Renault 4 50th Anniversary
by David Finlay (1 January 2011)
That strange and elusive character, the average British motorist, could almost certainly tell you what a Mini was, or a Volkswagen Beetle, and would probably be able to recognise a Citroen 2CV. I suspect that not so many people would be able to identify a Renault 4, even though it is, by Renault's own estimation (not by other people's, but it depends on how you count these things), the third best-selling passenger car in history after the Beetle and the Model T Ford, with 8,135,424 having been built over 31 years in 28 countries.
The 4 was devised (as a replacement for the 4CV, or 750 as it was known here) in the 1950s, but production did not start until 1961, which is why Renault is taking this year to be the 50th anniversary of the model. Between conception and birth, Renault's fortunes had varied wildly - the company experienced first an explosion and then a collapse in its supremely important American sales which had similar effects on its finances in general. It's perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that by the time it went on sale, the 4's job was to save Renault.
And it might also be said that it did just that. The one millionth 4 left the factory on 1 February 1966, four and a half years after the first. It had taken Renault fourteen years to build 1.1 million 4CV/750s. The quick success of the 4 meant that Renault soon recovered from making a negligible profit of 100,000 francs in 1961 to breaking its own annual production record the following year. If it hadn't been for the 4, would Renault still exist or would it now be as well-remembered as other long-gone makes such as Triumph or Alvis?
The 4 was (like its short-lived, smaller-engined equivalent, the 3) a front-wheel drive hatchback, and in 2011 it's easy to retort, "Well, of course it was! What else could it have been?" But at the time this was a radical move. The 4CV/750 and the later Dauphine had their engines in the back, as did the later 8 and 10 - to say nothing of the Beetle, Fiat 500, Hillman Imp and others - and although Renault subsequently developed (as it is still doing now) a great many front-wheel drive models, the 4 was the first.
Comparisons with the Citroen 2CV were inevitable. According to Edouard Seidler's wonderful 1973 book, The Romance of Renault, when company boss Pierre Dreyfus asked the Studies Department manager Fernand Picard to "build me an inexpensive car into which one can stuff a lot of things," Picard's response was, "You want a 2CV?" And when, at the 1961 Paris Show where the 4 was unveiled, General de Gaulle asked Francois Michelin, then head of Citroen, if his company was doing well, Michelin pointed at the 4 and replied, "It would be, if Renault stopped copying us."
But the 2CV's design dated back to the 1930s, and it went into production as late as 1948 only because World War II got in the way. The 4 was more stylish, more refined, more modern, and generally a car of its day rather than of a previous generation. Even its early marketing was daring. Renault devised a scheme called prenez le volant ("take the wheel") which involved parking two hundred 4s in Paris with the keys in the ignition. If you wanted a test drive, you simply climbed aboard, headed off to wherever you wanted to go, and left the car there for someone else to try it out. Difficult to imagine that happening now, in Paris or anywhere else.
The radical ideas soon came to an end. The 4's styling evolved very gradually, engine sizes rose to 1108cc, the number of side windows varied, and there were many special editions (starting with the Parisienne and ending, appropriately enough, with the Bye-Bye), but at heart every one of the 8.1 million cars was an extremely close relative of all the others. That being the case, it at first seems surprising that production continued until 1992 - or, in Morocco and Slovenia, 1994 - by which time its rustic nature and strangely dashboard-mounted gearlever had become completely out of line with the rest of the motoring world.
Well, yes, but the 2CV and the original Mini and Beetle also lasted a lot longer than they should have done. Like those cars, the 4 was cheap and practical and people loved it. Any car that is given an affectionate nickname must have something going for it, and the 4 had several. In Italy it was known as the Frog, in Zimbabwe the Noddy Car, in Finland the Droplet and in Colombia (where it was enormously popular) the Faithful Friend. The 4 may not have achieved quite the cult status enjoyed by several other low-cost models over the years, but the 50th anniversary of a car held in so much affection around the world should be celebrated nonetheless.