Quelle Quatrelle! (Part Two)

We conclude our sixtieth anniversary celebration of the Renault 4, France’s most successful car.

Image: lautomobileancienne

The Renault R4 was formally launched at the Paris Salon in October 1961(1) in base and L trim. The two versions were immediately distinguishable by the fact that the base model had no third light in the rear quarter panel, just a very wide C-pillar. The L version was priced at a premium of 400 francs (£29 or US $82) over the base model. Both shared the same Billancourt 747cc 26.5bhp (20kW) engine.

Also launched at the same time was the R3, which was similar to the base R4 but had a smaller 603cc 22.5bhp (16.8kW) version of the engine, which placed it in the cheaper 3CV taxation class. The R3 was targeted directly at the Citroën 2CV and undercut the entry price for the latter by 40 francs (£3 or US $8). Also unveiled was the Fourgonnette van version. This was identical to the R4 ahead of the B-pillars but had a large cube-shaped bespoke body aft of the pillars with a single, side-hinged rear door(2).

Growing affluence meant there was little demand for either the R3 or base R4. The R3 was discontinued after little more than a year on the market, while the base R4 was given the third light as standard to make it less obviously a poverty specification model. A Super version was added in 1962, with the larger 845cc engine from the rear-engined Dauphine saloon, taking it into the 5CV taxation class. All three engines shared the same 80mm (3.15”) stroke but had different bores of 49mm (1.93”), 54.5mm (2.15”) and 58mm (2.28”).

The Super was also distinguished from lesser models with more brightwork and a different, bottom-hinged tailgate into which the rear window retracted. It is a moot point as to whether this feature was any more versatile or useful than the standard item. 1963 saw the introduction of a Parisienne special edition, in black with faux-wicker side panels, designed to appeal to sophisticated urban women. This was just the first of many special editions of the R4 over its production life.

Basic: 1961 Renault R3. Image: Renault Historic Collection

The R4 was warmly received and was a strong seller from the off, both at home and, ultimately, in over 100 export markets. Renault would go on to assemble the R4 in 28 different locations across Western and Eastern Europe, South and Central America, North Africa and Australia. The R4 was also widely used by French public services such as the Gendarmerie, post office, and EDF, the electric power supply company.

Autocar magazine road tested the R4L in November 1963. The UK-specification test car was fitted with the larger 845cc engine which produced 28bhp (21kW). The reviewer described the R4 as “…a roomy, comfortable, go-anywhere utility with no claims to high performance”. The 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was measured at 40.5 seconds and the mean top speed was 68mph (110km/h). These figures, however, belied the “…easy and quite spirited progress possible…in town traffic…and country roads for which the car is really designed.” Average fuel consumption over the test was 35.3mpg (8.0 litres/100km) and the engine ran happily on low-octane petrol.

The three-speed gearbox placed first opposite reverse, but a strong spring-loading to the right made upshifts to second foolproof. The long-travel suspension provided an exceptionally smooth ride over ordinary road surfaces and coped well with rough going. Despite the softness of the suspension, the expected shortcomings of pitch and float were absent. That said, the steep angles of roll exaggerated and limited cornering speed. The rack and pinion steering was positive and light. The R4 understeered when pushed hard into a bend, but this was easily corrected by lifting off the accelerator. The drum brakes were adequate for the 12cwt (610kg) unladen weight of the car.

The dashboard and minor controls looked “…singularly untidy and complicated” yet were ergonomic enough in use. The speedometer’s markings were unclear, and it was varyingly optimistic throughout its range, while the fuel gauge was also inaccurate. Combined with a small 5¾ gallon (26.14 litre) fuel tank, the unreliable fuel gauge meant filling the car up at 160-mile (258km) intervals.

1974 Renault Fourgonnette van. Image: favcars.com

The reviewer applauded the sealed cooling system and lack of greasing points, which limited regular maintenance to a 3,000-mile (5,000km) engine oil change. Overall, the appeal of the car’s practicality, exceptional comfort, easy maintenance and low purchase price of £539 including purchase tax made it an attractive buy.

The utilitarian design of the R4 received remarkably few updates over its long production life. Only two body panels were ever altered, and then only mildly. In 1962, the position of the fuel filler cap on the right-hand rear corner was raised by about 150mm (6”) to make the tank easier to fill. In September 1967, after more than a million units had been sold, the 4(3) received a facelift, comprising a wider front grille encompassing the headlamps and reprofiled bumpers, with distinctive chrome ‘nudge’ bars to protect the vulnerable corners of the front wings. The new grille required a minor reprofiling to the front of the bonnet.

The oval aluminium grille would be replaced with a rectangular black plastic item in September 1974, but no further metalwork changes to the bonnet were needed at that point. From launch, the 4 had been equipped with a starting handle(4) in case of a flat battery, but this feature was finally deleted in the early 1970’s, along with the holes in the front bumper and valance for it.

Inside, the deckchair style seats were replaced with more conventionally upholstered items. A less rudimentary looking plastic dashboard replaced the original largely bare metal affair. In 1968, the 4 was finally given a four-speed gearbox, rectifying its one significant mechanical shortcoming.

Image: panorama-auto.it

In 1978, after total sales had exceeded five million, it received the larger 1,108cc Sierra engine from the Renault 6 for a new range-topping GTL model, albeit detuned for improved economy.  The GTL was distinguished by grey plastic lower bodyside protective cladding similar to that fitted to the Renault 5 supermini and a new grille in a matching colour. It was updated in 1983 with disc front brakes(5), a new dashboard and cloth seat upholstery. A smaller 956cc version of the Sierra engine replaced the venerable 845cc Billancourt unit in 1986.

Not so basic: 1984 Renault 4 GTL Interior. Image: losangemagazine.com

While it was clearly no sports car, a special four-wheel-drive version of the Renault 4 was entered in the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1979 and 1980, driven by brothers Bernard and Claude Marreau. It finished fifth in 1979 and third in 1980. Similarly modified cars competed in other rallies and endurance events with some success.

Production of the Renault 4 largely ended in December 1992(6) as the car was increasingly outdated and struggled to comply with modern safety regulations. The final 1,000 units were Bye-Bye special editions, each displaying a numbered plaque. Over its 33 year lifespan, a total of 8,135,424 Renault 4s were manufactured, making it the most successful French car in history(7).

(1) The car had its press launch at an event in the Camargue region in August 1961.

(2) An unusual optional feature on the Fourgonnette was the Giraffon (Giraffe) door. This was a top-hinged additional hatch above the rear door that allowed long loads to be carried.

(3) The ‘R’ prefix to Renault model numbers had been dropped in 1965.

(4) This also served as the crank handle for the car’s jack.

(5) This necessitated altering the handbrake to operate on the rear wheels.

(6) Small-scale production in Slovenia for East European markets and in Morocco for North Africa continued for another couple of years.

(7) Other French cars have since outsold the Renault 4, for example the Renault Clio, but that was over multiple generations of the model carrying the same name, whereas the last Renault 4 was substantively identical to the first.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

49 thoughts on “Quelle Quatrelle! (Part Two)”

  1. I never realised the R4 was assembled in Oz. I’m pretty sure we never officially got them here in NZ.

    (The Dauphine, R8/10 and 12 were locally assembled).

  2. Fourgonnettes had a very practical solution where the rear part of the roof could be flipped up and long objects like ladders could be transported without protruding horizontally at bumper level but by sticking out of the roof above the rear door.

    1. Nice shot 0f the ‘Giraffon’, Dave. This detail comes to mind when I think of the Fourgonette.

  3. Thanks for this nice article, Daniel. It brings back a lot of memories from my youth. When i grew up my father promoted from a 2cv to an R4 f4 (“round box”) and later to an f6 (“square box”). Both red Fourgonnettes, period-correct including the “nuclear power, no thanks” sticker…
    I remember both these cars as horribly unreliable and noisy (buzzing ears after long highway trips). They really trumped any car on suspension and roominess though, and I couldn’t understand why others parents would cramp their kids on the backseat of a bumpy VW, or a BMW at a multitude of the cost…
    Also illegally drove my first rounds in the f4, probably at the age of 12 or 14 or so… practiced changing tires, checked the fluids and wondered about that strange gear linkage… Time flies…

    1. Oh, they were called “Combi” in NL. Later i learned that the combined freight/passenger version of Boeing 747 bears the same designation. Spot the differences 😉

    2. Hi Joost. Thank you and glad you enjoyed the piece. I’ve flown transatlantic on KLM 747 Combi aircraft on a few occasions and really liked them. Because they only carried roughly half the number of passengers as a regular 747, baggage reclaim was much quicker. Sadly, KLM retired its last 747 Combi in March 2021.

      (Living where we do, Norwich Airport is only 25 miles away and KLM operates frequent feeder flights from there to Schiphol. If you’re flying long-haul, they pretty much throw in the feeder flights for free. It’s far easier for us to fly through Schiphol than have to schlep down to Heathrow or Gatwick for a ‘direct’ flight.)

    3. And considerably more pleasant, I’d imagine. From what I hear, Heathrow is looking rather ‘tired’ of late. Less said of Gatwick, soonest mended.

    4. What Daniel is describing here is called ‘hub undercutting’ in airline speak and is one of their favourite pastimes.
      Lufthansa is offering London-Frankfurt-New York for less than British Airways charges for London-New York, Air France is selling Frankfurt-Paris-Singapore for less than Lufthansa’s Frankfurt-Singapore. And all this because one end of every passenger flight leg has to be in the home country of the airline.

    5. Hi Dave. Yes, it’s exactly that because, if you just fly from Norwich to Schiphol, which we’ve also done a few times, the fare is extortionate* for 25 minutes in the air, even if you do get a (single) biscuit and a small bottle of still water!

      * Just checked and the cheapest return ticket for next week is around £300 per person, for a 150 mile (240km) journey!

    6. Daniel, we’re practically neighbours. Sadly I never had the opportunity to fly a 747. What an icon that is.

    7. Hi Freerk. Yes, the 747 is truly an icon. Sadly, they’re rapidly disappearing from the skies (at least as passenger aircraft) because twinjets (which used not to be allowed on long-haul routes over water) are much more economical. The A330 and Boeing 777 are fine aircraft, but there isn’t the same sense of occasion as there used to be when flying on the 747.

    1. Doesn’t it seem odd, though, the way that shade of primer grey has become a signifier of sporting prestige in the last couple of years? I’ve seen Audi A7s and hot Honda Civics in almost exactly that colour and wondered about it…

  4. I seem to recall a designer whose name now escapes me once claiming that he insisted on all his cars being painted grey on the grounds that it was the only colour in which, if they looked right, then they would do so in any other colour. Or words to that effect.

    In a 60th birthday appraisal of the R4 elsewhere, I’ve been learning of its unlikely motor sport successes, including Paris-Dakar 1979 & 80 (respectively coming 5th & 3rd). My favourite, though, is the four young women who drove two R4s from Tierra del Fuego to Anchorage in 1965; 10,000 miles in 4½ months – apparently they were referred to as “Les 4 Elles”!

    1. Hi Michael and John. Coincidentally, I saw a Porsche 718 Boxster in town today in a non-metallic pale grey, which looked unusual and quite nice (but not that nice). Here’s the colour:

      I’ve just checked on the Porsche configurator and it’s described as a ‘special’ colour, at an extra charge of £1,658!!! 😲 Metallic paints, including a similar grey, is just £632 extra, so you would really have to love the non-metallic grey to hand Porsche £1,658 in pure profit.

    2. For everything you could reasonably want to know about the R4 may I recommend “La Renault 4 de mon père”. Available from the French branch of an online retailer for €29.90 or in excess of 100 pounds sterling from the UK branch. I bought it from FNAC in Paris for about €10 but that was a few years ago.

    3. I have a feeling that the grey-only designer was Philippe Charbonneaux, but I can’t back that up.

  5. Barry, did you keep the bag and continue to use it until it it disintegrated because it is the coolest bag ever?

    1. Hi Charles, thanks for those links. Those adverts are indeed charming, even if Renault seemed rather fixated with the R4’s ability to drive over kerbs and down flights of steps! Nowadays, car advertisements are no longer allowed to emphasise speed, even the modest velocities achievable by the R4, so those ads would not be allowed, I think.

    2. Thank you Charles – some great nostalgia and a reminder of how much I enjoyed mine. Unfortunately it makes me want to go and find a good one! I just don’t understand those who think it had no character; the brilliant suspension and the instinctive gear-change technique, the ability to cope with the worst of road surfaces…. I miss it! I suppose my wife’s Panda is the nearest thing available today.

  6. Here’s the 1962 R4 Super mentioned in the piece with the bottom-hinged tailgate and retractable rear window:

    The bumper had to hinge out of the way with the lower part of the tailgate:

    Interesting, but I cannot see that it offered any advantages over the standard top-hinged tailgate.

    1. Hello Daniel, does the window operate separately, so that one can access the boot without opening the whole thing? I must say that I wouldn’t dare to try to sit on the tailgate when it was down. I think it’s meant to be horizontal when open (see film at 21 seconds), but I wouldn’t drive with it down.

      Seeing the R4 has made me long for lighter, simpler vehicles, again.

    2. That was fairly standard for full-size American station wagons at the time, except the tailgate could support a longer load than could be carried in the car when closed up and the license plate would nearly always be on the bumper so it could be seen (not *easily* but if you really wanted to and worked at it…) with the gate down.

      The downside was cost, complication and extra rattles.

    3. Hello nlpnt, I noticed that the number plate doesn’t appear to be hinged to drop down, as it does on early Minis. Dust would be sucked in to the car if one travelled far with the tailgate down, too, although one might be okay on the exhaust fumes front, as the exhaust is at the side.

  7. Hi Charles, I’m just guessing but I think the two little handles visible on the top edge of the closed window are used to lower it into the tailgate (after it is unlocked) before the tailgate is opened. You can see the handles in the second photo of the open tailgate. So, yes, you can just open the window without opening the tailgate, so I suppose that might be useful.

    Note also that the rear quarter windows hinge out for ventilation, a feature unique to the R4 Super:

  8. Here’s a great photo I’ve just found, a prototype R4 being tested against competitors:

    Does anybody recognise the last car in the line-up?

    1. I think that’s a Renault Frégate. Not a competitor, but it could be a support car / benchmark.

  9. “From launch, the 4 had been equipped with a starting handle(4) in case of a flat battery, but this feature was finally deleted in the early 1970’s, along with the holes in the front bumper and valance for it.”

    Would anyone be able to tell me the last production car that was sold with a starting handle?

    1. Good morning Graham. That’s a good question! Actually, it’s two questions: what was the last new car launched with a starting handle as standard equipment, and what was the last car still supplied with one?

      The Renault 4 was launched in 1961 and was still supplied with one until sometime in the early 1970’s, so might be a candidate on both counts. Any other suggestions?

    2. I guess that the Citroën GS was one of the last cars having such a handle. It was launched in 1970 with this feature, but I’m not sure if it lasted until the end of GSA prodution around 1985.
      The 2CV had it as well, and it might even have kept it until around 1990.

    3. Fiat 124-based Ladas including the Niva came with a starting handle and a section in the owners manual describing the use of the handle at temperatures below minus 40 centigrade to break the oil film.

    4. I’d nearly forgotten that this one also came with a hjole for the starter handle

  10. Thanks Daniel for this great two-part series about the 4L, one of my favourite Renaults. Too bad I’ve been too busy to participate in this comment section as much as I’d like. I didn’t know about that bottom-hinged tailgate on the 4L Super. I don’t remember ever seeing pictures of it and if I did I would have surely dismissed it as a low volume coachbuilder adaptation.

    1. Good morning Cesar. Thanks for your kind words and glad you enjoyed the pieces. Yes, that tailgate on the R4 Super was an oddity. As nlpnt mentions above, it was apeing a feature common on contemporary American station wagons.

  11. Juste pour le plaisir, , la cornemuse est géniale (just for fun, the bagpipe is awesome)

    1963 Renault 4 Parisienne

    🇫🇷 Voici un cliché comme je les aime ! Pour la future R4 Parisienne réalisée en partenariat avec le magazine Elle, des échantillons de tissus écossais ont été rapportés du marché Saint-Pierre à Montmartre.
    Alors que Gaston Juchet est coincé dans une énième réunion, la joyeuse bande du Centre Style (avec en tête Jacques Ousset, mais aussi Michel Béligond, Pierre Mignon et Robert Broyer) profite de l’occasion pour tester la qualité des matières et tant qu’à faire… prendre la pose devant le bureau du patron.
    Mais quelle belle façon d’incarner le produit, Messieurs ! 😂

    🇬🇧 Here is a shot that I like! For the future R4 Parisienne co-branded with Elle magazine, samples of plaid motif were brought from the Marché Saint-Pierre in Montmartre.
    While Gaston Juchet is stuck in some meeting, the merry band of the Centre Style (with Jacques Ousset in the lead, but also Michel Béligond, Pierre Mignon and Robert Broyer) take the opportunity to pose in front of the boss’s office.
    What a great way to “embody the product”, Gentlemen! 😂

    1. Good morning Alain. That is a bizarre photograph! The two gentlemen in the centre are showing rather a lot of knee! Perhaps Elle magazine was putting a 1960’s ‘mini-skirt’ spin on the traditional kilt!

      Bonjour Alain. C’est une photo bizarre ! Les deux messieurs du centre montrent plutôt beaucoup de genou ! Peut-être que le magazine Elle mettait une version « mini-jupe » des années 1960 sur le kilt traditionnel !

  12. Here’s the new R4 EV concept:

    I like it! That decal on the C-pillar is a reference to the rear-quarter window on the original R4, but it also reminds me of the Renault 17 coupé.

    1. Doesn’t warm my heart like the teaser images they previously released, I wonder what went wrong?

      Remember when wheels and tires used to be appropriate for the vehicle’s intended purpose? Here’s a gratuitous image of the 1992 Racoon concept:

    2. Why does this Jeep wears a Renault badge? Did I miss something?

    3. Hi Fred. I think I prefer the R4 EV concept to the Jeep Renegade. It depends on what happens to make this into a production model though. The rear hatch opening lip is very high at the moment. I’d sooner not have the decal on the C-pillar either.

    4. Well, Fred Eger has said -exactly- what I was thinking. A bit of Renegade around the wheel arches, strong 2007 Patriot overtones in the overall body shape and proportions (itself heavily influenced by the XJ Cherokee*). The rear quarterlight happens to evoke the 2007 Compass, or many other cars, maybe even the Quatrelle.

      About the decal, weird sense of humor? The box around the tail lights, IMHO it is simply bad, is it a parody of 80’s rubbery rear spoilers? How about some white bumper guards, I think they are also bad**, not well integrated, I don’t get the reference. (IMHO, of course)

      Suzuki Waku concept from Tokyo 2019.

      Suzuki iM4 concept from Geneva 2015. I think the head designer at Suzuki is Akira Kamio.

      * When Renault owned a controlling interest in Jeep.

      ** I don’t use this word a lot here (at least BMW is moving in a “direction”, I may not agree with it). I want to be respectful, but I am particularly challenged now. I hope I am getting the attention of the ID gurus who lend us their wisdom. Tell me why I’m wrong, please.

    5. Well, even after two days of looking at the red washing machine on wheels, I can’t see very much of the R4 in it.
      With a lot of support from a fair amount of alcohol, the radius at the front end of the front wing could be considered a quote. However, to “recognise” any more quotes from an R4, it would take more rose wine than my liver could handle.

    1. Good morning gooddog. I was expecting a 4 EV, but not like that! Renault could do worse than take inspiration from this Obendorfer effort from 2011:

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