Advertisement
BBC TopGear
BBC TopGear
Advertisement feature
WELCOME TO HYUNDAI’S HAPPINESS MACHINE
View the latest news
Big Reads

Driving the original Renault 5: TG pays homage to an icon

With the electric Renault 5 incoming, now's the perfect time to get reacquainted with the original. What could possibly go wrong?

Published: 29 Apr 2024

Merde. It was supposed to be une promenade dans le parc: hop into Renault’s own meticulously prepared 1978 5 at 5am on a Monday morning, take some nice pictures and a putter down memory lane, eventually arriving in Paris around lunchtime for a first encounter with the new electric Renault 5. Instead, the hour is 5.30am and I’m on the hard shoulder of the M23 on the outskirts of Crawley, being buffeted about by lorries and freezing mes nipples off just 14 miles from where we started.

Rewind 30 minutes and the mood was more upbeat. There’s me, sleepy eyed but full of spark and purpose, tiptoeing out the house like a burglar, taking every possible measure not to wake le woofer, or the kids. I slip into the driver’s seat, pull out the choke and twist the key. It catches first time and settles to a clattering, high idle, filling the garage with a white fog that reeks of my misspent youth. I waggle it into first, fumble for the lights and end up beeping the horn. Stealth getaways in the Seventies were difficile.

Advertisement - Page continues below

And so, with five per cent of the journey complete, the engine coughs, loses power then cuts out completely. I’m not fazed, I have history. Back when I was 17 a Renault 5 was my first car. Bertha, I called her, can’t remember why, but I do recall her breaking down at the McDonald’s drive-through on the Wandsworth roundabout, loaded to the gunwhales with mates, hours after passing my test. Great days. On that occasion I did what any resourceful, mechanically minded teenager would... and called dad. That’s far too embarrassing now I’m 39, so I call the Renault tech team who’ve just delivered the car to me instead, and convince them to come back on a rescue mission.

Photography: John Wycherley

Even Roger, the man who calmly disassembles the carburettor with the confidence of a Turkish surgeon performing his 27th hair transplant of the day, can’t fix this one. The engine’s being starved of fuel and he doesn’t have the tools to blow it through properly. We admit defeat, leave Dave to nurse it to the nearest Renault dealer for running repairs, and jump in the back of an Austral – seemingly now the most comfortable and high-tech automobile on the planet – with Roger who, rather heroically, shuttles us all the way to Paris so we don’t miss our appointment with its electrified descendent.

It dawned on me, as I salivated over the prospect of a retro-futuristic new-gen electric 5, that there’s likely to be two distinct takes on it. Anyone over the age of 35 will find their nostalgic bits being tickled as they recall the balmy days of youth when they/their mum/an uncle/a favourite teacher used to buzz about in one of these. The youngsters will be thinking “Sure, this is a decent looking little electric supermini, but what the hell is a Renault 5 and why should I care?” Well, this bit’s for you, because the next day we find ourselves full of croissant and driving the now-fixed flying bogey in and around the very French village of Baron, 40 minutes north of Paris.

Advertisement - Page continues below

But first, a reminder that the Renault 5 wasn’t specifically built to warm hard shoulders up and down the land. Back when it arrived in 1972, it was a properly groundbreaking car, designed to pick up where the Renault 4 and Citroen 2CV left off with a more modern, instantly spottable hatchback design – the work of Michel Boué – and a palette of strong colours. Pierre Dreyfus, the Renault boss who commissioned the project, briefed it as a “voiture à vivre”, “a car for all seasons, for holidays and for work, for weekdays and for weekends, for town and for country”. In America it was marketed as simply ‘Le Car’. And it only bloody worked. Between 1972 and the mid-Eighties the first gen car sold 5.5m units across five continents. Mon dieu.

 

The car I owned was a 1985 MkII GTL, 1.4 litres and 59bhp of pure mayhem. The green goblin we have here is a venerable MkI, a 1978 TL with a 44bhp 1.0-litre engine and a four-speed manual. Pas rapide, but speed would come later in life for the Renault 5 – with the mad-as-a-box-of-frogs’-legs, mid-engine, homologation special R5 Turbo in 1978, the R5 Gordini sold in the UK from 1979 (known as the Alpine elsewhere) and the more accessible MkII GT Turbo in 1985.

I digress, because as I aim the TL at a few curves and hairpins, performance isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Wobble, roll, bounce and brace are closer to the mark. Speed is hard earned in this car, then carefully preserved, all of which requires a laser focus on the job in hand. Changing down early, getting your fingers in the right position for some twirling of the wonderfully skinny rimmed wheel, tensing the abs in preparation for comedy levels of body roll, it’s as involving as an analogue supercar, albeit travelling at a tenth of the pace.

Performance isn't the first word that springs to mind. Wobble, role, bounce and brace are closer to the mark

Which is just as well, because the cabin is pared back to the point of blowing away in the wind. It’s a total reset from the bloated interiors of modern cars – it has no headrests, no material covering exposed metal if it’s not entirely necessary, no radio, nowhere to put anything. There’s not a scrap of fat on it, the spare is so slim it lives under the bonnet and there’s only a trio of switches behind the wheel – for your hazard lights, rear screen heater and fan – to the right of the wheel a pull stop for the choke, then in the middle of the dash some sliders for the heater.

There’s a lingering sense that if you were to hit anything you’d crumple like an aluminium can under a steel toecapped boot, but you’re never travelling quick enough for that to become a real concern. On the motorway 70mph is within your grasp, but only with a stiff breeze and the nitrous injection of gravity on your side.

Top Gear
Newsletter

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

But what a joy to drive a car that’s 45 years old, with only 30,000 miles under its belt and so immaculately preserved. It’s a window into the past when every journey was an adventure and to take on a long roadtrip was a leap of blind faith. It was an ordinary, affordable car in its day, but now in timewarp condition it’s a living, thrumming historical document that reminds us of how good we’ve got it now in terms of reliability, speed, safety and connectivity... but charm?

Not a chance, breakdowns or not, the Renault 5 had me at 17 and I’m smitten all over again.

More from Top Gear

Loading
See more on Renault

Subscribe to the Top Gear Newsletter

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, you agree to receive news, promotions and offers by email from Top Gear and BBC Studios. Your information will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

BBC TopGear

Try BBC Top Gear Magazine

subscribe