Glad though I was to catch a Méhari or an older R4 when I went there recently, those are par for the course in southern France. Some younger cars have all but disappeared now: the Citroën GSA, the Peugeot 604, the Renault 14 or anything wearing a Talbot badge was already hard to find a decade ago, let alone today. But now, the next generation of bangers is fast disappearing. Such is the case of the 1986-94 Renault 21, especially Series 1 cars like this wagon. Attrition has really started to make these big Renaults a rare sight on their home turf nowadays. But they were never the unicorns that their American cousins were – quite the opposite.
It seems CC has had a couple of unicorn sightings from the Medallion side of the story, but the R21 has not graced this site’s pages so far. And that’s something of a pity, as beneath a rather bland exterior, it’s one of the strangest cars Renault ever did, in many ways.
Said exterior is credited to Giugiaro, although the word is that the way the 21 left the Italdesign offices was pretty different from the finished product, which was extensively reworked by Renault’s own designers, then working under Robert Opron, to “soften” the car’s severe origami language a bit. The car’s conservative three-box design was a deliberate choice, in keeping with the R18 it was replacing, to woo southern Europeans and all the folks who thought the Citroën BX was just too “out there” for them. Ultimately though, the appeal of a hatchback variant proved too much for Renault to resist, and it joined the range when the 21 had its mid-life facelift for MY 1990.
But the real star of the range was arguably the wagon, which appeared simultaneously with the notchback saloon in the summer of 1986. For some reason, Renault thought it needed a name, like the Fuego or the Espace. So they called it “Nevada” for most markets, though it was also clearly identified as a 21. Even more inexplicably, some markets (such as the UK) called theirs “Savanna.” The Nevada became something of a hit, as it was a genuine seven-seater, but much cheaper than the Citroën CX or the Peugeot 505 wagons – or the dangerously innovative Renault Espace.
The interior is certainly very ‘80s Renault, with all the cheap plastic and soft seats that term implies. The 21 was allegedly better-built than its immediate predecessors – Renaults of the early part of the decade had been shockingly poorly put together, even for the low standards of the era.
The 21 was part of a conscientious effort of the State-run carmaker’s part to improve its image through better quality control, but you can’t turn that sort of supertanker on a 10 centimes coin. By the early ‘90s though, toward the end of the 21’s career, things had improved noticeably on that front.
The 21 belongs to Renault’s infamous Era of Confusingly Numbered Models, which started in the early ‘60s and lasted until the ‘90s – the above example being from a 1978 German brochure. Roger Carr summed it all up in a very helpful post, which is highly recommended reading. It all sounds needlessly complicated to folks who weren’t born into it, but there was a sort of logic to Renault’s numbering system. The R4 was always the cheap one, single-digit cars were always pretty basic; anything in the teens was sort of family-sized, anything higher than that was in the 2-litre range, which is tantamount to sheer luxury in Renault-speak.
The thing about the 21 is that it was to replace the R18 (itself a rebodied R12, essentially) but take it to a slightly higher level so that it could also partially cover the defunct R20’s market segment, which was theoretically the R25’s job. The times were quite challenging at the State-owned firm, which was bleeding money – not just due to the AMC thing – and the 21 was therefore planned to accommodate existing technology. For instance, the four-torsion bar trailing-arm rear suspension was cribbed from the R5 Turbo, ditching the R12 / R18’s beam axle. The old technology was dropped and the new one adapted to new platforms, in other words. But the Renault engineers took this extremely commonplace and sensible practice to another level.
When the 21 was unveiled in July 1986, it was available (on the French market) with a choice of a carbureted 1.7 or a fuel-injected 2-litre petrol engine. The smaller engine was mounted transversely, like it was on the R9 / R11 (a.k.a the Encore / Alliance), but the 2-litre Douvrin kept the longitudinal layout used on the R25 and the Espace. The reason for this was that Renault did not have a transverse gearbox capable of dealing with the Douvrin’s 120hp and designing one from scratch would have cost over a billion francs. So they designed the car around this constraint, and it proved to be a workable solution.
This meant that depending on what was under your 21’s hood, your wheelbase would change (the transverse-engined ones were 2.4 inches longer, counterintuitively), as did your track, front suspension and steering rack. The same was true of the Diesels: the smaller 1.9s were east-west, but our CC has the larger 2.1 litre turbo, good for 88hp. The overall length of the car and the interior dimensions, however, remained the same, no matter what happened to power the front wheels.
Apart from North Americans, who looked at the Medallion like it had landed from Mars (with evil intentions to drain their bank account), most of the rest of the world took to the Renault 21 quite well. It was even assembled in Turkey, Colombia and Argentina as late as 1996, beyond its home market demise. Whether you wanted your 21 with extra seats or a separate trunk, petrol or Diesel, FWD or AWD, turbocharged and/or fuel-injected or carbureted, automatic or manual, basic plastic chic or trimmed to the brim, Renault would make one for you. Engine options ended up including a 2.2 litre 4-cyl., a turbocharged Douvrin that provided 180hp for folks in a real hurry, as well as a very modest 1.4 and 1.5 litre Cléon-fonte (available in some export markets) to broaden the 21’s appeal. No wonder they managed to shift over 2 million of the things in eight years.
The Nevada, for its part, became France’s top-selling family wagon by 1988 and stayed there for a while: there weren’t many that could match its capacious interior for its price. This, coupled with the R21’s bewildering array of engine, transmission and trim options, helped Renault sell over 375,000 breaks – a very healthy score for this type of variant.
It seems a number of these have joined countless Peugeots 504 and 505 wagons in being sentenced to a life of chassis-breaking labour in West Africa, although the rear suspension of the Renault is not known for its endurance. The Diesel engines, on the other hand, are as tough as any German or Japanese equivalent. I have no idea how this particular one managed to remain so well preserved, but I’m glad to have caught it out in the wild. They made quite a few of these, but they usually led a hard life, so numbers have dwindled considerably. Not quite Medallion-level scarcity, of course, but these big old Renaults are now firmly on the endangered list.