Renault 4CV

Renault 4CV
Renault 4CV
Renault 4CV

Total Production: 1,105,543 1946 - 1962
First sketches appeared during 1941 of what would eventually be a successful car with a rear-mounted engine. At the time Renault only produced commercial and military vehicles only on behalf of the German occupation forces exclusively. During the summer of 1940 Germans had successfully invaded France and now dominated the people. Louis Renault had been arrested by the Germans and had the option of either going to prison or putting the Renault Company at the service of the German war machine. Renault wisely chose to work with the German occupation forces along with around 40,000 employees in his company forcefully put to work in Germany.

Fernand Picard was a thirty-five-year Chief Developer that was left behind by the Germans. Hoping to have an edge on Renault's competitors once the war was over, Picard began to draw first plans for two new models. One model was a smaller family car that looked similar to the Volkswagen Beetle, while the other was the size of the popular Citroën Traction Avant. Charles-Edmond Serre and Fernand Picard envisioned a small, economical car suitable for the austere period following the war. Louis Renault though in contrast believed that Renault would need to focus on its traditional mid-range cars after the war.

The name 4CV refers to the French abbreviation, CV, for the French equivalent to 'horsepower' as a unit of power. The 4CV was four taxable horsepower at the time when a vehicle's horsepower was used as its tax classification. The 4CV's engine started on the test bank in February 1942 and proved to be as strong and sturdy as they had hoped. Jean-August Riolfo, head of the test department, was informed of the project early on, along with various other heads of the department. Louis Renault himself stumbled into an office in May of 1941 to discover Serre and Picard studying a mock-up for the car's engine. The vehicle received the code '106E' following an uncomfortable ad hoc meeting Renault's approval for the project. Since the Germans had forbidden work on any new passenger car models, the 4CV developed was delineated as a low priority spin-off from a project to develop a new engine for the Juvaquatre.

In April of '42 when people got their first glimpse of the little car, they were unimpressed with its two-door all-aluminum body. Critics claimed the 4CV was too high at the front and the rear was just 'ugly'. Renault went back to the design table and back to work improving the vehicle. In early January of 1943, an extensive test drive on the 4CV found the top speed of 52 miles at 5,200 rounds/m.

The German imposed General Manager of Renault Prince von Urach demanded that the test-drives to cease immediately. This angered Louis Renault who moved the prototype to his country estate in Herqueville. Unfortunately, Louis's wife and Charles Faroux, a motor journalist, were met with an accident, and further tests were put on hold. The development team worked on both the 4CV and the larger 11CV Primaquatre before Louis Renault decided following an extensive test drive that the 4CV's development should be halted and the attention solely focused on the larger saloon. Fernand Picard was not to be discouraged though and ignoring orders, he built a second 4CV prototype in secrecy.

Before Louis Renault died mysteriously on October 24, 1944, he was arrested and brought to the Fresnes prison to stand trial for treason. Pierre Lefaucheux was appointed as caretaker general. Billancourt's works were nearly destroyed and nearly 13,000 workers assisted in cleaning up the rubble. Picard continued on with his development of the 4CV and created a third prototype, this one with four doors.

The Germans signed their capitulation in May of 1945 and General De Gaulle had the Renault works nationalized and the first cars began to once again roll off the assembly lines. Pierre Lefaucheux decided it was time for the production of a new car, and then once he took the new 4CV for a spin, the rest was history. Compared to the larger 11CV the small car could be produced with much fewer materials have better mileage and cost less to maintain. Forty prototypes were produced by Picard for heavy testing in North Africa.

Starting its sensational career as an undercover operation, the Renault 4CV was debuted at the 33rd Paris Motor Show on October 3, 1946. Following France's liberation, the project rapidly picked up steam. Pierre Lefaucheux replaced Louis Renault as the CEO of the state-owned Régie Nationale des Usines Renault in March of 1945. Lefaucheux was excited about this affordable compact car and rolled up his sleeves to launch this model onto the market.

In August 12, 1947, the initial 4CV left the rebuilt Billancourt line and continued to be produced until July 1961. Offered in just one body style, just one color, and one engine, the French customers nonetheless were thrilled with the economical little roadster. The 4CV could carry four people comfortably and featured a flat floor pan created by the rear-mounted Ventoux engine in a rear-wheel-drive layout. A four-door sedan of monocoque constructions, the 4CV measured 11 feet 10 inches with front suicide doors.

This was the car that the French had been waiting for. The 4CV was large enough for an entire family, but featured easy handling and used a small amount of expensive fuel. It arrived on the scene in yellow, the same color that the Germans used to paint their lorries for the desert war in North Africa. So many drums were left following the war that all 4CV's sported this color in 1946 and 1947. The 4CV was produced in a variety of versions that ranged from the economical 'Service' model to the flashy convertible and sporty 1063 model.

The 4CV featured a 'dummy' grille that was made up of six thin horizontal chrome strips that were meant to distract the eye from the similarity of the car's appearance compared to the German Volkswagen. The car was meant to evoke the modern designs of the early 1940 front-engined Detroit passenger car.

Pioneered by Pierre Bézier, the 4CV featured innovative methodologies that made it an impressive car for the time. Bézier began his career as a Renault tool setter before gradually moving up to tool designer and eventually head of the Tool Design Office. In 1949 he designed the transfer lines (or transfer machines) as Director of Production Engineering and produced much of the mechanical pieces for the 4CV. The transfer machines were high-performance work tools that were designed to machine engine blocks. Bézier was imprisoned during WWII and while there he created and improved on the automatic machine principle which was introduced before the war by General Motors. Before robots, the new transfer stations with numerous workstations and electromagnetic heads help execute various operations on a single part to be consecutively performed by transferring the part from one station to another.

Renault was overwhelmed with orders for the 4CV and even a black market for the vehicle arose thanks to a hungry postwar country and more than two years of delivery wait time. Renault advertised that the hundreds of machine tools installed and innovative processes adopted for the assembly of the first high-volume car to be produced since the war. In 1949 more than 300 4CV's were produced on a daily basis. Five years later numbers rose to more than 500 a day being produced. The 4CV became Renault's most successful car and the numbers proved it as it broke a record for French vehicles, with a total of 1,105,547 units produced six years into the 4CV's production run. In 1950 23% of Germany's imported car sales came from the Renault 4CV, with a total of 1,760 cars sold in West Germany.

The 4CV was nicknamed 'La motte de beurre' or lump of butter. It was dubbed this due to its shape, and the fact that all of the early deliveries arrived in sand-yellow color paint. The 4CV would receive a more affectionate nickname later on, the 'quatre pattes' or four paws. Powering the compact little car was a 760 cc rear-mounted four-cylinder engine mated to a three-speed manual transmission. A 747 cc version of the 'Ventoux' engine that produced 17 hp replaced the 760 cc unit in 1950.

Power output rose to 21 hp as increased fuel octanes allowed for higher compression ratios which along with a low weight of the car, enabled manufacturers to report a top speed of 62 mph and 0-56 mph in 38 seconds. The 4CV's engine featured impressive elasticity and the second and top gear were usable for speeds between 3 and 62 mph while the absence of synchromesh on first gear would probably have discouraged the use of the bottom gear except when starting from rest. Steering could be highly geared due to the rear mounting of the engine while remaining relatively light. Only 2 ¼ turns were needed from lock to lock which may have appealed to some drivers, but road tests cautioned drivers of the sensitive handling on wet roads. Eventually from one extreme to another, the car switched to 4 ½ turns from lock to lock.

A stripped-down version of the 4CV dubbed the 'Renault 4CV Service' was introduced early on 1953. Completely devoid of anything even slightly considered luxury, the Service model featured simplified seats, reduced tire width, the dummy grille, and the chrome headlamp surround removed, and the number of bars in the steering wheel going from three to two. The vehicle was only offered in grey. With all of these modifications, the car was able to retail for less than 400,000 Francs. Unfortunately, sales weren't impressive and this version disappeared from showrooms after less than a year.

From the start, the 4CV proved to be a worthy competitor and achieved its first win on September 19, 1948, at Mont Ventoux. Following the 4CV's success, management approved the development for a sports version, the Renault 1063. This version achieved win after win from the Le Mans 24-hour event, to the Monte-Carlo rally from 1951 through 1954. The rear-powered 4CV proved to be in its natural domain as it dominated numerous rallies. The 1063 was incredibly easy to modify and even attracted small-scale vehicle converters like Jean Rédélé who used the 4CV as the foundation for his famous Alpine models. The partnership between the Alpine company and Renault would go on to win the World Rally Championship with the legendary Alpine A-110.

In fifteen years more than 1,150,500 4CV's were produced by Renault with more than the entire output of the Renault works amounted to in between 1898 and 1945. The run would have most likely been even longer had the eye-catching Dauphine not stolen the show. The Renault 4CV had been the only affordable four-door saloon before the introduction of the Dauphine. The 4CV remained in production until 1961, even though the Dauphine was introduced in 1956 as its direct replacement. The Renault 4, which used the same engine as the 4CV and sold for a similar price was in fact the true replacement.

Though most of the 4CV's were assembled at Renault's Île Seguin plant located in the river opposite Billancourt on an island, the car was also assembled in seven other countries. The 4CV replaced Renault's Juvaquatre in December 1949 at the Acton, West London factory where right-hand-drive 4CV's were assembled using mechanisms imported from France. The 4CV was also assembled in Belgium, Australia, England, Japan, Ireland, Spain, and South Africa.

FASA's Valladolid factory produced the 4CV in Spain from 1951 through 1961. Under license by Hino Motors, Ltd. the 4CV was manufactured in Japan as the rebadged Hino Renault 4CV. It was eventually replaced by the Hino Contessa while still utilizing the Renault powertrain. In Australia, the 4CV was at first marketed as the Renault 760 before becoming the Renault 750. The car was imported either fully assembled or CKD form with assembly undertaken in Sydney.

The Renault Fiftie was introduced in 1996 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 4CV's debut. A concept car, the Fiftie was a two-door, mid-engine design with a very comparable style to the 4CV.


By Jessica Donaldson