Renault R4 50th Anniversary at Brooklands – September 2011

Just as 2010 was very much the year for Centenary events for Alfa-Romeo, so 2011 has proved to be the year of the Jaguar “E” Type. However, although it was both a significant car when launched back in March 1961, and has remained much loved ever since, there have been several other notable cars with a major anniversary to celebrate during the year. I decided to go along to Brooklands to a gathering which commemorated one of the best selling models of all time: the humble Renault 4, or “Quattr’elle” as the car was affectionately christened in its native France.During a production life spanning just over 40 years, over 8 million of these little workhorses were sold. That the car would be such a commercial success was by no means certain, as when Autocar magazine first got their hands on a road test example in March 1962, they concluded: ” To say it would sell well in the UK would perhaps be the mark of a real optimist”.


The Renault R4, as the first models were called, was conceived back in 1956, as a successor to the long running 4CV, and it was intended by Pierre Dreyfus, Renault’s president, to be a “blue jeans” car, ie one with great utility that would be relevant and appeal to all, regardless of their class. The plan was to sell it for 350,000 French Francs, which was clearly going to be challenging and require some economies, as will become clear. It was the first front wheel drive Renault, and with its unconventional (for the time) appearance, rear door, removable back seat, and torsion bar suspension that meant that it had an unequal wheelbase on either side of the car, it was very different from the big-selling Citroen 2CV.  Renault did see that car as a competitor, and so offered some very basic models indeed to try to steal sales away from the Citroen. The short lived R3, with a 603cc engine only sold for a year or so, and just 2526 were made, all in a drab Pyramid Gris hue. The basic R4 was also aimed at the masochist of the era with marginal performance from its 747cc engine, and a filled in rear three quarter window. It also lacked a headlining, a passenger sun visor, door trims and you determined the fuel level with a calibrated dip stick to put in the tank. Minimalist indeed. Upgrade to the R4L which gave the car its French nickname, and you got a still far from high performance 845cc engine with a heady 30 bhp (giving a top speed of 54 mph), windscreen washers, air vents, and a heater. This car is one of the early demonstrators that was operated by Renault UK, who have now bought the car back, and maintain it as part of their Classic collection.


In 1962, Renault produced the Fourgon, or Van, and this quickly came the staple transport for the French Post Office and many a small business man. The original F4 Van was joined in 1975 by the F6 model, which had an 8″ longer wheelbase and the 1108cc engine which had originally been fitted to the R8.


A program of gradual change applied during the 1960s, with DeLuxe and Super versions arriving, before the names were changed again to the L that you hardly ever saw in the UK and the TL. 12 volt electrics and a further 2 bhp from the 845cc engine were important alterations, though the new grille was the most obvious external change.


Between 1968 and 1970 approximately 500 R4s were sent to Sinpar to be converted into Renault’s alternative to the Citroen Mehari and Mini Moke. The result was the Plein Air. Only a handful were exported and just 6 were made in right hand drive and came to the UK. Three of them went on a UK wide promotional tour, but even this failed to stimulate sales, and plans to sell the car in the climate challenged UK were abandoned. Three of those six cars still survive and this one belongs to Renault UK.

In 1969, Renault launched a larger and more costly relative to the R4, the R6. Sharing many of the same mechanical components, this car never achieved the same levels of success, or devoted following, and very few of these cars remain. There was one at this event, though.

The final significant change to the R4 came about with the introduction in 1978 of the GTLmodel. Fitted with the 1108cc engine, which gave the car an extra 4bhp, this was still far from a rapid vehicle, but it was smoother and made the car better to drive. Although most of the ergonomics remained haphazard throughout the life of the car, changes were gradually made. The distinctive push/pull gearlever on the dash remained, but the handbrake was relocated to a position between the seats, and the seats were trimmed in a trendy tartan style cloth, which was a far cry from the basic hammock like seats of the early cars.

UK sales ceased in 1986, by which time the car was competing against the Skoda Estelle, Lada Riva and Reliant Rialto from a price point of view, but in reality, against second hand cars that were 20 year newer designs. Production continued in Slovenia until 1992, so in those markets where the newest cars are still only 20 years old or so, the R4 is still reasonably evident. Here in the UK, though, the R4, once a common sighting on our roads is now rare, so it was good to see a collection of these cars gathered together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a much loved utility.  The site suggests that there are more than you think, hidden away in garages all over Britain, but it was good to see the representative sample that came to Brooklands to remind us all of this distinctive and trail-blazing Renault.


2011-09-18 08:08:00

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