Before I moved to France permanently in 2003, I had owned only one French car before. I lived in Paris and other French cities for about eight years in the 1970s and early 1980s, but with the excellent subway and railway transit in this country, I never felt the need to buy a car. Once in a while, I would rent a vehicle for a special trip out into the French countryside.
In 1981, however, some friends of mine decided to sell their little Renault 4 and buy a newer, bigger, more comfortable car. The little R4 was a 1972 or 1973 model. I don't remember how many kilometers it had on the odometer, but I'm sure it was quite a few. I bought the car from them for... get this... 1500 French francs, or the equivalent of $300 (not a typo). I didn't buy the car because I needed one — I lived just a few steps off the rue Montorgueil, square in the middle of Paris — but because I thought it would be fun to have it. And it was. I don't think I have any photos of the R4, but I have a lot of memories.
Parking was a big problem in Paris, but somehow I figured it out. The rue Montorgueil hadn't yet been turned into a pedestrian-only zone back then, and I could usually find a parking space — legal or illegal — on that street or on one of the many side streets in the neighborhood. Actually, I got quite a few parking tickets that year. It turned out to be my last year as a resident of Paris, and the little pale-blue R4 (it was a 4L, I'm pretty sure, meaning the « Luxe » model) made the year very memorable. The fact that I met Walt that year in Paris also made it into a pivotal moment in my life.
I still sometimes think I'd like to own an old Renault 4, but I feel like I'd need to know how, or have the inclination to learn how, to work on old car engines. I don't have any skills or any ambitions in that area — I'd rather be in the kitchen making lunch than in the garage tinkering with or repairing an old vehicle. The last R4s rolled off the assembly line more than 20 years ago. By the way, the R4 was, in 1961, the first front-wheel drive passenger car that Renault ever manufactured. It was Renault's answer to the Citroën 2CV, which was a car designed for people who lived in rural areas, and it was intended to be what some might call an "urban assault" vehicle. I know that mine rarely ventured even into the Paris suburbs.
The R4 or 4L had two very distinctive features, at least in my memory. First was the gearshift lever. It stuck out of the dashboard. You couldn't call it a "four on the floor" model, and it also wasn't a steering column shifter. In addition, the shift pattern was not the familiar 4-speed H pattern, with first gear being the upper left position and fourth gear on the lower right. The R4 shifter worked in a W pattern, with first gear in the lower left position and fourth gear the upper right. Reverse gear was where you might expect to find first gear in other cars. So you pulled the lever toward you to get into first gear and start moving. See the diagram on the left. Anyway, it was very different from the American and German cars I was used to driving in the U.S.
The other distinctive feature was the seats. They were kind of like the old lawn chairs in the U.S. that were woven vinyl straps attached to a tubular metal frame. The R4 seats had a vinyl cover and some perfunctory padding, but they were basically lawn chairs. As I remember it, they were pretty comfortable, actually, both in the front and in the back. As an aside, let me say that when I left Paris in 1982, I sold the R4 for exactly what I had paid for it 9 or 10 months earlier. And you can ask Walt about what condition the car was in after I parked it for a week in springtime on a tree-lined boulevard in Paris while I went on vacation in England. Let's just say that "guano happened" in a very major way that week.
I almost bought a red Renault 4 in 2003, when we first arrived in the Saint-Aignan area. I had already bought a Peugeot 206 as our everyday vehicle, but one day I saw an R4 sitting in the parking lot at the Mairie in the village of Pouillé, just down the road from where we live. It had a "for sale" sign in the rear window, with a telephone number. I called. The man I talked to discouraged me from buying the car. The reverse gear no longer worked, he said, and the car was worth more as spare parts than as a mode of transportation. I decided against the purchase. I'm not sure I did the right thing.
Anyway, a few days ago CHM and I were out touring around the region and we passed through the village of Nouans-les-Fontaines, just 10 miles south of Saint-Aignan. We drove past a warehouse of some kind with a parking lot along the edge of the road, and there I saw a dozen or two beautiful Renault 4 cars parked in a row. It was a rally of some kind, and it was just breaking up. I drove on for a few hundred meters and then decided to go back at take some pictures. I didn't talk to anybody, so I don't know if this is regularly scheduled event or just a one-off. You can see what the cars looked like from the photos here.