When I encountered this Renault last August in its home country, I could not help but admire it. The owner obviously spare no expense to make it look newer than new. But I know my 4s, and this one’s blank-out C-pillar was very odd. Or did I misremember the range and forget a special model that blended the features of base-spec early R4s on a high-trim mid-‘70s car?
Well, I did the required digging around, and it turns out that, indeed, this car is an impossibility. Nothing wearing that grille, those hubcaps and that interior was ever made without C-pillar windows.
Quick remedial class on the Renault’s history: the R3 / R4 was launched in late 1961 as Renault’s first FWD car – and a direct answer to the Citroën 2CV. The R3 and base-spec R4 were sold as “berlines” – i.e. without a C-pillar window – but other models (L / Luxe, Super, Parisienne and later the Export) were marketed as “limousines.” Delusions of grandeur or finicky adherence to outdated coachbuilding terminology? Nearly all French folks called the R4 (or the R3, for that matter) a “break” – a station wagon.
The 603cc R3 (above) sold very poorly lasted just a year; the base-spec R4 made it to 1965 before it too was nixed for being just too much of a penalty box. There ended the R4 “berline;” all cars until the model’s end in MY 1993 had a third window.
Why go to the trouble of restoring a car so extensively and create something that never existed? Well, perhaps because the owner’s grandparents or whatever had a ‘60s base-spec car back in the day. And doing a spot of welding on a well-preserved (if more recent) R4 and giving it a fresh coat of paint is easier than finding the real thing.
Besides, the old adage “Be careful what you wish for” applies here. Those ultra-basic R4s might appeal on the outside, but they’re no fun. I recall seeing 1962-65 “berlines” on very rare occasions back in the ‘80s/’90s, well before they were of any interest to collectors. They were the opposite of sexy, with their thin tubes for bumpers and painted grille. They only existed to be priced within a few francs of the cheapest 2CV, and that was it.
More recent R4s also feature a number of improvements over the early cars, such as a 4-speed gearbox, identified by our feature car’s chromed gear lever and its elongated handle. This is mated, since 1972, to a 782cc engine providing 30hp. Before MY 1968 (i.e. before the new grille), R4s were saddled with a 3-speed – one of the Renault’s most antiquated features. And not one that is so easy to live with. The 1962-65 base model R4s also made do with a 747cc 27hp (gross) engine only – not a huge difference, but every little helps.
Hairshirt R4 berlines also had interiors that would have contented only the most perverse Franciscan monk. Only one sun visor. No fuel gauge, no oil gauge. Hammock-style seats, like the 2CV. No heater, no ashtray, no windshield washer. And finally, no door cards, no key (!), no dome light and no opening rear window. No kidding, either. By comparison, our ’74 Export is sheer luxury. And it has seat belts (in the front).
“I want the cheapest car you have” buys you quite a lot of automobile for your money in 2021, even at a Dacia dealer. But 50-60 years ago, it really was the bare minimum: four wheels, a roof over your head, two headlights and two seats. The rest was all extra. With the R3/R4, you got rear doors, a hatch and a rear seat. That was already pretty good, though evidently most clients thought forking out an extra 500 francs for something more comfortable made sense.
So the ultra-basic R3 / R4, the “berlines,” only existed briefly – mere blips on the Renault 4’s 30-year production life and 8 million units made. Our feature car’s homage to these long-gone and forgotten variants is a rare occasion to remember them by. So let us spare a thought for the Plain Janes of the world. May they bring transport to the cash-strapped, misery to the misers, or pleasure to the penny-wise scrooges, wherever they may be.
Curbside Classic(s): 1973, 1984 & 1986 Renault 4 Export, GTL & F4 Van – Threesome On All 4s, by T87
Le Curbside Classic: Renault 4 – The First Hatchback, by PN
Storage Yard Classic: Renault 4 – French Basics, by David Saunders
Dash-Cam CC: 1984 Renault 4GTL – The Original Hatchback, by Yohai71
Pope Francis’ Latest Popemobile Is A Curbside Classic: 1984 Renault 4, by PN
Cohort Pic(k) of the Day: Renault 4 Fourgonnette – The Changing Size Of European Compact Vans, by PN
Wonderful – and as a bonus it comes in one of the two colours allowed for French cars that I recall from the 1960s & ‘70s: beige, or the light blue as shown in the article. Colours featured on cars with no rust, but with paint with all the glossy finish of a piece of paper.
And no key – that’s amazing.
In the mid-80’s I rode in a family friend’s R4 for an all-day tour of southern England. At first, I just didn’t understand why she owned this car; it seemed so crude but by the end of the day I appreciated its surprisingly comfortable seats and ride. In hindsight I wish I had asked for a chance to drive it … I’ve driven a 504 a bit, and even a DS21 for twenty feet or so, but never a Renault.
It looks strikingly like the Nissan Pao in that color, or rather, the Pao resembles this car. Although since the original is a seminal car I’m guessing Nissan’s retro designers were paying homage to it moreso than any other car they drew cues from.
Signed, Penny-wise Scrooge.
The prices being asked for these in the U.S. makes this Scrooge resist. But I have always liked them.
I was a passenger in one for a 100 mile hitch and fell in love, despite its tendency to tilt over and fall on its face’
Je suis confus.
Is this an early base R3/R4 with upgraded trim and mechanicals, or a later better-trimmed car with the rear windows welded up?
Lovely car either way.
The interior strikes me as ‘conspicuous anti-consumption’. Comparing each piece with the equivalent R8 or Dauphine, the savings would have been at the penny level. The heater has the same controls, but they’re on the heater box instead of the dashboard. The seats are thinner, but they have the same upholstery. The signal box on the steering column has about 30% less plastic, but it required the same amount of assembly labor.
Tooling to make the new pieces would surely have been more expensive than just reusing the R8 pieces.
Maybe they were protecting the market for the antiquated R8, which arrived a year later than the R3 and R4. It wouldn’t really do to sell a rear-engine car that was both more expensive and equally austere to a front-wheel-drive car. If the R4 had a transverse engine over the drive wheels instead of the self-defeating FWD/mid-engine layout of convenience when repurposing rear-engine drivetrains, it would have been the first modern subcompact instead of the Autobianchi Primula.
My Dad bought a new R10 in 1968 after neighbor boy down the street plowed into his ’59 Beetle and totalled it. Seems even Renault (not just VW) was slow to abandon rear engined vehicles.
I started driving the year he got rid of it (1974) so sadly never got to drive it, though of course I rode in it several times. He started going on business trips regularly to Corbeil-Essonnes I think starting in 1967, and I think was impressed with the trip such that instead of buying another VW he went with the Renault. You still had that option I guess into the 80’s if you didn’t mind buying an AMC Alliance. Also, the R10 had 4 doors, and we didn’t use it for primary family trips much, but it was more suitable than the Beetle if only due to the extra doors. It had weird sliding glass on the rear windows (didn’t drop into the door).
I got a trip out of the picture of the loop fastener for the seatbelts between the seats, my Dad’s R10 had exactly the same type…the seatbelts had a claw that fastened to the loop, I’d forgotten that in the almost 50 years. Funny what stands out in your mind, I was a kid then, but of course, no longer.
They had to give the buyers some reason to keep looking at the obsolescent rear-engine models, I guess.
My first R4 had exactly the same color a 6 Volt system and le front bench.
On my first overtaking effort on a Dutch route nationale, I nearly killed myself in a frontal collision with an oncoming bus. I was used to the powerrrrrŕrrr of my ex-FIAT 850 Special which behaved like a Ferrari 308 compared to the R4.
But I loved the no-nonsense practicality of the R4 and on roads covered with snow or ice, there was nothing better.
What puzzles me on this wonderful example is that it still has sliding windows in its rear doors, my second R4 was an L, with hammock seats, a removable backseat instead of a folding ‘pullman’ one and no sliding rear windows.
Mechanically these werd very good cars, I crossed all over Europe in my R4’s and still remember driving through Germany when the radio played only Elvis songs, I thought it was his birthday when a rather emotional guy at a tankstelle told me he died.
I always loved the DS style rear view mirror which was standing on the dash, the brown plastic dashboard, maybe this is why I cherish our Twingo Mk 1, this is the spriritual successor of the R4.
A fan of the R4, I can’t really fathom the why the bare four here, either.
It takes a surprising amount away from the looks, this rare Les Miserables package.
Great write-up and photos of a car I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in the metal in the US. The Dauphine I recall as a child, but they didn’t last very long.
This type of cars were made for Administration only, search for “Administration Renault R4” and you might find some more information. Government cars, local administration’s, posts, electricity company, etc.