There’s a lot of things that can shape the design of a car, and very often those things have nothing to do with the needs of the consumer or the best technical solution or the human perception of beauty. Sometimes, a car is shaped entirely by a legal loophole. That’s the case with this car, the Renault 4S Mini.
I’m sure to many of you, this car looks at least somewhat familiar. That’s because it’s basically a version of the famous Renault 4, the tough, cheap little front-wheel drive wagon that was a very popular people’s car all over the world, with over eight million built between 1961 and 1992. Even the Pope has one!
Of course, it’s not exactly a Renault 4. The R4 was a little four-door wagon. This looks like some misshapen two-door hatch, or fastback. Seeing that familiar face on that weird body is sort of like seeing that dog with the people-face from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You know, this guy:
Why the banjo music? Is that the sound human-faced dogs make?
I don’t mean to imply that the Renault Mini 4S (I’ve also seen it as Renault 4S Mini) is as bad as that human-faced dog. I’d much rather have the Renault instead of that beardy little freak any day.
The two-door fastback body doesn’t provide any real advantages over the standard four-door Renault 4 body. In fact, it’s arguably much less useful, with less cargo room, more difficulty in accessing the rear, and questionable looks at best. So why does this thing exist at all?
The answer has to do with the fact that the Renault Mini 4S was only ever produced in Uruguay. Uruguay was importing normal Renault 4s, just like almost everywhere else in South America, but Uruguay – also like many of its continent-sharing countries, had massive tariffs on imported cars, to stimulate Uruguay’s domestic auto industry.
Renault 4s were being built next door, in Argentina by IKA, who produced many Renault variants, as well as interesting re-bodied Ramblers. Here’s an old commercial for the IKA Renault 4:
In Uruguay, the Montevideo-based IKA Renault importer, Santa Rosa SA, realized that the tariff only applied to fully-built cars. In a burst of creative loopholery, the company realized they could get around the painful (some sources say it was 60 percent!) tariff by importing unfinished, Renault 4-based commercial chassis from Argentina, and then building the rest of the car locally in Uruguay. Brilliant!
The unfinished commercial R4 was essentially an R4 with bodywork that ended right at the B-pillar. Not coincidentally, that’s where the R4S Mini’s unique bodywork starts.
No more doors are bothered with, so the car remains a two-door. The C-pillars take on a nice fastback rake, which on some versions of the car is the line of the hatchback tailgate, while on others those C-pillars just become flying buttresses, with a flat rear window and a horizontal trunk lid that opens onto the trunk like a clothes hamper.
I also really like that hump in the trunk lid to clear the spare tire. Why didn’t they just make the whole lid taller? It’s not like it would have ruined any of the elegant lines of the car.
The Renault Mini 4S is one of those fascinating cars that only makes any sense in one very specific place, at one very specific time. Most Uruguayans probably would have preferred a normal, four-door Renault 4, but not as expensive as they were. So, they made do with their own locally-built loopholemobile.
I think they have a certain goofball charm, anyway. I’d drive one.