1st June 2020

The Renault 4 and the birth of the hatchback

With the introduction of the Renault 4, the French manufacturer wanted to eclipse the achievement of its rival Citroen and the 2CV and produce a car that would set the tone for a new generation. Whether you agree or not, it’s hard not to be impressed by the fact that more than eight million were produced over 31 years, and it gave birth to a whole new type of car.

Say hello to the idea of a hatchback.

Undeniably Gallic, the Renault 4 was introduced in 1961, a full 13 years after Citroen’s deux chevaux. It was designed to reflect how France, and the rest of the world, was changing. While Citroen’s iconic car was intended to wean farmers and rural residents off the horse and cart, Renault wanted to give people the power to travel to in more style and comfort.

By the late 1950s the economy was growing quickly, people had more money and wanted to spend more time enjoying life. The Renault was conceived as a car for everyone - a fun and fashionable (yet highly effective) mode of transport that could handle town and country as well the fast autoroutes that were starting to appear.

Renault’s desire to better the 2CV didn’t mean that it ignored some of the older car’s strengths. This included front-wheel drive and rack-and-pinion steering, but the addition of long-travel, fully-independent suspension ensured that it handled well and coped with poor quality roads. The big plus point, however, was the engine: a water-cooled, in-line four-cylinder unit that was a world away from the Citroen’s weedy air-cooled, two-cylinder affair.

From launch, the car was available with two sizes of engine: 0.6-litre and 0.75-litre. The first (technically sold as the Renault 3) fell into a lower class of vehicle tax, while the larger engine could produce up to 32bhp.

The new model quickly proved a hit, with buyers appreciating the cabin space, achieved through some clever design decisions, and the sizable boot. The term hatchback didn’t really exist before the Renault 4, and although it was originally described as an estate it’s now considered the inception of the classic two-box hatchback design we know and love today.

The car found international fame, too, and was sold around the world under a variety of names. Renault often partnered with other manufacturers, so versions were produced in factories from Finland to Argentina.

Despite being a child of the Sixties, the Renault was popular enough to stay in production until 1992. By that time, it really was feeling its age, sales had waned, and the era of modern car safety legislation had arrived. However, over its four decades, the basic design of the car hadn’t changed, and it had retained its distinctive shape.

Ultimately, you could argue whether the Citroen 2CV or the Renault 4 are the more important car until the cows come home, but the Renault 4 really was the first million-selling, mass-produced, compact two-box design car the world had seen.

Which car do you think is the more important, the Citroen 2CV or the Renault 4? Let us know in the comments section below.