The car was launched at a time when several decades of economic stagnation were giving way to growing prosperity and surging car ownership in France. The first million cars were produced by 1 February 1966, less than four and a half years after launch, a commercial success for Renault because of the timing of its introduction and the merits of its design. It was exceptionally spacious for its size, and although regarded as a small estate car when launched, it is now seen as the first hatchback family car. Along with the Renault 16, it pioneered the popularization to the European private motorist of the hatchback during the 1960s. The only car to pre-date its front-wheel drive and top-hinged hatchback, was the 1954 Citroën Traction Avant Commerciale, which was marketed at commercial travelling salesmen.
Origins and strategy
The Renault 4 was Renault's response to the 1948 Citroën 2CV. Renault was able to review the advantages and disadvantages of the 2CV design and come up with a larger, more urban vehicle. In early 1956, Renault Chairman Pierre Dreyfus launched this new project: designing a new model to replace the rear engined 4CV that would become an everyman's car, capable of satisfying the needs of anybody. It would be a family car, a woman's car, a farmer's car, a city car.
Launch of the R3 and R4
Renault launched the Renault R3 and the Renault R4 simultaneously in July 1961. The cars shared the same body and most mechanical components, but the R3 was powered by a 603 cc version of the engine while the engine capacity of the R4 was 747 cc. This placed the R3 in the 3CV taxation class while the R4 found itself in the 4CV taxation class. Actual maximum power output was claimed by Renault as 22.5 hp for the R3, and 26.5 or 32 hp for the R4, depending on price level and the type of carburettor fitted. Initially the base versions of the R3 and R4 came with a thick C-pillar behind each of the rear doors although for a 400 franc supplement over the price of the basic R4 buyers could specify a body with the C-pillar filled by a third side window which increased the weight but which soon became standard for all R4s.
The R3 and R4 were targeted unashamedly at the aging Citroën 2CV which famously employed soft springing coupled with very long spring travel to soak up the bumps on poorly maintained country lanes. The new Renaults applied the same approach, which was a novelty for a Renault, and two of the cars appeared at the Paris Motor Show in 1961 mounted on a rolling road enhanced by vertical motion to simulate roads that oscillated at rates consistent with the cars’ suspension settings. As visitors to the exhibition queued to experience the ride they could watch the cars retaining their level pitch while the wheels furiously bounced up and down following the rhythms of the enhanced rolling road. The display had its desired effect since early in 1962 Renault repeated it at the Turin Motor Show. The basic version of the R3 was priced just 40 francs below the lowest priced version of the Citroën 2CV in 1961. The basic R3 was very basic, with painted bumpers and grill on the outside, the simplest possible instrument pod facing the driver along with a single sun visor, no windshield washer, and on the interior, no door panels. This basic trim was also offered in the more powerful R4. The R4L with six side windows, chrome coloured bumper and grill, and less aggressively Spartan interior trimmings cost 400 francs (roughly 8%) more than the R4 with its four side windows. Where both R3 and R4 came with the same very basic level of trim the more powerful R4 cost less than 4% above the price of the R3 which seems for most customers to have been too small a difference to justify the purchase of an R3. Similar as the Renault 4CV “Service” in 1953, customers shunned the basic model and in October 1962, the Renault R3 was discontinued.
A "super" version (branded "de luxe" in some export markets) with opening rear quarter-light windows and extra trimmings was also offered. De luxe and super versions of the R4L received a version of the engine from the Renault Dauphine giving them a four-cylinder engine capacity of 845 cc. After the withdrawal of the 603 cc engined R3, the 747 cc R4 model continued to be listed with an entry level recommended retail price, but it was mostly the slightly larger-engined L versions that found their way into customers' hands. By 1965 Renault had removed the extra "R" from their model names: the Renault R4L had become the Renault 4L.
Early versions of the Renault R4 used engines and transmissions from the Renault 4CV. The original design brief called for an engine size between 600 cc and 700 cc but there was no consensus as to whether to use a four-cylinder unit or to follow Citroën with a two-cylinder unit. With Volkswagen now rapidly growing their market share across Europe and North America, Renault also gave serious consideration to an air-cooled boxer motor option for the forthcoming R3/R4. Using the existing water-cooled unit from the 4CV was a solution, especially in view of the extended period of teething troubles encountered by the Renault Fregate, which had followed Renault’s last attempt to develop an ambitiously innovative powerplant. The powerplant of the 4CV was larger than that specified by management for the new model, but Renault addressed this by reducing the bore so that the overall capacity of the power plant destined for the new R3 came in at 603 cc, comfortably at the lower end of the required 600–700 cc range. However, since they already had the 747 cc version of the engine on the shelf, well proven in the 4CV, it made sense to use this as well in what would in many respects be the older car’s successor. Therefore in 1961 the R3 emerged with cylinder bore and stroke set at 49 mm × 80 mm while the R4 was launched with the 54.5 mm × 80 mm cylinder dimensions from the existing engine, rise to the 603 cc and 747 cc engine sizes with which the cars were launched.
Moving the engine from the back of the 4CV to the front of the new model nevertheless involved significant planning: design changes to the unit were introduced as part of the process. The inlet manifold was now a steel casting whereas on the 4CV it had been constructed of a light-weight alloy: this was driven by cost considerations now that aluminium was not so inexpensive as it had been fifteen years earlier. Renault also took the opportunity to introduce a feature which subsequently became mainstream but which at this stage was not on the agenda of competitor manufacturers (other than Peugeot). For the new car Renault designed a “sealed-for-life” cooling system, supported by a small expansion tank on the extreme right side of the engine bay. The cooling system contained a type and quantity of anti-freeze intended to enable operation without topping up or other intervention throughout a car’s life provided ambient temperatures below minus 40 degrees were avoided.
The engines were larger than the small 425 cc (later 602 cc 29 hp), engines in the 2CV. The R4 always had a four-cylinder watercooled engine. The original Renault R4’s engine capacity of 747 cc served to differentiate the model from the more powerful Renault Dauphine, but the Dauphine’s 845 cc engine was used in the 4 itself from 1963 onwards: for most markets at this stage the Dauphine engine now came as standard in the top of the range Renault R4 Super, and was available in some other versions only as an optional extra. Given that Renault’s 603 cc, 747 cc and 845 cc engines all shared the same cylinder stroke and were all of the same basic design, it is likely that there was very little difference between the manufacturing costs of the basic engine block between the three. From the perspective of the sales and marketing department, they did fall within different taxation classes (respectively 3CV, 4CV and 5CV) but at this end of the market tax level differences were by now less of an issue even in those European countries that still taxed cars according to engine size.
With time, the increasing trend to production of Renault 4s in a wide range of countries reduces the validity of generalised statements as to which engines were fitted when: in French built cars the old 845 cc engine soldiered on in the more lowly versions until the mid 1980s, but in 1978 the top end Renault 4 GTLs received the new 1108 cc engine: this engine was no longer new to Renault, however, being the five-bearing “Sierra” engine, first installed in the Estafette van and R8 in the summer of 1962. A smaller version (956 cc) of this new engine replaced the by now venerable 845 cc engine in the 4 in 1986. Unlike the original "Billancourt" engine from the 4CV, Renault's “Sierra” engine rotated in a clockwise direction, so fitting it required reversing the direction of the differential in the gear box in order to avoid producing a car with one forward speed and four reverse speeds.
The initial transmission was a three-speed manual, described by one critic as an obsolete feature when compared to the four-speed manual of the thirteen-year-old Citroën 2CV. Ironically the new Renault 4 did not inherit its transmission from the Renault 4CV nor from anyone else: the transmission was newly developed for the car. The dash-mounted gear lever was linked via a straight horizontal rod that passed over the longitudinally mounted engine and clutch directly to the gearbox right at the front. The resulting absence of any linkage at floor level permitted a flat floor across the full width of the car's cabin. Synchromesh featured only on the top two ratios, even though the low power of the engine required frequent gear changes by any driver using normal roads and wishing to make reasonable progress. On this point Renault quickly acknowledged their error and cars produced from 1962 featured synchromesh on all three ratios. In 1968 the Renault 4 finally received a four-speed transmission.
Structure and running gear
The three principal new models introduced by Renault since the war had all featured monocoque "chassisless" construction which was believed to save cost in the manufacturing process and to cut running costs by reducing vehicle weight. The Renault R3/R4 design defied this by now widely accepted mantra, employing a separate platform to which the body shell was then attached. The body's structural role in maintaining the overall rigidity of the car body was thereby reduced, placing less stress on the roof and allowing for thinner window pillars. Although the use made of a separate platform resembled, in some respects, the use that pre-war designs would have made of a chassis, the outcome was a structure described as semi-monocoque, and it would later allow Renault to use the R4 platform, with very little modification, to build new models such as the Renault 6 and Rodeo. (Later, the successful Renault 5 used the R4 running gear but in a monocoque shell).
The R3 and R4 had four-wheel torsion-bar independent suspension. This was an innovation which would be copied on a succession of subsequent front-engined Renaults introduced during the 1960s and 70s.
The car features a shorter wheelbase on the left than on the right because the rear wheels are not mounted directly opposite one another. This concept allowed a very simple design of the rear suspension using transverse torsion bars located one behind the other without affecting handling. The front torsion bars were longitudinal. Dampening was contributed by the provision of hydraulic telescopic shock absorbers on all four wheels. Those at the rear were mounted virtually horizontally which avoided the intrusion of rear suspension componentry into the flat floored passenger cabin.
The longitudinal layout of the front-wheel drive engine and transmission with engine behind the front axle, and gearbox/differential in front is identical to the Citroën Traction Avant. The suspension is also very similar, the only difference, being the deletion of the Citroën's flexible beam between the rear wheels, to give the Renault 4 fully independent rear suspension. This is ironic as Louis Renault, the company's founder had been the harshest critic of the Traction at the time of its launch in the 1930s.
Though the Renault 4 had a long production run, development of the design was limited – it never changed size or shape. Exterior chrome trim was eventually phased out on all models and aluminium grilles were replaced with plastic items. There were three different dashboards, all of which were simple in design. On the right side of the car at the back the position of the fuel filler was raised by approximately 15 cm (6 inches) less than a year after the car's launch, presumably for safety reasons, but apart from this changes to the body panels amounted to nothing more than a slightly altered hood and hinge alterations.
Despite the success of the Renault 4, or perhaps as a result of it, Renault directed a lot of effort into developing its small cars. They designed the Renault 6 and the Renault 5 while the Renault 4 was still selling extremely well. Some criticised this at the time, but the Renault 5 competed in a different sector (three- and five-door supermini). The Renault 4 is thus a bridge between the small utility vehicle (2CV) and the supermini design (R5, Peugeot 205).
The Renault 4 remained a basic car throughout its life, nonetheless offering a comfortable ride, due to well-designed suspension, comfortable seats, powerful heater and effective ventilation. Windows used sliding mechanisms.
There were many different 'special edition' Renault 4s. Some (including the Safari, Sixties and Jogging) were sold in special colour schemes, upholstery and other details, while others (Clan, Savane) were standard models with special decals.
There were also special models which were not solely a marketing exercise, such as the Renault 4 Sinpar 4x4, the Plein Air, a pickup truck, LPG versions and electric versions.
In 1978, the R4 GTL arrived. It had the 1108 cc engine from the Renault 6 TL, albeit with the performance reduced for better economy, and bigger drum brakes. The GTL was identifiable by its grey front grille, grey bumpers, and grey rubber strips along the bottoms of the doors. It also had an extra air intake below the front grille (as a result, the registration plate was moved down to the bumper), and 12 inch (304.8 mm) wiper blades instead of the original 10 inch (254 mm) ones. A year later, the GTL got front disc brakes (the handbrake now working on the rear wheels) then a year later (1980) the handbrake lever was moved to the floor, there was a modified dashboard and cloth seats.
There was also a panel van (Fourgonette) version of the R4, which with its "high cube" bodyshell and the unique 'giraffon' (giraffe hatch) at the rear became the idiosyncratic French "Boulangerie" van. For many years, this was surely the most successful vehicle of its type and for many people it represents their idea of a Renault 4 more than the passenger version. It remained on sale in Europe until 1993 and was replaced by the Renault Express (called Extra in UK and Ireland, Rapid in Germany), which was based on the second generation Renault 5 'Supercinq'.