The yellow Renault 4L shuddered to a halt, rolling back down the slope for a metre or two before someone remembered to pull the handbrake, via its umbrella-like handle. It was abidingly dark outside, on an autumn night in West Cork. We'd driven from our home in Schull to nearby Bantry, to go to a screening of The Jungle Book (the awesome Disney animated version) at what was then our nearest cinema. My grandmother was driving the car, which belonged to my mother. Her own Alfasud was in for a service (because of course it was) and so she had borrowed the Renault to bring us kids - I was about eight, I think, and my sister 12 - to the movies.
Looking at the wrong gauge
Sadly, on the mountain road across Barnagee, between Bantry and Ballydehob, Gran had made a mistake - quite unlike her, for she was a true, dyed-in-the-wool car nut. On the Renault's unfamiliar, to her, dashboard she'd been reading the battery ammeter, not the fuel gauge. And now we'd run out of juice...
It was relatively easily remedied. A short trudge to a nearby house, the borrowing of a telephone, and my dad made the journey out to us with a jerrycan of petrol, driving his work van. Still, it's the memory of our old family Renault 4L that's uppermost in my mind.
Many more memories of that car, and many others like it for many other people, will doubtless be surfacing this year, as the 4L hits its 60th birthday. Built as a Renault-badged riposte to the Citroen 2CV, the 4L never quite achieved the iconographic status of Citroen's snail, but it was the better car. In fact, with its upright, boxy shape and long-travel suspension, it was in many ways an early preview of the modern-day SUV. A sort of off-Broadway Captur, you might say.
More than eight-million 4Ls were sold, in 100 markets around the world, between the start of production in 1961, and the final one rolling off the lines in France in 1991. The 4L was, of course, built in Ireland too - at Renault's CKD factory in Wexford, just near Rosslare, and right next door to the Clover Meats factory. Legend has it that a majority of the 4Ls built in Ireland were painted yellow because the factory was sent a job-lot of yellow paint and never quite ran out of it... Incidentally, my dad once threatened to brush-paint our family car in a lurid metallic gold paint that he'd, somehow or other, gotten hold of, but was thankfully dissuaded from this by my mum. The petrol filler cap, a simple twist-off device sprouting from the rear wheelarch, did inevitably go missing, but we replaced that with a rubber bung. So did many other 4L drivers.
A series of 60th celebrations
Renault itself is going to mark the anniversary of one of its biggest-selling cars ever this year, with events and press releases on the 4th and 14th of every month in 2021. Among the celebrations will be special illustrations, created by graphic designer and leading sports illustrator Greg. More than a dozen exclusive 4L designs will be made, to represent the different eras that the iconic model was available on sale from the 60s through the 70s and 80s, ending in the 90s. These illustrations will be revealed throughout the year.
At 'L'Atelier Renault' - the brand's boutique combo of museum, showroom, and coffee shop on the Champs Elysee in Paris - there'll be a window display of a perfectly restored "Parisienne" version of the 4L, with its wicker-style trim on the bodysides. That will, rather romantically, go on display on the 14th of February.
In March, Renault Classic will show off a series of 12 original 4Ls, placed in various scenes almost like diorama models. In April, there will be a series of stop-motion animation videos, where online influencers tell us of their Renault 4L-coloured memories.
From May, a series of special 4L-themed products will go on sale at L'Atelier Renault and on Renault's online shop, while Renault will also launch a series of videos revealing the secrets of the 4L through different models in May. It will be an opportunity to hear from those who grew up with the 4L, collectors and also from the people from within Renault who have contributed to the history of the car.
In July, Renault will mark the 4L's many cinema starring roles (everyone remembers the waterfall scene in Romancing The Stone, right?) with an appearance at the Cannes Film Festival. Other events, including one for the 4L van (all of those who drove P&T vans in the 80s might get a bit misty-eyed at that...) in November.
On top of all that, there will be a new Renault 4L. Just as Renault has reinvented the gorgeous 5 for the electric era, so it will do the same for the 4L. The new car will, as with the reborn 5 and the current Zoe, use the Renault CMF-B EV, and it's likely - as with the original - to be upright and boxy in the manner of a small, but useful, crossover. Hopefully, Laurens van den Acker and Gilles Vidal - the men currently steering the Renault design department - will be able to create something as delightful and jewel-like as the recent electric 5 concept. Don't expect to see a production version on sale until 2025 at the earliest, though.
I have many more memories of that primrose-yellow 4L that was my mother's car. I remember it being the first car that I drove, sitting on my dad's knees while he worked the pedals and that push-me-pull-you gearshift. I remember sitting on the spare wheel, sliding around in the boot when the rest of the five seats were fully occupied. I remember our dog, Pete, leaning carefully against the bodyroll as we rounded corners, while our other dog, Cobber (somewhat less intelligent specimen) tumbled and sprawled as the soft suspension wilted against the cornering forces. I remember the intolerable pain of sitting on those black vinyl seats after they'd been baked on a hot, sunny day, and the jab of adrenaline as one of the first roundabouts in Cork exposed the body's lack of rigidity and the rear door flew open half-way round...
I'm sure many more of us will have memories of an equally golden status about the Renault 4L. And I, for one, can't wait to see what electric future Renault has in store for the badge, so that we can start making some fresh memories.