► Bulgin on the charms of the cheap hire car
► And the most charming of all, the Renault 4
► Flat glass; flat floor; flat out in every gear
There is a little-known department hidden deep within every serious automotive manufacturer, an enclave of madness nestled tight against the end of the production line. In this particular skunkworks a savvy car maker swiftly turns its regular product into that bastion of slipped-clutch abuse, the rental car. As is well known, every rental comes with just three factory-fitted options: a steering wheel mounted on the squint, an acute sub-dash rattle and a Mystery Stain tickling up the upholstery.
I like simple hire cars. When I'm picking up the tab I go category A and slum it in a cheapoid hatch. A summer's experimentation has proved that Europe's bargain baby is an Opel Corsa 1.0 from Avis. Piddling power, good balance on skinny tyres, OK brakes, select fourth gear and never lift: the Corsa is a Volkswagen Polo with a sense of humour. And one of my best drives last year was from Mugello to Bologna up the Mille Miglia route in a Hertz Fiat Uno which had a gearshift smooth as avocado flesh.
A week's fun waxing across Morocco in a Renault 4, however, was like meeting an old flame 15 years on. My father's first car was a 4; mine, too. Ten minutes behind the wheel of a 4 reminds you that this is one of the world's great practical cars, which automatically makes it as essential a holiday accessory as a family-sized pack of Imodium. Forget the Citroen 2CV (too weird, too tinny, too slow, too lentil soup), forget the Mini (too cramped, too joggly, too noisy, too Swinging London): as a car to slob in, the 4 beats both hands down.
Why do I like the 4? Lots of reasons: a superb ride; a great gearchange; lots of grip if you ignore the roly-poly-pudding-and-pieness which accompanies committed cornering; loads of room inside; spongiferous seats; flat glass; flat floor; flat out in every gear; the list goes on. And, of course, it is the only car I can drive deftly while wearing a pair of size 13 Wellington boots.
My latest Renault 4 was two-and-a-half years old, paraded 51,246km across the odometer and was reasonably shagged in every department. If a car could talk, what a tale this Renault might have told. It had taken a hit up the front and the dent had been neatly filled and primed, but not top-coated. It had a perimeter punctuated by scars, tweaks and ripples.
Paint was flaking off various welds, indicating that serious pummelling had been endured in a gamut of adventures unimaginable. Two door keys suggested one chapter of its autobiography should be entitled The Sideswipe. A curious series of transverse dents reprofiled the bonnet - either a barrier, tree or determinedly acrobatic camel had smote it a mighty blow at some time in the dim and distant.
I got this 4 back home to Marrakech in reasonable shape — the front track was skew-whiffed a shade and a young Moroccan lad had lobbed a rock at the offside rear door in the name of international sport: I forgave him, as I seem to remember kids did things like this in the days before Nintendo.
Driving a cheap hire car tends to redefine precisely what your basic transport needs are. No radio? Talk to your passenger or sing to yourself. Can't pass trucks uphill? Nuzzle past on the downside. Too much din at 70mph? Cruise at 60mph. And so on.
This 4 chugged from the Sahara to a pass 7000ft up in the Middle Atlas, started first time after zero-degree nights, and only failed once — wading a ford with a steep exit — when the clutch revealed its age by refusing to feed in neatly. So I reversed out.
This 4 was, in fact, the 4 GTL, sporting 1108cc where mine had been content with 845cc: this was, to a 4-buff, the 4 GTi. In fact, the only difference seemed to be that, at altitude, the big engine felt like the small engine, whereas the small engine would have felt like a food-processor flagellating treacle as the air got thinner.
I was disappointed to see that Renault had attempted to gentrify the last of the 4s: this one had a nasty centre console, a handbrake warning light and a choke warning light, as well as a heated rear window warning light (but no heated rear window) and a digital clock (which didn't work, naturally).
Of course, a number of companies have been trying to tart up the Renault 4 for years. Giugiaro and Fiat had a go; the result was called the Panda. There is nothing more difficult for a car manufacturer to do than produce a small, simple car that turns a profit. For a start, small cars cost as much to build, ship and sell as big cars, which eats into every margin. A swift look around the interior of the 4 tells you why Renault canned it; the inner structure is a patchwork of tiny panels flanged together with electro-spit welds. After all, monoside construction was unimaginable back in 1959.
And the punter doesn't really want a straightforward car, anyway. The same mentality which demands a digital clock in a Renault 4 drooled over metallic paint on a Panda — instead of the original BASF-grey scrape-proof midriff — silly graphics and an interior pulsating like a Beckenham disco.
Getting cynical about budget rental cars obscures their real role, however. In America right now there is a genuine concern that, as the market goes from bad to worse, rental cars actually hurt sales of new cars. This is the deal. Car company sells cars to rental fleet, buys back and sells on as a used model after just six months. Good business for the car company – more metal is moved – but bad news for the overall second-hand price of the model. Similar shenanigans happen over here, too.
You might think the prime job of a renter is to provide an opportunity for guilt-free hooliganism – when some of my pals refer to the Collision Damage Waiver as the thrash’n’smash clause, I don’t think they were entirely joking – but, in fact, major rental companies are the world’s leading surveyors of second-hand nearly new cars and, as such, soak up excess production capacity. Even if each model flogged off to Joe Public has a lopsided steering wheel, an ineradicable facia creak and an impromptu Rorshach test smeared cheekily across the rear seat.