Based on childhood memories, in the UK the R4 became the preferred wheels of choice for local vicars and geography teachers, though with a less ‘tree hugging’ and Green Peace image than the 2CV. It was also a less discerning choice, not so admired by driving enthusiasts and those ‘in the know’, with no cult following and dedicated R4 owners clubs, unlike the charismatic Citroën. This was evidenced by RHD British R4 imports stopping some years ahead of sales of the model in other European markets.
The R4 grew out of Renault’s minimal motoring Project 350 of 1958, this gawky-looking five-door prototype being refined down to the Project 112 of 1961, which became the R4. In the late 1950s, Pierre Dreyfus, the contemporary boss of Renault, recognised the transformations of French society and wanted to replace the 4CV with a more versatile, hard-wearing and inexpensive car as comfortable in town as in the countryside, much like the Citroën 2CV.
At its debut 60 years ago, the new entry Renault model was presented in its simplest and most basic form, the R3, lacking any chrome embellishments initially, or rear quarter side glass in order to achieve the lowest possible price of 350,000 French francs (the equivalent of around just £4,900 today). The first post-war Renault model to use a number rather than a name, the affordable entry R3 was supplemented by then costlier R4 and ‘luxury’ R4L, which included glazed rear side windows, plus a beefier 747cc, 32PS (24kW) motor.
The model’s other engine was initially taken from the out-going 4CV, with the R3 using a 603cc, 23PS (17kW) motor, then Renault’s later ‘Sierra’ motors as 845cc, 956cc, and 1,108cc derivatives, with useful Fourgonette vans, pick-up, beach cars and ACL (later Teihol)-built Rodeo ‘jeeps’ to tackle the dominant Citroën Mehari.
Just like its 2CV inspiration, over its 33-year career, Renault made very few mechanical or styling changes to the R4, with just an occasional facelift to the model’s front (with different grills from 1961-‘67, ‘’67-74, ‘74-‘78, and ‘78 onwards), plus updated bumpers and instrument panels, with a four-speed ‘box replacing the initial three-speed manual-only at first from 1968 (the 2CV always benefitting from four forward gears). The very last run out edition R4 were sold in France as the ‘Bye Bye’ with the final versions of the car built in the former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia) in 1994.