11 June 2014

My old Renault 4L

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.

14 comments:

Tim said...

Ken, there are active 4L groups all over France...
it is a much loved part of French motoring history.

As it was a small number of cars it would have been a group outing...
but not necessarily local....
You will probably find out which group after a short web search.

It will be an annual event... but not necessarily in the same place...
for example:
The french 2CVers had their National meeting in the North of France this year...
last year it was on the West coast.

Or else it could be a small outing from a major event...
I notice that the early models seem to have a Rally plaque in the window...
I can't quite see, but it looks like "4L 86" in the middle...
but the "raid" could have taken them on quite a long drive....
they usually do... the cars are meant to be driven!!
Our local Retro group came to St.Aignan at the end of last month...
we weren't able to join in as we have a rotten roof on the '56 2CV...
so she can only go out on definate NON-rain days at the moment...
but your town square was full of old tractors and other "vehicules anciens"...

By posting about 4Ls you will have made Jean very, very happy....
it is one of her favourite cars.... she wants an orange one!!

In the first picture 548 NQ 18 is a very early car...
one of the first, going on the small grill...
and the ones to the right are also early models...
evidenced by the wind open flap ....
the worst mistake that Renault made was the move to that plastic front grill on the left...
when you open the internal flaps in Summer you get a faceful of dried minced dead fly carcasses in your face...
lovely [not].

The vans were a bit special, too....
the front and back of the van roof both opened...
allowing plumbers and joiners to get long lengths of pipe and wood through...
no need for a roof rack...
Citroen missed a trick there!!
Glad you have happy memories of a wonderful chunk of motoring history...

anne marie in philly said...

there was something very french about those cars; like you could pick them up and drop them into a tight space. wonder how "safe" the construction was back then? ah, memories...

Andrew said...

Early Peugeots here had weird column gear shift patterns too. I have seen those dashboard gear shifts but I didn't know anything about them. I do now. I don't think we had those Renaults here, but maybe we did. Apart from their appearance, they really don't seem memorable.

Ken Broadhurst said...

More Renault 4 cars were built than any other car in French history, until the Peugeot 206 came along 10 or 12 years ago. I now drive an old Peugeot 206. I guess I go for mainstream cars.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Tim, your "comment" could have made a full blog post.

Seine Judeet (Judith) said...

Ah! How cool for you to run across this display of Renaults :)

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Evelyn said...

So glad you got to visit those Renaults. You certainly got your money's worth with that car.

The Beaver said...

Whether they were 2CV or R4, seems that the nuns at my school on the island loved them. It was the mode of transportation for them - those who were teachers at the RC schools and were working away from the convent.

Autolycus said...

The only car I've ever owned was a 1969 4L. It was enormously practical (I was involved with a rowing club then, and the relatively long wheelbase and fold-down rear seats meant I could cram a couple of boats with the oars on the roof-rack and all their impedimenta inside). Once you got used to the back-to-front umbrella-handle gear lever (so French!), it was (mostly) no problem. Though once, the electrics chose to die for a heart-stopping thirty seconds or so just as we were trying to get down a track in a wood to a boathouse - after dark, too; and it laboured a bit when I coaxed it into taking a full load of boats, bits and oarsmen over the Pennines. Its last big job after moving me back to London was to take the last remains of my parents' WW2 air-raid shelter to the municipal waste tip - in 1977! After that, the rusting floor-pan meant it just wouldn't have been worth trying to get it through its annual safety inspection and off it went to the scrapheap in the sky. But I still miss it. Slightly.

Gosia said...

I like French cars but prefers German ones

Ken Broadhurst said...

Thanks for the memories, Patrick.

Ginny said...

Ken, you make everything interesting! Great post, and, as usual, I learned a lot.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Hi Ginny, hope you are having a good summer. We are, so far. The garden is planted and growing. Walt, Callie, Bertie, and I are all doing fine. Being 65 years old isn't so bad...