Renault planned on building a light commercial van based on the 4 hatchback since the car’s development began in the early 1950s. At the time, France was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War and companies big and small had an unquenchable thirst for affordable commercial vehicles.
Presented shortly after the 1961 Paris Motor Show, the fourgonnette – as it was called in France, a word that literally translates to “small van” – variant of the Renault 4 was billed as the successor to the aging Juvaquatre and aimed directly at the Citroën 2CV AZU, a popular van that was not without its fair share of shortcomings. The 4 van was identical to the hatchback upon which it was based from the front bumper to the B-pillar; Beyond that, it was fitted with boxy sheet metal that made it wider and taller than its passenger-carrying twin. A majority of 4 fourgonnettes came with welded-in windows but they could be ordered with sliding rear windows and a second row of seats at an extra cost.
The 4 van followed roughly the same evolutionary path as the hatchback. It got a new grille and a fourth gear in 1967, it gained front seatbelts and a 12-volt electrical system in 1970 and another new grille in 1974. Its engines were updated on a regular basis and a short-lived version with a higher roof appeared in 1971. While a lot of the different versions of the van look the same on the outside, they all carried a different internal designation.
A bigger and more powerful version of the 4 fourgonnette arrived in 1975. In addition to being eight inches longer, it was capable of carrying a maximum of 970 pounds (440 kilos), more than the smaller version’s rating of 771-pound (350 kilos). Two years later, the long version became known as the 4 F6 and the 16-year old short version was dubbed 4 F4. The names were not picked at random: The F stood for fourgonnette and the number corresponded to the car’s taxable horsepower rating.
Both 4 vans were widely successful throughout Europe and airports, postal services and a slew of smaller companies used them well into the 1990s. However, the arrival of the 5-based Express paired with an onslaught of more modern competitors such as the Citroën C15 eroded sales and F6 production ended in 1985. The F4 had a particularly loyal clientele and it was built until 1993 in Slovenia and Morocco, though it was removed from its native market market in 1988.
About our test car
The 4 F4 pictured below is a R2109 model that was delivered new on March 11th, 1981, at a small Renault dealership in Rognac, France. Its first owner was a blacksmith that used it to haul metal and occasionally to go hunting. He evidently didn’t take good care of it and it was already fairly beat up when he sold it in 1992. The second owner used it sparingly until he parked it several years ago. While not in great shape, it has been fairly well preserved and it still wears its French-spec yellow headlights and its black 1981-issue plates.
Here are some impressions that came to mind while making trips to the hardware store and hauling branches and other debris around.
- The vinyl seats are noticeably less supportive than the cloth ones in our 1985 4 hatchback.
- Being a 1981, this van still has the old-style dashboard with the rectangular speedometer and the turn signal stalk mounted on the right of the steering wheel. While it certainly looks outdated, it feels a lot more solid than the Renault 5-inspired dash that came standard starting in 1983 because it is made with less plastic.
- The small lockable storage compartment built into the rear floor is handy for carrying around tools and other items that would otherwise slide around the cargo area.
- It’s unfortunate that the F4 and F6 vans were not offered with twin doors like the 2CV-derived vans. That said, the optional hatch above the rear door makes the F4 one of the most practical vintage vans out there.
- With the engine delivering just 30 horsepower and 39 lb-ft. of torque, we’re not particularly tempted to exceed the 771-pound hauling capacity. It enables the car to keep up with modern traffic but it makes you think twice before passing.
- The side mirrors are surprisingly small for a car that has no rear windows
- The F4 van was arguably the most rudimentary version of the 4 available. This one is not even equipped with a cigarette lighter.
- You can load a wheelbarrow in the back by attaching a metal ramp to the tubular bumper – try doing that with a 2013 Kangoo.