I was jewellery shopping online the other night looking for a charm to add to my recently received bracelet. My head was beginning to ache with that “staring at the screen too long” throb when I spotted it. A little shining silver jalopy seized me and flung me some twenty years back into my past. It’s tiny silver grille, rounded headlights, and quirky square-topped roof had reminded me of my first love. In an instant I was sitting in the passenger seat of my father’s Mitsubishi. I remember the anticipation building in me as we drove out of Newbridge across the Curragh Plains through the military camp, stopping at Brownstown Cross, to head onwards to Suncroft village. We were heading to see a friend of my father who repaired and sold very particular second-hand cars: Renault 4s. All the wheeling and dealing had obviously been done between Kevin and my father long before I had set eyes on the car that was about to become mine. Nevertheless, my father introduced me to Kevin and, with the fleeting wipe of a rag across his oil-embedded hands and a hand-shake, the business of buying my very first car began.
With her bright red bodywork, silver grille and bumpers, and her two round eyes looking at me from the overgrown grass all around her, I fell in love with her immediately. She was magnificent. She was Renault’s “blue jeans” car; rural and urban at the same time. She was the chic city car of choice for Parisians all through the 60s and 70s but she also had that “picnic baskets at the weekend” quality about her. I trekked through the rusting rubble and remains of decaying car parts in this cemetery for automobiles in the hope that Kevin would tell me that she was road-worthy and promising as the car that was going to take me on the open roads of County Kildare. I opened the driver’s door to a red and navy tartan on a grey upholstered background. There was no sign whatsoever of a handbrake or gear stick and, worst of all, a gaping void existed where most of the floor should have been. Perhaps, someone else would have walked away to look at the “Cadbury’s purple” Renault sitting just yards away from this little red jalopy but I was smitten. I paid £300 for my red Reno and, with another hand-shake, Kevin promised that he would solve the floor problem, have her road-worthy, and ready for me within a week.
My father brought me out almost every evening to see how things were progressing. I learned a lot about Renault 4s that week. It turned out that rusting floors were a common feature (aka fault) but this was something that Kevin resolved through fibreglass. A year later that fibreglassed floor would save my life. The mystery of my missing gear stick and handbrake turned out to be no mystery at all. The transmission had been newly developed at the time of the car’s creation and the gear stick was dash-mounted rather than being in the floor where I had expected it to be. Seemingly, the gear stick was attached to a rod from the dashboard which ran over the engine into the gearbox, which was right at the front of the car. This meant that there was no gearbox paraphernalia in the floor between the driver and passenger seat. The hand-brake lever also turned out to be in a surprising location. It was under the steering wheel and it had to be pulled towards the driver in a horizontal position then twisted vertically into the locked position. Both these features meant that there was flat open-spaced flooring all the way across the front of the car and between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. My grandmother loved this feature. Each time she climbed into the car she could store her walking stick between us and just reach down for it when she was leaving the car at our destination. My Red Reno was a 1984 special edition “Legend” model. It came with its own unique front grille which incorporated an extra set of lights, as well as “Legend” decals and stripes on the bodywork of the car. I couldn’t find a picture online of the “Legend” with its extra spotlights and “go faster” stripes and after a laborious hunt through my old albums, I couldn’t find one there either.
The day finally arrived to get my Reno. I suppose I should point out that by this stage I had forked out £1800 for “third-party fire and theft” car insurance (yes, you read that sum correctly) and had received 4 or 5 driving lessons in the interim period. My father had wisely decided that this number of lessons was nowhere near sufficient to allow me to drive the car back home to Newbridge myself so he had arranged for Kevin to drive her to us. I waited and waited for what seemed like an eternity and then I saw her coming down our road weaving in and out of the parked cars on the street until she finally turned into our driveway. I couldn’t contain my excitement. I was out through the front door like a bullet and sitting in the driver’s seat moments later. I remember running my hands all over the soft leather steering wheel and my eyes over each and every button, lever and gadget. It even had a tape deck! Both Kevin and my father gave me a “crash course” on all the bits and pieces that I would need to know: how the handbrake worked, how, with practice, I would get used to the dash-mounted gear stick, how to change a wheel, how to use the manual choke, how to do the oil check, how to top-up the radiator and many other very useful tips that I would soon discover as essential when owning a 1984 Renault 4 Legend! By this stage, the two lads from next door had jumped the wall and were checking out the engine, the oddly placed gear stick and handbrake, and the very narrow tyres. Nowadays, when you buy a second-hand car it usually arrives spic and span after a full valet service. Not my Reno. She had previously been owned by our since retired community nurse who loved and travelled everywhere with her very hairy and moulting West Highland Terrier. It took me hours with our old Nilfisk to remove those dog hairs that had become imbedded in the upholstery. By late evening, my Reno was washed, waxed and polished within an inch of her life and I still hadn’t driven her a single yard.
It was about ten o’clock the next morning, a Saturday, when I took the key down off the rack and with a mixture of both fear and bravado announced to my younger brother and sister that I was going to take my car out for a drive. Both my parents were at work and both siblings were more than willing to be my first passengers. After all, I had received 4 driving lessons by then and even had a provisional driving licence! The car was facing down the driveway so I thankfully didn’t have to negotiate reversing. I pulled out the choke, clutched, put the gear in neutral, turned the key and put the slightest amount of pressure on the accelerator. She started! I clutched again, put her in first gear and, lifting one foot gently off the clutch pedal whilst applying the lightest amount of touch to the accelerator, she slowly began to move down the driveway. With an eruptious and exhilarating “hooray” from my two compatriots, I turned down the street and began my love affair with a Renault 4 “Legend” and the open road.