Curbside Classic: 1956 Renault 4CV – A Little Car With A Big Impact

It’s about time to give this little critter the full CC treatment. Though perhaps unfamiliar to some CC readers, the Renault 4CV was one of the most European significant cars of the post-war era. It was the first French car to reach 1 million units, it spawned a rather large family of rear-engined models and its engine was in production for 40 years. But let’s start at the beginning – and in the beginning, there was the Beetle.

Not yet in production, but already influential…

 

Louis Renault, founding father of the number one French automaker, was fascinated by the façade of success projected by Nazi Germany. At the 1939 Berlin International Auto Show, he saw the KdF-Wagen, as Dr Porsche’s little creation was then known, and was justifiably impressed. He waxed lyrical about the little car back at his factory in Billancourt. But soon, the war intervened. By June 1940, France was defeated while Louis Renault was in the US, seeking licenses for American tanks. By the time he managed to get back to his factory, things had changed quite a bit.

There were now German administrators from Daimler-Benz keeping tabs on the Renault works; Louis Renault found himself sidelined. Some of his engineers were already thinking about the post-war world, however – a world of penury and hardship that could use a very small car. Two engineers, Charles-Edmond Serre and Fernand Piccard, took it upon themselves to design a completely new 760cc water-cooled straight-4, bearing in mind their boss’s bout of Beetle-mania of the previous year. Sometime in the winter of 1940-41, a clutch of Renault engineers were gathered around a wooden mock-up of this engine, when in crept Louis Renault.

Louis Renault (1877-1944) in his later years.

 

The old man pushed a draughtsman aside and circled the mock-up several times, touching it as if admiring a sculpture. “That is beautiful. What is it?” Serre mumbled: “Picard had a bit of free time, so he designed this little pushrod four.” Up to that point in time, Renaults used flathead designs, as per Louis Renault’s somewhat conservative preferences. “We did this for a small car, possibly rear-engined, if you wanted to make one. We got as far as this mock-up, but we cannot go further. We’re not authorized.” The Germans had expressly forbidden French automakers to plan any new car models. Louis Renault replied: “Not authorized? I don’t give a damn. Build three prototypes and put this mock-up in my office.” And with that, the 4CV was born, at the darkest hour.

Renault planned a completely new post-war range, going from the little rear-engined 4CV to a great big 6-cyl. luxobarge. Prototypes were made and tested from late 1942 onwards. The first 4CV prototype was about as ugly as these things can get, looking like a Beetle drawn by a partially-sighted child with boxing gloves.

By 1944, a second prototype (still with only two doors) was put together, this time with a pseudo-American look: the front hood was straightened and the wings were more bulgy – the 4CV had found its style. But Louis Renault would never get to see the finished product: soon after Paris was liberated, he was put in prison for having been too chummy with the Germans. He died under suspicious circumstances in October 1944 while behind bars. The Renault factory was nationalized in January 1945 and a new director, Pierre Lefaucheux, took the helm.

Less autocratic than his predecessor, Lefaucheux liked the 4CV but wanted to hear the opinions of Renault dealers before committing any of the automaker’s limited resources to the project. The dealers were very enthusiastic, but cautioned that the car would sell far better as a four-door. So a third prototype was made in 1945 to reflect this requirement. There were numerous administrative hurdles to be overcome as well, as the French government’s highly dirigiste slant took its toll on the automotive sector. Lefaucheux managed to get his way and a pre-production 4CV, painted in a peculiar shade of beige from captured Afrika Korps stocks, was one of the highlights of the first post-war Paris Motor Show, held in October 1946.

The main difference between the ’46 and this ’56 (from the rear): rear lights and turn signals.

 

It took Renault about a year to get production going, but once it got started, the 4CV took France by storm. It was pretty, modern, cheap to buy and run, reliable and fun. The new engine only produced 17 hp, but given the state of most French roads at the time, that was amply sufficient.  Plus, there were not that many competitors at that end of the playing field – to start off with, at least.

The 4CV could seat four adults in relative comfort for less money than what Simca asked for their restyled version of the two-seater Fiat Topolino, the Simca 6 (top left), which was launched in 1947. It was not a great success and Simca focused on mid-range cars after 1950. The old pre-war guard was represented by the Licorne LR164 (top right), the marque’s last effort before slipping into oblivion. But two dangerous rivals were emerging: Panhard had switched to small FWD cars with their alloy-bodied Dyna (bottom left), whose performance and dynamics were outstanding – though its price was relatively high as well. And in 1948, Citroën joined the fray with their supremely-suspended (but hopelessly underpowered) 2CV. There was also a horde of microcars to contend with on the immediate post-war market, though the majority of these disappeared by the early ‘50s.

Renault did not bother with variants all that much, although they did introduce a “Commerciale” without rear windows (or rear seats) in 1948 and a swanky “Grand Luxe” découvrable version – the most fashionable body type of the time in Europe – in 1949. Revamped to 747cc in 1950, the little engine had plenty of potential, so 4CVs started to be taken to the track throughout the Continent.

Renault themselves thought they could give their little car a bit more oomph, so they created the “1093 Sport” model, with a whopping 21.5 hp. A more basic “Affaires” model also appeared, as did a 2CV-fighter / poverty-spec “Service” that was completely de-chromed – and was a total bomb.

The Parisian police selected the 4CV as their city cruiser, with several quite notable modifications made by a local coachbuilder. These black and white police cars, dubbed “4CV pie” (magpie) by the public, were a fixture of Parisian traffic for several years. But given the car’s architecture, a van or station wagon were pretty much a non-starter, and Renault did not feel the need to field a two-door 4CV – others would doubtless give that a whirl – which, as we will see later, they certainly did.

In 1954, a significant facelift was undertaken and the front “grille” went from nine thin chrome strips to three thick bars. The 21.5 hp engine soon became the default for the entire range, allowing for a top speed of (allegedly) 100 kph. The launch of the Dauphine in 1956 did signify that the 4CV was not going to carry on for too much longer, but its low price and popularity helped carry it to the end of the 1961 model year.

Nifty handle (above) opens tiny trunk (below) large enough for a tow rope, a toolbox and… loose hubcaps.

Of course, there were plenty of things one could criticize about the 4CV. The front trunk, just as on the Beetle, was ridiculously small, what with that 15’’ spare taking half the space. The 3-speed gearbox was a bit limited, especially compared to the Panhard Dyna and Citroën 2CV’s four gears. The swing axle suspension was relatively comfortable, but could become tricky in bad weather – even given the car’s limited speed. Not a few 4CVs ended up with their wheels pointed at the sky on a snowy day.

The interior space is also very tight, wherever one sits, though the rear seats offer a bit more legroom than in the Beetle. At the front, the wheel wells occupy a significant amount of space, forcing the pedals towards the car’s centre line and the front passenger’s right leg to sit atop his left one.

In the engine bay, one interesting surprise is the location of the fuel filler cap, just above and to the right of the engine block. Any spillover would therefore land directly on the battery – an interesting design quirk that we apparently owe to Dr Ferdinand Porsche. Indeed, when Porsche was made prisoner by the French in 1945, he was sent over to the Renault works with orders to look over the 4CV prototype. The Renault engineers were not amused by this unsolicited consultancy and curtailed Porsche’s activities as much as they could. The placement of the battery was allegedly one of the few suggestions he made that ended up on the production car.

Obviously, the 4CV’s legacy is to be found within Renault’s subsequent rear-engined cars – the Dauphine, the Floride/Caravelle, the R8 and the R10. Some even hailed the current Renault Twingo as a 4CV reboot, though it’s based on a completely different rear-engined platform. The 4CV’s engine, dubbed “Billancourt”, was bored to 845cc (the “Ventoux” engine) for the Dauphine; a 600cc version also existed, as did Gordini and Alpine versions producing well over twice the hp of the original. It remained in production until 1986, powering all manner of rear-engined, FWD and RWD Renaults throughout its long career.

The 4CV made such a mark on Renault’s history that they toyed with the notion of a New Beetle-like remake, complete with mid-engine and retro look. Renault designed and built the Fiftie concept car in 1996, just when the retro fad was peaking and to celebrate the 4CV’s 50th anniversary. As it was built on a Renault Spider chassis, the car was fully roadworthy and could have gone into production had there been an overwhelming public demand. As such, the Fiftie was well-liked, but not so much that Renault felt the need to green-light production.

The 1955 Alpine A106 was pretty much all 4CV underneath.

 

The 4CV was also the basis for France’s answer to Posrche, the fiberglass-bodied Alpine A106. Started on a wing and a prayer in 1955 by Jean Rédélé, the Alpine used Renault technology exclusively from the beginning, starting with the 4CV. All Alpines until the end of production (in 1996) were rear-engined cars, as clear a filiation as that of the Beetle and the Porsche 911.

Above: 1956 Renault 4CV Autobleu with Chapron coachwork; below: 1957 4CV Rosier convertible.

Alongside the Alpine, the 4CV served as a basis for at least two sports coupés: one was made by racing legend and Renault dealer Louis Rosier, though he died on the racetrack before he could see it finalized. The other, designed by Ghia and built by Chapron, was made by Autobleu, a firm specialized in high-performance parts for the 4CV engine. Neither model had much success, as they were both too expensive and heavy for their own good.

Quite a number of specials – many with souped-up engines – were made on the 4CV platform throughout the ‘50s, from home-built fiberglass runabouts to expertly finished coachbuilt beauties. Antem, Figoni, Ghia (middle left), Labourdette (top right), Motto (bottom left), Pichon-Parat (bottom left), Serra (mid right), Zagato and more obscure creators such as Brissonneau & Lotz (who built the Rosier specials), Duriez (top left) or Zink fit weird and wonderful bodies on the little Renault.

The 4CV was exported far and wide – even to the US – and assembled in Australia, Belgium, Britain, Ireland, South Africa and Spain. But there is one place that welcomed it more than most: in 1954, Japanese automaker Hino signed a licensing contract with Renault and started building the 4CV from CKD kits shipped from France.

Within three years, 75% of the car was locally-sourced. Hino eventually quit paying royalties when production became completely autonomous; build quality and finish surpassed the original. The 4CV continued to be made in Japan until 1964 and ended up spawning the Contessa 900 in 1961 (top) and the Contessa 1300 in 1964 (bottom), both of which were joined by pretty coupé variants.

The radiator cap, with distinctive art-deco trim, was placed just above the engine compartment.

 

Not too shabby for a Beetle wannabe that was tested clandestinely and put in production by the skin of its teeth. The 4CV almost fathered a line of 2-litre family saloons, too, though prototype testing proved so disastrous that the idea was abandoned in favour of a more traditional RWD solution. Apparently, the handling was (predictably) precarious and the engine could never be cooled properly. It seems the 4CV’s trick of putting the radiator in front of the engine, i.e. between the block and the rear seat, only worked for very small capacities.

Over 1.1 million 4CVs were built at the Billancourt factory alone. This record was surpassed by the 4CV’s immediate successor, the Dauphine (2.2 million made), but the 4CV was the first French car to reach the seven-digit mark. It helped cement Renault as the number one carmaker in France and a key global player at a time when the firm’s nationalized status could have turned it into the French version of Lada or BL.

Drive this thing around France and you’ll see every single baby-boomer, men and women, point and smile. Very few cars do that. The level of sympathy and cheer the 4CV invariably induces in the usually gloomy older French citizen is nothing short of extraordinary. My father (born in 1941) had a second-hand one of these as his first car in the early ‘60s and I bet a majority of his cohort have either ridden in or driven a 4CV sometime in their youth.

By the time I was conscious of my automotive surroundings (the ‘80s), these were no longer a common sight. But there are still affordable and easy to keep running, as intended by their creators. Even though you’ll never get a case of wine to fit in the trunk, this was and still is the French People’s Car.

 

Related post:

Cohort Sighting: Renault 4CV – How To Outdo Today’s Beetle Owner, by Perry Shoar