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