Will Renault return?

At the end of the 1970s, American Motors had gone bust, and wound up being acquired by Renault, which replaced all of AMC’s old car models except the all-wheel-drive Eagle with fresh Frenchmobiles to supplement the existing Renault 5, sold here under the semi-inspiring name “Le Car.” The first of them was an Americanized Renault 9, built in AMC’s Kenosha plant and renamed “Alliance,” which did well for a time. Quality-control issues bedeviled the AMC/Renault combine, and losses mounted; the French government, which had nationalized Renault after World War II, installed Georges Besse as chairman of the company in early 1985. Besse went to work cutting costs and closing European plants, which may or may not have had something to do with his murder in the fall of ’86.

In 1987 Renault sold its interests in AMC to Chrysler, which set up the Jeep-Eagle division to sell AMC’s Jeep line and two rebranded Renault cars. The Eagle line was fleshed out with Mitsubishi designs, and survived until 1998. Chrysler’s vaunted “cab-forward” sedans of the 1990s were basically derivatives of the AMC/Renault/Eagle Premier.

But that was it for Renault in the States, and the company, privatized in 1996 (the government retains about 15 percent), didn’t make any effort to reestablish itself here until 2006, when Renault and Japanese partner Nissan — Carlos Ghosn is CEO of both companies — had discussions with General Motors, precipitated by investor Kirk Kerkorian. Those talks went nowhere, and Kerkorian has since sold off his GM interests.

Officially, Renault isn’t planning a return to the US market, but rumors persist, mostly because of statements like this from Ghosn’s underlings:

French car maker Renault SA is still itching for a move into the U.S. automobile market — the world’s biggest, from which it has been absent for more than 20 years — and might be interested in Chrysler LLC if its owners were to put it up for sale, a senior Renault official said Thursday.

Jacques Verdonck, Renault’s vice-president for corporate and strategic planning, told Dow Jones Newswires that one option for the company is to try to establish a presence in the U.S. by itself, although this would be both “risky and costly.”

The other easier and less onerous way would be to link up with one of the large U.S. automotive companies, though this would imply that the partner is in good financial health and is sufficiently robust to carry the deal through, he said.

Inasmuch as the large US automotive companies are hardly in “good financial health,” M. Verdonck may simply be covering himself — or Ghosn:

“We have selected our priorities which are expansions in Russia, India and in South America, but we don’t have any intentions in the short term to open new markets with new investors,” said Ghosn, who has been meeting with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss the future lay-offs in his company as a result of the economic downturn.

Indeed, Renault’s stock price is tanking, which would make any acquisitions more difficult — unless Cerberus Capital Management, which acquired control of Chrysler in 2007, is willing to pay Renault to take it off their hands.

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