- Written by webmin
Can you name the three all-time best-sellers in automotive history? (And by that, we mean single generations of a model, not like the Corolla badge that’s been attached to so many different cars.) Did you say “Volkswagen Beetle?” That’s right—first place on the list. What’s that? Ford Model T? Right again—second place. And third? Hmmm. Well, here’s a hint: Look at the car pictured here.
Still stumped? You’re not alone. Renault built and sold precisely 8,135,424 examples of the R4 in the model’s 33-year history, and sold them in more than 100 countries—but not in the United States. The R4 was, and still is, the best-selling French car of all time, built or assembled in 28 countries, including France. This year, the R4′s many fans are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the car’s introduction.
What made the R4 so popular? The hatchback design made it extremely practical for work and play. And the price, the equivalent of about $1,200 in 1961 dollars, was low enough so that just about anyone who wanted one could afford one. Here’s what Renault says about the car:
She gets more google results than Brigitte Bardot, and her familiar French silhouette still turns heads. She may not be the most curvaceous beauty but, 50 years on, her fans love her like a favourite pair of jeans, and collectors have made her their object of obsession. Her beauty is in her simplicity and honesty. Yet her ground-breaking ingenuity revolutionised car design. She’s the reliable, easy-to-use car that stole the world’s heart.
Like that other French people’s car, the Citroën 2CV, the R4 had front-wheel drive, a hugely compliant suspension to deal with the worst roads, a minimalist interior and simple construction. Unlike the 2CV, it had a four-cylinder, water-cooled engine, rather than an aircooled twin, and so held out at least the promise of a working heater.
The car was built with a separate platform frame. Suspension was by independent wishbones up front, and transverse torsion bars in the back. To accommodate the rear suspension, the wheelbase was about two inches longer on one side than the other. (Renault used a similar trick with the later R5, aka Le Car.) Steering was rack and pinion, and four drums provided stopping power.
The first cars were equipped with a 747cc four rated at 32 horsepower; it sat behind the fully synchronized three-speed manual transmission, which the driver worked through an “umbrella handle” shifter that protruded from the dashboard. A descendant of the rear-mounted four introduced in the 4CV of 1946, the “Ventoux” engine featured an alloy cylinder head, overhead valves and a cast-iron block with wet cylinder liners.
The original model, codenamed the R4L, was produced through 1969, with engines of 747cc or 845cc. In 1970, Renault introduced the R4 TL, now with a four-speed gearbox and 12-volt electrical system. The last major change came in 1982, when the R4 GTL arrived with the 1,108cc “Sierra” engine. Marketed as the R4, it became simply the 4 in 1965.
What the R4 lacked are the very things that Americans would most demand in a car: A well-appointed interior and a quiet highway ride. Renault had sold Dauphines in the U.S., and would later bring over the R5, but must have come to the conclusion that the R4 would be a lost cause in the New World.
There’s a big shindig planned for this summer to celebrate the car’s golden anniversary; naturally, it’s in France, in the Loire Valley town of Thenay. If you think you might like to go, you can get more information at the website of the Renault 4L International club, which is, of course, all in French.
There’s a lot more we could say about the R4, but we’ll close with two anecdotes that come straight from Renault.
Although none of the original design team is left to tell the tale, we do know that practical features were more important than show-off looks. For the car’s Italian launch in 1961, a famous gorgeous model refused to be photographed with the Renault 4 because she didn’t find it glamorous enough. Four young French women weren’t so fickle, though, when Renault sent them on a special mission: to drive a Renault 4 from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. They did it, and Renault still has the travel-scarred car to prove it. Along with the classic signs of wear and tear is a list of boys’ names scratched into the panelwork. Decades later, one of the “girls” admits these were young men they met along the way. It was the Swinging ’60s, after all!
[Renault’s chairman] Pierre Dreyfus was so excited about his “baby,” he couldn’t resist turning up for the secret road tests in Sardinia. Like a pesky schoolboy, he asked the test driver if he could take her for a spin. Unfortunately, Dreyfus lost control on a treacherous road, sending them both crashing into a ravine, kamikaze-style. So what happens when the boss crashes the prototype? You say nothing. The hapless test-driver-turned-passenger, Louis Buty, was injured, but to protect the secrecy of the tests, and keep spying competitors off the scent, they invented a story about a car accident. Of course there were rumours. Something to do with a girl… Once the car was an established success, Dreyfus came clean with the real story.
Oh, okay, one more bit of trivia: The R4 had nicknames all over the world. It was known as the Frog in Italy; “Cuatro Latas” (four boxes) in Spain; “Katcra” (Catherine) in the former Yugoslavia; the “R4 Monastir,” after the hometown of President Bourguiba, in Tunisia; the Noddy Car in Zimbabwe; “El Correcaminos” (path runner) in Argentina and “Tiparellu” (droplet) in Finland.