 years later. Despite building so many, however, chances are that you've never even seen one until now. At least, what remains of it.
Justin Cashmore lucked upon this particular example in the deserts of Southern California, not far from the Anza valley. Having been parked in the mid '60s, the Dauphine had sat, otherwise untouched, for nearly 50 years. The car's uniqueness, its oddness, and its sun-torched patina atop vibrant blue-green paint proved irresistible for Justin, and without hesitation, he hauled the car back home to Simi Valley.
In all, the car was a bit of a mess. The interior was shot, as was the floor pan itself, having given way to the elements. Each body panel bears some scarring, ranging from dings and dents, to rust and rot. Nevertheless, Justin was nothing but empowered by the state of affairs, and began cutting the car apart with only one thing in mind: the ultimate canyon carver.
The outcome, after more than a year of late nights in the garage and countless after-hour wrench sessions, is a lot to digest. "What on earth is it?" has been established, of course, but there's a lot more than meets the eye. If the radiuses fenders, aftermarket arches, and the wide Enkei RPF01 wheels wrapped in Toyo R comps didn't give that away, the exhaust note surely will.
The heart of the brute comes from a Volkswagen: a 24-valve BDF VR6 and a 6-speed transmission plucked from a MK4 VW. Unlike the Volkswagen, though, the Dauphine isn't front-wheel-drive. Instead, Justin put his tools to work, building a completely custom subframe and chassis to house the driveline at the back of the tiny sedan, nixing the rear seat in favor of a modern driveline. A radiator sits, somewhat unexpectedly, in front of the engine, using the car's original door ducts as an air feed, as well as an added "transmission tunnel" that acts as a massive duct for air under the car. An engine swap alone was far from enough, however, and as a follow up, Justin took to completely redesigning the car's suspension from the ground up.
Loosely based on MK4 Volkswagen geometry, the car's track width is identical to its donor, which highlights just how small the Dauphine is in factory form. Outside to outside, the new setup is no wider than your sister's 2003 GTi. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean it lacks some impressive engineering. Justin chopped up the MK4 uprights and converted them to accept heim joints, allowing him to build a double-A arm suspension in the front and rear of the car. Former NASCAR swaybars have been fitted front and rear, and a pushrod and bellcrank pairing has been fabricated for each corner of the car. The final components: a set of four Yamaha R1 street bike dampers paired with Eibach springs, which yield a perfectly stiff and sporty ride.
Tipping the scales at just 2,000 pounds, the car is an absolute featherweight, meaning the 215/45R17 R888Rs and the 8.5" wide RPF01s offer an incredible amount of grip. On the other hand, the Wilwood big brakes that hide behind the wheels offer immense stopping power: in most aspects, the car is simply a big go-kart, with rail-like handling and no body roll to be found, whatsoever. The 240-or-so horsepower from the VR6 gives the Dauphine plenty of power too: enough to have way too much fun, but not enough to get away from a focused driver. For now, at least.
Inside the car, the impressive work continues. Having built a custom chassis for the car, it offered Justin the opportunity to swap from left-hand drive to right. One of the build's more nuanced changes is a reversed shift pattern, mirroring a traditional 6-speed layout. As Justin puts it, "I always just felt like the first few gears should be closer to you," and after some thought, I think we may agree. The feedback side of the equation is made simple by a wifi OBD2 reader and an android tablet as a dashboard, which communicates on the fly with his custom motorsports ECU.
A modern Renault wheel and custom Status seats bring a bit of modernity to the interior, and a pair of custom-built levers for the shifter and hydraulic e-brake stand tall over the center console. A roll cage chases its way through the interior as well, offering safety for the driver and support for the custom work that has gone into the build.
Back to the outside of the car: the Dauphine still wears its original hue of teal paint, with some bits and pieces having been touched up at some point over the years. Worn patches of paint are littered across the car, with many descending through the paint and primer, bearing sunburnt rusted steel: perfectly orange in contrast to the color that adorns the car itself. A MK1 Rabbit roof rack was modified -- and bent to the shape of the Dauphine's roof -- for a bit of storage, seeing as the interior is largely consumed by a 6-cylinder engine and a heat-proofed firewall. A custom aluminum splitter and diffuser, hand built by Justin, of course, give a touch of attitude to the car's otherwise timid exterior, save for the big black arches at each corner. Modern LED lighting has been retrofitted into the housings of the car's auxiliary lighting, too.
As I did the "photographer's dance" around the little french car, Justin made an insightful comment: "I'm glad I won't see another one," he says. And he's right, too. He continued "I'll never have to see one and think, 'it would have looked better if I had done it that way.'" The result is a build that is, by any measure, Justin, inside and out. Had it been a Civic, or perhaps an E30, there's no doubt it would have caught attention, but instead, Justin is leaving a mark. Despite building two million Dauphines, next time you hear the name, it'll be Justin Cashmore's example that comes to mind.