René-Renault is perfect for carrying precious cargo, says antique hunter Peter Bullen. Here, he talks to Charlotte Vowden about searching for treasures in the south-east of France.
The Renault 4, pronounced “Quatrelle” in French, was the world’s first mass-produced hatchback. Designed for urban and rural buyers alike, it was the model that did it all, and although more than eight million were made between 1961 and 1994 they’ve become a rare sight on today’s roads.
“René-Renault is an antique, he is a voiture de collection [classic car], and we use him to go hunting for antiques in Provence. It’s a very #midcenturymodern pairing because Renault launched the Quatrelle in the early sixties and a lot of the things my wife Cathy and I buy are mid-century, but crucially, he’s very practical which makes him perfect for what we need him to do. His load capacity is around 600kg, which is incredible given his size, and being little means he’s great zipping through Provençale streets. I adore him.
Cathy and I have two very distinct lives; our French life which involves collecting antiques in René the Renault 4 (who is named after René fro ‘Allo ‘Allo!) and our English life which involves setting up themed seasonal exhibitions, or Boule-in Fêtes, to sell what we’ve collected. I do miss René when we leave him behind, he’s so full of character, but I’ve got a Tornado Typhoon at home in Suffolk that I inherited as a restoration project from my father, Anthony Bullen, who co-founded Tornado Cars in the fifties. He was a racing driver as well as a car designer so if he were still alive he would have certainly enjoyed careering around in my little Renault 4. The engine is 1100cc’s so he’ll do about 110km an hour on the motorway and gives you just enough oomph to overtake a lorry on a hill.
When I left the Army Air Corps in 2014 after 30-odd years, we had already started our business selling decorative French treasures (I’d been posted in the south of France for three years) but now we were committed to the business full-time we needed to find a car for popping to all the little brocantes and vide-greniers, which is the French word for car boot sale. I don’t think Cathy was entirely keen on me getting a Renault 4, she wanted something slightly more comfortable and potentially more reliable, but I’d had one in my early twenties and knew they were great fun, we went away from our wedding in one too! I was thrilled when a friend told us there was one for sale in our village.
There was a short test drive which consisted of driving it up a very steep hill, after which I said ‘yes please.’ I think I paid €4000 euros, about £3,500, which is quite an appreciation considering they were about four hundred francs when they first came on the market. Getting back in a Renault 4 felt familiar but unfamiliar because the one I had in the UK was right-hand drive, but it takes seconds to get used to changing gear with the other hand. We’ve had him since the beginning of 2018 and he’s been a constant companion since.
René is a 1988 version, so one of the more modern ones, but he’s done nearly 170,000km so I would say he’s well travelled but he’s been loved. The chap who owned him before was a Norwegian monk who had effectively rebuilt the car from end to end so we’ve only had a few little problems and parts are readily available. He will run on 95 octane petrol but I try not to use it unless I really have to because he was designed to use 98.
Cathy and I have taken him on some really good journeys and never plan our stops en route; when we’re feeling tired we look for a nice B&B. We’ve done Provence to Florence twice along the Italian Riviera and there are some fabulous routes through Chestnut Forests with ups, downs and hairpin bends, which the car handles really well. The last trip saw us following a sign to an isolated restaurant up in the hills above La Spezia, chugging ever higher up an increasingly narrow and winding road we eventually found this tiny place tucked away in what can only be described as a hamlet. Amazingly, it was open and we had a fabulous, freshly cooked and very Italian lunch followed by a bump start down the hill (René was feeling a little tired from his earlier exertions) before heading off to the heart of Florence. I’m not sure if we were supposed to be driving in some of the streets we found ourselves in but, as René adds character wherever he goes, we only drew admiring looks from the crowds!
René is effectively one small box placed on a slightly larger box with a wheel in each corner but Renault 4’s were designed to rival the Deux Chevaux [Citroën 2CV] so the ride is fantastic. He’s got soft suspension and quite a lot of ground clearance so will go virtually anywhere – even in the snow. The heating system is rudimentary and the windows are the air-conditioning system so you certainly know what sort of weather you’re driving in. Heavy rain is best avoided as the six-inch wipers sort of smear the water across the windscreen. Does it leak? Yes, because the boot doesn’t seal properly.
René’s architecture and interior is very straightforward. There’s no transmission tunnel because the gear change is dashboard mounted alongside the speedo, fuel and temperature gauge. On the passenger side, there’s a document shelf, and there are a couple of side pockets where I keep spare bulbs and a few tools. I’ve made two modifications; I’ve put in an electrical cut-off switch so that when he’s parked in the garage for a period of time the battery doesn’t run flat and I’ve replaced the cigarette lighter with a USB port which means we can charge a mobile phone or run a bluetooth speaker. We have to play bangers rather than subtle music because it’ll get drowned out by the engine, I like the Rolling Stones and The Stranglers and Cathy loves Eurythmics.
We have two sons, Jack and Charlie, and a daughter, Rosie, and they’ve all been fairly determined to get behind the wheel. René seats two in the front and three in the back, plus the dog, and in the summer my daughter shoves her friends in with their bathing suits, towels and a picnic to go swimming in a lake just north of where we live. It’s been good to see our children get used to driving René, picking up on the clues that are being given to you by a car is important because when it’s straining you need to do something about it. I have a basic understanding of mechanics and how cars work thanks to my dad, but I get René serviced professionally once a year. At the moment, French laws require him to have an MOT once every two years, but that’s soon to become five because of his age.
When René is absolutely crammed full of antiques, such as glasses, tables, chairs and old signage, the bench seat in the back folds flat to give us more space for our precious cargo but once that’s full I have to pack around Cathy which is always a bit of a laugh. We have such fun sourcing bits and pieces from the brocantes, marché aux puces [flea markets] and vide-greniers, which is when people empty their barns and garages and sell stuff on the village street because we never know what we’re going to find. René also has a tow hook on the back so we can put a trailer on him and fill that up with antiques too which is useful for transporting furniture and larger pieces.
People often come along and say it’s superb that we’re using René and when he’s parked in the street outside our house people like to have their photograph taken with him. Occasionally this annoys me because I find a bum print on the bonnet where someone has sat on him so I have to get inside and push the dent out, but René-Renault always brings us such joy. He has become an important part of our family history, he represents a fantastic chapter for us.”
Cathy says: “René’s purchase was as much a matter of ‘living the dream’ as it was to satisfy Peter’s endless love of classic cars. I’m really just a happy passenger delighting in travelling around Provence in a vintage vehicle; Peter finds his beloved Renault 4 both fabulously fun to drive as well as eminently practical as it was specifically designed to fit down all the narrow medieval roads and alleyways we find ourselves driving along whilst exploring France. We’ve had many highlight adventures in René the latest being a trip from Cotignac to Florence and back.”
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