Growing up in Leyland, Lancashire, a foreign car was an exotic beast. Indeed, such was the local domination of the mighty BL empire, even Fords were thin on the ground. In the 1970s, running a car was a big expense for normal working families.
All of which pretty much ruled out weird stuff such as Citroens and Renaults, which were regarded as far too odd and potentially expensive for ease of ownership. It was bad enough if the suspension collapsed on your Allegro. If the same thing had happened to a Citroen GS, the local garage mechanics would have run mile.
So while more urbane colleagues may have been shuttled to school and on family camping trips in angular French metal, the only local French car I can remember was the art teacher’s 2CV and the local posh family who had an incredibly exotic Renault 17 coupe.
However, on the other side of the Irish sea, my grandfather had a Renault 4 which he used as a carry all on his small farm. On one of my few trips there I remember him using the R4 to tow a trailer of pigs to the local market.
So it was a bit of treat to find an exhibition dedicated to 50 years (and over eight million sales) of the R4 at this week’s launch of the new Renault diesel engine. Not only were three rarities on display, but another three R4s were available for a quick drive around our test track location.
One of the drivers was not only the same colour but also the same vintage as my grandfather’s car, so even though I have no personal nostalgia for old-school French cars I couldn’t refuse a quick spin.
A Renault staffer was on hand to explain the gear shifter (which sprouts from the dash), but it couldn’t have been easier - just push-pull. I puttered off around the track to the dawning realisation of the R4’s tremendous charm. It only took a couple of gear changes before I was adopting the insouciance that’s clearly compulsory when piloting this kind of machine.
As I rolled around the bends, the R4 struck me has having the same effect on my driving as the Nissan Leaf EV. It sort of forces you to relax, stretch out and think higher thoughts.
So I thought about the R4’s savage simplicity and the wonderful industrial logic behind its construction. Many car designers trained initially as industrial designers, so the kind of form-following-industrial-logic represented by the R4 is a secret dream of many in the industry.
And I can entirely see the point of Pierre Dreyfus (head of Renault in the late 50s). The R4 was called a ‘blue jean’ car because ‘you can wear it in any situation, if you are not concerned about snobbery or social conformity.’
In this super-premium, slush-moulded age it’s nice to fantasise that one day a rigorously logical industrially-designed car might appear once again.