I arrived at the 2017 Carroll Shelby Cruise-In on the top level of the Petersen Automotive Museum parking structure expecting to see a big gaggle of American cars. And I did. Cobras, GT350s, Daytonas, lots of sleek muscle. But there was something else, too. Back in a corner, separated from the thrumming V8s, sat something very un-American. And so I met Ben Zinnen standing proudly next to his vintage Renault sedan, something I’d never before seen on U.S soil.
One week later Ben and I reconvened at his house in East Los Angeles to get the full story on his bold little box of a Renault. Here’s a lightly edited summary of our conversation.
Jonathan Harper: What is that sitting behind you?
Ben Zinnen: It is a 1966 Renault R8 1132 Major.
JH: How did you end up with this car?
BZ: Well, I started in Vespas. I was looking for the most similar thing to a Vespa in an automobile sort of realm. Being an Italian motorcycle and scooter guy, I was looking at Fiats and things like that. There were some out there, but when I saw the R8 it really caught my eye.
I wanted something already in California, from the pre-1975 era. I wanted something rear-engined, easy to work on, and something that looked different than most automobiles. I found the R8 on eBay after searching for a while on Craigslist. I ended up buying it for I think $2000.
JH: Why the rear engine preference?
BZ: Everything is easy to access. Only being an 1100 cc engine it’s just very easy to get in there. Everything isn’t crammed into the front, just makes it very simple.
JH: Have you changed anything since you bought it?
BZ: Well the first few months I spent underneath the car scraping away the loose rust. And then I got into the mechanical stuff. My friends and I pulled the engine. We haven’t done much, but I did have everything generally cleaned up. We put in a new main seal, new gaskets, things like that. I did change a lot of small things like the fuel pump and I put electronic ignition in, which made it a lot more of a reliable vehicle. Transmission-wise I haven’t done anything to it except changing the gaskets.
JH: What kind of transmission is that?
BZ: It’s just a four-speed. Same four-speed that was used in a lot of the other Renaults like the Caravelle. It’s fairly easy to find parts. There’s actually a guy near San Diego called Jacques Rear Engine Repair, and he was another reason I bought the car. I knew there was always a source close by. He’s been great. It’s been fairly smooth all the way through.
JH: How has the Renault been reliability-wise?
BZ: It’s been good. In the beginning I had a little bit of a problem with the charging system, but I’ve upgraded that. I can now drive essentially anywhere and, cross my fingers, not be worried. When I first got it, I ran a flush through the engine and all kinds of corn and rodent remnants came out with it. I pulled the oil pan out and found more corn and all kinds of seeds. Something had lived in there for a while.
JH: What’s the furthest trip you’ve taken it on?
BZ: I’ve owned it for 3 years now, and I haven’t taken it too far. This summer will be the true test. I’m hoping to participate in the California Melee in September, a three-day 750-mile classic sports car rally.
JH: Do you have any sense of this car’s backstory?
BZ: It was purchased in El Paso, TX from what I can gather. The dealer sticker is still on the back window. It was then shipped to Michigan, I believe with the same family. I think they moved up there. Then the guy I eventually bought it from, the guy who was selling it on eBay, saw the car and said, “There’s something odd about this car, I’ve never seen one.” He saved it from going to the crusher. He paid $150 for it. When I received the car it had a jerry can stuck in the back in place of a gas tank. The gas tank was really non-existent. It had rusted away almost completely. The day it arrived my dad drove it to my driveway, and after looking at the brakes and the fuel system, I don’t know how he did it. It wasn’t in good shape.
JH: What does the future hold for this car?
BZ: Future plans! Well, I need seat belts, so that would be the first future plan. I’d like to put a roll-cage in. This car has the non-crossflow engine. It’s not the Gordini spec or anything. It’s very basic. I don’t want to do too much because I think that plays into the reliability factor, but I would like to put some side-draft Webers on it. The Webers wouldn’t really do much for performance, but it would look great. [laughing] That’s the next phase.
JH: What’s your favorite thing about driving the R8?
BZ: The agility. It’s a very nimble car. I haven’t put the wide tires on, like a lot of people do. Some people put 5-6-inch wide tires on but that affects the steering. It’s not as nimble. The temptation is always there. There are quite a few of these cars in Mexico, so there’s actually a pretty active aftermarket for the R8. Otherwise for wider rims and things like that you have to go through France, which can get pretty expensive.
JH: Has it been easy to find parts?
BZ: The guy in San Diego can have most parts here within two days. I’m on eBay Italy and eBay France so much anyway because of the motorcycles, in secondary markets like those you can actually find pretty good deals. Trying to find resources outside is always more fun than using my guy in San Diego.
One invaluable resource for me has been the Aussie Frogs bulletin board in Australia. Those guys have been fantastic. You put a question up and literally 15 minutes later you have an answer, I go to them for pretty much all my mechanical questions. Depending on the time of day, I’ll usually have an answer within minutes. It’s incredible. If you have a French car, join Aussie Frogs.
JH: You mentioned your wife has a Fiat 500 Abarth; how does the Renault R8 stack up to the Abarth?
BZ: Well...[laughing]. They’re both small cars, they’re both agile. Obviously the Fiat 500 is gonna have a more of a guttural sound, and that’s where I would like to get the R8 exhaust, to have that incredible guttural sound. But as far it being like a skateboard, it’s the same thing. you really get that small car feeling.
JH: That’s probably where the similarities end.
BZ: [laughing] Probably!
JH: What’s been the most surprising thing about owning this tiny little French car?
BZ: Well, I’d never driven one before. This is actually the only one I’ve ever seen in the flesh. The most amazing thing about cars, especially when compared to a motorcycle, is how much money you can spend on the most inane thing. You can spend an inordinate amount of money, and you can get stuck on one thing. The brakes had to be changed two or three times because of slight variances in between the years. It would have been smart to buy a whole new system. It probably would have cost me half the price, as opposed to having someone go through the brakes.
After spending months on my back on an unpaved driveway, in the dirt, underneath the car, going through all the cables and scraping off all that rust, treating the underside of the car, at that point I was like, “I’m done getting underneath this car.” So I actually had someone do the brakes. But, yeah, it’s surprising how you can get stuck on one thing. With a motorcycle it’s all open and very easily accessed. With a car, it really helps to have a lift.
Follow Ben on Instagram @Forzamacchi.