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.)
A great story of a not-so-great car. Some cars take a steeper arc from the shiny new object of lust and pride to beaterdom than do others. Turning a beater into an insurance check can be one of the happiest experiences of a guy’s life.
And as a local, I can only imagine what an awful drive it is from South Bend to Terre Haute. I can only imagine the number of two lane state highways you would have to weave together to make that trip.
This car peaked and fell hard!
My dad also owned an ’86, I think, Ford Escort. After driving that wallowy beast I can see why the Alliance was so charming at that time. It was much more refined and better trimmed. Yet that Escort — in which you could hear the gas sloshing around in the tank — was reliable. Dad sold it in ’91 to buy another Escort but the thing had plenty of life left in it.
The awful South Bend to Terre Haute drive was US 31, I-465, and I-70. Those were the days of the double nickel, which made those particular four-lane divided roads the most boring drive known to man. I wove together a series of two-lane highways just to make the driving more interesting! That’s how I came upon, and spun through, Fulton, by the way.
Jim great story. You must’ve gone to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. I know that school, drove over there from IU one Satuday in the fall of 86 to visit a buddy of mine that was going there. He transferred to another school after his first year there.
You are right, there ain’t nothing to do in Terre Haute, that’s for sure. It was a ghost town. I remember seeing it did have a stoplight.
But-the one thing I do remember about Indiana is all of the 2-lane highways and beautiful countryside that I cruised often. Nashville, IN turned out to be my favorite town there.
Yep, Rose-Hulman. I probably knew your buddy; I was there in ’86 and it was a very small school.
Jim, that was just a very fun read! Funny how the enthusiast magazines gush all over their Car of the Years or 10 Best Cars when they are brand new.
Curbside Classic tells the other side of the story after the golden caliper awards have tarnished and collect dust down the cellar. After long term ownership of some of those award winning vehicles, the owner must have been wondering what those magazine editors were thinking…..
Thanks Michael! You’d better believe I’m skeptical of any accolades for any car now.
Lots of history with this one Jim!! Love the tape deck story! My father got pissy with me once when I got a flat tire with his International Harvester Traveall truck. Yes, I got the tire changed, but he wasn’t happy that he had to get a new one and I was late for dinner. I guess it didn’t help I was with a guy he didn’t like either.
Your mention of the tape deck story reminds me of the tape deck in my own college car, a 71 Scamp. After a few years, the tapes started to play too fast. But it never happened at night. I finally figured out that if I turned the headlights on to load the electrical system down just a bit, the tape would play normally. It stayed that way until I finally sold the car.
A 71 Scamp sounds like a great college car. Your story is hilarious!
Kenosha was literally crawling with these things in the mid Eighties. They thinned out pretty fast. On the plus side, they were quite corrosion resistant. The ones that are still around (yes, it’s not unusual to see an occasional Alliance on the road in Kenosha) are generally pretty clean.
What’s the last time anyone with even mediocre credit paid 11.9% for a car loan?
I too owned an ’83 Alliance purchased largely because of the Motor Trend Car of the Year award and also totaled by a teenage driver. It was a four door and lacked the cool dash plaque but otherwise sounds about the same. It’s demise was a bit different. It was rear ended at a light by a teen driving — in the rain and in the dark — on a learners permit. Fortunately his mother was sitting beside him with good insurance and no one was seriously hurt. I got a cracked rib. Did you know that clever rocking seat would go all the way to horizontal if hit hard enough?
I’m glad I never found out what that rocking seat would do in an accident.
I rented an ’83 Alliance back in the day when my ’75 Valiant was undergoing a massive body job, and I had to get to the local Chrysler factory for work. I was twenty, without a credit card, and most rental agencies gave me the cold shoulder. The local AMC dealer had taken on the Renault franchise and was decent enough to rent me a car without having to leave my wallet behind. The Alliance was an automatic, and I recall it being dreadfully slow, but very smooth and rode like your typical French car. The alternate rental was an AMC Concord of the same vintage with the 258 six that ran like a scalded cat compared to the Renault. The only saving grace with the underpowered Renault was that in 1983, pretty much everything was slow, especially with an automatic, and it didn’t do much worse than the equivalent Cavalier or Escort with an automatic. My tired Valiant with the 318 was downright nippy when compared to the average ’83 models. Belated thank you Sinasac AMC Jeep Renault!
Another piece of junk made only for the US market thankfully Chrysler had run from these shores by the time this thing was made
Not quite. It was built as the Renault 9 in several countries, so it was not “only for the US market.”
Also, Chrysler had nothing to do with the Alliance at the time of its introduction, as they didn’t purchase AMC until 1987, which was the Alliance’s last model year.
Yep, we got the hatch version (badged Renault 11) here in NZ. A family friend worked at a Renault dealer in the late 80s, he brought one around once, let 16 year old me drive it too. Dunno what year it was, but it had the US federal headlights, which was a bit unusual here. Lasting memories are that the steering wheel and pedals weren’t remotely centred with each other, let alone the driver’s seat; and that despite the severe lack of power it still torque steered. Not a bad looker though.
I owned an ’85 Renault Encore GS, basically an Appliance with a hatchback body. It had the 1.7 liter engine and was relatively peppy. But almost day one reliability was a problem, with a fair number of mechanical and electrical glitches. While under warranty the steering developed a squeak, the dealer replaced a teflon bushing in the steering column-they re-installed the steering wheel upside down. The dealer usually could not fix problems properly; eventually I ended up going to an independent garage to keep the thing running. I had problems with the alternator, the clutch and pressure plate. I encountered enough problems with the vehicle that I never wanted to own another French car-ever. I saw a fair number of these vehicles around, but it seemed like as soon as Chrysler bought AMC they disappeared almost literally overnight, as if they had been swept away by some unseen hand-or maybe they all simply fell apart simutaneously.
I have to wonder what modifications “US Spec” would have made to this compared to a Euro-spec version to endow it with a 45 second 0-60…errr…sprint.
In the UK it would have taken no more than 15 seconds I’m sure.
Did you leave the hand brake on?
I wondered about that too. A 40hp 1200cc VW did it in almost half that time. Uphill maybe?
Oh, driver inexperience may have played a role. Did I shift at the optimum times? Who knows? All I know was that my stopwatch crossed 45 as the speedo crossed 60.
Here in Bogota, Colombia there are lots of Renault 9s still on the road, they were manufactured in Medellin until 1999. Also they must have worked out most of the bugs by the 90s.
These cars were, for the lack of a better phrase, utter crap. Well equipped they were no deal at all and they self destructed at a terrible rate. Really, you couldn’t bolt stuff back on an Appliance fast enough they were so bad. The stripper models sold well to retired bank teller types, you know, the people who had previously bought Ramblers. Oddballs, as it were and they were mighty distressed when their cars were having big, honking repairs right off warranty. We saw quite a few of them and the basic problem was the parts that went into the car were intolerable junk. The replacements were just as bad so if you replaced an alternator at 20,000 km it would conk out in the same distance.
After a year or two of Appliance Wallet Massage Therapy we’d always tell the customer to get something else to drive as we felt guilty them pumping cash into a bottomless money pit.
Most of these drivers bought Tercels as replacements. We made no cashola to speak of on the Tercel of that generation and they went astronomical kms.
Didn’t these have a different wheelbase on each side?
You may be thinking of the Renault 5 (Le Car in the U.S.), and a few other models with transverse, torsion bar, independent rear suspension.
As far as I know, the 9/11/Alliance/Encore had the same wheelbase length on each side.
the wheelbase in the front was wider then the rear on the alliance, if thats what you ment?
Rex: Uhhhh no – that would be track(width from center line of left wheel to center line of right).
In most cars from the past three decades, the front track has been about one-half to one inch wider than that of the rear.
Wheelbase is always measured longitudinally – from front to
rear or vice versa.
Great story, Jim, and well-written. Really enjoyed reading this, especially the part about the guy repairing the stereo.
LOVE this story. I had one of these as well, a 1985 Alliance L sedan with the 1.7L and a 5-speed manual… kept it through my third year of college, but snapped a timing belt… needless to say, the 1.7 is an interference engine… and the repair exceeded the zero value of the car. Sad. I loved driving it! Eccentric, smooth ride, GREAT seats…
“The cassette deck worked again, but from that day forward turning on the radio also turned on the parking lights.” Brilliant line! 😀
Interesting car the 9/11/Alliance/Encore. We only got the 5-door hatch here in NZ (badged as a Renault 11). I got to drive one back in the late 80s, pedals/steering wheel/seats were on different alignments for our RHD ones, not sure about your LHD ones. But it looked good. The styling has always intrigued me – the 4-door sedan reminds me strongly of the Mitsubishi Tredia sedan. And at the same time, looking at the interior and exterior, there are so many Talbot similarities that you’d swear Renault had bought Talbot, not Peugeot as was actually the case.
So bearing in mind the Tredia and many Talbots, I was very surprised to find the 9/11/Alliance/Encore was designed by none other than the great Mr Robert Opron, of Citroen GS/CX/SM fame. Certainly explains the neatness of the Alliance.
All of the above: Broken off lug nuts, Snapped timing belts. Bolts holding the alternator snapping. Steering Torque. Spins on a dime….