In 1984, at the age of 16, I went to Germany on an exchange program. At the time, our family’s only vehicle was that Chevy van with the unattached rear seat. Dad may have been content for his teenage sons to rattle around loose as he drove us around town; however, a 120-mile Interstate trip from South Bend to O’Hare Airport was something else again, so he borrowed my grandparents’ car for the drive. Having realized the downside of his van plan, he once again bought a proper family car, and when I flew home from Germany the family picked me up at O’Hare in a 1983 Renault Alliance.
This wasn’t just any Renault Alliance, but the top-of-the-line Renault Alliance MT. The MT stood for Motor Trend magazine, which had named this car its Car of the Year. A little plaque on the dash read “Motor Trend” and “1200″ — apparently Renault thought these cars were special enough to deserve individual numbering. The Alliance MT had every option and was, by 1983 standards, totally tricked- out. My favorite options were the AM-FM-cassette stereo and the three-way front seats. A clever “rocking” adjustment set the entire seat’s angle to maximize the comfort drivers of any height. This was a very small car after all, and its rear seat was a torture chamber for all but the vertically challenged. My brother and I, at 5’10″ and 6′0″respectively, knew that all too well. On the other hand, Mom, at 5’2″, loved the just-her-size Renault.
Just after I got my driver’s license I borrowed the Renault to visit a friend across town at Notre Dame. Thanks to my inexperience behind the wheel, I clipped a low concrete divider hard coming off South Bend’s only in-town on-ramp and shredded a tire. I pulled into a parking lot to change the tire, but one lug nut wouldn’t budge–turns out it was fused to the stud. I’ll spare the details of just how beside-himself angry Dad was when he had to come and get me and skip to the part of the story where we drove the car on the rim to get it repaired. Dad’s anger subsided considerably when Discount Tire told him the flat was covered by the road-hazard warranty. I never made it to see my friend.
Just before my senior year in college, Dad told me I could take the Renault back to school. I attended an engineering school on the outskirts of Terre Haute; while there was very little to do in that sleepy town, without a car you couldn’t do any of it. Then, a few days before I was to leave, my brother had a minor accident that creased the driver’s-side front fender. Now my dad was a hard man, and we were sure he’d put my brother through the grinder over it.
I figured he’d make my brother get it repaired right away, which would keep me from taking the car, so we engaged in a bit of subterfuge. We parked the car on a side street under a tree, “for the shade, so it’s not so hot in there,” my brother said. Since Dad never took that street, he wouldn’t see the damage– and he didn’t, until the day came to load the car for my trip. When Dad announced that he wanted to help load the car, my brother thought fast and said, “Dad, just bring Jim’s gear to the door, and I’ll load it in the car.” Our bucket brigade worked. When I got to Terre Haute, I put the car directly into the body shop and sent my brother the bill.
It was on my trip to Terre Haute that I discovered another of the Renault’s great features: It got 45 miles to the gallon! Its lightweight, 1.4-liter engine and 5-speed transmission combined for exceptional fuel economy, which was great news for someone who still thought $10 was a lot of money. I could drive more or less forever on a tank of gas! The trade off, however, was that the car was sloooooow. One day I took it out on a deserted road, clicked a stopwatch, and then punched it as hard as I could. It took 45 seconds to hit 60 miles per hour! If you think that’s bad, I had a girlfriend who had a Renault Alliance with an automatic transmission, and it was even slower.
It was 1988, and Alliances had been on the road for several years, mostly gaining a reputation for poor reliability. Ours was already notorious for burning through alternators; it was now on its third. At 75,000 miles it began a steady descent into unreliable beaterdom. The first repair, to the tune of $236.98, involved a failed fuel injector. I’ll never forget the price because I was a broke college student and it shocked me to the core! Next the clutch started slipping. I drove it that way until one day when the car barely made it up a slight hill, probably a 2% grade. I had a rebuilt clutch installed for $400. One frigid day, the driver’s door handle came off in my hand when I tried to get in. The door wouldn’t latch, so I had to hold it shut as I drove to a mechanic. Did you know that no matter how hard you hold onto an unlatched driver’s-side car door, it will open when you make a left turn?
The cassette deck also died that year, but I couldn’t afford to replace it. As an engineering student, I had plenty of budding electrical engineers as friends. One of them thought he could fix it, so I removed it from the dash and handed it over. Weeks went by. When I asked about his progress, he just said he was working on it. More weeks went by, and finally I went to his room to check on it. I found that he’d un-soldered every last diode and capacitor from the circuit boards, with each bit, carefully arranged and labeled, placed on newspapers spread throughout his room. I thought my poor tape deck was a goner, but he found a single tiny electronic component that had failed, replaced it, soldered the whole thing back together and installed it in the dash. The cassette deck worked again, but from that day forward turning on the radio also turned on the parking lights.
I had my first white-knuckle driving moments in that car. On one late autumn day, a light rain had just started falling as I approached tiny Fulton, in northern Indiana. I had just passed the “Speed Limit 35” sign on the edge of town, but was still going 60 when a little old lady stepped into the road in front of me. I jerked the wheel left to avoid killing her only to find myself in the path of oncoming traffic. I jerked the wheel to the right to avoid killing myself and the car started spinning around and around, Fulton passing nauseatingly by. It came to rest about three blocks later with the front bumper about six inches from a new Thunderbird.
Then there was the day I couldn’t avoid a giant pothole, shredded another tire and knocked the front end out of alignment. I was hopping mad and started making phone calls–somebody was going to pay for this damage and it wasn’t going to be me! The short story is that the Terre Haute city attorney declared the pothole to be within CSX Railroad’s right-of-way. It turns out that a railroad is obligated to maintain the pavement within so many feet of a crossing, so I called CSX. It took considerable tenacity, but I finally got through to someone in authority and explained my story. He didn’t flinch, and cut me a check.
After I graduated and got a job, Dad wanted his car back for my brother to drive during his senior year at school. I bought a new Chevy Beretta, and Dad and my brother came to get the Renault. My brother drove it that year and most of the next. By this time the Renault was having more serious mechanical issues and it didn’t always start. Dad wanted to sell it to my brother for $1,000; my brother thought $500 was a fair price considering the $500 he’d already invested just to keep it running. Dad dug in and they couldn’t reach a deal. My brother finally decided to pay Dad the grand, but before he could write the check a beater Ford Maverick, driven by a teen with neither insurance nor license plates, ran a red light and T-boned the hapless Renault.
My brother wasn’t hurt, but the car was a total loss. The insurance company wrote my dad a check for $1,500. My brother still gets mad when you bring up the story of how he could have broken even.
(Photos are of the actual car we owned.)