Friday June 29, 2018
You never forget your first experience of the Renault 4; the flaps on top of the dashboard that could be opened to admit gales of fresh air into the cabin, the “Push-Me, Pull You” gear change and the way in which the switches were apparently thrown at random around the dashboard.
The seats looked primitive but were extremely comfortable and if the body roll seemed entertaining to the passengers it often looked downright alarming to anyone following a cornering 4. In short, this was mass-motoring that was idiosyncratic, generally delightful and – certainly built to last.
In fact, when you consider the history of the 4, two facts immediately come to mind. Firstly, it was a true “World Car”, built in Algeria, Belgium, Columbia, Ireland, Italy, Morocco, Spain and the former Yugoslavia as well in as in France.
It was also a Renault that was groovy enough for any rock and roll band judging by this vintage cinema commercial – and sufficiently chic to occupy a respectable driveway somewhere near Weybridge.
Secondly, it is a car of quite remarkable longevity, launched at a time when Harold Macmillan was still the Prime Minister, when a telephone call from a red kiosk cost 4d (‘Press Button “A” caller’) and when Del Shannon was topping the Hit Parade with Runaway. When the last 4 was produced in 1994, some 33 years later, John Major occupied 10 Downing Street and Wet Wet Wet was singing Love Is All Around; N.B. the original version by The Troggs is far superior in my unbiased opinion. Of course, Renault had upgraded the 4’s specification over three decades but the fundamental concept remained unaltered, from the asymmetrical wheelbase to the uncompromisingly utilitarian coachwork.
The last-named attribute did not initially find favour with some British critics; in 1962 the chap at Autocar ranted that ‘This car has few pretensions as a status symbol, its performance is marginal, and it is obvious that no artistic stylist spent sleepless nights pondering on this venture’. Asides from imagining the writer clamped firmly on his pipe as he typed this diatribe, the reference to ‘status symbol’ is interesting as the 4’s UK price of £616 13s 1d meant that its closest rival would have been the Morris Mini Traveller/Austin Mini Countryman.
The BMC offerings boasted external woodwork, the better to reinforce their image as suitable cars for the pony club set, while the Renault appealed to architects or art teachers. The neighbours of the latter probably muttered the word ‘beatnik’ whenever they caught sight of the 4.
Finally, as with almost any great car, the 4 was instrumental in changing the identity of a marque. When it debuted in July 1961 the large Frégate had recently ceased production and the Renault badge was then mainly associated with cheap rear-engine saloons.
11 years later, front wheel drive models – the 5, the 6, the 12 and the 16 – dominated the line-up thanks in a great part to the five-door hatchback that was devised as ‘both an urban and rural vehicle, that meets the needs of everyone. In short - a blue jeans car’. To quote the late great Russell Bulgin in Car magazine of 1994:
“Why do I like the 4? Lots of reasons: a superb ride; a great gearchange; lots of grip if you ignore the roly-poly-pudding-and-pieness which accompanies committed cornering; loads of room inside; spongiferous seats; flat glass; flat floor; flat out in every gear; the list goes on.”
And who could possibly ask for more in a car?