A couple of weeks ago, I happened to be reading the news when I learned that Pope Francis had taken delivery of a car for his personal use in the Vatican. But it was not the latest version of the “Popemobile,” which is an armored limousine. Instead, the Pope had taken delivery of a decidedly humble used car which was donated to him by an Italian priest: a 1984 Renault 4 with more than 186,000 miles on it! The Pope was very pleased to receive this car, having previously owned one when he was a Catholic Church official in his home country of Argentina. Thinking that American readers might not be familiar with this car, I decided to feature the Renault 4 in this week’s blog.
Although it was never officially available in the United States, the Renault 4 is in fact one of the most popular cars in automotive history. Conceived by Renault president Pierre Dreyfus and introduced at the Paris Motor Show in 1961, the 4 was designed to be a “blue jeans” car, which Mr. Dreyfus defined as being an inexpensive and simple car that could be used for multiple purposes in many different countries. It was also intended to be Renault’s answer to another iconic French utility car: the Citroën 2CV.
The Renault 4 is arguably one of the simplest and most practical cars ever conceived. The 4 was decidedly small, running on a 96.1-inch wheelbase. It also had the honor of being Renault’s first front-wheel drive car. Power was initially provided by a longitudinally mounted 747 cc engine, which was good for 26.5 horsepower. The engine was mated to a three-speed manual transmission, which was operated by an unusual push/pull gear shift lever mounted in the dashboard. The 4 was equipped with a four-wheel independent suspension system, much like that of a Citroën 2CV, which used longitudinal torsion bars on the both the front and rear, and hydraulic telescopic shock absorbers on all four wheels. Because the rear torsion bars were mounted one in front of the other, the car’s left wheelbase (94.3 inches) was slightly shorter than its right wheelbase (96.1). But this odd design quirk did not negatively affect the car’s handling and allowed for a flat interior floor.
The 4’s body and interior were equally simple and practical. It was clothed with a body that featured four passenger doors and a top-hinged tailgate. Initially advertised as a small station wagon, it is considered by some automotive experts to be the world’s first mass-produced hatchback. The car’s interior was spartan, yet remarkably roomy and could seat five passengers in surprising comfort. The 4’s interior room could easily be increased by folding down the rear seat.
The 4 was capable of a level of performance considered acceptable for a small European economy car of its time. The 4 had a claimed top speed of around 68 miles per hour and was capable of gas mileage in excess of 40 miles per gallon. The car’s combination of front-wheel drive and 4-wheel independent suspension gave it capable handling and impressive off-road capability. The 4 was also renowned for roominess and comfortable ride.
Over the course of its extraordinarily long production life (1961-1994), the Renault 4 became a much-beloved car both in France and all over the world. The car received a number of upgrades over the years, including larger engines, a four-speed transmission, and slightly revised body panels, but its basic design remained remarkably unchanged throughout its production run.
The last Renault 4 rolled off the assembly line in 1994. More than 8 million Renault 4s were built, which makes it the third-best selling car of all time.
4 Renault: Renault (France): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 4, 1966-1990, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1319.
Renault 4: Renault (France): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 4, 1966-1990, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Renault 4 – Aux 4 Coins Du Monde: Renault (France): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 4, 1948-1965, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Renault 4 – Tout Sur Les Modeles 1963: Renault (France): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 4, 1948-1965, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.