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Electric vehicles are in use everywhere. They have proven to be efficient, quiet, economical and clean. The price, range, speed and load capacity of electric cars today fit as much as 80% of the driving needs of commuters in the United States.
The Renault 4CV has seen its share of history. According to Renault, it was designed and the first prototype tested while France was under occupation by the Germans, during World War II. Production was started shortly after the end of the war. "On October 13,  the first 4CV was delivered to its new owner, launching an order book that was full for two years to come."
The little 4CV then went on to help restart Japan's automobile industry. Hino Motors began producing its version of the 4CV under license from Renault in 1953 .
4CVs were even modified for racing.
[If you're only interested in the restoration and conversion project itself, skip ahead. This part is just a tale of the little car long ago.]
My wife's grandfather owned this 1959 Renault 4CV. On his death, her brother, Walter, inherited it. His interests at the time were more along the line of Hogs, hot rods, and 57 Chevies. Walter agreed to trade the car if I could find a specific model (I think it was a 1953) Ford pickup truck. I found it and it's a good thing he wasn't interested in the condition of the engine because the thing required over two quarts of oil during the 30 mile trip to deliver it. It was a torturous ride.
The torture didn't end with the delivery of the smoking, shaking relic of a truck. My wife was determined to have this little car, so we dragged it from its nest in a barn and loaded it onto the back of a 1-ton flatbed truck, which was another vehicle inherited by Walter. This thing was not built for speed, but rather for hard work where roads are never likely to be. By the time the car was loaded and chained, the weather was deteriorating. Warnings of a winter storm and icing roads were being repeated over radios and televisions. Against the advice of her parents, we started out.
I drove the old GMC truck laden with the Renault while my wife followed in our 1968 American Motors Ambassador. (That's the Ambassador peeking around from behind the 4CV in the old photo above). Within a few miles we were in blowing snow and travelling on slick asphalt. She pulled over at the base of a hill that would be fantastic if we were on a toboggan at the top. She had never driven on a slick road before and needed instructions and assurance. Being young and invincible, I gave her both. Drive like there is a rotten egg under the accelerator; don't try to accelerate once you start up the hill; if the tail breaks loose, keep the nose pointed where you want to go, quick on the steering and ease slowly off the accelerator; don't slam on the brakes or you become an unguidable sled; if you have to stop on ice on the other side, put it in neutral (it was an automatic) and turn your legs into pistons firing at that big brake pedal, one after the other, fast (no such thing as anti-lock brakes then).
That hill was just a warning; a premonition of things to come. By the time we reached the Leitchfield end of the Western Kentucky Parkway, she was following me and I had the old, cold, drafty, rattling truck growling along in 1st gear. All I had to do was keep it on the flat snow and ice in the middle and away from the humped snow or drops on either side. The farther we went, the more vehicles we saw on the sides of the road. Some even parked voluntarily. Quite a few were at strange angles and distances from the road, but the most eery were those with their headlights still shining and their wheels pointed skyward. When we finally made it to our exit ramp from the Parkway, near Elizabethtown, we pulled over at a service station to calm down and confer. My wife only saw the cars off the road that were being tended by the wreckers (tow trucks) and state police. Their flashing lights were the only things that caused her to look away from my tail lights the whole trip.
Getting the 4CV in driving condition again was merely tedious. The piston rings were shot, the brakes were bad, the carburettor was full of varnish, the fuel smelled like it had been in the tank for years, the muffler and exhaust pipe were just slivers of rust hanging from the manifold and the tires looked like they were the models for the "before" picture in advertisements of the '50s.
No local auto parts dealer had ever heard of a 4CV. The only place I could find rings, bearings, gaskets and exhaust was J. C. Whitney & Company. While waiting for the mail-order parts to arrive, I cleaned out the rodents' nests and worked on the fuel system. My wife located a service manual, of sorts: "Glenn's Renault Repair and Tune-up Guide", copyright 1964, Harold T. Glenn, Library of Congress Catalog No. 64-12776, from the Margie Helm Library at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Don't look for the book there; I have to confess I was careless. The book accumulated so much grime and grease that I paid the University for it rather than face the shame of returning it in such condition. (I still have the book and the receipt, by the way).
I had excellent tutelage while working on the engine from two certified mechanics named Jack Zieg and "Butch" Barber. I also had invaluable help from a good friend, Dale Meers, who was building a dragster at the time. The work was done in space and with tools generously loaned for the purpose by Dale's father, John T. Meers, Jr. Mr. Meers owned the large garage, in Buffalo, Kentucky, in which Jack and Butch repaired heavy duty diesel trucks. There were only two really memorable events during the rebuiding process. The first was when Dale accidently squirted a whole tube of superglue into his dragster's carburettor and the stuff actually held. It took some special solvent to get his fingers apart and get the carburettor working again. The other event took place after the car was running, but still at the garage for all the little finishing details.
My wife was still attending Western Ky. University, working toward a degree and teaching certificate. The car happened to be ready for some testing on a weekend when she was "up" from Bowling Green. I played the idiot and insisted she drive it around the parking lot. The reason that was not a smart suggestion is because she is the reason for the only clutch I ever had to replace in a Volkswagen Beetle. Her technique for launching the little Renault on the sloping parking lot was to hold in the clutch and the accelerator until the engine sounded like it was going to disintegrate and then lift both feet at the same time. A car with a 747 cc displacement engine should not be able to lift the front wheels off the ground like that. She's the only person I've ever seen, or even heard of, pop a wheelie with a factory stock 4CV.
The little car made several round trips between Buffalo and Bowling Green. I cannot pinpoint the time because both my wife and I were too busy to think about photos. The car was licensed in 1975 and 1976, so it was driven at least one year but not more than two. At shopping malls in Bowling Green I sometimes deliberately used the hand crank to start it, just because it never failed to draw a small crowd. Old folks would smile, perhaps in memory of cars that started no other way, and kids would watch wide-eyed. One quirk of the car that I remember well was its ability to shift itself from 3rd to neutral if you hit a sufficient bump in the road at about 60 mph. There's a bridge on highway 61, just north of Magnolia, that was very consistent about this.
The lack of time and parts combined with the finances of college students and the wear of hectic 130 mile round-trip weekend trips finally caught up with the car. I hadn't had time to do a full restoration, just enough to pass the then-required state safety inspection and put it to some pretty heavy usage. It started to break down under the strain and lack of care. The unusual rubber bottom and tube of the master cylinder reservoir began a slowly increasing leak. The carburettor needed to be rebuilt, but no kit could be found. The two vertical posts under the front of the driver's seat broke free of the mount (the chunk of wood I used to hold it up for a while would probably have scared any police officer had one seen it). The speedometer needle simply fell off. The brakes were gone and the 6 volt system had troubles dealing with the worst days of winter. All of the problems demanded more time than I could spare at that time, so the little car was parked in the driveway by our "mobile" home. It served as a place to chain a little Pekingese named "Boogie" (that's his chain on the front bumper in the photo above) and as a conversation piece.
In 1978 my wife and I bought a small farm. We pulled the 4CV into the back of a van-bodied furniture delivery truck, loaned by Cassady's Cherry Reproductions, where I was working at the time. There was room around the car for lots of other accumulated junk. The little car was once again destined for a nest in a barn. We rolled it out of the truck, into the barn and up onto some old wheels laid on their sides. It has not been moved since.
[Correction: A relative who has long been interested in the car has reminded me that the old barn was not the first nest. The details are different; the effect (the car being un-driven for 27 years) is not. There was an old house on the place when we moved here. It appeared to have been constructed sometime in the 1920's or 1930's (during the Great Depression) in what is called "box" construction:
Beams are laid on individual large rocks to support floor boards. Exterior walls are formed by simply laying down rough-sawn boards with a length equal to the desired wall height then nailing another layer perpendicular to the first layer. These are then raised and nailed to the perimeter floor beams and to each other at the corners. These walls had a layer of newspapers from around 1927 applied to the inside, followed by a layer of tongue-and-groove pine. Rough-sawn ceiling joists span these with gable rafters above. Door and window openings can be cut anywhere since the walls are both "skin" and frame. It's a sturdy construction method, but uses a lot of lumber and nails and settles without regard to level or plumb-lines. Even worse, though, is the fact that this is a good way to arrange lumber to encourage a fire to burn faster.
I widened one opening and pushed the car into one of the two large rooms in the old house. The building had a hideous asphalt-base siding. The car stayed there until I tore down most of the old eye-sore and used the lumber elsewhere. It has been many years and I had forgotten.]
April 27, 2005 - It's time for the 4CV to be brought back to life. Our children are grown and have never ridden in it. The mad scramble of commuting and careers and raising a family is over and we once again have time to just do what we want.
I've been reading about electric car conversions, reading a lot, and then some more, and still more (you get the idea), and have decided I want some of this fun.
An assessment is in order:
I left this uncropped just so you can see the junk that the little car has
gathered around itself over the years. Nobody warned me of its strange nesting
On to the next part...
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Copyright 2005 Terry Vessels
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