(first posted 2/5/2013) So far in this series, we’ve seen only British cars from this storage yard. While most of its inhabitants originated in the UK, there were also a few mainland Europeans. So, in the words of Monty Python, “and now for something completely different.” In things automotive, the French can always be counted on for something rather different, and while Renault might be one of their more conservative makes, the R4 is still a little quirky by North American standards.
By the mid-1950s, the Renault 4CV was looking a little old fashioned next to its better-selling Citroën 2CV rival. Even as Citroën embraced front-wheel drive both at the top and bottom end of the market, Renault jumped into rear-engine designs in a big way after World War II. With the new R4, Renault, perhaps realizing much sooner than others that rear-engine designs were on the way out, switched to a front-engine, front wheel drive layout–or maybe they were just hedging their bets, since their 8, 10 and other models continued with rear engines.
Unlike in a modern front-wheel drive car, it wasn’t a transverse-engine layout with the gearbox on the side; the engine was placed longitudinally, with the gearbox at the front (picture something like a conventional rear-drive layout turned around with the gearbox, drive-shaft and differential all in one). It was a very logical move for Renault, given that it was the same configuration that they were already using in the rear-engined 4CV, now just mounted in front.
At the time, FWD represented quite a novel technical innovation; the construction of the R4 body did not. The 4CV had been one of the earlier adopters of unibody construction, but with the R4,Renault reverted to body-on-frame construction, both for its ability to stand up to harsh rural roads and cheaper production costs.
It turned out quite well, as Renault was able to create a few other R4-body variants, including the Plein Air and, six years later, essentially rework it to create the more modern-looking Renault 6.
Engine-wise, Renault took the safe route, using the old 4CV water-cooled four engine in the early cars. They had considered an air-cooled unit like the German Volkswagen’s, or a two-cylinder engine along the lines of the 2CV’s, but rather debut a new and, untested engine and front-wheel drive simultaneously, Renault decided to offer the tired-and-tested 4CV unit in two different displacements. The R3 was offered with very basic trim and 603 cc underhood, while the R4 was offered with a 747 cc engine, in both basic and more complete trim levels. By 1963, the underpowered R3 had been phased out, and the R4 got an 845 cc engine, essentially the same unit used in the Dauphine. Renault made slightly larger engines available (based on trim level and sales market) during the late 70s and the 80s.
An odd decision saw the R3/R4 launched with a three-speed gearbox (with a non-synchronized first gear) when chief rival Citroën already had a four-speed box. Even odder, the gearbox wasn’t a previously built carryover from prewar years, but a fresh design. It took until 1963 for all three gears to have synchromesh, and until 1968 for a four-speed unit to replace the three-speed. The gear lever itself is a little, odd-looking thing that sprouts from the dash.
A Fiero packed in tight up front prevented me from opening the hood for a photo, but I do remember the design since a friend of mine showed me the linkage about seven or eight years ago. There is a steel bar that starts at the shift lever, goes through the dash, then over the top of the engine, and finally down into the gearbox. As you might imagine, the feel is a little vague, but likely no worse than a rear-engined car of the era. Shifting is a slightly strange affair: You need to twist and move around the shifter in order to find a gear, which I’m told becomes second nature with enough practice.
Steering was by rack-and-pinion, and there were drum brakes all around. Suspension-wise, the R4/4 (‘R’ was dropped from 1965 on) featured a four-wheel independent design with front wishbones/longitudinal torsion-bars and rear torsion bars, all very much influenced by the Citroen 2CV. The rear torsion bars went crosswise, and the rear wheels were staggered 1.9 inches, thus giving one side a slightly longer wheelbase. Long-travel soft shocks were fitted to better deal with France’s then-rutted roads. In practice, the R4 gave a very compliant ride over any terrain, as well as safe handling (with lots of French-style body roll). Renault also did away with lubrication points, which decreased required scheduled maintenance. This suspension would eventually carry over to the later Renault 5.
The interior itself is fantastically basic, with only a handful of levers and toggle switches. The doors even used fabric strips to limit their travel. Our example has the updated 1967 dash that featured a backlit speedometer and a bank of rocker switches.
On the outside, this car has the updated grille that envelops the headlights. Debuting in 1968, it features the spelled-out “Renault” name in place of the Renault logo in the pre-1972 grille. (If one of you can nail down the exact year, I’ll be grateful.) Side windows are a very simple sliding affair.
Produced over an impressive 31-year run that ended in 1992, the R4/4 sold 8,135,424 examples in almost every part of the world. The biggest exception: It never was sold officially in the United States. Perhaps Renault figured it wouldn’t sell in the chrome, comfort, size and performance-obsessed America of the 1960s. Of course, the Beetle found a ready market in the same time period, and I’d judge the 4 to be even more practical than the more-famous Bug. It did sell, for a short time and in limited numbers, in Canada. The only other one I’ve seen is this very bright 1971 Renault F4 cargo van at a show-and-shine a few years back. As with most other French cars, I suspect it had greater success in Quebec.
Chrysler tinkered briefly with a very Renault 4-like vehicle called the Chrysler Composite Concept Vehicle, an easily produced, cheap-to-run four-door hatchback. If you squint, you can see what a modernized 4 might have looked like.