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1st 4L International - Thenay, June 2009
by Peter Gumbrell, 30 June 2009, updated 12 May 2010

A personal review can be found below of the first major attempt to bring fans from across Europe together for a specialized Renault 4 event. Note that my own assortment of photos is neither stupendous in quality nor complete in its coverage. There are none that provide a true reflection of the volume of vehicles present. Knowing that various other official sources of photos would be made available I merely amused my lens with snaps that were of personal interest.

Back in the mid nineties when I acquired my first Renault 4, spotting another model around and about the streets of the UK was still a possibility. In fact, I would see a small handful dotted around each year. Even then, however, the numbers remaining in service and the apparent neglect shown both to the cars themselves and in the public's attention to their status and existence, suggested that enthusiasm for this overlooked vehicle was just going to peter out. One day, the Renault 4 would be merely a hazy memory of some other utopian world of yesteryear. This was one of the reasons I was prompted to set up a website in its honour, and several more fans followed suit in the years that followed. But by now, the car's numbers had dwindled in Britain to a sorrowful low, and repetitions of this scenario were playing out in many other European countries where a combination of rot and disregard were taking their toll. Aside from the magnanimous attempts of the Dutch R4 club to celebrate its 40th birthday, and the possibility of a final repeat performance for its 50th in 2011, I certainly hadn't expected to see any reprise of the R4 occur in substantial form.

One thing in particular changed all that: the almost unbelievable news in early 2007 that a proper, professionally produced, dedicated Renault 4 magazine was about to hit the shelves, being available in regular newsagents (of certain countries at least) and nonchalantly positioned amidst the throngs of Beetle, Mini, 2CV and other classic titles that had been around for an eternity. It almost seemed too good to be true, but also too late. Would there be a big enough audience remaining to enthuse over this glossy and lavishly produced bit of R4 manna from heaven? Two years on, with the title still in print, one could only presume the answer was yes. But the final proof of the pudding might come in trying to then rally all the readership together in one act of solidarity. Hence, the 'Premier 4L International' was born; a gathering of owners and enthusiasts from all corners, showing their support for this forgotten gem and underrated classic.

Not wishing to be outdone by such other classics, and in view of the need to find a suitable venue, this event was scheduled to take place at the same site reserved for the VW Beetle's get-togethers: the Base de Loisirs de Thenay, in mid-west France. Set over the midsummer solstice weekend of 20-21 June 2009, the time and place couldn't have been more perfect, and the organisers teamed up with 4L Magazine to generate publicity and sponsorship (see below image).

advertisement for 1st 4L International

I arrived on the Saturday after 3pm, following a six-hour drive across France from Lyon. My route should have proved simple enough, being almost exclusively on quiet A roads and punctuated by four fairly equidistant major towns - Roanne, Moulins, Bourges and Vierzon - with the final fifth of the journey taking me onwards to Thenay. French driving away from the autoroute is never straight forward though, so I found myself hopelessly lost in the tiny cobbled alleys of the old French provincial capital of Bourges, due to a 'Route Barrée' and a set of diversion arrows which, unsurprisingly, had only been laid for the first couple of crossroads, leaving me in endless higgledy-piggledy streets with not a clue where I was going. This scenario is played out every time I do a long-distance trip in France. Often, the road blocks are sudden and not signed at the previous junction, even though there are no subsequent turn-offs, forcing frustrating retreats miles back down the road. One spends as much time in reverse as going forwards in France. A sort of metaphor for the country at large.

click an image below for a larger photo and more information

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Clearly it takes a lot of effort, determination and collaboration to make an event like this happen at all, yet more to ensure it is a success. All things considered, the organisers should be congratulated for this first attempt, and one might assume that momentum will gather from here onwards for future meetings. I do, however, have one gripe which I shall get out of the way now. I'm no great organiser myself and I don't doubt that pulling this thing off will have been a tough task, but sometimes it's possible to not do oneself any favours.

After finding out about the event in the 4L Magazine, and in wanting to provide details for site visitors, my initial attempts to contact the organisers were met with no response. I had practically given up hope when a reply arrived containing the official publicity I had asked for. You might think that a request for such things would be given some priority, especially for a first event where getting the word out and mustering up interest is essential. In subsequent communications I attempted to clarify some unclear info regarding the camping arrangements, since I was providing an English translation that the organisers themselves had asked to receive a copy of. I added a few other points extracted from the 4L Magazine. My translation was distributed by the organisers to various other clubs and interested parties, and it stated that camping was available for the Saturday and Sunday nights, whilst visitors arriving Friday could only be accommodated in another area external to the site.

The director later advised me of an error in the info I had provided, regarding the date limit for ticket pre-sales. This info had been printed in the 4L Magazine and I had simply copied it. I advised of this and also that in attempting to follow the directions supplied on the official online booking site, I had encountered a problem and been unable to reserve a ticket. No follow-up was received so I had to forgo the reduced-price entry. Fast-forward to the event weekend, when I checked in for the camping only to discover that it would be closed on the Sunday, but had been available the previous night. It had always struck me as an odd decision to hold the event over the Saturday and Sunday nights (after all, would all the French wish to travel home the Monday and miss work?), which was precisely why I had sought verification. I would have much preferred to travel myself on the Friday afternoon, and now I felt somehow cheated for having to pay the full ticket price for just one night's stay. I also now realised I would be facing a return six-hour trek back home in just twenty-four hours' time, and I'd brought along far more provisions than would be necessary.

The staff in charge of the camping zone were not overly helpful either, and they were rather fastidious in pointing me and my car to one spot on the corner of the campsite somewhat detached from the other gatherers, so reducing any chance of conviviality I might have hoped to encounter in the environs of my tent. There were some sentiments later visible on the large 'guestbook' board (see thumbnail, below), including suggestions that the camping be included in the ticket price. Given that the area set aside was just a lifeless patch of grass outside a warehouse, and that others were spotted setting up their tents elsewhere by the all-terrain track and bonfire, this wouldn't seem unreasonable.


So, just to wrap up my rant, I can't help feeling that some of the organisation and communication needs improving. The official Renault tent on the site was accepting suggestions for the 50th anniversary plans in 2011, and I heard echos of my own suggestion read out on the tannoy requesting more effort be made to help foreign visitors in particular. This event was billed as the 4L International, and the first European gathering of the R4. Though it took place in France and I certainly don't expect them to bend over backwards for the English or any other nation in particular, they should nevertheless be aware that labelling an event with those terms should impart a certain degree of effort in attracting foreign visitors, who they are keen to see more of in future, and being clear with the details supplied is a key part of that.

But going back to the positives, and the sight that greeted me on entering Thenay that Saturday afternoon, where a carpet of Renault 4s rolled out ahead, a flurry of participants and spectators descended on the gates and I drove my Reflexia into the cradling arms of a place set aside specifically for R4 worship. It was like being welcomed into a bizarre sect, only without any worrying cult connotations or initiation ceremonies. Set in front of me were a dazzling array of quatrelles that had all seemingly burst out of the woodwork with reckless abandon. Where had they all come from? Where had they been hiding?

The most instant impression I felt was that this event had at least succeeded in proving to the world that the R4 is far from forgotten or faded away, although this being France one must always realise that the country is no mirror on the wider world when it comes to Renault representation. Yet it was immediately clear that France wasn't the only participant, as I wandered along the parade of beauties spanning four decades of construction and spotted plates from as far afield as Germany, Italy and even Portugal. I wasn't alone in serving Great Britain's presence in the proceedings, evident when I reached a notorious F6 van decorated in Gordini blue with twin white stripes. Derek Flavell from Renospeed had come along with his young son, and although our vehicles represented opposite ends of the restoration spectrum, we proved that adoration for the Four still exists across La Manche, even if my own had not been resident there for some weeks.

With the right-hand steering position being a shared quirk of mine and Derek's British models, we attracted some attention from curious onlookers, although the attention was quite rightly directed at least 99 to 1 in favour of Derek's masterly Gordini van. With my car being parked on its designated spray-painted spot on the grass by the camping, it wasn't until the Sunday afternoon that Derek's persistent goading finally persuaded me to bring my Reflexia down to join the main line-up, which otherwise largely consisted of very well restored and specialised models.

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That was quite a surprise to me. Whilst the other major gatherings I had attended in the Netherlands and the UK were comprised mostly of regular R4 saloon variants, this event attracted a heavier proportion of fans sporting jazzed up collector's items or models converted for rallying. The site included special areas set aside for those forgoing a faint heart or regard for their Four's welfare, including an all-terrain course, a Gymkhana event and a sandpit. The first and last of these bore witness to many precarious endeavours where some 4x4 versions took a battering at considerable speed on uneven surfaces. Meanwhile, Derek informed me that during the Gymkhana event, there had been a bizarre accident where one driver seemingly lost control and ploughed into an otherwise immaculate car sitting on the course. What became of the unfortunate victim's vehicle I'm not quite sure. Whilst these specialist practices required specialist insurance cover and/or supervision, there were many other quatrelles haring around the site day and night, some fitted rather amusingly with preposterous lighting and exhaust kits.

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The 'guests' of this first meeting were the Renault 6 and the Estafette, and a small selection of each were to be seen, including one fabulous bright yellow Six with multicolour striped interior. Underneath a tree (one which Derek astutely informed me - amongst his many beady observations - was awash with parasitic mistletoe) lay a remarkably rusty old Estafette laden with straw and chickens, who pecked about in their enclosure outside and used the van for shelter from Sunday's brilliant sunshine. In fact, rust wasn't the main substance taking hold of the bodywork, it was absolutely coated in tree sap and fungus, which may even have gone some way towards protecting it. Two clear streaks could be seen where the rain had run down under the wiper mounts, and rust had formed there in place of the sap.


Darkness fell late on the Saturday, being just hours before the year's longest day, and whilst some of the younger attendees tore around the site for kicks, others gathered to watch the band playing as part of the French Fête de Musique taking place nationally that weekend, and yet more amassed around the bonfire on what was turning out to be a slightly nippy night. I blew my head off with some unexpectedly hot mustard supplied with the chips I had bought, but in still struggling to devote enough mental energy per day to the French language in order to absorb and engage in conversations taking place, I retired to my tent around midnight, knackered from my north-westerly journey that had consumed one quarter of the day.


I had expected the typical Renault 4 owner to be of a nature that would dictate late arising as de rigueur, but I was proven wrong when at eight o'clock Sunday morning it seemed I was one of the last to make an effort and step outside. In fact, I was cooked out of my tent by the vivid sunbeams unhindered by a clear blue sky. Most of the on-site action centered around a long line-up of perhaps one hundred Fours, although I would estimate more than that figure were present around the whole complex over the full weekend. In addition to a small exhibition of memorabilia housed in a tent representing Renault's official presence, and garnished with a groovy pink quatrelle outside showing as part of their Histoire & Collection, there were also traders dealing in Renault 4 spares, clothing, artistic prints and other items. Some cars at the event were for sale and others were advertised on offer in their windows.

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I headed over to the official Ocean Corner tent and picked up my t-shirt, which I have to say is a splendid design and a nice addition to my already overstocked Renault 4 wardrobe. After bringing my car down to join the main parade that afternoon, I was surprised to encounter a familiar face who was keen to view the engine layout of my right-hand drive model. It was Kubota Hiromichi (see this page), the Japanese enthusiast I had met at Arnhem in 2001, and who had astonishingly made the voyage halfway around the world to be here again. That's some dedication! His loyalty was to be repaid in the prize-giving ceremony that followed.

Attendees gathered around the stage to witness a Top 20 awards hand-out, which included some additional prizes for special categories. Each owner took their turn to position their vehicle in front of the stage and then climb up onto it for their moment of stardom. It was no surprise to see Derek join the line-up and accept one of the trophies, whereafter Kubota took his reward for being the most dedicated international follower. The entire weekend had been awash with a cacophony of French voices spreading information on the tannoy, and now was no exception as all the organisers chipped in to praise all the participants.

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Whilst I noticed Renault 4s that had arrived from Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and at least one from Portugal, I had for one moment thought that another famous Portuguese star car had joined us. From a distance, I spotted a beautiful orange TL that appeared to be João Seabra's Laranja Mecânica, featured countless times around this site. In fact, upon closer inspection, the car was German and belonged to a guy who had unwittingly restored his 1974 model to a similar standard and design as João's '73 LC version. It wasn't the only German model present, and it also won a prize which was much deserved for the '800 hours' of effort the owner told me he had put into it. Only a German would have counted their work in that way!

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Following the prize-giving proceedings, things drew to a fairly rapid close and we Brits were amongst the last to leave as Derek fulfilled some photographic requirements demanded of his F6. I decided to make my way back to Lyon that evening, but I tailed Derek and his son to the nearby town of Montrichard where we found a band playing outdoors for the Fête de Musique, and sat with crêpes and drinks on a pleasant midsummer evening. It was a very picturesque town by the River Cher, surrounded by stereotypical French scenes of vineyards and châteaux, and it rounded the weekend off nicely as we chatted about the English, the French and the R4 that transcends them both. My return journey on the longest night was full of more dastardly detours, with many towns having their centres entirely blocked off for the musical festivities. South of Bourges, the roads were straight as an arrow and devoid of almost any other drivers, so I had the night and the middle of France all to myself. Things get considerably less flat in the final section from Roanne to Lyon, but my Reflexia displayed some remarkable fuel economies in contrast to her hungry Spanish adventures of the previous winter. Clearly, the warm weather makes a significant difference to fuel consumption.


Whether the event will be declared a success - and one to be repeated - will probably hinge predominantly on financial affairs. Just from the perspective of the turnout and enthusiasm, it would appear to have gone quite well. I would hope that more owners of regular Fours might be encouraged to participate in future, not just those who have devoted what is evidently a large amount of time - if not money - to buffing up their vehicles to showroom standard, or to customizing their cars for rallies and events. In my own humble opinion, a standard, unadulterated Renault 4 is the most beautiful model of all, and I'd like to see more regular examples and their drivers attend to prevent a perception spreading that such events are exclusive only for the most worthy. That might not be the intention at all and it wasn't the vibe I felt too strongly on this occasion, but classic car meetings are all too often overpowered by an elitist atmosphere, and this can put off a lot of enthusiasts from coming. The Renault 4 is a great social leveller and its image carries a certain egalitarian status, so these gatherings should really be attractive to everyone.

To achieve this, I would be keen to see future meetings (assuming they are to be held annually) alternated between the existing site at Thenay, and other locations including events staged outside of France. There are big enough Four followings in countries such as the Netherlands, Italy and Portugal, to name but a few, to warrant moving such a 'European' gathering around at least every second or third year. Even Eastern Europe might be a worthy proposition given the enthusiasm currently gaining pace in places like Serbia. An occasional event elsewhere in France might also convince a few travel-averse French fans to make the effort.

One thing missing from the weekend, also noted by a visitor on the comments board, was a 'balade', or road tour featuring a convoy of quatrelles around the neighbourhood. This worked well during the 40th anniversary event in Arnhem, and it forms the basis of the annual UK R4 run. It would show the cars in action and prove to the locality that the 4L is still alive. A side effect might be additional publicity generated by any video or photo footage. However, as Derek pointed out to me, such activities are not easy to organise and there are possible legal and logistical considerations, such as insurance and liability for any incident that may occur. Nonetheless, there are plenty of other car rallies held regularly for Beetles, Minis and so forth, so if they can do it why shouldn't we?

Ultimately, perhaps the final sentiment should be one of joy that an event such as this is even happening at all. Let's hope they improve with each year and are better attended. There's thousands of R4s still sitting around in France alone, so a few dozen making it along is just a start. With a bit of willpower, we can be looking forward to gatherings like this one long after the Renault 4 enjoys its fiftieth birthday.

There is a short video taken during the Top 20 ceremony, showing Derek Flavell collecting his award with his Renospeed Gordini F6 van.

The video is in Ogg Theora format, playback support for which is built directly into newer versions of many browsers including Firefox, Chrome and Opera. You may also be able to play the clip in other media software.

Click here to see the video.

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