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Car of the Week: 1961 Renault 4CV

Sometimes you don't know exactly what you have. For one owner it took decades to realize he had a rare Renault 4CV.
Car of the Week 2020
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It took Mark Harrell quite a while to figure out exactly what kind of four-wheeled automotive treasure his dad dragged home one day back in 1968.

About 45 years, in fact.

David Harrell was an over-the-road truck driver who like to tinker with mechanical stuff when he was home. After a long trip to Texas back in ’68, he came home and told his family he had a surprise in the back of his semi-trailer. The senior Harrell had found a weird-looking little French car for sale along the road in Texas and decided it needed to come home with him to Wisconsin.

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The beat-up white 1961 Renault 4CV actually changed hands a couple times within the Harrell clan over the years before Mark got his turn with the car. 

“It sat for a long time, yeah,” recalls Harrell, a resident of Marshfield Wis. “ I finally asked my dad one time what he was going to do with the car, and he says, ‘Why, do you want it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, what do you want for it?’ He said $400 — that’s what he originally paid for it. It had sat in his garage for the longest time. My oldest brother [Mike] actually got it from my dad for $400 and he had it for a while, then sold it back to my dad for 400 bucks. And my other brother [Danny] worked on it for a while, too. So 400 bucks was going back and forth between two of my brothers and my dad and me.

“We knew it was a Renault, and that was about it,” Mark laughs. “My dad liked working on engines and stuff, and he just thought it was cool. He didn’t know what it was, no. And I didn’t either – not until I retired out of the Army in 2013 and we decided to find out what it was.”

The 850cc engine

The 850cc engine

The family might have treated the little Renault a little differently over the years if it had known exactly how unique the car is. It turned out the car was probably one of the rarest little buggies Renault had ever produced: A 1961 C4V Resort Special. It’s one of 50 such critters that were built for a resort complex than never materialized in Florida, and one of just 12 survivors that have been accounted for.

Harrell still shakes his head in disbelief when he recounts finding out how rare and unique the car is.

“Once we put some feelers out there online we had a lot of people coming back from California and Florida and other places telling us, ‘Even in the condition it’s in, don’t get rid of it! You can sell it like that, or restore it if you can. It’s a very rare car!’ Once we found out what it was, we figured we can’t let it rust away. We’re gonna save up some money and find somebody reputable to work on it and get it back to the way it was supposed to be. And, of course, we found some pictures of them online, and we thought, ‘Wow, this is really going to be cool if we can get this running again.’”

BORN FOR THE BEACH

One of the more interesting and successful cars ever built by Renault — the 4CV — traces its roots back to one of the worst periods in France’s history: the German occupation during World War II from 1940-44. Partly because his company continued to produce the Juvaquatre automobile after WWII broke out, Louis Renault was arrested by the French government soon after the liberation of Paris by the Allies, accused to collaborating with the Nazis. The Renault company had fallen under German control during the war, and after the Allied invasion, Louis died in in prison in 1944. Pierre Lefaucheaux, who had fought against the Nazi occupation, was then put in charge of the company, and shortly thereafter the firm was nationalized and given the name Regie Nationale des Usines Renault.

While the company was under German control, company brass were given orders to focus only on military and commercial vehicles. Fortunately, there was a plan afoot within company walls to continue work developing a small vehicle that company officials believed would be popular and practical when the war ended. Somehow, the Nazi honchos in charge of overseeing what was happening at the Renault factory did not keep a very close watch on the store, and work on what would become the 4CV continued in secret.

A new protype of the 4CV had actually been tested during the war, and it was destined to lead the Renault lineup of the 1950s. The 4CV first appeared at the Paris Salon in 1946, powered by a rear-mounted 760cc four-cylinder engine that produced 16 hp and featuring four-wheel independent suspension with coil springs. Lockheed hydraulic brakes did the stopping.

Top speed was about 55 mph and the car tipped the scales at just 1,146 lbs., helping it achieve up to 47 mpg.

The 4CVwent on sale in 1947 in Europe and was known in France as “La Quattre Chevaux” (4 hp). Initial prototypes had two doors, but the production cars were four-door models. By 1949, the 4CV was on sale in the United States and known by some as the “Green Renault” because its sole U.S. distributor was the John L. Green company. The 4CV was certainly different than anything on U.S. roadways at the time, with its pudgy appearance and sloping tail. It had rear-hinged “suicide” front doors and sliding windows.

By spring of 1949, Renault was turning out 300 of the tiny four-door sedans each day. By 1952, the 4CV represented one-third of the total production of all French automobiles with more than a quarter million produced. Production continued until 1961, with a slightly smaller 757cc engine used from 1951 onward. A small number were assembled in England, and also in Japan under license.

Certainly one of the rarest — and most collectible today — 4CVs ever built were the memorable and obscure 1961 Jolly Resort Specials. Italian coachbuilder Ghia had done a number of open-air (no doors, windows or enclosed top) Jolly conversions on Fiat 500 and 600 chassis, and Renault opted to do the same with its 4CV for an order of 50 cars for a planned Florida resort. The cars came in either white, a pale blue or coral color, and all had weather-resistant wicker seats and removable surrey tops.

The order of beach cars materialized, but the planned resort never did. They were unwanted orphans right from the start.

“The cars were just sitting around, and a few got distributed,” Harrell said. “We know there is one in Australia and we know there are a few back in Europe and a few in the United States. According to all the Renault enthusiasts and guys who know the history, out of those 50 they can only account for 12.”

HAVING A JOLLY TIME

Where his Jolly had been and what kind of life it had led before it wound up in his father’s semi truck is still a bit of a mystery for Harrell. As far as he can tell, his dad was the second owner of the Renault. How the first owner wound up with the car is anybody’s guess at this point.

Engine in back leaves space for storage in the front.

Engine in back leaves space for storage in the front.

“The guy in Texas probably got it in like ’62 or so… The car doesn’t lean into corners. It doesn’t have torsion bars, so it doesn’t corner, and I think he flipped it. So he didn’t want the car and there was damage on the driver’s side, I think. Anyway, I think my dad was probably only the second owner of it and then it was in our family that whole time. It had 9,000 miles on it when I got it... It was originally white. It did run a little bit when he [first brought it home], but there was some damage to it.”

“Everything was wrong with it when I got it. My one brother decided to take the whole engine apart and work on the engine. Then the other one had done a bunch of Bond-O on it. It was a mess by the time I got it. It been stored on a farm at my father-in-law’s … I’m surprised it didn’t rust away because it was stored on gravel the whole time. We were very lucky that there was minimal rust on the whole thing.”

The little Renault gets where it needs to go through a trust 3-speed manual gearbox.

The little Renault gets where it needs to go through a trust 3-speed manual gearbox.

Harrell eventually turned to a nearby restorer, John Draxler, owner of Nostalgic Auto Crafters in Hewitt, Wis., to turn back the clock on the Renault. There were plenty of stops and starts, parts chasing and hurdles to climb over during the three years Draxler worked on the car. Eventually, the project turned into the quintessential “every nut and bolt” restoration: chassis, drivetrain, body and interior.

“The engine parts were easy to find because when they built this they put a Dauphine engine in it, and Renault built a lot of Dauphines. And they didn’t want to redesign an engine just for an order of 50,” Harrell pointed out. “The little things on the body were the hardest to find — the tail lights, the bumpers, the side mirrors … Everything on the outside was tough to find. We were very lucky that the signal lights on the front were glass, and you can’t find them anywhere, but we had them, thankfully. They were in a box of parts that my brother had. We were fortunate on some stuff.”

A look at the reworked wicker seats

A look at the reworked wicker seats

Rebuilding the wicker seats turned out to be a combined effort between the couple’s son Brian and a wicker artisan in North Carolina.

“Brian is a welder and fabricator so he fabricated front seats for us and we’d go over to the shop where it was being worked on and we built up boards or a milk crate and figure out how high we had to make it,” Mark noted. “Then he took the back seat and put the same design on it. We took a piece of the old backseat along with all the frame work and we sent it to North Carolina. We found a person there that would wicker it. It’s not easy to find somebody to do that kind of work.”

One of the big decisions Mark and his wife Dorothy faced was what color to paint the Renault. A fresh coat of white would have returned the car to its original look, but the pair decided on something a little more eye-catching: a two-tone blue and white.

“We wanted sometime to really make it shine, really make it pop,” he said. “The blue is Laguna Blue, which is perfect because it’s a beach car. We saw that color on a Corvette at a car show. The gentleman actually had the color code, which is all I really needed.

“The Arctic White is actually whiter than white. …We really like the way it turned out. The chrome really looks good on it, and the contrast between the two colors looks good.”

With its rarity, the Renault emblem might help many who are confused to what they are looking at.

With its rarity, the Renault emblem might help many who are confused to what they are looking at.

Harrell made two modifications to the car’s electrical system for the sake of safety and reliability. He installed a push-button starter and a safety knife switch on the battery to turn off the battery power.

 “[The battery] loses juice, for whatever reason, and I was actually able to find the same type of coil, but it’s got like a little booster. That helps. And we put a little heavier type of wire in it… It’s temperamental, being a 6-volt system. I’ve got a little breaker on the battery because for some reason the 6-volt system likes to trickle out the juice. I’ve talked to guys who said to put that little breaker on that goes across the battery post and we disconnect it.”

The switch on the battery also makes the Jolly a little less flammable, Harrell says.

 “The gas tank is about 10 gallons … and one of the worst designs ever. They put it right above the battery. With gas, you’ve always got the fumes, and you’ve spark right there. We’re thinking some of those 50 probably burned to the ground and that’s maybe part of why only 12 are left. When I fill it up I’ve got a little 1-gallon can and I disconnect the battery.”

Harrell joked that the scary gas tank location isn’t the only reason operating the Resort Special can be a little on the adventurous side. There are no doors to lean on or grab onto, no protection from mother nature, no seat belts to keep you planted in the wicker seats, and minimal cornering agility. Even the foot pedals are a bit of challenge.

“It’s hard to drive because the brake and gas pedals are so close together,” Harrell says. 

"I think it was made for people with flip-flops or sandals on!"

“People have had these things up to 60 [mph] … Ah, I dunno, it’s a little engine that gets hot. I don’t want to do that. I’m not in a hurry when I drive it. I don’t drive it over about 35 miles an hour. It think it goes up to 40. It’s a small engine, only 850cc. Some of them were like 750, but this one’s an 850, still a four-cylinder 3-speed manual. When the wife and I drive around we always take the top off. The bars just set on a peg in the back and just come right off. It’s just fun to drive around without the top on. [The top] will rattle and the wind catches it. It doesn’t fold down, so you either put it on and leave it on, or take it off. At car shows we always put it on because that’s the way it looked."

Harrell says the car has mopped at car shows around Wisconsin in the years that he has been showing it. Collecting trophies is fun, but he says what he and Dorothy enjoy most is showing up early for a show and taking their car out on joyrides around the different towns they travel to.

Louvers to keep the engine cool. Some might mistake the rear for being a hood off of a Volkswagen.

Louvers to keep the engine cool. Some might mistake the rear for being a hood off of a Volkswagen.

Occasionally, people will mistake the C4V for the similar looking Fiat Jolly. A few recognize it as a Renault. Almost nobody knows it is a long-lost beach car and one of the few survivors of its kind.

“We get heads turning when we drive it through town,” Harrell says. “The back end with the louvers looks like the hood of a Volkswagen. People think we chopped the top off a Volkswagen. And a lot of people think it’s a golf car because of that goofy Surrey top on it. I tell them this would be the most expensive golf car you’ll ever have! [laughs].”

Harrell cringes at the idea of ever parting with his fabulous little Renault. It’s been in the family since he was 8 years old, and finding out how significant the car was and then embarking on a mission to restore it to prime condition has been a very meaningful journey. His father David and brother Mike have both passed on, but he knows they would both be thrilled with how the rags-to-riches story of the 1961 buggy turned out.

“Everybody is always telling us if you ever want to sell it, go to Arizona or Florida to the resort communities because somebody is going to pay dearly to have this thing,” he says. “Some people have suggested I get ahold of some big hotel companies in France — since it’s a French car — so one of them could have it in their lobby, so it will always look nice."

“If I ever do sell it, I never want to see it again!”

The Harrells and their Renault

The Harrells and their Renault

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