(please welcome our latest COALman, Michael Ionno, who has had quite the eclectic collection of cars. Links to all of them at bottom) I was not supposed to be the car guy in my family. My older brother, Chris, lived and breathed all things automotive from the time he could crawl. Coming of age in Ohio in the early seventies he embraced American iron in every form and just the cars he had in high school would qualify for an extended COAL series. His passion led him to oval track and drag racing as a young man and a career as a mechanic.
I followed a less traditional path to what I call car crazy. In middle school I started snow skiing (in Ohio!) forgoing all things football in the heart of Ohio State country. I adopted skiing as my sport. In short order I also started riding and racing bicycles (to, you know, keep in shape for the winters) and by high school I was living the movie “Breaking Away” racing hand crafted European bikes and wearing body hugging cycling shorts that were socially unacceptable.
In my home town of Marion, Ohio turning sixteen was synonymous with getting one’s driver’s license. As a now dedicated bicycle spoke-head who thought nothing of cycling 100 miles in a day and 5,000 miles per year I ignored the social norms and by the end of my sophomore year in high school I was one of the few kids in my class without a driver’s license. A year earlier I had gotten a job in our town’s bike shop, Rocky’s Schwinn Cyclery. The impetus to actually get a license was when Rocky offered me the chance to travel to Columbus, Ohio to attend Schwinn School and become certified as a Schwinn bicycle mechanic.
I quickly took the driver’s test and the week of the training saw me and a colleague commuting daily to Columbus in our boss’ Ford Country Squire Wagon with genuine early ‘70’s faux wood decals.
A few months later I finally succumbed to buying my first car. Ohio’s proximity to Michigan put it near the center of the American car culture. All the other kids in high school had Chevy Nova’s, Pinto’s and the occasional Pontiac Le Mans’ so naturally I bought a 1965 Renault 8.
My boss’s wife had purchased it new. It had about 60,000 miles on it. Winter was coming and I wanted to ski more. The ski slopes were an hour away and having my own car would allow me to ski after school several times per week. Night skiing went on until 10 pm!
I’m an optimistic person by nature when it comes to technology and this first car purchase would establish a pattern where my hopes and dreams reign supreme over facts and reason. The price of the car was $300 and the money would not go to my Boss’s wife but instead to Hero’s Foreign Car Repair, the sole “foreign” car repair shop in town, to pay for the vehicle’s most recent round of repairs.
My Renault 8 was a descendant of the Renault Dauphine that was introduced in 1956. It had a water-cooled 1108 cc engine and a four speed manual transmission. Mine was mostly blue, a very faded blue. As can be seen above, Renault did not believe the introduction of an updated model necessitated a rewrite of the owner’s manual.
Everything you have ever heard about French cars is true. They are idiosyncratic (a wonderful two-tone horn for city and country) and sometimes just plain weird (the jack handle could be inserted into the back of the car and used to crank it in a pinch if the starter or battery failed). With only 50 horsepower on tap it was fortunate that only a few weeks after I purchased the car Congress obligingly lowered the national speed limit to 55 miles per hour at the request of President Nixon.
The Renault was the first manual transmission I’d ever driven and I taught myself on my first extended test drive of the car. I recall it was relatively easy because even a non-car person like me had memorized the shift points of a car rapidly accelerating. Go ahead – tap into your inner child, close your eyes and make the noises of a race car. See, you knew exactly when to shift.
French cars are comfortable cars and the Renault was no exception. The front seats were incredibly plush and the little four-door’s back seats were both comfortable and roomy in comparison to its more successful import competitor, the Volkswagen Beetle. With my acquisition of the Renault I quickly became the designated driver for night skiing that winter. It was no problem to squeeze three friends into the back on these trips. Somehow my desirability to girls increased with my new found mobility.
Consequently, I learned that the backseat was comfortable for two as well. The primitive ventilation allowed the windows to fog up quickly after parking assuring a degree of privacy for a young gentleman and lady.
The Renault had no seatbelts when I acquired it,so for the safety of all I found a set at the local junk yard. The manually adjusted front belts included shoulder harness straps anticipating safety mandates that were still several years away.
Massive body roll on corners was a given for any French car of the era but as this was the first car I had driven extensively I took this as the norm. It was actually this sensation of rolling through twisty roads to and from the ski area that began to move my internal driving meter from indifferent to entertained. While my contemporaries were amusing themselves with straight line burn outs I discovered the psychic beauty of motion under control applied to driving just as it did to skiing. The soft suspension was complemented by skinny 15 inch tires on three bolt steel rims. The combination of modest horsepower and a curb weight under 1700 pounds meant I never felt the swift kick of snap-oversteer that is such a memorable part of the rear engine experience. Surprisingly, all Renault 8’s came with disc brakes at all four corners.
The little Renault’s body construction could best be described as lightweight both in materials and quality. I had acquired a ski rack which was a trunk mount model or, in the case of the Renault, an engine deck lid model. Where American trunk lids used heavy gauge steel crisply folded flat and welded at their outer edges the French approach was to use paper thin stock that was bent into a three-sided box at the edges in an attempt to bring some degree of structural integrity to its flimsy deck lid. Consequently, the ski rack’s clamps failed to live up to their name when applied to the Renault resulting in the rack and everyone’s skis rolling off the car and into a ditch along the side of the road on at least one occasion. The doors were practically weightless and I assume they had no side impact protection. I recall a strong fall gust resulted in a new sheet metal fold at the leading edge of the driver’s door I had left open while fueling the car.
Gas mileage was outstanding for its era. Contemporary American cars of the period were just beginning to break out of the single digits for fuel economy. I was getting about 18 to 20 miles per gallon in regular driving and this likely represented a significant decline from when the car was new. This fuel frugality insulated me from gas prices that soared from $.29 per gallon to $.59 per gallon during the period I owned the Renault.
The $300 repair bill I had paid to acquire the car originally proved prophetic. It seemed almost every subsequent repair mimicked that price point. As I knew little about automotive repair at the time these regular capital infusions to support distributors, alternators, mufflers, clutches and brakes were new to me. Chad Hero, the proprietor of Hero’s Foreign Car Repair, could have retired comfortably if there had been a fleet of Renaults in our town rather than the three or four that actually existed. While the repairs were troublesome they at least followed a favorable seasonal pattern. During the two ski seasons I had the car it never failed me once. It would instead save its regularly scheduled breakdowns until the warmer spring, summer and fall months. I was therefore not overly inconvenienced when the Renault was parked at Chad’s for weeks at a time.
I recall the first repair I was able to make myself. The car began idling poorly and was down on power. Likely with the help of my mechanic brother Chris I was able to determine that there was a gaping threaded hole in the tiny Solex carburetor that had once held what he informed me was a carburetor jet. Off to the junk yard where I eventually found another Solex carburetor that probably only shared two things with mine. The name ‘Solex’ was cast into its body and it, like mine, used tiny brass carburetor jets. I unscrewed and acquired all said jets. Finding one that threaded into my carburetor I completed my first engine repair.
In the end, the Renault went out with both a bang and a whimper. The bang came the summer before leaving for college from a piston attempting to escape its cylindrical prison by bashing a hole in the engine block. Once more to the junk yard where I acquired a used engine for $100. With my inept but willing support my brother Chris installed the new power train over the course of a Friday evening in the alley behind the bike shop where I worked.
We successfully test fired the new lump at 3:00 AM without benefit of exhaust. The minister whose backyard butted the alley on the opposite side told me the next day that he had been keenly aware of the successful test firing as well. I went off to college a few weeks later and the Renault was left parked in the garage at home. I think it still worked fine at Thanksgiving but by winter break most of the horsepower the replacement engine had come with had somehow leaked out. Having used all my engine development tokens (see Red Bull/Renault F1) I sold the car for $50 to Chris’ friend Andy who, like my brother, was drag racing at the time. Andy told me he wanted to use the Renault’s narrow front tires on a drag racer he was building. This was a rather informal sale not accompanied by such established legal traditions as title transfer but that did not prevent Andy and Chris from taking the untitled and assuredly uninsured Renault on one last road trip. For some reason they thought the car could make it to Detroit some 160 miles away. Less than a third of the way into the trip the little Renault gave up the ghost and was left abandoned by Andy and Chris on an Ohio roadside.
Looking back, I remain enamored by the modest Renault to this day. The car’s unconventionality and Gaelic charm won out over its dubious repair record. Its triumph of fun over reliability is at the heart of what it means to be car crazy and to this day I have not found the cure.