Renault 4 GTL

"Another glass, Jean-Jacques?"
"Merci, mais non, I 'ave to get zees onions to ze market for tomorrow morning."
"Oh come now, you 'aff plenty of time," says his friend, reaching across the table and filling the glass. In this way, two farmers let the afternoon pass, reclining on their seats and patting their prodigious bellies.

It all seems charmingly provincial, the old bistro in its rustic setting, a cobbled patio next to a sandy courtyard where old men in waistcoats exchange bon mots with a saucy waitress while holding aloft ruby glasses. It's exactly the image Renault want you to conjure up when you think of the Renault 4, but don't be fooled. France isn't like that.

While you carry in your mind two portly old rogues eyeing up the girls over a glass of wine, don't forget those all-important onions, without which the French economy would collapse, bundled up in hessian bags in the back of the farmer's Renault. That afternoon sun, which dapples gently on the paintwork, is roasting the glass-panelled hatchback, trapping the heat like a greenhouse and drying out the onions and their muddy coating until a pungent stench fills the entire cabin. It would mingle with the cigarette ash spilled on the floor, with the sweat soaked into the driver's seat, with the chicken droppings and vegetable litter compressed into the grooves of the bodywork until the car reeked like a pig sty in August. The underlying notes of poverty are the essence of the Renault 4. It stinks.

The Renault 4 would like you to think that it's a cheeky little people's car, an avant-garde flash of simplicity and quirkiness that lends it an air of jaunty enthusiasm. But it isn't. That sort of flair had already been done by the Renault's rival, the Citroen 2CV for thirteen years already, and post-war parsimony was now giving way to urban chic and a taste for the fanciful. That didn't prevent the French automaker from going ahead with their effort to take over a large section of the poverty car market; a niche that most other manufacturers had given up making new designs for. But Renault had decided more moustachio'd serfs needed to trade in their mules for motors, and so the Renault 4 was launched on a summer's afternoon in 1961.

On one hand, it's easy to highlight why the Renault 4 was a success. A simple engine mounted to a plain chassis allowed a relatively spacious body to be bolted on top, and with all the mechanicals up front and the suspension hidden underneath, meant that the maximum amount of space could be given to the body. Slap a simple barn door on the back instead of any pretence of a boot, and you've made a moveable metal box that can accommodate a cow. Pepper the sides with ovals of glass and you can even kid yourself that this is a car, and not just any car but a city car, a youthful car, a vehicle that embodies the urban spirit of freedom to move around. Of course, if you're also the person who has six crates of live chickens to move around, you might also find it useful, but the Renault 4 was designed as an Everyman's Car.

However, if you felt that the luxuries of a rear quarterlight window and a chrome grille were too much of an extravagance, and you didn't want to get your hubcaps dirty driving down farm tracks, you could lower the price even more and buy a Renault 3, the poverty-spec version of the '4, but in the Sixties even French farmers turned their nose up at such austerity measures. The Renault 4 was cheap enough already, there was no need to drag its new name through the mud by making it look like some sort of van.

Renault were very keen to point out that it wasn't a van by releasing a van version a year later, called the Fourgonette or "little girly van" if we translate the French appropriately. By unbolting the unpretentious body and slapping a massive box on the back instead, you could squeeze in even more agricultural produce, and waft an even more potent stench along the tree-lined roads before eventually arriving at whatever slaughterhouse you were destined for. Unlike the '3, the Fourgonette was an instant success, and helped push the image of the Renault 4 as a capable mover of stuff for the working classes. And with nothing in the way of extras to go wrong, it could almost be considered reliable too, as long as you serviced the engine every six thousand miles and didn't expect to go faster than 65mph.

With this elemental recipe for a mechanical donkey, the Renault 4 slogged on year after year with almost nothing in the way of changes, just like its competitor from Citroen. In some grim battle to keep the average quality of French cars to a minimum, they steadfastly refused to improve anything on their designs, lest they raise the cost of the vehicles to an unacceptable level.

But times change. The stereotypical French village became increasingly under threat as farmers realised they might have to start working for a living. Electricity came to town, standards were raised, and the demand for smoky tin boxes dropped. The cost of manufacturing, both in labour rates and the value of steel, meant that the price of the Renault 4 couldn't stay rock-bottom for ever, and by the time of the 1978 revision its price was comparable to those of contemporary superminis like the Citroen Visa and Renault 5. If one wanted a second family car, or a little car to learn on, the spartan interior of the 4 simply couldn't compare to the plastic and vinyl on offer elsewhere. Even the creation of a GTL edition with a 1.1litre engine couldn't bring it up to Eighties expectations of speed, let alone comfort, while the engine noise was absolutely deafening. What's more, the chrome grille had been removed. How can you sell a car in the Eighties with no chrome grille?

Yet the Gallic inertia towards change, or simply Renault hating the average consumer, meant that the Renault 4 managed to stay in production for an astounding 33 years before finally calling it a day in 1994, but before you breathe in a lungful on non-oniony air, bear in mind that the tooling for more Renault 4's had been dispersed around the globe. For three decades factories in Ireland, Autralia, Mexico and Italy churned out the plain little wagons until eight million of them cluttered up the streets with their nasal whine and cocky posture.

In its time it spawned a number of successors in both the Renault 5 and Renault 6, and made the hatchback style the ultimate small car design. Yet the final models were cobbled together from leftover spares in a factory in Slovenia; a relatively ignoble end for such a popular car. Upon its passing, its position in the French stable was filled by the completely unrelated Renault Twingo, but its place is automotive history is secured as Renault's most produced model ever.