A READER took sister mag Wheels to task in its February issue for choosing the Citroen 2CV for icon treatment in its Retro series. He reckoned that when it comes to a significant petite French car the Renault 4CV (or Renault 750 as we called it back in the day) was more worthy of the Retro honour. According to him the Renault edged out the Citroen on two counts: the 4CV was the first French car to sell over one million units worldwide and importantly it had a more significant role in Australian motoring history given that it was quite a common sight on Australian roads through the 1950s (unlike the Citroen). These days however he estimates there are only about 100 survivors in Australia.
To me the diminutive Renault’s cuteness factor is a match for the little Citroen’s despite being a very different creature indeed. Although they’re now very rare here, even unappreciated, there was a time when 4CVs were far more common on our roads than, for example, VW Beetles. Arriving in 1949, the 4CV had a five year start on the ‘Dak Dak’. Total 4CV sales here were around 12,500. By the late 50s however its star was waning (as it lost sales to its larger sibling the Dauphine from 1957) while the Beetle was steadily building its fan base.
Smaller than a Beetle it shared the rear-engine/reardrive layout of its German rival. However its engine was a 747cc water-cooled inline-four with a three-speed gearbox, quite different to the VW’s air-cooled boxer-motor with four-speeder.
Gallic quirkiness was part of its charm. Consider these: suicide front doors, swingaxle rear suspension lacking effective control of fore/aft wheel movement and an external radiator cap where you expect the petrol filler to be (the petrol cap was inside the engine compartment, above the battery). What could possibly go wrong?
My pet theory regarding one factor behind the virtual disappearance of our 4CV stock relates to a period (was it in the 1960s?) when Formula 750 racing specials were running out of ancient Austin 7 engines and parts. A lot of 4CVs were stripped and scrapped to provide engines and engine parts.
My own experience with the little Renault came from a wellused example belonging to one of my high-school mates in the 1960s.
Three of us 18-year-old dingbats had a bunch of adventures in the 4CV including a memorable stay at Sorrento on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. A couple of days in, Renault-man’s sense of humour had dried up (the other mate and I had been giving him a bit of grief, as you do with mates). So he shot through to the beach on foot with a towel over his shoulder and the car keys in his pocket.
With him out of sight we swiftly coaxed the Renault’s doors open, hot-wired the ignition and fired it up. The tricky issue was the inbuilt steering-lock (fiendishly clever those French, considering the car was built in the 50s). But hey, we were up for it. After I backed it out of the driveway we grabbed a front guard each and bounced it around 90 degrees to point it down the road and we were away…
Two 90-degree intersection bounce-turns and a couple of 15-degree mid-course correction-bounces later, we were on the main road to the beach. Then we spotted Renault-man about 100 metres ahead popping into a milk bar. We pulled up near the milk bar, removed the hot wire and bowled into the shop. He was pleased that we had settled down and decided to catch up and join him. However his recovered bonhomie faded as soon as he saw the car. I’ve forgotten whether we ever told him how we did it.