50th Anniversary of the R4 - Nürburgring, 2011
by Peter Gumbrell, 2011-07-04, updated 2012-07-22
The Germans' main national celebration of the Renault 4's fiftieth anniversary was arranged by D'ARC, the organisation charged with overseeing the various Renault clubs in the country, and held in conjunction with the Renault World Series event being staged at the famous Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit.
I attended this gathering, held on the weekend of 18-19 June 2011, in my R4TL, Queen Geanine. Whilst I snapped various pictures and short video clips, what follows is merely a leisurely but detailed account of my personal experiences at the event, rather than any official report of facts and figures. My outbound journey from Lyon to Germany is documented more fully in My Pics entry #53, as a result of my diversion and overnight stop in the French département of the Meuse.
News of the event reached me via Sabine Krause-Holtermann, Chairwoman of D'ARC e.V. It was billed as an attempt to set a new world record by bringing as many Renault 4s as possible together to form a chain that would go all around the Grand Prix circuit. The Nürburgring holds a legendary status, not just amongst the Germans but with auto fanatics around the world, featuring in the BBC's Top Gear on more than one occasion. The weekend for the R4 celebration would coincide with the German leg of the World Series by Renault (WSR), a motoring occasion featuring the Formula 3.5 races as well as other activities. Enjoying my final months as a free spirit in France before needing to find a job, I had been keen to make use of my spare time this summer taking in a few birthday bashes, and this one seemed intriguing enough for me to want to attend.
A few days prior to the event, I had passed an afternoon slaving over my car in the hot sun giving it a full wash and wax. Though its bodywork had deteriorated just a tiny bit since my purchase in 2009, and it had suffered a few knocks from French parking maneouvres, it shined up pretty well in its 24th year and several passers-by offered compliments. So it was with dismay that during the journey north on the French Routes Nationales, having driven through bucketing rain for several hours, the R4 was bullied by a lorry driver in the way that an innocent pub-goer might suffer at the hands of a drunken lout with a spare pint.
I was driving through a new industrial area on the edge of Chaumont, where the roads were coated in some kind of yellow-brown sludge, at which point a passing truck applied some kind of pressure brakes which sprayed the muck up and coated my Queen Geanine like icing sugar on a Stollen cake. My windscreen went totally white and I had to hurriedly apply the wipers to avoid crashing the car. The resulting splashes and runs all down the front of the vehicle had a filthy tinge reminiscent of sewage; indeed that may even have been what it was, considering the number of flies it attracted. To compound the covering, the rain had ceased just a few minutes earlier and the remaining drive to Germany that evening and the following day was through dry skies and bright sunshine, ensuring that after all my previous efforts, I would turn up at the parade with Queen Geanine looking like a dirty old cow.
It wasn't the only event that threatened to ruin my arrival. On the path north through Germany I reached a section of the autobahn reduced to one lane with a restricted 80kph speed limit. A slip road joining from the right had 'Stop' signs positioned at the end of it, but the placement of the one on the right was behind some bushes, meaning drivers on the main motorway could be confused whether the stop sign applied to their lane or the slip road. It should have been more obvious on approaching when the other sign came into view and an additional delimiting line could be seen across the end of the slip road, but the driver in front of me decided at the last minute to come to a complete stop. I applied the brakes as hard as possible whilst trying not to skid, and it seemed I had no chance of stopping in time, but at the very last I forced a slight spin to the side and the front of my R4 missed the car in front by less than two inches. However, the shock and forces on my car resulted in some labourous rumbling noises when I then ascended any incline, and there was squeaking on either the brakes or wheel bearings. Things hadn't got off to a good start.
By mid-afternoon on the Friday, I reached the Nürburgring, an enormous complex sited around the village of Nürburg in the Eifel region of western Germany. I had known only that there existed the long race circuit around the forested hills, and I was unaware of the huge scale of the entire development, which was rather bewildering and left me going around in circles for some time trying to locate the official campsite. Prior to my setting off from France the day before, I was supposed to have received a sticker for the rear windscreen and more detailed information from the organiser in the post, but this had never arrived, so I was following instructions printed from the website of the campsite and having no real clue what the order of events or schedule for the weekend actually involved. Communications from D'ARC had been rather sparse and I wasn't sure if my booking had been overlooked or there had been a delay or problem with the postal service.
Once I found the campsite, I drove around in a loop of all the various small sectioned fields, catching sight of only two other Renault 4s in one spot, where I eventually parked up alongside. I had a chat with Volker Schmidt, an enthusiast who thankfully spoke English (since I know not a word of German), and who had come along with his 1970 R4 van, a wonderful 1960s mini caravan in tow, and his cute dog, Nelly. So now there were three of us (four if you include the dog), and we were positioned in the best field since it was the only one on the site hosting full, working toilet and shower facilities, a fact that Volker had carefully checked out when he arrived the day before.
We were hopeful that a flurry of Fours would infiltrate the field as the day progressed. Indeed, we even took protective measures to keep other non-R4 campers away in the expectation that a good proportion of the mooted 130 Renault 4 attendees of the event would have reserved the same official campsite. When some young raver types began unloading their marquees and sound systems, one group of whom were English, I trekked over and politely asked if they'd mind moving in order that we keep one part for the R4 crowd. They were respectful enough of our wishes, though a little peeved having eyed up the adjacent restroom facilities, so they moved on, at least to the other side of the hedge.
As the hours ticked by, we spotted just one other R4 drive past us, so prompting another loop of the site to see if anybody had set up camp elsewhere. And yes, about six others (reportedly Dutch though presumably either from Luxembourg or Belgium since I never saw any Dutch models at the parade), had somehow evaded us and installed themselves in another field. We already had our tents erected and had no intention of moving again. With dusk approaching and rain beginning to fall, three more German vehicles had pulled up, but the total was still rather embarrassing as the neighbouring residents who we had snubbed trekked across our field to the toilets with mirth and bemusement.
I took a drive to the village of Adenau on the other side of the ring, which necessitated navigating a twisty road around the hills almost reminiscent of the long Nürburg circuit itself. On the way I stopped to help another R4 owner who I could tell was lost, and we were immediately joined by several others who pulled over in being as puzzled as the rest of us by both the road signage and lack of information provided. However, they were all staying either at other, non-official campsites around the area, or in alternative accommodation. At the supermarket, I piled up my trolley with veggie barbecue provisions and a disposable grill, only to discover the light drizzle had turned to pelting rain upon my exit. Back at the campsite, we strung up a makeshift canopy which provided adequate shelter, and sat around the campfire with a few beers.
By Friday night's end, we had amassed a grand total of seven R4s, following the late arrival of a Swiss fan and his van, nine enthusiasts and a dog. After my experiences of the previous decade with a cheap, single-skin permeable tent, I was glad of my investment in a new, dry double-skin design with a new sleeping bag and airbed. The only spoiling factor for a good night's sleep on this extremely cold, wet and windy night was the English ravers next door who set up their big sound system and blasted us out of revenge with tedious techno garage until dawn. That and my worries about getting into the main event site the following morning, given that all other participants had received special stickers in the post that were supposedly obligatory for entry.
Saturday morning, and I set off ahead of the rest to try and negotiate my entry at the paddock gates of the Nürburgring complex. As I sat in a queue at the entrance, with plenty of other Renault 4s being admitted ahead of me, a man on crutches approached me asking if he could jump in. In not knowing the official procedures, and with a lot of security personnel evident around the whole site, but feeling mean to deny a physically impaired person from hitching a ride, I reluctantly let him in, warning that we might face problems at the gate. And sure enough, they complained about my lack of stickers, advising that they were under strict instruction not to allow any car that wasn't sporting them. My passenger had to alight, and I had to find a way to get in touch with the organiser, Sabine.
I flagged down a passing R4 and asked if they had her number, and after a phone call with considerable confusion due to the noise of revving engines all around, I located her at the gate where she gave me the necessary stickers to get in. Once inside the site, we were directed to an area where dozens of other Fours were taking their place in line.
Unfortunately, the weather was atrocious; freezing cold, gusty winds and driving rain interspersed with 20-minute intervals of brief sunshine. It remained like that all weekend, and really put a dampener on things, quite literally. This was the coldest weather I'd experienced since around February, and the Germans said it was exceptional. Like much of western Europe, it had been largely dry and warm here for some considerable while beforehand. The R4 owners were lucky and could take shelter when necessary in their misted up vehicles, but for the crowds attending the event there were few places under cover in which to go, so many could be found huddled with anoraks in the Renault Classic tent beside the R4 parade.
We were all entitled to a free goodie bag from the Renault tent, which otherwise had a pretentious, zoned-off 'VIP' area inside which seemed largely empty all weekend. Included in the bag were a pair of large t-shirts, R4 badges, postcards and stickers, a nice two-part brochure detailing the history of the Renault 4 in French and English, and a sort of kit bag branded with Renault Classic. For the €15 cost of attending the event, it wasn't a bad selection of gifts. We were also given a card with €15 value on it to purchase food and drinks, because no cash was accepted on site. The food and drinks stalls lacked variety and so offered basic sausages, chips, cold beer and crap coffee, hence it was actually quite hard using up the cash. Each day I settled for the deluxe Pommes Frites Spezial Groß, which was basically a large chips with chopped onions, ketchup and mayonnaise all mixed together. Disgusting but necessary.
Renault had provided a couple of classic models for the event, and other rare and special editions had been brought along by collectors. You can find more information in the individual photo entries. One centrepiece of the R4 section was a wonderful fountain designed by German art students, and created from a real Renault 4, as seen above.
During the afternoon, a couple of the guys I knew from the campsite persuaded me to go on the big wheel in the middle of the WSR site, and we all sat there shivering in our anoraks at 200 feet for twenty minutes. The surrounding landscape is quite stunning, with the castle of Nürburg perched on a little mount and the long northern race circuit winding around the hills.
What I hadn't realised until now was that there is the northern long circuit, around 20km in length, renowned the world over and at which the general public can now turn up in any vehicle and pay a fee to race around, and the newer, shorter, Grand Prix circuit in front of the big spectator stands, just like any other Grand Prix circuit. We had tickets to allow us up into the spectator stands overlooking this latter track, so we went there for a while to watch part of the World Series races and some other tedious displays of souped-up hatchbacks in formation. The WSR and the Renault 4 were perhaps strange bedfellows for the weekend, and it seemed many other R4 owners were of the same sentiment in not being so appreciative of all things motorsport. The intention was good and it is a great privilege for some folks to be allowed inside access to this legendary venue, but for many traditional R4 fans, the car is more like a quaint, faithful friend than a greasy motor car, and high speed, highly tuned motor racing and modern mechanical engineering isn't really their thing.
Back at the main R4 stand, I spent much of the day wandering around taking a look at the various models on display, picking out little details here and there, though my photographic sprees were quite random and so what is visible here is not any comprehensive coverage. A smaller but growing, second batch of late arriving R4s could be found divided from the main group as the day wore on, and throughout the entire day there were probably more than 100 present.
There was one heartening thing that I did witness over the weekend. It seemed to me that the majority of those models present, and more importantly the owners who came in them, were very much in the spirit of the Renault 4 that I had always felt a part of. Of course, the R4 has appealed over its long history to all sorts of different characters and creeds around the world, from the humble rural farmer to the chic city chick, the hippie kids to the mature collectors. It has served the needs of government departments, armed forces, taxi fleets and emergency services whilst also being the cheap runaround of everyday folk and families. There is no one defining image of the car because its huge success has conquered so many markets in every corner of society. Yet, more recently, particularly in France, the birthplace and point of the greatest abundance of the cars, and where it is only in the last few years that its rarity has been recognised as regular models rapidly disappear from the streets, a new breed of fan has sprung up in such numbers as to almost outstrip the rest of us.
Rally events such as the 4L Trophy are one of the great highlights of the Renault 4's career, and have promoted the car's worth long into its retirement, but a side effect of this is the large numbers of leftover vehicles formerly dressed up for participation in these activities. I regularly spot models around the streets of France adorned with sponsorship stickers, and at a previous event in France it seemed that sporty hot-hatch enthusiasts claiming these keepsakes had rather taken over the show. The whole culture that too often goes with that is one of fancy engine tuning and often tacky aesthetic adornments, noisy exhausts and one-upmanship in customization. Here in Germany, attempts at customizing R4s tended to be more typically silly and creative additions to the paintwork or internal furnishings, and more simple values of individualism and solidarity shone through.
Aid missions like the 4L Trophy are very worthy and long may they continue, but amongst the many friendly comments I receive from French people when they find out about my Renault 4, for the younger generation it often seems as though these rallies are the only association with the car that they can draw upon. Encouraging younger people to appreciate the Renault 4's many assets is a good thing, but a more balanced view would perhaps prevent some fans acquiring one to go rallying in, only to run it into the ground soon after and leave yet another R4 on the scrap heap. Nonetheless, such events in themselves probably stop large numbers of Renault 4s going to waste in the first place, so maybe I'm just being a misery and trying to prevent 'the youth of today' from having some fun.
I had a chat with various owners and members of the public who had come to have a look around. I was surprised to find myself as the only Savane owner in attendance, and I wonder if the Savane was actually sold in Germany, because they can still be found all over France and some other countries. I did discover a few special editions that were limited to the German market and which I'd never seen before (see the photo entries for info). Whilst I'd driven about 850km from Lyon, taking in my diversion over to Bar-le-Duc, I wasn't the only foreign visitor, with others arriving from Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland and even Spain.
The event wasn't limited to Renault 4 owners. Although the 50th anniversary gave us prominence in the weekend's proceedings away from the WSR itself, there were many other Renault models also allowed into the inner sanctum of the ring. Whilst I'm not generally interested in vehicles other than the 4L, I had a look around the line-up of alternatives and found a few nice oldies worthy of a snap, including some Renault 8s and 10s, a Dauphine or two and a 4CV.
Renault Histoire & Collection had provided a couple of original 1960s models, and had once again wheeled out the psychedelic pink thing seen previously at the 1st 4L International in France in 2009. There were various official Renault people walking around, although they could have just been fans sporting branded merchandise, and some were seemingly taking notes on the cars in attendance. Most of the vehicles were in a good overall condition but it was nice to see a few typically battered and bruised models to prove that nobody was excluded from the show, and that the cars are still very much a functional part of life.
Originally scheduled for earlier in the day, what should have been the highlight of the event was put back to the last item on the day's agenda at the Nürburgring site itself. We were set to all take to the track at 5.30pm for a 'world record attempt' with the Renault 4s. Just what world record this was nobody seemed to know, but only now I realised we wouldn't be completing the famous long circuit through the countryside, but rather the shorter Grand Prix track. At 5.15pm, Sabine gave an address to the crowd that rather got lost in the strong wind, though we were essentially commanded to all go back to our cars and start the engines. There was a very precise order of events throughout the day with lots of security people everywhere, so we had to be ready to go.
Forty minutes later and with engines purring, nothing was happening and everyone was getting impatient, at which point an impromptu chorus of Renault 4 horns broke out, which was quite amusing. It was as though the cars had come to life and were speaking for the first time amongst each other. Some guy knocked on my window and asked if he could join me going around the track. A Twingo owner named Matthew, he had long wanted to go on the circuit but never had an opportunity, so he took his place in my passenger seat whilst I fixed my camera up with gaffer tape behind the windscreen to be able to film part of the course. Somebody then passed amongst the drivers to present each of us with a certificate for our participation.
Eventually, we waited an hour and a half to get going, by which time it was nearly 7pm and almost all the crowds in the stands had gone home. It really felt like we were treated as some last priority and a problem by the race track organisers. Perhaps they were as immune to the charms of the Renault 4 as many of us were to their Formula 3.5 interests. A helicopter hovering overhead provided the only signs that somebody wanted to stay and watch us.
The Fours followed a route around the back of the track and entered down a slope onto the main Grand Prix circuit, though the pace was very slow and it was difficult to move out of second gear for most of the way around. I was surprised at the quantity of small stones all across the track, expecting it to be completely smooth after the high speed races earlier in the day. When we arrived at the finishing straight for the first time, the cars were halted for group photographs, whereupon everybody jumped out to get their personal souvenir snaps.
We were waved off to commence our second lap of three promised, although we had begun our first halfway around the course. The speed was notched up just a little and the cars jostled for position, yet before we could complete the second lap we were all diverted off the track and the game was over. It seemed as though employees were eager to get home for the day and wanted rid of us. Perhaps this wasn't the sentiment shared by all and it may have just been unfortunate timing, but as the pivotal part of the weekend's events, the experience wasn't as exhilarating as many had hoped for.
If that had seemed like a let-down, those of us booked in at the official campsite were in for another disappointment upon returning there. Whilst we'd been gone, the campsite organisers had erected a huge marquee in the middle of our field, blocking access to our tents with our cars, and had filled it with a giant pile of large logs. What was the intention of this? We all felt fed up and a couple of the German guys went off to the reception to ask what was going on. They were told that it had been installed for an event later in the week and we could ignore it. However, they were clearly nervous that we might sabotage it, since some guy appeared in an anorak hovering at the edge of our field and watching us for over half an hour. One of our gang approached him and asked if he was keeping watch on us, to which he laughably replied that he was just out on an evening walk.
We had no option to set up our tents elsewhere in needing to get to the evening dinner event shortly after. We were rather worried about somebody torching the wood, though a couple of the guys were staying around and not attending the dinner. The general state of the campsite, with litter embedded everywhere in the grass and their operating a strange charging system of paying by the day instead of the night (meaning somebody arriving Friday and departing Sunday had to pay for three days), left us with a rather bitter taste in the mouth.
Another, second Volker, a friend of the first, had come along in his bright orange 1960s R4 saloon, and since he was the only one not drinking, five of us piled into his car for the ride to the village of Nürburg, located inside the ring, where the evening dinner celebration was being held. I was squashed in at the back but it was a fun experience all the same.
We arrived at the venue where there were long queues for the buffet and not a lot of free tables, since it was evident that not everybody in the hall was an R4 passenger. Being a rather fussy eater, I had made no mention of any special food requirements but nonetheless I had expected there to be some meat-free dishes on offer. The choice for folks such as I was very limited considering the quantity of items, and I know I wasn't the only vegetarian of sorts in attendance. I managed to fill a plate with salad items and I wouldn't generally be one to complain, especially in another country where my diet isn't so common, but since we had all paid an extra €15 for the meal I might have expected a little more consideration. At least the beer was included.
The meal was consumed to a backdrop of old Renault 4 advertisements being projected on a big screen, after which there was a quiz, where one member of our own crowd from the campsite, a jolly German named Jogi, was selected to take part. Sabine received thanks and a gift from one of the German club organisers for her role in arranging the weekend's events, and a DJ then took over proceedings. Perhaps in part from the soul-sapping weather conditions endured throughout the day, a desire to return to the campsite and check there were no further infiltrations to our space, and a general disdain from our lot for DJs, discotheques and dancing, we all headed off sharpish.
At the campsite, we lit another fire and there were plenty of beers to be had. Despite the continuing adverse elements, we took shelter and enjoyed being in the company of like-minded enthusiasts who all shared a common interest in a peculiarity from yesteryear. A couple of the German guys had made real efforts to translate things for me all weekend, for which I was grateful. There was a noticeable degree of discontent amongst many of the German fans regarding various aspects of the event. A lack of communication and publicity seemed to be the main sticking points, but the situation here at the campsite hadn't helped. Those who had intended staying till the Sunday night or Monday morning were now intent on leaving early, and demanding a refund for the camping.
Waking late on the Sunday morning, I packed away my tent and said my goodbyes to the Germans who had been great company and made me feel welcome. Almost all of them were heading home and not bothering with the World Series showing for Sunday. I was the last to leave the campsite, and I decided to drop in at the Nürburgring site for a short while, if only to use up the remainder of my €15 card.
Only a couple of dozen Renault 4s had come along for this second day, which was intended as another display of the cars but without the laps of the circuit at the end. Most had been put off by the weather, which was understandable. Those who had made the effort didn't stay long and the number of Fours on show soon dwindled. Elsewhere, the crowds that remained were entertained by various Renault exhibits including racing simulators and a model that had been adapted to play the German national anthem with its engine every half an hour. Amusing the first time, less so the fourteenth. I found a tent featuring a few original, special Renault models including the R4 from the Monte-Carlo rally in 1962.
I stocked up on more yukky chips and went for a wander around the entrance area of the complex, which houses various shops. By the time I returned, there were half a dozen Renault 4s left on the windswept concourse, and I decided to head off myself. My journey back to Lyon would be less eventful but just as exhausting as the outward leg, this time involving an overnight stop in Luxembourg City, where I happened across one of the Luxembourgeoise models seen earlier at the event (see Mystery Cars entry #202). I stayed in the youth hostel where I passed the evening talking to a French girl who had been an R4 owner previously. The next morning, whilst sitting having breakfast in the hostel's kitchen, they were showing Eurosport's Motorsport Weekend on the telly, and I found myself watching all the WSR action. Whether they featured the R4 convoy I'm not sure, but it would be good to retrieve any footage that anybody has.
All things considered, despite my adding 1,700km to Queen Geanine's clock, tipping it over the 80,000 mark, the horrible weather, the crappy campsite and all the rest, I actually enjoyed myself and am glad I attended. Such events could certainly do with better organisation, planning, communication and publicity, but it was the spirit of the other R4 owners that made the event worthwhile. The two Volkers advised me of another German gathering being held in the Bayern region in July, and though I can't make it this year, I shall bear it in mind for the future. It would be nice to see some of those guys again. Whilst 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Renault 4, 2012 represents fifty years since models went on sale in Germany, so a big meeting is planned by Volker and his Rappel! Quatrelle website (see the R4 Links page), with the aim of smashing that new world record for the number of R4s gathered in the country.
It's good to know that Germany still has a decent Renault 4 following, and I expect to see at least some of them at the forthcoming big birthday bash in France for the 3rd 4L International.
Nürburgring VideoA collection of images from the Nürburgring site, including footage going around the circuit, can be seen in this accompanying video.