Le Curbside Classic: Renault 4 – The First Modern Compact Hatchback

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(first posted 5/11/2016)   I know many Americans may barely know know of the R4’s existence, and would be quite happy to go their graves without being enlightened to its Gallic charms. But it does represents one of the most important milestones in the development of the modern car: this lowly little box created and defined the whole genre of the compact hatchback, one that has become one the most popular classes globally. And if that’s not enough, it has a few other significant honors in its resumé.

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Everyone recognizes that quintessential French small car, the Citroen 2CV (CC here). Although it became an evergreen as well as an icon, in reality it also became outmoded for the rank and file French drivers pretty early on. By 1960, it was already looking dated, and its tiny two-cylinder engine was noisy, slow, and didn’t generate any real heat in the winter. Renault recognized this, and wisely decided to develop what essentially became the 2CV’s successor as well as competitor.

Renault R4 1961 -22

Introduced in 1961, just as French incomes were rising, the R4 was a significant step up: a water cooled four, a roomy body with a rear luggage area accessible with a lift-up hatch, more comfortable seats, and of course that famous French-car cushy suspension. The basic concept of the leading/trailing arm long-travel suspension Renault largely cribbed copied from Citroen, but used torsion bars. By recycling the engine and transmission from their rear-engined 4CV, Renault saved development time and money. That did mean the engine was behind the front wheels, which explains why they’re so far forward.

Renault R4 engine

It’s the “classic” fwd layout, as pioneered by the Miller racing cars of the twenties and the Cord L-29, and the Citroen Traction Avant. It’s not as space efficient as the transverse engine configuration, but it got the job done, as long as you found a way to get the transmission linkage past the engine to that transmission sticking out front. Renault used the “umbrella handle” approach, with the lever sticking out horizontally from the dash, and the linkage rod running right over the engine, connected to what would be the gear shift coming straight up from it. It looks like a very homebrew arrangement, but its one that’s been used by millions of cars with this type of engine-transmission configuration.

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Here’s the other end of the umbrella handle sticking out from the dash. The R4 started out with the 4CV’s 747 cc mill, but most versions used an 845 cc version.  And starting in 1978, the GTL version came with a whopping 1108 cc motor. That was what my cousin had, when he took us on a few hair-raising rides through the narrow roads of Vienna at night in 1980. European city cars don’t need big engines to “win” the urban battles; their drivers just needed gumption.

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As mentioned earlier, the suspension was largely copied from the Citroen 2CV set up, with enormous amounts of wheel travel and very soft springs; that’s why the rear end sits up so high. This arrangement allowed for a remarkably soft ride over the roughest cobblestones and bad pavement.

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The R4’s distinctive exhaust pipe, which runs under the driver side doors, exits just ahead of the rear wheel. On of those rational, cost and space-saving ideas which French cars were famous for. Like the wheels with three lugs nuts instead of four.

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In curves, these cars lean crazily, and look like they’re just about to flip but never seem to actually, their skinny little Michelin radials seemingly glued to the pavement. One minor oddity of the Renault is that its wheelbase is different on each side, since the rear torsion bars are transverse, and run the full width of the car. It had no effect on the handling.

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The R4 gave birth to several offshoots: the very similar but more upscale R6 shared the same platform frame, and the very popular R5 (Le Car in the US) was also derived from the R4, sharing its drive train and suspension, but now attached to a new unibody. And although the van-version Fourgonnette (above) also imitated the 2CV version, it became the definitive vehicle of its kind, and spawned what is now a huge category throughout Europe and other continents.

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Before you slam me about there being other hatchback cars before the R4, yes, technically, there were a few. But they weren’t in the class, size and popularity of the R4. It was a fairly radical new step in the small car’s evolution, and one that was soon adopted almost universally, especially in Europe. IKEA owes its whole existence to the R4. As does the Simca 1100,the VW Golf, and…

Kaiser 1949 Vagabond

Since we’re on the subject, let’s do a quick survey of the hatchbacks that preceded the R4. The 1949 Kaiser-Frazer Vagabond often gets credit for being the first hatchback. Well, it’s close, but not really a true hatchback, since it also has a fold down tailgate. K-F built it because they couldn’t afford to tool up for a real station wagon, so this was an expedient solution, of sort.

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Anyway, the French pioneered that concept over a decade earlier, in the 1938 Citroen Traction Avant Commerciale.

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And by 1954, the Citroen TA was sporting a genuine hatchback. Now that’s the real thing. But these Commerciales were not built in large numbers. It’s technically the first, but not what really started the modern compact hatchback.

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The 1952 Aston Martin DB2 beats that by two years, but realistically, it’s not much more than a lift up rear window. A proper hatchback goes down to the floor level, to maximize access to the cargo area. That was not the brief here.

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And the R4 for making it widely available on a small and very affordable car. It really was the first mass-produced hatchback, and it managed to make such a utilitarian vehicle chic. And soon everyone was copying it.

The R4 was a huge hit for Renault, and it was built/assembled in no less than seventeen countries throughout the world. And it was a hard car to replace, as it still sold very well into the eighties. Production finally ended in 1994, after a thirty-three year run. But it’s been immortalized with cult status, especially in Japan, where there was a kit to transform a Suzuki Lapin into an R4 look-alike.

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Renault left a bad taste in Americans’ mouths, with a reputation for fragility. There’s no question that Renaults, and most European cars back then were designed for different conditions: short trips, and some weekend outings. Americans punish cars, and the Renaults often withered in their hands. Lousy dealer service was the final nail in the coffin. European cars have of course dramatically improved since then, but the R4 and its ilk is considered a rather robust car here in Paris, and can still be found on the streets. And it’s always fashionable, no matter what company it finds itself in.



CC Citroen 2CV: The Most Original Car Ever  PN