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Renault R4

Published: 19th Dec 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Renault R4
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Renault’s R4 was the Scenic MPV of its day and was produced for more than 30 years. It’s still the blueprint for cheap motoring half a century on

First R4’s had no ignition key – but who’d want to pinch or even be seen in one?

The trouble with economy cars is that us Brits don’t like the look of them, no matter how sensible they may be under that strange skin. The R4 is a prime example of how Johnny Foreigner saw, and continues to see it differently. This radical family ferrier, sitting on the drive during the 1960s and 70s, would have been just the job for families on a budget, but, oh, what would the neighbours have thought when a Ford Escort would have looked so much smarter?

A good many classics have something to celebrate this year and it’s the Renault’s 50th birthday. Not that you’d have remembered this landmark, when the E-type and Mini Cooper are stealing all the half-century limelight. But the Renault was, and is, just as great a car in its own right and, after a magnifi cent 31-year production run, helped shape the family hatchback of today. Without question.

Launched in 1961 to rival Citroen’s 2 CV, and the later Ami/Dyane offshoots, the 4 was just as radical as the Mini, which was suffering from sluggish sales about the time the Renault hit UK showrooms. Priced at £539, the Frenchie was slightly dearer than our Mini saloon but usefully cheaper than the more direct rival Countryman/ Traveller estate, and you got a lot more usable car into the bargain, with a rear hatch, fi ve-doors and a rear seat that could be removed (modern MPV thinking!) for a van-like capacity.

Spartan never began to describe the 4’s ultra functional cabin and this continued right up the car’s demise 30 years later, but comfort and practicality were always the constants that buyers preferred. A self-indulgent fuel gauge wasn’t included (you dipped the tank like the oil) initially, in the standard specs, sliding windows ruled (decades after the Mini ditched them) and the earliest R4s (a model tag that was dropped in 1965, in favour of the plain ‘4’) didn’t even posses an ignition key switch! Anybody could pinch one – but who’d want to be seen in one?

Well, some eight million owners over the decades, that’s what, and the 4 quickly gained a strong army of fans who revelled in the car’s versatility, penny-wise economy and non conformist character. In its 1967 road test Motor said that the British conception of the Renault 4 as a “cheap rather slow agricultural conveyance” was as wrong as it was unfl attering. Over the decades the car gained better engines (956 and 1108cc units taken from the R8), front disc brakes and welcome 12 volt electrics but never a fi ve-speed gearbox. A van version (Fourgon) appeared, as did the extremely rare Mini Moke-like cabrio (Plein Air) and even a 4x4 was produced between 1963 right through to ‘88, called Sinpar.

Renault stopped importing 4s into the UK in ‘86, preferring buyers to buy its more modern alternatives instead. They were produced all around the world in 30 countries – from Australia to Zaire. When French production stopped in ‘92 it continued in Morocco and Slovenia until the mid ‘90s. However, whereas the Citroen 2CV became a fashion statement, the Renault rarely strayed from its roots, although a special run of 1000 models called ‘Bye-bye’ was made, each with a competitive plaque.

Voiture utilitare
Although the 4 carved out a healthy market in the UK, you had to be a pretty unconventional type to want to put one on your drive. Those looks, that fl imsy feel and fears of DIY and parts accessibility (the fact that the R4 was the fi rst production car to feature a sealed-for-life cooling system must have scared many on that one point alone!) invariably had us conservative Brits fl ocking to Ford dealers for the comfort zone of an old fashioned Anglia or Escort instead, even though the French design suited most household needs better. However, even the posh Deluxe and Super models were unbelievably bare compared to most of its contemporaries and the Renault’s superior ride and seating was lost to the majority of motorists, who demanded a bit of extra trim and a cigar lighter instead as well as, well, something not so daft to be seen in?

While performance never improved greatly over the decades (0-60 ranged from 24-31 secs) the 4’s remarkable road holding remained as impressive as ever. Like the 2CV its long suspension travel ensured alarming roll angles but rarely anything more serious, and a well wound up 4, with its front-wheel drive and rack and pinion steering, could see many faster cars the way home. Its performance on poor roads was outstanding and the suspension almost impossible to bottom out. The Renault is not dissimilar to the 2CV in terms of driving experience. Both drive better than their modest performance suggests but the 4 is a lot quicker (in relative terms) and is roomier and even more practical. Both boasted an odd dashmounted gear selector (you can’t really call it a lever) that actually works a lot better than it looked.

The Renault was robust. In fact, the 4 was a lot sturdier than its tinny looks and build suggested and less than 13 exterior panels could be removed for easy repair. Good thing too as the cars did rust; somewhat fi ttingly then that Alfa Romeo even built them under licence from 1962-64!

“As basic transport or as a second car that is different this little Renault has a lot to offer”, concluded Motor’s test, but ten years later Car Mechanics dismissively described it as peasant motoring. Well so what… on paper that’s still exactly what many hard up motorists dream of from a cheap set of wheels! The direct replacement today is the current crop of van-derived Kombis perhaps. Take a look at Renault’s own Kangoo and you can see a bit of the R4 shining through. So, let’s mark this Renault’s 50th just as passionately as we have done with the E-type and the Mini this year. The Jaguar may be the sexiest classic ever, and the Mini the most innovative, but the 4 has to be the most useful budget car ever produced.


When The Car Was The Star

The most famous of all Renault 4 screen roles has to be the ‘Camping Car’ in the 1971 Jacques Tati classic ‘Traffi c’ , although those with a taste for early 1980s fromage might recall the Colombian-built 4L in ‘Romancing The Stone’. Another 4L features heavily in ‘Return of the Pink Panther’ whilst Anton Rogers’s 4 police car in ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ is ssplendidly unsuited to rapid pursuits but for sheer savoir faire, there can only be one choice - a certain pop video with Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg driving through Paris in their doorless 4 ‘Plein Air’. Well, either that or the 4 being name-checked in Spitting Image’s ‘Chicken Song’...

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