Rare car: a vintage straight-eight Renault

When I heard that a straight-eight Renault was to be found in this country I thought that it might offer material for another White Elephant safari.

Contact was made and one foggy January morning I pointed a Range Rover up the M1, heading for the abode of this rare Renault. Soon we came to a halt as a result of the inevitable Motorway shunt but the mile-long traffic tangle was sorted out eventually and I duly arrived at the intended destination.

Although I had hoped that the car I was about to drive would be one of the big 7.1-litre 90 x 140-mm. Reinastellas, the two-seater with which I was confronted had the more modest dimensions of the Nervastella, which model the maker’s identification plate under the bonnet proclaimed it to be. So, unless the engine had at some time been changed, what I had unearthed was a 1930 75 x 120-mm. (4,240-c.c.) 27.9-h.p. Renault Nervastella, still a very unusual encounter but not big enough to rank as a true white elephant, which by my standards should exceed 5-litres. A baby white elephant, perhaps?*

By 1929 Renault Frères of Billancourt realised that at last their great 9.1-litre six-cylinder 45, with its Edwardian characteristics of paired cylinders, priming taps, valve caps, wooden wheels and scuttle radiator was out-dated, even if, in single-seater saloon form, it had been, in 1926, the first car to exceed 100 m.p.h. for 24 hours—see Motor Sport for March, 1965.

To replace this astonishing luxury car, the biggest-engined vintage car in series production, the autocratic Louis Renault ordered a new range of straight-eight automobiles, and also endorsed his new quality-models with the “stella” or star nomenclature and badge. Not only that, but he finally resorted to a radiator in the conventional place at the nose of the chassis, after a dashboard cooler, albeit hidden by the scuttle from 1922 onwards, had been the Billancourt trademark for over 30 years.

The first of the notable new Renault models to have this innovation, using frontal slats to conceal the change of face, was the 7.1-litre eight-cylinder Reinastella, another great luxury car. It was an imposing chassis, priced at £1,550, but like its six-cylinder predecessor, the Reinastella eschewing anything so modern as overhead valves. By 1928 10% of the cars on the British market had eight-cvlinder engines. By 1929 the number of eights had risen to 14% of the total, and by the end of the vintage era the figure was 18% increasing to over 20% by 1931. So Renault was merely following the fashionable trend in using such a power unit for the larger of his new top-class models, all the luxury examples of which were identified by a “stella”, or star, nomenclature.

The resemblance of these revised Renaults to then-current Chrysler models may be remarked, and in design details also the post-1928 Renaults appear to have had some superficial relationship with this American make—there is always fresh motoring history to unravel and someone might well pursue the possibility of Chrysler influence at the Paris plant…. The fact remains that in frontal aspect, the line of its front mudguards and the use of a s.v. straight-eight engine and 3-speed transmission, these new models appear to have been inspired by the methods of Detroit.

In due time the smaller of the new Renault eights, the Nervastella, like the 45 before it, left its mark in the competition archives, a Nervasport aerodynamic coupé averaging nearly 102 m.p.h. for 5,000 miles in 1934 to take the 48-hour record, and a more normal coupé winning the following year’s Monte Carlo Rally, driven by Lahaye and Quatresous, followed by the Liége-Rome-Liége.

The Renault I had come to see was coaxed into motion. It is a Harrington two-seater, first registered in Inverness, and presumably imported as a chassis. It was discovered in Newcastle, looking rather sorry for itself, but has been repainted and generally smartened up. The sleek black bonnet is balanced by a high tail, which comes to a reluctant point and in which, had the decked top been removed, two extra passengers, presumably intimate as well as slim, could have been accommodated.

The bonnet opens conventionally, after some contortions to manoeuvre it round the side-mounted spare wheels and scuttle-located sidelamps and the placing of duster to prevent its ill-contrived panels scratching the paintwork when it is propped open, revealing the very long but otherwise uninspiring engine, which is set well forward close behind the disguised radiator. The latter, in its Chrysler-like cowling, is concealed behind no fewer than 40 horizontal shutters, painted to match the rest of the car and divided by the vee of the cowl. These shutters are thermostatically-controlled from the cooling system, with no hand over-ride control, and they gave the traditional Renault frontal aspect, which presumably appeased Billancourt over its sudden change of face. Incidentally, even with a front-mounted radiator Renault retained air-extractor vanes on the flywheel at the back of the engine, these being clearly visible on this car.

The engine is a straight-forward side-valve unit, with the dynamo and water pump in tandem, driven from the timing gears, at the front, on the off-side. A square-section quill-shaft couples the dynamo to the water pump, probably contrived so that should the pump freeze up the drive will shear before any damage is done. There is the usual, vintage-type, sump drain-tap operable while standing beside the car, the starter also occupies the o/s, and both it and the dynamo are of Renault manufacture. Going round to the near-side of this lengthy engine, I was confronted by the “plumbing”. A small-diameter tubular inlet manifold is topped by a large and agricultural-looking, square-section exhaust manifold, which has a front off-take and, in the centre, a substantial heater-box or hot-spot engulfing the inlet piping. The updraught carburetter nestles below this hot-box, and on the upper lace of the exhaust manifold the timing order is just discernible—1, 6, 2, 5, 8, 3, 7, 4.

Ignition is by coil, the distributor rising from the cylinder head to spoil the otherwise uncluttered appearance of this box-like engine. The original being unserviceable, it has been replaced by an eight-cylinder Lucas distributor, retaining twin points for peace of mind, although one set would have sufficed. The wiring here is rather untidy but the vacuum control has been discarded and the original hand advance and retard control adapted. The oil-radiator has also been deleted but the chassis retains its one-shot lubrication system.

The engine drives via a plate clutch to a 3-speed and reverse gearbox and thence by torque-tube enclosed shaft to a spiral-bevel back axle. Suspension is by 1/2-elliptic springs at the front but the back of the car is supported by Renault’s individualistic cantilever and splayed 1/4-elliptic layout, the shock-absorbers being lever-type hydraulic.

The Americanisation extends to the bumpers and the disc wheels with their small flat nave-plates, but the radiator shell proudly wears the small diamond badge which is still Renault’s hall-mark, and a small five-pointed star indicates that this is a superior “stella” model. Reverting for a moment to the under-bonnet features, although one hardly supposes that this was a car likely to be bought by owner-drivers, the designer obviously wanted to be helpful, even to mere menials and chauffeurs, because behind the top water off-take hose there is a big pipe, perhaps eight inches tall, topped by a brass screwcap, to enable the cooling system to be readily replenished in spite of the absence of a radiator filler cap or header-tank orifice, while from the water pump on the opposite side a really long screw-down gland greaser extends. An absurdly small klaxon horn graces the bulkhead, for the electrics are said to be 6-volt, although all the specification sheets I have consulted quote 12 volts for these cars….

This unusual Renault is shod with a mixture of tyres, reminder that 20-in. covers are now difficult to find. Both front wheels wear 5.00 x 20 Dunlop Super Taxicords. The o/s back wheel has a Goodyear de luxe all-weather, its opposite number an English Michelin 4.50/4.75/5.00 x 20 tyre. The spare wheels, mounted on girder-like carriers, have, on the o/s an Avon, on the n/s a 15 x 50 English Michelin perhaps re-treaded. Originally, it seems, the Reinastellas had 30-in. tyres, of different section front and back, another Renault individuality!

It was time to see how a straight-eight Renault motors and, the engine having been warmed up, I entered under the new hood and took my place on the bench seat, on the original leather upholstery, slightly torn. There are oval, openwork steps, bearing the coachbuilder’s initial, for getting up, either into the front compartment or the high-sided dickey-seat. Before the driver the enormous five-spoke steering wheel all but obliterates forward vision. It is so high-set that, lacking an additional cushion, I had to look through gaps between the spokes. I am of average height but, craning my neck, I could only just see over the top of its rim and was glad to sink to a more comfortable posture.

That apart, the controls were highly civilised, for a vintage car, and consequently very dull. The slender, ball-gate gear-lever is in the centre, with a hand-brake, topped by a big release-button, just to the right of it. To say the gear-lever is long would be an understatement. It comes up alongside the steering wheel, some three feet of it or more, and the hand-brake is nearly as tall. The owner had only once driven this Renault, and left it to me to discover the gear locations. Unexpectedly, they are: 1/R-3/2. The clutch took up the drive smoothly, the engine rumbled reassuringly, and we were off.

Mindful of the 4-speed sports Reinastella model, and remembering that a team of these had been entered by the factory for the 1930 Ulster TT, only to be withdrawn alter their test-driver, Alan Garfield, had been killed while unofficially practising some considerable time prior to the race, I believe in Comber village, I had hoped to get this big motor car up into the exciting sixties or seventies. Alas, I was asked not to extend it beyond 35 to 40 m.p.h. to which pace it accelerated powerfully, as it was still being run-in.

Looking as best I could past the intrusion of the steering wheel, through a screen provided with side glasses and a tinted vizor, the latter not needed in the fog, I discovered that this 1930 car steered well, the action quite light, but it was literally a handful on corners, for no doubt to overcome the effect of having so much engine weight over the front wheels, the ratio of the small, mediocre-looking steering-box is abnormally low, so that the steering wheel, in spite of its leverage, needs nearly 3 3/4 turns from lock-to-lock.*

The gears feel just like those of an American automobile and, try as I might, double-declutching up and down, or just shifting as rapidly as possible, I could not overcome a mild grating as the cogs meshed. The big engine, however, pulls reassurringly in top gear. The brakes are interesting, being operated by a small, gearbox-driven mechanical-servo; there was plenty under the pedal from the modest gait at which I drove. The accelerator is placed conventionally and on the brake and clutch pedals the Renault “diamonds” are visible still, so possibly, although it seems impossible, the total indicated mileage of 21,355 is correct. Two tiny round pedals on the floor, to the left of the clutch, start the engine and oil the chassis, respectively. In the steering-wheel boss are three flush-fitting rings, the outer working the choke (marche/depart the centre ring, from which protruded a long lever, the advance and retard, the inner ring the allumage. These controls were rod-operated under the bonnet. Twin screen-wipers were driven by a n/s Bosch motor.

The small polished-steel instrument panel tries to conform to the Billancourt diamond motif but the points were axed at the ends by the original stylist. It carried, from I. to r., two blanks, where a fuel gauge and clock should have been, a central 80-m.p.h. Jaeger speedometer, a modern Lucas ignition/lamps switch and a Jaeger ammeter. Outboard of the panel on the right was the huilegauge, calibrated 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 30, and reading “3”. At the ends of the wood facia were small lidded cubby-holes, and on the pillar of the driver’s door a horn-push. Interesting details include a battery box beside the bonnet on the n/s, five-stud wheels, elaborately mounted and braced Par Paire AB.TP 98 headlamps, unusual-section front mudguards, waterproof covers on the eight plugs, and a tube, not honeycomb, radiator.

The back view is rather ugly and as there is no luggage grid, any luggage would have to go in the tail, turning the Renault into a monstrous two-seater. The fuel filler, of modest size, is on the o/s of the tail and there are Rubbolite rear lamps.

As the fog thickened I drove this unique motor car, surely the only eight-cylinder Renault in captivity in this country, back to its quarters, the surrounding citizens, in their little mobile boxes, regarding it askance, the more so because, thinking that the engine was running somewhat fast, I had, as I thought, closed the hand-throttle, moving it down to depart, which in fact closed the choke, causing us to emit clouds of black smoke.

The Renault is No. 452557 and a plate on its bulkhead says it is a Type TG. The Reinastellas were in production from 1929 to 1932, as the RM series, the TG’s being the smaller 75 x 120-mm. Nervastella cars which preceded the ZC and D series 80 x 120-mm. (4,825-c.c.) and 85 x 120-mm. (5,448-c.c.) straight-eight Renaults.

Anyway, if you feel like becoming a mahout, this unique Renault baby white-elephant is (or was) for sale, at about the same price as that of the Range Rover in which I began this particular safari.—W. B.

*This raises another matter for historians. Why was the Reinastella so much more expensive than the Nervastella, which was of almost identical design except for the different bore and stroke? Either, it would seem, the former was over-priced, or else the latter was sold at a low or minus profit to promote the new straight-eights, which, as multi-cylinder engines wer fashionable by 1930, should not have been necessary.—Ed.

*It appears that Garfield was fatally injured when he swerved to avoid a cart which emerged in his path, his passenger, Charles de Wilde, younger brother of H.R. de Wilde, then-Managing Director of Renault Ltd. in this country, receiving serious head injuries. Could the combination of low-geared steering and transverse rear suspension have contributed to this unfortunate accident?—Ed.