1960 Renault 4CV. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
Following the Second World War, European countries started shipping their cars to North America to earn precious dollars. They began arriving in the late 1940s mostly from England and France. Others, including Germany, would soon follow.
The earliest French arrival was Renault, an established French manufacturer that had been building cars since 1898 and was well known in much of the world. Although some large Renaults had been sold in the United States early in the twentieth century, it was now virtually forgotten on this side of the Atlantic. The car that would start to change that was the diminutive 4CV (four taxable horsepower), also known as the “Regie.”
In spite of the war the design of the 4CV had been under development since 1941. Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the Volkswagen, even provided technical advice after the war when he was incarcerated in a French prison on trumped up war crimes charges. Louis Renault had also been imprisoned as a Nazi collaborator during the war, and had died in prison.
4CV prototype testing began in 1946 and the new post-war Renault 4CV was introduced at the 1947 Paris Auto Show. It began arriving on our shores in 1949, and what greeted North Americans was a tiny four-door sedan (a convertible was also offered) with its front doors hinged at the rear, “suicide” style. It was powered by an overhead valve, four-cylinder, inline engine.
Because Louis Renault had been influenced by Porsche’s rear-engine Volkswagen design of the 1930s, Renault had the 4CV’s engine mounted longitudinally behind the rear axle. It initially had 760 cc, but was decreased a few years later to 747, which brought it within the 750 cc racing class.
Power went to the rear wheels through a three-speed manual transmission with a floor-mounted shift lever. The suspension was independent on all four wheels using coil springs, with swing axles at the rear. Hydraulic brakes were fitted and the steering was by rack-and-pinion. Instead of the 12-volt electrical system found in English cars, the 4CV had six volts.
Unlike the air-cooled Volkswagen, the 4CV’s engine was water cooled and air for the radiator entered through small slots just ahead of the rear fenders. There were additional louvres on the engine cover, and the external radiator cap was located just below the rear window. The fuel filler for the 26.5-litre tank was under the engine cover.
The Renault’s rear engine was quite a novelty in North America. The Volkswagen Beetle had not yet arrived in any numbers in the U.S., and not in Canada at all, and the idea of placing the engine in the rear brought back memories of the ill fated Tucker car. But little attention seemed to be paid to weight distribution or oversteer back then, and in fact the rear engine gave the Renault good traction in snow.
It would take the German Volkswagen to really legitimize rear engines in the minds of drivers, and rear engines would go on to become popular for a number of years. General Motors would even try it in the star-crossed 1960-’69 Chevrolet Corvair, but no other American manufacture was tempted.
Although the 4CV had four doors it was a snug little cabin. A 2,108 mm (83 in.) wheelbase and an overall length of 3,581 mm (141 in.) didn’t provide much interior accommodation, or trunk space under the short front hood. When Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine tested a 4CV in February, 1952 the biggest complaint from the burly 6 foot 1 inch (1,854 mm), 250 lb (113 kg) Mr. McCahill was the lack of room, as he said, “if you happen to be one olive pit above average size.” His main beef was the limited front foot room caused by the intrusion of the wheel wells.
McCahill found the Renault’s performance modest. The 23 horsepower engine would push the 544 kg (1,200 lb) convertible that he tested from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 38 seconds and reach a top speed of 105 km/h (65 mph). This was comparable performance to the English Morris Minors and Volkswagen Beetles that would soon start arriving in numbers. Fuel economy was the biggest attraction with up to 50 miles per gallon (5.6 L/100 km) achievable.
The 4CV was joined by the Dauphine model in 1956. It was based on 4CV mechanicals, and while still small by North America standards, was much more suitable to our tastes and driving. It was a very attractive little car with modern, full envelope type styling, and the enlarged 845-cc, 30 horsepower engine gave it better performance.
The Renault 4CV was continued in production until 1961, by which time a million had been made, including some that were assembled in England. Versions were also made in Japan. It had been a popular car in Europe, particularly France where it was a favourite, but its small size made it only marginally suitable for North American motoring.
The 4CV was a handy, economical little runabout suitable for running errands or commuting. Although it re-introduced the Renault name to North America, it would never achieve anything like the popularity of the German Volkswagen Beetle.