Foreword: The Antithesis of the Modern Car
by Peter Gumbrell, 23 April 2000, updated 6 January 2002
Okay, let's imagine you've stumbled across this site by accident, become lost in a world of unnecessary hippy lava lamp graphics, and now find yourself immersed in a sea of brown with no obvious pornography in sight. You're thinking, 'What the hell is so good about this weird looking car anyway, and why am I bothering to read this?'
Well, until the day I can create an online virtual Renault 4 experience in glorious technicolour and 3D surround sound, any explanation of this car's qualities will be no substitute for actually travelling in one. Since owning my first R4, I cannot remember one occasion when a person has failed to be thrilled at being given a lift in it. Quite simply, the car has character, something so many cars around today are completely lacking, no matter how hard the big manufacturers and their marketing men try and pretend otherwise. Be it the trusty little purr from the engine, the dashboard mounted gears, the quaint curvy figure, or the simple horizontal sliding half windows, you cannot fail to notice that there are several things that make this car different, and yet completely unassuming.
It's nonetheless practical and economical. It has the luxury of five doors, ample space for carrying goods, has excellent performance and mpg compared to many other cars of the same size, and with a bit of imagination can sleep two, but all contained within a body that gives the appearance of a small, cute car.
Many people will be familiar with the cult status surrounding cars like the VW Beetle, the Citroën 2CV or a Mini, and the Renault 4 has often been forgotten. Many of these other cars well deserve the attention they receive, but when you notice that every other Beetle or Mini has been acquired by some yuppie who's souped it up beyond recognition, and that even joyriders have taken a shine to driving them, the Renault 4 offers a unique, unpretentious alternative.
This is, at least, the perspective in Britain, which will always be too fashion-conscious, trendy and full of attitude, meaning the R4 currently possesses a niche profile for its owners. In the UK, finding or spotting a Renault 4 is becoming increasingly difficult. Although still popular in areas such as Brighton and West London, back in Manchester where I used to reside, I only spotted six or seven in about five years. It's a very different story in much of the rest of the world, such as Portugal and parts of South America, where they are still quite abundant, but always admired. It may surprise many to know that the R4 is one of the most successful cars in history, selling well over 8 million vehicles to every corner of the globe. At one point, it was the third biggest selling car of all time, outperformed only by the Ford Model T and the VW Beetle. Even lesser known is its predecessor¹, the Renault 3, of which only four are known to still be in existence. This was a stripped down version of the R4 aimed at the lower range of the market, having only three gears and more basic furnishings. You can find out more about this car from somebody who has owned one, at The Remarkable Renault 4 site - visit the R4 links page.
There is much more I could say about the Renault 4, but I'm in danger of making this article look threateningly long and taxing, so for anyone who has yet to experience driving or travelling in one, I hope your chance comes soon, and for those people who are lucky enough to own one, I urge you to keep the Renault 4 alive. It's a design classic that's well worth preserving, and a dream machine that laughs behind the back of a motor industry full of blandness.
The following section originally appeared separately as part 2 of this Foreword, and was printed on 6 January 2002.
One of the great strengths of the Renault 4, in my opinion, is that it goes against everything that is considered desirable and necessary in today's modern vehicles. In that way, it is the antithesis of the bland convoy of cars we witness on our roads, and also of the whole culture of driving today, which is largely fuelled by unimaginitive yet aspirational idiots.
You very soon realise upon driving an R4 that a large percentage of all those people who pass you by, or those at the roadside, are smirking, laughing, pointing, staring and generally misunderstanding both you and your car. Of course there are odd exceptions, the occasional complementary comment or friendly smile, but on the whole, people are arrogant in assuming some superiority over you, as if you should be in some way ashamed of driving your car. And this pleases me; I love sitting there being aware of these morons and their pathetic visions of style. I feel that it sets me apart from the McDonalds-munching masses of cretins that largely form the basis of society. I know that other R4 owners experience the same thing, and have to endure this tide of buffoonery, swimming against it every day. This draws us together, and most of us therefore share at least some similar beliefs and understandings about life.
The culture of the R4 is growing, and is even spawning entire movements based around its aesthetic values and more broad social concepts and implications. Some would say it is more of a counter-culture, an icon for people battling the mainstream, but much as I want the R4 to be successful and popular, I don't want it to become too popular and widely adopted as some kind of fashion statement. Subtlety and austerity are the keywords, although quite how I can say that about my own car in its current guise of bright yellow trim I'm not sure. Of course, having sold over 8 million units throughout its 31-year lifespan, the R4 will always be technically regarded as popular, but remarkably it has become somewhat forgotten as people have concentrated on more obviously iconic vehicles such as the VW Beetle or the Mini. This strange balance of uniqueness and popularity is probably best preserved as such, as it makes the R4 very special for its owners.
One slightly more disturbing aspect of other persons' attitudes towards Renault 4s on the roads, is that the behaviour of other drivers is not just stupid, but very often dangerous. Driving an R4 almost becomes an occupational hazard, as one has to constantly manipulate and accommodate the crassness displayed by people in their cars. I noticed this particularly when doing a couple of driving jobs in 2001, in which I had to use a Transit van and a larger, Luton-type van. The sudden respect other drivers gave me was marked, and all too noticeable upon returning to the front seat of the R4. People see me from behind and form the opinion of 'stupid car', and are then desperate to get past, whatever it takes. It doesn't matter if I'm doing 60mph in a 30mph zone (not saying I do of course, although I am quite zippy), they just have to get around to satisfy themselves. It's as though they've scored a little power victory, but it's notable for the fact that they pick on what they think is an easy target in order to achieve this victory.
I've had to suffer the hilarious pratts who sit behind me revving up, the gangs of lads shooting away in the adjacent lane whilst snorting and making faces (and occasionally stalling, which is particularly worthwhile seeing), and the legions of smarmy corporate fools in their 'director's standard' company cars, eager to usurp me in the belief that they will really impress me with their mechanical ability and rather sad lifestyle.
It may be a somewhat different story outside of Britain, especially in countries where the Renault 4 is more prolific or an established part of the everyday culture, and many might regard me as being pretentious or some kind of inverted snob. Well, perhaps just for once I am a bit, but I feel justified in the greater cause of mankind, and spirited values and principles. Driving a Renault 4 does itself become a statement, but one well worth making in our increasingly corporate, conformist society.
¹ The Renault 3 was not technically a predecessor to the R4, but rather a base model of the Renault 4 range sold in parallel. Since original publication of this article, I have been informed that there are probably more than four still in existence, though I have no official proof.