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 Delusions of grandeur or finicky adherence to outdated coachbuilding terminology?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.
Storage Yard Classic: Renault 4 – French Basics, by David Saunders