06 June 2009

That 1973 Renault 4L

I don't think I have a single picture of that old Renault 4L that I owned back in 1981 and '82. Wonder if Walt has one. I'm old enough that I'm lucky not to have missed the digital photography revolution almost completely. For the past few years, I've been making up for not taking many pictures earlier in my life.

I had been in Paris since the fall of 1979, working as a teacher. I had met a lot of people, including a young couple who lived out near Versailles and had a pale blue Renault 4L. In the summer of 1981, they decided they wanted to sell it and buy a bigger car. I don't remember if they were the original owners. The car was a 1973 model.

A Renault 4 sitting in front of a bank in Saint-Aignan in 2006

Against all good judgment, I bought the car from them. I remember I paid them 1500 francs — about $300 American. I had no place to park the car but on the street, and I was living in a little apartment three steps off the rue Montorgueil, a main market street near Les Halles.

A red Renault 4 for sale for 300 euros in Saint-Aignan in 2003.
It no longer had a working reverse gear. Wish I had bought it.

The rue Montorgueil in Paris is a pedestrian-only street nowadays, but back then it was open to cars. Parking was at a premium in the whole neighborhood. I got a lot of parking tickets that year, and I rode around the surrounding blocks for many hours, looking for parking spaces.

I used to drive around Paris hoping that the traffic light out ahead of me wouldn't turn red after I had built up a good head of steam. The brakes weren't all that good. Often I would have two or three other people in the car with me. "Stay green!" we would yell at the stoplights as we approached them. "Stay green!"

My 4L looked a lot like this one, which I saw
in Cosnes-sur-Loire in 2001.

The 4L was definitely a city car. The only times I ventured outside of Paris with it were a couple of trips down to Fontainebleau in the spring of 1982, when I was preparing my return to the U.S. There was a big Carrefour hypermarket out there where I could buy things like metal shipping trunks and packing materials. The car made it just fine, but I drove pretty slowly on little roads, avoiding the freeway.

In Meusnes, near Saint-Aignan, in 2004

In the spring, I also took off for a two-week trip to England and left the 4L in Paris. I knew a street without parking restrictions — those were the days, in Paris! It was the avenue de l'Observatoire near the Luxembourg Gardens. If you know that street, you'll know that it is lined with plane trees. So my car was not only parked for free, but it was parked in the shade.

When I got back to Paris, Walt and I walked over to the avenue de l'Observatoire to see if the car would start. We figured we could push it if we had to; it wasn't exactly a behemoth of a vehicle. There it sat, when we got there, right where I had left it. But it was completely covered, almost every square inch of it, with bird droppings. Merde ! Now what was I going to do? I didn't have a driveway with a garden hose where I could wash the thing down. This was central Paris.

In Preuilly-sur-Claise

Walt and I drove the car as it was over to a garage that I knew about at Sèvres-Babylone. People all along the way noticed us, pointing and laughing. When we drove into the garage, the mechanics drew back and then they too started laughing. While W. and I went across the street to have a glass of wine in a café, they ran the 4L through the car wash for us. That was the first time it had been really clean since I'd bought it.

On the streets of Saint-Aignan in 2004

One day the clutch went out when I was driving in traffic around the place de la République. Luckily, I was in front of a Renault garage when it happened. I was able to push it to the garage and they repaired it for me the next day. Those little Renaults were easy to work on and every garage had the necessary parts in stock back then.

In Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe

When I left Paris in August 1982 to move to Washington DC, I sold the 4L. I don't remember how I advertised it. I guess I put up notices in the bakeries and other food shops along the rue Montorgueil. A guy bought it from me for 1500 francs, which was what I had paid for it.

At the Fontgombault abbey

I still see quite a few R4 cars driving around Saint-Aignan. Some are pretty beaten up, but others have been lovingly restored. If I had any car repair skills, I'd be very tempted to buy one. But I don't need a little heap of rust sitting out in the yard, and have better things to do with my time (cooking, eating, gardening, walking the dog, blogging) than constantly taking a car to the garage for repairs.


  1. I used my R4 for cross-country trips - one of the best things about it was the relatively long wheelbase, which meant I could get bits of rowing eights and oars on the roofrack quite safely to take crews to distant(ish) regattas. I rather thought it had been designed to allow country people to get small livestock in the back (once you got the rear seat down it was like a small van).

    Mind you, with all that and passengers in the back, it got a bit laboured going up steep hills.

  2. Didn't you love those seats? Plastic stretched on springs across a frame. They were pretty comfortable, when I think back on it. I never had any livestock in my 4L. But then you don't run into a lot of livestock in Paris. You were braver than I was.

  3. Thanks for all the 4L photos and also the photo of "my" hotel! ;-)

    chm - thanks again!


  4. Such fun, all these photos :) I don't think that I ever even saw your car in Paris. I think that I was only in a car within Paris about 4 times that year... once when M. Lacombe drove me to Aimee's for some reason, and once when he drove me to the bus station to leave at the end of the year (he had a BMW), and the other 2 times I had to take the car myself (is there an R5? I think that's what the other car was) to pick up the kids at school when it was raining... YIKES! The circle at Nation was no easy feat!


  5. Hi Judy, the R5 was the one they called "Le Car" in the U.S. back in the 70s. I'm mystified when I try to think where I parked that car all the time. I didn't drive it to the Alliance Française -- at least not often. I don't know where I could have parked it and left it all day long. Maybe there was more free parking in Paris in those days. There's absolutely none now. If I lived there these days, I wouldn't keep a car.

    BettyAnn, yes, the picture of the hotel was for you. :^)

  6. I had some driving lessons in our blue one in 1975. I thought all cars had 3 gears and the gear lever sticking out of the dashboard. I once got overtaken in it going up a very slight hill by a milk float. The most useful accessory was the starting handle - it would rarely start without it. Why then do I think of it so fondly?

  7. Jean, the starting handle -- was that some sort of crank? Most cars used to have just three forward gears, I think. At least the ones I learned to drive -- 1959 and 1960 Chevrolets -- had three. Did the R4 have only three? I don't remember. Now cars have five or six. But then they also have AC, cruise control, electric windows, and on and on.

  8. Ken, the starting handle was a bent metal bar that you shoved into the front of the engine and then heaved it round to turn the engine over when it refused to start normally, which was the most of the time with ours. It required a fair amount of strength, I seem to remember.

  9. Jean, that's what I'd call a crank. And yes, that's what the Renault 4 generated the most: affection.


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