One of the most famous, minimalisic and utiltarian cars of all time is having its 60th Birthday!
And yet it’s also an oft-forgotten car, even on the continent that spurned it. It’s rare in Britain and practically non-existent in the U.S.
It’s the Renault 4. And this is its story.
The mid-1950s, as we’ve described before in countless CLT articles, was a fertile time for European car development. A decade had passed since the end of WWII and, slowly but surely, money was returning to the pockets of ordinary people across the continent.
Whilst the US glimpsed the ’50s through wide, glinting spectacles, their kitchens chocked full of cutting edge technology, their driveways proudly displaying large, lavish motorcars, Europe was experiencing a period of frugality, though it was ever so steadily changing.
Many cars, such as the Renault 4CV, had been designed pre-WWII and came with designs, proportions and technology that reflected the period. It sold well, and helped get the French middle class back to their feet and onto the roads once again. But Renault needed to modernise, and quickly.
And their answer was the Renault 4. Or rather, the Renault 3 and 4; though really it was the 3L and 4L. Though in some places they’re the R3 and R4. Clear? I didn’t think so.
In 1956, Renault kicked off a project that would not only replace their own 4CV but would also compete with the roaringly successful Citroën 2CV, a legendary vehicle that had captured the hearts of the French, and European, public. It was cheap, simple and practical, everything a car needed to be in post-war Europe. And it was the blueprint for Renault.
A car for everyone, for every occasion.
As we always say, here at CLT, Context is Key. And it’s important to remember that, up to, including, and well after the war, Europe was still very rural; and agricultural. The roads were heavily damaged and many cars were used not only for transport, but for work as well. We call that utilitarian nowadays!.
With that in mind, Renault ensured the understructure was beefy, with a separate body on top; à la original Land Rover. The fully independent suspension had an awful lot of travel, whilst the front wheel drive configuration kept things nice and compact.
Inside, the equipment on offer was, shall we say… minimalist, but it came with removable seats and a large cargo area for picnics, luggage, sheep… And by keeping the design boxy, with minimal shoulders and “boattailing”, it maximised the space inside whilst keeping the vehicle footprint to a minimum.
The Renault 3 & 4 debuted in July 1961, making their first press appearance in August before making their grand, public debut in October, at the 48th “Salon de l’Automobile”(Paris Motor Show).
Despite the extravagance on show, the minimalistic approach was welcomed by the public and press alike, the two base vehicles only differing in their powerplant, the 3 using the 603cc i4 engine from the Renault 4CV, the 4 the same engine in 747cc guise. And of course, a manual gearbox.
And it didn’t take long to realise that Renault had judged the vehicle perfectly. Neither the 3 nor 4 were exceedingly powerful, horsepower ranging from 22.5hp to 32hp depending on engine variant; the base R3 came with a single sun visor, no windshield washer and no interior door trim panels; rear quarter glass was a 400 francs option, and only on the R4; and the ride was exceedingly soft.
The Renault 3 lasted just a year, October 1962 seeing production come to an end along with some of the most basic variants of the 4. Yet to judge the Renault 4 by these entry level variants is to miss the point of the French marque’s creation entirely.
Renault had created a vehicle that, whilst appealing to the masses, also persuaded them that their hard-earned money was better spent on door trims, opening quarter windows and more powerful engines than new clothes or a foreign holiday; all whilsy remaining a cheap proposition compared with its competitors.
And its principles remained as storng as ever; a fuel-efficient, cheap-to-maintain, utilitarian car with space for a family and the ability to handle everything that rural roads could throw at it.
It took just over 4 years of production to reach 1 million vehicles.
And its success reached truly global proportions.
In Argentina and Chile, it’s known as the Renoleta; in Finland, Tipparellu (Drop, thanks to its impressive fuel economy); in Colombia, it’s the Amigo fiel, faithful friend, whilst it’s nickname in both Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia translates as the “Little Giant”. In some countries in East Africa, it’s known as Roho, which in Swahili means “spirit” or “soul”. For a small car, it had a big impact.
And by big impact, I mean a 33 year lifetime; yeah, you read that right. A vehicle that was produced in 28 countries, marketed in more than 100, and reached total sales of 8,135,424. A version of the Renault 4 Sinpar, the four-wheel drive variant, came 5th in the 1979 Paris-Dakar rally; and 3rd in the race the following year. 1st, 2nd and 4th place went to the Volkswagen Iltis, a vehicle built specifically for the German military. And rounding off the top 5 was a customised Range Rover.
So the Renault 4 isn’t a benchmark of automotive design; or of world-class engineering. It isn’t a vehicle that laid the foundations for change around the world. But 60 years on, it’s a vehicle that’s left one hell of a legacy, a legacy that still resonates with many to this very day. And it deserves an awful lot more respect than it gets.
Bon anniversaire, mon frère.
Well we certainly enjoyed writing this dedication to the charming Renault 4, and we hope you enjoyed reading it. Tio ensure you don’t miss out on anything else CLT related, sign up below. X