What fun! How practical! The Renault 4L

There is beginning to appear on our roads a rather queer looking, lofty, small saloon—reminiscent of those illustrations labelled “a motor car” in the less meticulous children’s books—and bearing the Renault badge. This is the Renault 4L. It follows closely Citroen’s concept of a people’s car of an earlier decade, inasmuch as its simple gear-change, comfortable seats, “go anywhere” suspension and spacious interior are an obvious “crib” of the 2 cv. Like the Citroen, the new Renault 4L is front-drive; unlike the 2 cv it has a water-cooled 4-cylinder-inline engine.

This mechanical recipe adds up to a vehicle you either hate or crave. After 700 mile driving in this elementary but essentially practical Renault I confess to being a convert. Admittedly the 4L is no status symbol. Whereas the “corrugated ” 2 cv was “funny—ha, ha!”, the 4L is ugly-funny or ” funny-peculiar,” but as a motoring maid-of-all-work it is remarkably good fun, and essentially practical.

To be honest, as always, let me say that I tend to associate the “phutter-phut” of a flat-twin with this sort of basic motor car and had such a power unit been employed there could have been even more space within the 4L’s body envelope and back doors the same size as its front ones. On the other hand, it would have been uneconomical of Renault to have designed and produced such an engine when they had at hand the well-tried “four,” which, in 747-cc, 26.5-bhp form, certainly imparts the smoothness, quietness and performance expected of a normal small car to this fascinating new vehicle for farmers and other non-snobs. Where this largest of French automobile manufacturers has been so clever is in endowing this well-known engine with sealed water-cooling (the next best thing to air-cooling!), entirely eliminating chassis lubrication points, and using the front-drive and supple springing already so successfully employed for their small 848-cc camions and ‘buses. Indeed, Renault have the best of both worlds, for they show no inclination to discard the rear-engine location for their Dauphine, Floride and newer models yet to be announced, while using traction avant for their down-to-earth creations.

In this clever Renault 4L, then, you have the simple car par excellence. Torsion-bars suspend the vehicle so that there is some 9 in of movement of the front wishbones and perhaps 12 in of the rear trailing links, which, in conjunction with 8-in unladen ground clearance, renders the 4L impervious to unmade surfaces and rutted lanes.

Indeed, such freak motoring is luxuriously comfortable, for this tolerant springing is abetted by crude but effective bench seats consisting of light tubular metal frames upholstered, hammock style, in cloth over rubber, of great resiliency. Four people are thus accommodated in real comfort, although the centre member of the framework would render uncomfortable three-abreast travel. The front seat adjusts easily and both seats are readily removable, when they are ideal for picnics, or for supplementing a sparsely furnished flat. These seats are truly excellent if of somewhat different design to the 2 cv’s. The back of the front-seat squab is rolled over, while that of the rear seat is formed as a lifting handle.

With the back seat removed there is no less than 50 cu ft storage space and even with this seat in place 17 cu ft of space remains, ideal for carrying all but outsize canine friends. The upholstery of the body sides and roof is in washable plastic and the floor and rear-wheel arches are covered in rubber, so the inside of a 4L is readily washable. The rear compartment mat tended to tear away from its press-studs.

Access to this roomy body, which follows the vintage concept of Jowett instead of the present-day genius of lssigonis, is through four trailing doors, wide at the front, with a rear panel hinged along the roof for full access to the luggage compartment. This rather weighty panel locks automatically as it falls, which is something of a bore, but does ensure that the load, or dog, is safely immune from sudden ejection onto the road. There is a manually-fixed prop to hold it up.

The light doors lack “keeps” but are otherwise practically contrived. The front ones have half-sliding windows that function impeccably, being released by pulling the knob inwards. The rear doors have fixed windows but the rearmost pair of the six side windows open slightly as extractor panels. All three doors can be locked from inside and slammed shut, leaving only the driver’s to lock by key, there are childproof safety locks for the rear doors, and the interior handles consist of metal rods within holes, convenient to manipulate, although when used as “pulls” the crude edges of these holes were painfully evident.

You climb up into this little Renault and getting out over the high leading edge of the seat cushion and sill of the floor is a bit tricky. Visibility in the screen-sill-mounted mirror is seriously restricted, nor are the screen pillars entirely unobstructive.

Driving a 4L is almost as simple as the vehicle itself, The gearlever protrudes from the facia as a cranked rod terminating in a very big knob close to the right hand as this goes out to it. Normally the lever is sprung for pushing forward into 3rd gear, back into the 4.24-to-1 top cog, but pushing it over to the left enables bottom gear (5.65 to 1) to be selected by pulling back, reverse (no safety catch) by pushing it forward. Could anything be easier ? There is a snag, inasmuch as there is no synchromesh on bottom, which has to be crunched in, while the clutch engaged at the end of the pedal travel and functioned harshly (sticky cable ?), making smooth departure a matter of careful muscle control. One misses the high top in a 4-speed box, of the Citroen 2 cv.

The handbrake is a cranked rod under the facia that pulls out, is twisted to release it (a racing action is possible) and then pushed up out of the way of one’s left knee. A hooded 80-mph, casually-calibrated speedometer incorporates a mileage recorder scorning decimal readings and the usual indicator lights, including one which would come on were the sealed coolant system to default—it shines for a moment or two after starting up, or when convection heat transfer after stopping affects it.

Flanking the sides of the speedometer box are press-buttons, two on the left for SEV wipers (non-self-parking) and heater fan, a matching pair on the right for ignition (no key) and parking lamps if fitted. These, and other controls have illustrations as to their function, not all of which are obvious. The lamps are brought in by a switch on the l/h side of the speedometer, which also illuminates this instruments, after which you select dipped and full headlamps beams by moving down a somewhat attenuated l/h steering-column stalk. The non-self-cancelling direction indicators are controlled by a r/h stalk. Pushing in the extremity of the l/h stalk sounds twin-tone (actually two separate) horns.

A panel down on the l/h side of the bulkhead, quite accessible however, carries the choke-cum-hand-throttle and starter knobs. On the extreme left is a washers’ button, where these are fitted.

Heating and ventilation, the latter especially, are well contrived. Driver and front passenger have before them plastic flaps which can be set to several positions to admit a direct stream of fresh-air through a gauze-protected scuttle vent, the cover of which is lifted by a small lever up under the scuttle on the left of the speedometer, and which itself has two locations. The heater unit is a huge “stove” dividing the front compartment, which is brought in by a small switch on its right side. Two subsidiary levers control the degree of demist and warmth to the interior. They are not very sensitive and, indeed, once the hot-water has been turned on this very efficient “stove” requires some time to cool after it has been turned off, and vice versa. But no one need ever feel cold in a Renault 4L and screen demisting is effective.

That about completes an explanation of the 4L’s controls, except to remark that a fuel gauge, calibrated 0, 1/2, 1, with straking above the 0, is provided and that the front-hinged bonnet is released very expeditiously by pressing in a knob under the central wipers’ box. The lid can then be lifted easily by hand, as it is on balanced hinges, being restrained by a wire, or propped open if a wind is blowing. The Tudor battery is readily accessible but the slender dip-stick is buried under the starter-motor cable, steering column, etc.

Reverting to the interior, there are twin, soft swivelling vizors, crash-padding below the facia, and two rather low but spacious shelves in the front compartment to make up for the absence of cubby-hole (for, as on a Mini, there is no facia as such) or door pockets. On the test-car a Dutch Phillips radio filled the off-side shelf and caused small objects, with the well-known perversity of Things, to hide themselves behind it.

On the road the 4L is slow but sure. It is flat-out at about 56 mph on the level but help from a down gradient sends this to an indicated 70 mph or more, and very adequate Lockheed brakes encourage such downhill bursts. The engine is noisy towards the peak speeds in the indirect gears of 19 and 43 mph, but seems unburstable even when held at valve-clatter revs. A 4-speed gearbox would assist acceleration, which is decidedly sluggish. Once into top engine noise falls and, a few rattles and rumbles apart, progression is smooth and untroubled. There is very pronounced front-drive understeer but the wheels stick down well once the driver is accustomed to the remarkable angle of roll on fast corners. Some surfaces set up a mild pitching which somewhat affects directional stability but generally the car is more controllable than its very supple suspension would suggest, and, of course, it rides over bumps, ruts, “level”-crossings and the like in complete comfort.

The steering is rather heavy and low-geared, calling for 41/2 turns lock-to-lock, but there is powerful castor-return action. There was a strong tendency to pull to the left down a pronounced camber, which made steering a tiring business. With confidence the 4L can be hurled round corners at a fine angle of lean, its French-made Dunlop 145 x 13 D4S “Stabilia” tyres squeaking with glee. The electrics are 6 volt, sans fuses. The small Cibie headlamps give quite a good beams, and there is a rotatable interior lamp on the near-side door pillar. A lidded ash-tray is provided in front, but none for rear-seat smokers.

The fuel tank, with filler at the off-side rear having a chain-restrained cap, holds 53/4 gallons. The range, with some hard driving and much crawling in traffic away from the BRDC Silverstone Meeting, was 248 miles. The engine develops its 261/2 net bhp at 4,500 rpm on an 8.5-to-1 compression-ratio, so is not partial to commercial-grade petrol. It will burn mixture but most owners will buy good-quality petrol. On Esso Extra I got 44.4 mpg over a mileage that involved local running with several cold starts and negotiation of London traffic. The overall figure was 45 mpg. No oil was required and the complete absence of routine servicing, except for checking oil levels in engine and gearbox, is a very commendable aspect of this Renault.

Before Englishmen laugh at the light tubular bumpers with their insipid rubber over-riders, let them remember that the 4L sells in France for 5,500 new francs, or for around £390, the plainer Renault 4 for even less.

I have said before, and I say again, that the World would be a poorer place without these ingenious and practical people’s-cars. Only a small proportion of Motor Sport readers will want one of these Renaults but if you are a farmer, require a second car, like exploring unmetalled roads, need a car-cum-van, or just regard space and comfort as more important in an economy car than speed, you cannot ignore this cocky newcomer from the great Billancourt plant. There are many forms of motoring sport to be enjoyed (even, so young people assure me, in the back of a limousine with drawn blinds on certain occasions!), so I make no excuse for enthusing over the Renault 4L, which is ideal if you want an inexpensive car capable of taking all the family, the dog and the cat, the budgerigar, and the kitchen-sink on journeys short or long, without cramping or complaint. These cars are beginning to get a hold on the English small-car market. For instance, when I stopped for petrol in a Surrey village I found a demonstrator on show and as the proprietor was telling me he had already sold several, another 4L drew in which, he remarked, wasn’t one of these local 4Ls. In a country in which the Minister of Transport is so afraid of speed that there is to be a 50 mph limit on our trunk roads throughout the summer, and probably all over Britain next year, why purchase anything faster ?

For comfort, economy and spaciousness, coupled with freedom from servicing worries, the Renault 4L is remarkable. In fact, in many ways it can be called unique, especially when you remember that the wheelbase measures 7 ft 103/8 in on the near-side but is 1.9 in longer on the opposite side! The basic price here is £422, inflated by tax to £581. Radio and aerial cost £28 10s extra. The Renault 4 costs £399, or £550 after tax has been paid.—WB.