Hatchbacks, French Girls, and Denim Jeans

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We’ve been a bit heavy on “people’s cars” recently, what with the 500 from last week, but do bear with me for just one more, because this one’s a good’un. Many people consider the Citroen 2CV to be the definitive example of a French car. The 2CV is a vehicle as quintessentially Gallic a stripy-shirted mime in a beret with a string of onions around his neck. The actual French, however, know differently. This is a 1985 Renault 4 TL. 

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In 1948, Citroen rolled out the 2CV, a car designed to put the French people on wheels. Renault saw Citroen’s success, and it was decided that something must be done in order to remain competitive. The idea was to create the automotive version of blue jeans: something that was durable, versatile and ultimately all things to all people, provided they didn’t get too posh. Time was of the essence. Immediately, Renault engineers and designers rushed to their workspaces, eager to improve upon the 2CV’s design. Then presumably, someone mentioned that it was time for lunch, and they collectively decided they’d rather do that instead. The sense of urgency at Renault was so pervasive that it took them only thirteen years to come up with their response to Citroen in the form of this little guy, the 4. It may not look like much, especially sitting behind that towering example of Roman architecture (that is, for those who are interested, the Procura Generale della Repubblica, which is Italian for “big fancy courthouse”) but don’t let the looks or the oddly-colored wheels fool you. This is the most successful French car of all time.

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Renault built over eight million of these things over the course of 33 years, which is practically eons in the car industry. The 4 was sold in over 125 different countries. They built them in Ireland, Mexico, Slovenia, Australia, Argentina, Colombia and (obviously) France. They also made just over 41 thousand of them in an Alfa Romeo plant in Italy, so this particular car may very well be one of those weird Franco-Italian cross breeds. Why did people love the 4 so much? Well, it wasn’t fast, that’s for certain. After considering a two cylinder engine like the kind found in the 2CV (as well as an interesting air-cooled boxer setup), Renault settled on an inline four-cylinder engine that they sourced from another car they were making at the time, the 4CV (no relation to the Citroen). The 4CV, however, was rear-engined, like a Beetle, which meant that the 4 was on track to be rear engined as well. Somewhere along the line, however, that idea was scrapped and the engine, a 747cc unit at this point, was moved to the front of the car. Then Renault discovered that it would be easier to route the power to the front wheels with this setup, so that’s precisely what they did, making this the first front-wheel-drive Renault.

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That, despite making it pretty good in the snow, was not what made the 4 so popular. By moving the engine to the front, Renault discovered that they could make the rear seats fold down. When they did this, they found that the 4 was downright cavernous in the back, and in doing so, invented the hatchback, a move which has since taken the world by storm. That is, everywhere except America, incidentally, where hatchbacks never really caught on the same way they did in other parts of the world. I drive one, but then again I’m weird. Anyway, this paved the way for mass ownership of the Renault 4, and that meant a ton of variants to go along with it. There were military versions, pickup trucks, vans, a convertible (ooh là là), police cars, postal vehicles and countless other flights of fancy. It is, definitively, the car of the French people.

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I’d like to end with a story, so gather round. The 4 had to be very cheap, and in order to be cheap it had to be simple. Consequently, the 4 grew into a reputation similar to that of Bear Grylls, in that it could easily transverse a staggering variety of exotic locales (and drink its own pee) without needing too much maintenance. To prove this, Renault hired four of the most glamorous women models in Paris and told them to drive two 4s from the southernmost tip of South America all the way to Anchorage. Yes, Alaska: a journey of 10,000 miles. Their goal was to prove that even people who had very little experience with cars could fix a 4. And they did it, God bless ’em, over the course of four and a half months, thus cementing the Renault 4 as one robust, go-anywhere petite voiture, and one that had the power to link civilizations under a common love for the automobile. I’m sure the fact that the two cars were being driven by French models didn’t hurt either.

Additional Thoughts:

  • I know I said the 4 was powered by a 747cc four cylinder, but this is a later model car, so it got a slightly bigger engine, at 845cc. It develops around 27 horsepower.
  • The Renault 4 originally had a 3 speed transmission which was developed specifically for this car. The problem was that no one really liked it all that much, and Citroen’s 2CV had four gears, so in 1968 they switched in a four-speed unit.
  • That video at the end there features some pretty good footage of the transcontinental voyage I mentioned in the last paragraph, starting at around 11:35. The whole piece is good though, if you have some spare time.
  • I know it’s a bit weird to do the people’s car of France when in Rome, but there is a connection here, because Pope Francis drives a Renault 4. His is a 1984 model, with 186,000 miles on the clock. And it’s a way better Popemobile than that Mercedes ML thing with the glass box on the back.
  • This is the last Forgotten Metal car from Rome! But fear not- more cars from across the pond are coming soon. As for me, I leave Italy with pictures in my camera, (too much) wine in my belly, and melancholy in my heart. I think I’ll miss the hordes of men selling selfie sticks the most. Arrivederci, Roma. A presto.
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8 thoughts on “Hatchbacks, French Girls, and Denim Jeans

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