Revisiting The Renault 8

Red 1965 Renault 8

The Renault 8 is at the front and centre of my lifetime enthusiasm for cars, but it took the unexpected offer of a half-hour drive in one for me to realise this.

Why, of all things, the 8? It was a not particularly outstanding example of what we would now call a supermini, nowhere near as attractive at first glance as the Dauphine it replaced, though I do like its smile. For me, cars have faces, perhaps less obviously now than before. In those days, different Renaults had different faces, but they all smiled.

That’s not enough. There has to be more, and there is. The 8 has a place in my family’s history – rather an unorthodox one, I’m happy to say. My father was a rally co-driver, and an outstandingly good one, particularly on complex though hardly glamorous navigational events. Just recently I was assured by one of his contemporaries that he practically revolutionised the sport – in Scotland at least – by bringing to it a greater attention to detail than had previously been considered.

He competed alongside quite a number of drivers, but the first I was aware of was David Black, a family friend and a considerable talent behind the wheel. David was service manager at a Renault dealership in Glasgow, and for several years the car he used on navigational rallies was a basically standard but well-prepared 8.

It was a very successful combination. Another competitor of that time once told me that if he and his friends turned up at an event and saw the names of David Black and Ross Finlay on the entry list, they started wondering who was going to finish second. And the competitor in question was John Cleland, who later went on to win the British Touring Car Championship on two occasions and might therefore be expected to know what he was talking about.

As far as I can recall, once David got himself another rally car he loaned the 8 to my parents for everyday road use. I must have travelled in it regularly but I remember doing so only once, when we moved house. Apologies for the vagueness, but I was only three years old. I have much clearer memories of the Renault 10 (rectangular-headlight version, dark green, registration number TGE 421G) which came into the household a few years later and was really just a slightly upmarket 8 with longer front and rear bodywork.

It’s odd that I think of them that way round. Prejudice should make me feel, however wrongly, that the 8 was a downmarket, shorter 10. The 8 must have worked its way into my being before I was old enough to realise what was happening. It was, for me, the Renault.

And Renault was, in turn, “my” car manufacturer. I dare say that before my age had reached double figures I knew more about it than almost any adult in the country who did not have a direct connection with the motor industry. I knew that its founder, Louis Renault, was a very successful racing driver, and that the 1903 Paris-Madrid road race was cancelled after his brother Marcel was involved in a fatal accident. I knew who took over from Louis as company boss (Pierre Lefaucheux) and how he died (suitcase in the back of the neck when he rolled his car on the way to a business meeing in St Dizier).

I knew that the prototype of Renault’s first post-War car, the 4CV, was nicknamed the “little pat of butter”, and I could identify all the models that followed it, and some of the earlier ones, and several design studies that never made it into production, mostly because they were too eccentric to be practical. In an observation game called Renaults And Minis created by the family to prevent boredom on long journeys (there were no rear-seat DVD players back then) I always chose Renaults and usually won.

Despite this breadth and depth of youthful knowledge, which I realise must have been unbearable to everyone unfortunate enough to encounter it, the 8 remained special, with one very specific result. Its engine, like those of the 4CV, the Dauphine and the 10, was mounted at the rear, and for that reason I’ve always felt that if it’s front-engined, it ain’t a real Renault. You can imagine my delight when it was announced that the third-generation Twingo had been designed using the “correct” layout.

The invitation to drive the dark red 1965 model year 8 from Renault’s heritage fleet is more delightful still. It comes with a warning, though. “Be very careful,” says the Renault PR man before I get in. “I mean it.”

Of course I’m going to be careful. I’ve driven cars so much more powerful, expensive and desirable than this one it would make you sneeze, but for me the 8 is going to be as special as all of them put together.

The 1108cc engine – that’s been my favourite four-figure number since my earliest days, precisely because of its connection with this car – fires up and starts to make that tinkling, gurgling noise that is so familiar though so long unheard. I look across the slightly V-shaped bonnet and inch forward, noticing almost immediately that the steering action is honey-smooth, and that of all three pedals (bottom-hinged, and in the case of the brake and clutch sprouting from the bulkhead) is just as good. Any 2014 car with the same characteristics would score very highly for driving refinement.

Changing gear is more problematic. The actual selection of ratios (except third, whose synchromesh isn’t what it might be) is fantastic, but the lever is all over the place. It has an enormous amount of sideways movement, and when you let go it springs back to the first-second plane, so you have to bring it about a foot closer to you before going into or out of third or fourth. This is a design feature, not the result of wear, and you get used to it, but not for several miles.

Pottering along a hotel driveway – quite a twisty, hilly one, as they go – is a great experience. Out on the open road a new element comes into play. Although I said earlier that Renaults should be rear-engined, having all that weight behind the back wheels is a very unstable arrangement, and it’s not helped by the suspension at that end.

This is of the swing-axle type, which has its good points. It’s effective on heavily rutted roads, and it’s the cheapest way of suspending the left and right wheels independently. The downside is that because of its peculiar geometry, the more grip you need the less grip you have. This could get messy.

I absolutely won’t let that happen, but on a wide downhill third-gear hairpin, taken at a very moderate speed, it’s already apparent that the Renault 8, like a Volkswagen Beetle, would be willing to swap ends given the slightest encouragement. To someone brought up on front-wheel drive cars it seems outlandish that people once happily accepted this threatened instability in their daily motoring, never mind on a rally. How we’ve moved on in half a century.

With more experience I suppose I’d be happy enough to get from A to B in a series of tail slides, but not today and not in Renault’s own car. In any case, I’m not interested in making the journey time as short or dramatic as possible. This is all about the experience and the emotions.

For personal reasons this would have been a very special day even if the 8 had turned out to be a terrible car. The fact that it’s so lovely to drive, at least up to a point, is a bonus I didn’t need but am thrilled beyond words to have received.

Reluctantly, I go back to the hotel, park up, and sit in the 8 for several minutes, not wanting to send it back to my personal past. I get out eventually and thank the Renault PR man very sincerely for the opportunity, then quickly turn away from him in the hope that he hasn’t had time to notice my shining eyes.