1980s / French / Personal car / Quick drive / Renault

A quick drive in a 1981 Renault 4 F4

1981-renault-4-f4-vehicle-passportRenault 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.

16 thoughts on “A quick drive in a 1981 Renault 4 F4

  1. I have neither need nor money for a Renault 4 F4, but somehow I feel a longing for this little car. Strange. 🙂

    BTW: What is the BRAKE switch in the dashboard?

  2. The brake switch is actually a warning light that turns on when the brake fluid level is too low or when the master cylinder is dead. It takes the form of a switch so that the driver can flick it and easily whether or not the lightbulb still works.

    These cars are not particularly expensive to own, believe me, if they were I wouldn’t have one. I insured it as a historic vehicle and it costs next to nothing.

    • Hello Ronan, I was interested in your comments re R4 F4 – I have just completely rebuilt a french fourgonette, now MOTd but am having a time of it trying to get insurance for less than 480 per year. Because the 782cc engine is not standard here its not listed for most insurers…dont suppose you remember who you insured with? Grateful for any advice, Martin.

      • Hey, I can’t help you out because I’m in France, sorry.

        Have you heard of the website Autoshite? There are a couple of Renault owners who regularly post on it, they will probably be able to give you an answer.

  3. Oh yeah, I believe that the F4 is not particularly expensive to own and maintain, but I already have one vehicle that is keeping my hands full and pockets empty.

    At the moment I have a Mercedes 308D transporter, in its previous life a former German Postal Service van called “Postkoffer”, that I am trying to build into an Motorhome. While the 308D is not particularly intensive nor expensive to maintain, it does take up more time and more money than I have at the moment. This will change (one way or the other) and I will either find more time and allocate more money for it, or I will sell it in the summer.

    Let’s see.

      • It is a 1994 bulky one, internal name T1. It was the last year (or last but one) before the Sprinter (T1N).

        The postal service had them outfitted (by Mercedes) with an 4-speed automatic transmission from the W124. The T1 was available with an automatic, but somehow the postal service wanted something different. The even had the automatic gear leaver of the T1 (which was located besides the parking brake, on the right side of the driver) replaced with push-button controls taken from an bus.

        The van has only 82 horses and while it can run 120 km/h down hill, I have sometimes trouble getting up the hills on the autobahn and not being an obstacle for trucks. But I feel like a captain of the street.

        The original design of the T1 is from the seventies and it introduced one or the other of the typical Mercedes design elements. It was the first van/truck with a “rising line” on the side windows (compare the Mercedes NG truck and the SK truck for this). The turning lights just scream “Mercedes!”. However the overall appearance is more like Italdesign “boxy car” design, like the FIAT Uno or even the first generation Golf, much closer to the face-lifted first generation FIAT Ducato.

        And oh, it has the classic OM 615/616 series engine that will run on anything from salad oil to liquified shoe soles…

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