The Renault 4 celebrates its sixtieth birthday. We salute a French automotive icon.
Certain cars seem perfectly to encapsulate a vision of their country of origin. It is easy to imagine a gleaming black Mercedes-Benz S-Class carrying a German government minister or plutocrat along an Autobahn at great speed and in discreet, sybaritic luxury. Likewise, one can dream of a pastel-coloured Fiat Nuova 500 driven by a strikingly attractive olive-skinned young woman, nipping adroitly through the narrow twisting streets of a sun-baked Italian hillside village.
Less romantically, one can readily visualise a metallic grey Vauxhall Cavalier sitting at a steady 80mph in the outside lane of a British motorway under a leaden sky, its driver grimly contemplating another difficult meeting with his boss about his failure to meet quarterly sales targets.
What of France? For me, it has always been two quite distinct countries: Paris, and everywhere else beyond the Périphérique. The former makes me think of impossibly elegant and sophisticated couples sweeping up to the doors of the Garnier Opera House or through the gates of the Élysée Palace in a chauffeur driven Citroën CX Prestige or Peugeot 604. The latter makes me think of a battered Deux Chevaux lolloping along a rutted farm track while loaded to the gunwales with agricultural produce.
These are all, of course, rather lazy stereotypes. Moreover, the last one would be rather more accurate had the 2CV been replaced by the Renault 4. While the latter might never have possessed the captivating charm of the former, it easily outsold it. Over eight million R4s found buyers in 33 years, more than double the number of 2CVs that were sold over its 42-year lifespan.
Perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding the R4 is why it took Renault thirteen years to launch it as Billancourt’s answer to the 2CV. That said, the interval allowed Renault to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the 2CV thoroughly and address the latter effectively. The R4 was nominally a replacement for the rear-engined 4CV, but Renault had much more ambitious plans for it.
Development work on the R4 began in 1956 under the Project 112 code name and on the instructions of Pierre Dreyfus, the recently appointed President of Renault. One person who was critical in the design and development of the R4 was Yves Georges, an engineer hired by Dreyfus in January of that year to work alongside Renault veteran Fernand Picard, who had designed the 1947 4CV and 1956 Dauphine. Picard was to some extent sidelined by Dreyfus, who found Georges’ rigorously scientific and analytical approach better aligned to his technocratic background.
No doubt influenced by the 2CV, Dreyfus envisaged a simple, practical and economical car that would be easy to assemble, even locally in overseas markets without the benefit of sophisticated production equipment(1), and equally easy to maintain. He wanted it to appeal to rural drivers, recognising that this was an underexploited potential market for the company, as well as residents of the fast expanding suburbs.
It was to be a dual-purpose car, equally suitable for work and leisure activities. The R4 was designed to be a World Car long before some other manufacturers (re)discovered this concept. Dreyfus set a strict price limit for the new model of 350,000 old French francs(2), equivalent to about £360 or US $990 in 1956.
When development work on the R4 commenced, the 2CV had already been on the market for eight years and its limitations were becoming more apparent, notably its tough but noisy 425cc twin-cylinder air-cooled engine, which produced just 12.5bhp (9.3kW) and gave the car a maximum speed of only 50mph (80km/h). As French roads improved and motorists travelled further and faster, this was an increasing handicap. Access to the boot was fiddly, requiring the rear end of the fabric roof to be rolled up. The highly effective suspension needed regular maintenance and lubrication.
The R4, although 200mm (8”) shorter than the 2CV, had a roomier body thanks to its boxy design, and improved access with its full-height tailgate. The 747cc inline four-cylinder Billancourt engine produced 26.5bhp (20kW) and gave the car a top speed of 65mph (105km/h). This engine was taken from the 4CV but modified with a steel (rather than aluminium alloy) inlet manifold and a new sealed-for-life cooling system. These changes were driven by the desire for lower production costs and easier, cheaper maintenance.
The R4 was also Renault’s first front-wheel-drive passenger car(3). Unusually, the new gearbox(4) was mounted ahead of the engine, with the gear linkage passing above it and through the bulkhead. This gave rise to the dash-mounted umbrella gear lever and allowed a flat floor in the passenger cabin. Suspension was by maintenance-free torsion bars front and rear. The rear pair were mounted transversely, one behind the other, which caused the right-hand rear wheel to be positioned 45mm (1¾”) further back than the left-hand one. This difference was cunningly disguised by semi-enclosed rear wheels behind flat-topped wheel arches.
Simplicity was a keynote of the R4’s design. The glazing was all flat, not curved. The door windows were of a sliding rather than wind-down type. The interior door handles were simple anodised metal plates, accessed through holes in the inner door skins, which also provided the pulls to close the doors. The handbrake, which operated on the front wheels, was a simple ‘pull on, twist off’ L-shaped metal rod under the dashboard to the left of the steering column.
This, and the absence of a floor-mounted gear lever, allowed the front deckchair-style seats to meet and effectively create a rudimentary bench. In pre-seatbelt times, this could accommodate the driver and a couple of (slim) front seat passengers.
The upper door and tailgate hinges were exposed and the seams between the bolt-on wings and main body were simply filled with a flexible sealant. The tailgate was supported when open by a simple two-part pivoted metal rod that locked automatically in an ‘over-centre’ position (but had to be released manually before closing) while the rear-view mirror was mounted to the top of the dashboard. The exhaust silencer was located under the left-hand front wing and the tailpipe was sited ahead of the left-hand rear wheel. This, and the car’s flat underfloor, long suspension travel and high-tailed stance, gave the R4 exceptional ground clearance.
The R4 was extensively tested before launch to ensure its durability in all conditions, from the heat and dust of the Sahara to winter snows in Minnesota. Pre-production test cars racked up more than three million kilometres (1.86 million miles). The R4 had been given the affectionate nickname ‘Marie-Chantal’ by the test drivers. Postcards and telegrams would regularly be received in Billancourt from far-flung corners of the globe, happily reporting on her continued good health.
Part Two follows shortly.
(1) This is why the R4 was built on a separate chassis and was not a monocoque design, unlike other post-war Renault models. It also allowed for easy conversion to different bodystyles such as the Fourgonnette van version.
(2) On 1st January 1960, President Charles De Gaulle introduced the New French Franc, which was equal to 100 Old Francs. This was done to restore prestige to the previously devalued currency.
(3) But not Renault’s first FWD vehicle: that honour rests with the 1959 Estafette forward-control panel van.
(4) Surprisingly for a new design, the gearbox had only three forward speeds, with no synchromesh on first gear. In this respect at least, the R4 was inferior to the 2CV. After just a year in production, the gearbox would be altered to provide synchromesh on all three forward gears.