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Half a Renault 4 in Geneva
by Peter Gumbrell, 17 March 2011

I went to the Geneva Motor Show in 2011 hoping to see a Renault 4, and ended up getting just half of one. Here you can find several images and a personal account of my first experience at a motoring exhibition.

My free ticket for 'Le Salon Auto de Genève 2011'

Since taking my car over to Lyon in September 2010, I'd had ideas about doing a trip to nearby Switzerland, but with winter descending I missed the opportunity to make it to the mountains before snowfall. I decided to set aside a weekend in early March when, although still in the midst of winter, I could at least amble along the major routes off-piste without worrying about tyre chains and such malarkey. A coinciding of events made me consider Geneva as a likely destination, not least also since it's the closest Swiss city to Lyon, an important consideration with the price of petrol skyrocketing. By further coincidence, I then spotted a Twitter post from the Dutch R4 Club pointing to a short article and image from the Geneva Motor Show, displaying an R4 amongst the exhibits. This was one of many events listed in Renault's official press kit for the car's 50th anniversary celebrations in 2011, so I thought I'd go and take a look myself.

The drive up to Geneva on the Routes Nationales on a pleasant Friday afternoon took me through dramatic gorges well over 1,000 metres above sea level, before descending towards the Swiss lakeside city and entering it via the border-straddling site of CERN, where the Large Hadron Collider is located, and which failed to suck my R4 into an unstoppable vortex leading to a man-made black hole. By good fortune, the owner of the Hôtel de Cartigny where I stopped for the night out in the sticks provided me not just with a ticket for free travel on all Geneva public transport during my two-day stay, but after remarking how my car reminded him of his youth and my responding that I would be taking in more Fours at the Motor Show, he offered me a free entrance ticket for that too (seen above).

Prior to making my way to the exhibition, I took a trip up the Route du Lac on the Swiss side, past the town of Nyon and the headquarters of UEFA, up a windy mountain pass and back down, which would have afforded spectacular views to the mountains on the French side of the lake on a less misty day. I passed various other oldies on the roads, perhaps visiting the show themselves or some other classic car event nearby. They included several nice VW Beetles, a couple of 2CVs and one of those bright orange Volvo 244 Saloon variants circa 1972, whilst I also spotted more swish Audis, Mercedes, BMWs and other black saloons and expensive sports cabriolets than I've ever witnessed elsewhere. These were likely nothing to do with the exhibition and rather just the property of the many wealthy residents in this neck of the woods.

View from the top of the staircase looking across the lower floor of the Motor Show, with the half-R4's headlight beaming up at passing visitors

On arrival at 'Le Salon Auto de Genève 2011', held at the enormous Palexpo centre and arena near the airport, I went straight to the info desk and asked where I could find the Renault 4s. The lady explained something in French about there not really being an R4 exhibition as such, and pointed me towards the staircase. There, aside from commanding a view over the lower floor of the unfathomably huge hall, I found a friendly face beaming up at me (above and below).

View of the front offside of the diagonally-mounted R4

Mounted diagonally alongside the staircase was one half of a lime green Renault 4, of approximately late '60s or early '70s vintage if the front grille style is anything to go by. This appeared to be a real car that had been cut lengthways, rather than a mock-up, since a look underneath seemed to show all the chassis and mechanical fixings in place.

Explanatory information mounted on the wall alongside the R4

Some explanatory information mounted on a plate alongside (above) translates in English as follows:

"The Blue Jeans Car", this new philosophy of the automobile developed by the visionary Pierre Dreyfus gave birth 50 years ago to the legendary Renault 4, the car of many facets equally at ease in town as in the country or on the slopes. Produced in 28 countries and marketed in more than 100, it sold more than 8 million models over more than 30 years.'

The underside of the R4 proves that this was a full real car and not a mock-up display model

The R4 was well positioned at the exhibition, since hordes of visitors were continually streaming past, a large proportion of whom were unable to stem a desire to reach out and touch it or give it a faithful tap, and during the many minutes I stood at the spot I overheard countless remarks about what a good car it was. Indeed, it rather stole the limelight at the show. Remarkably, it didn't look at all out of place amongst the hundreds of other gleaming models and prototypes on display. It is stylistically and aesthetically very different, of course, and I personally have little to no interest in those other modern vehicles, but the chromework and curves belied its astonishing half-century age. I couldn't help wondering if an R4 looking that good - and with a jazzed up interior and specifications - were on display for general purchase today, how many of those visitors might have been tempted to welcome a Renault 4 back into their lives?

The rear of the R4, with tailgate lock intact
Shouldn't that rear boot lock have been sliced right down the middle?

At the foot of the stairs was Renault's main stand at the event, which featured a variety of electric models and some other slightly preposterous prototypes that nobody can seriously expect to see on the streets. Many of the electric models are production vehicles about to be unleashed on the world and one looked almost normal, but I've never understood why the demands of storing batteries in the boot result in such massive changes in design principles and quirky if not ugly aesthetics. Is it that hard to design a relatively regular looking electric car? (Anybody who's watched the marvellous movie-documentary 'Who Killed The Electric Car?' knows that it isn't). Of course, several of the gleaming glories on the stand adhered to decades-old utopian ideals, including sensational yet impractical elements such as vertically-hinged doors or, in one case, reverse-opening rear passenger doors. These latter examples didn't seem such a bad idea, although I'm counting the days until somebody severs their arm in the inside cavity next to the rear seat as the door is shut.

At the rear of the stand was a small cinema where Renault were showing a 5-minute 3D movie directed by French film legend Luc Besson. It revolved - often literally - around some CGI bee buzzing about the Parisian streets and I was focussing so hard on this, my first encounter with the latest three-dimensional fad of filming, that I forgot the theme of the piece and lost any sense of the point of what I'd just witnessed. At least it was a change from the many other movies showing on giant screens behind other manufacturers' stands, which almost exclusively seemed to feature 'cleanly-stubbled family man' and his smug adventures. By that, I mean that the image of perfectly smooth-shaven male types was long since abandoned, notably in the automobile advertising world, in favour of a modest but over-evenly distributed coating of bristles. I'm not sure what I despise more, being made to feel an outcast for many years by media models with impeccably and impossibly clear complexions, or being patronised by unachievably well-groomed facial hair-sporting trendy types whose aspirational follicular features have been crowd-sourced. Certainly, I didn't spot one bloke amongst the thousands traipsing around who lived up to these immaculate ideals.

Nonetheless, if that seemed discriminatory, it's nothing compared to the many females seen all around the stands seemingly selected to work at the event on no other criteria than looks. How such practices are allowed to continue in the modern age I have no idea. The same happens across all of society but it's unnervingly noticeable at an event like this. You have to admire their ability to hold superficially false smiles and to sycophantically drool over pot-bellied fifty-something male fantasists for so many hours per day. It's an age-old tradition to adorn shiny new vehicles with scantily-clad ladies and it might thrill me too if I didn't have more of a penchant for the girl-next-door type, but I had to wonder how many less-than-perfect or more mature women didn't pass the dubious selection process.

Side view of the R4, showing the slogan on the wall behind 'HAPPY 50TH BIRTHDAY MY DEAR', and a '4L 50 YEARS' decal on the passenger door

I enquired at Renault's info point whether any other R4 models were on display, and sadly this wasn't the case, although I was handed a magazine produced for the event by Renault in Switzerland, which contains a two-page article on the 50th birthday (see PDF below). So, I had travelled 200 kilometres to see half a Renault 4 - that's some dedication!

It has to be said that for Renault to make such efforts to showcase the Renault 4 at all, especially alongside all their latest flashy fleet that they're trying to flog, is admirable. The R4 has such a place in the hearts of the French that they are forbidden to forget. Although, of course, this was a few hundred metres across the frontier in Swiss territory, and I'm not sure how sales figures here stacked up compared to France. On the other hand, you could argue that Renault decided to commemorate 50 years of the Renault 4 by slicing one in half! - (which would be the ultimate masochistic mark of disrespect against us fans). I sincerely hope that this particular vehicle had been chosen for the cutting machine due to major near-side accident damage or for being beyond reasonable repair. Maybe they were just skinflints, and they needed to demonstrate an R4 concurrently at two different shows!

Visible in the image below is the back of Renault's stand with the slogan 'Drive The Change', and I must point out that once again they have been a lot more daring than most in pushing electric vehicles and certain strange concepts whilst most other manufacturers were sticking to the same old same old. You'll also be able to see the caption above the R4 reading 'HAPPY 50TH BIRTHDAY MY DEAR', which I thought was rather touching and sweet. Never let the notion be dismissed that a Renault 4 becomes like a faithful friend to its owner, and not merely an animated box like many other vehicles.

View from the show floor of the visitors passing on the staircase, with the main Renault stand behind

As I've mentioned many times over the years of running this site, I don't honestly have any real interest in motor cars, aside from a few classics and novelty offerings. Mechanical discussions and under-the-bonnet observations bore me to tears, so in passing an hour or so wandering around the rest of the vast floors of the exhibition, I just had no idea what all the fuss was about and why so many people had turned up with thrilled expressions on their faces. All well and good for them, if that's what turns them on, but comments overheard of "C'était super bien" ringing out from visitors exiting the event just befuddled me. Tens of thousands of people had paid money and come from far and wide to mill about and be advertised at. Every few metres, another slowly revolving podium where visitors are penned behind a fence and can't touch. Greying, leathery-skinned forty-somethings largely dominated the convertibles stands whilst bling-laden types gathered around the BMW and 4x4 models, often sitting in the front seats and pouting whilst doing chicken movements with their necks as they twiddled with the hip-hop channels on the stereo. Consumerist culture at its most fragrant. I admit that I do enjoy Top Gear, principally for James May and his English gent buffoonery, and the general crass stupidity of its knowingly controversial and ridiculous bent on all things sensible, but my enjoyment has next to nothing to do with the cars themselves, and here I felt hopelessly out of place.

I escaped, and then spent two hours trying to get back to my Renault 4 on the other side of the city via mislabelled buses going in completely the wrong direction, and my continuing attempts to understand Geneva's utterly perplexing and poorly designed public transport maps and information systems. With petrol hitting an unbelievable €1,67 per litre for Super 98 at some French filling stations, I took the opportunity to top up the tank in Switzerland for the slightly more reasonable 1.84 Swiss Francs (€1,44 at time of writing). The journey back to Lyon in the dark hit a hitch halfway through when the heavens opened and rain came hammering down as I negotiated the hazardous hills at the edge of the Alps, so I had no option but to switch to the autoroute and the tolls for one portion in the middle, which took me soaring across an immense valley and plunging through an enormous tunnel that felt like an arcade game. Quite a thrill - I literally passed through the heart of an Alp.

Arriving back in Lyon late on Saturday night, I extinguished the trusty purr of Queen Geanine and listened to the strangely satisfying and reassuring sound of rain pattering on the roof of the R4. Reassuring at least because this is the first Renault 4 I've had that doesn't suffer from any leaks, yet. I passed my own silent thanks to the car for getting me home safe and sound and took a moment to contemplate the millions of people who have done the same over the years, and not just the years, but fifty of them. So many stories, so many adventures, what a life this car has enjoyed. And it still goes on.

Pages 30-31 of the Renault Suisse 'Le Salon' magazine on display at the motor show feature an article on 50 years of the R4 (click to view full-size PDF) click here to view the R4 50 years feature from Renault Switzerland's 'Le Salon' 2011 brochure (PDF, in French).

Note: The above brochure mentions in the 50th anniversary details the possibility of a Swiss gathering around early autumn 2011. If you have an R4 and are interested in attending such an event in Switzerland, please send details before the 30th April of your vehicle's characteristics (motor and chassis number, date of first registration) by email to or by post to:

Renault Suisse SA
Réf. «Rencontre R4»
Case postale
8902 Urdorf

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