Once again, we pour hot oil and scorn over some of the motoring misery of days gone by.
This time, it’s the French and the Renault 21. Mike Humble gets the pain and misery out of his system once and for all with his personal hatred for Renault’s answer to the Cavalier, Montego and Sierra…
I make no bones about the fact I adore certain French cars, the Citroën CX for example was and still is, a car which floats by and makes me go weak at the knees owing its swooping and almost surreal body lines. Drive one too and they reward you with a cosseting ride, able road manners with oodles of space and comfort – all wrapped up in a world of lunacy which rather oddly makes perfect sense once acclimatised. Another example is the Peugeot 406 – a decently sized, yet slightly bland looking family hold-all which munches up the miles like no other Eurobox saloon can. A car so smooth and relaxing we owned a brace of diesel LX and a 2.0 petrol version.
Tug with aggression on the chunky steering wheel and the effortless Pug turns into a joy to pilot, with a seemingly limpet like ability to cling to the bends making you feel like Senna at Monaco rather than Stuart the sales rep in Milton Keynes. But rewind your Videostar to the 1980s and you will find something went rather wrong at Renault. Even though the ‘Supercinq‘ (5) was on offer, it was great little car which sadly was launched before its designer could witness the success. Renault lost the main ingredient that made their cars different to the palate – flair.
And if things couldn’t get any worse, someone saw fit to bestow the ultra-awful Renault 9 saloon with the Car of the Year ’82 award back in 1981 – yes that’s right folks, the motoring journals viewed the dumpy Renault as a better design than the J-Type GM Cavalier/Ascona. We laugh and scoff at old school Renaults, but they shifted some serious numbers in both the UK and Europe. Ask a retired cab driver his thoughts on the Renault 18, for example, and he’s bound to recall the soft seats, the relaxing ride and credible leg room – features that have always been synonymous with family sized French saloon cars.
Move forward a few years and the popular Renault 18 was gradually deleted out of the range. The 18 was a huge sales hit, so whatever was to replace this needed to have that Gallic mixture of smooth riding, different styling and keen pricing. Its replacement was the Renault 21 that was launched on the UK scene in 1986, larger in stature to the outgoing 18, it was also considerably bigger to home spun brands from Austin, Ford and Vauxhall. Whereby the old 18 was looking tired and outdated in the face of rivals such as the excellent Cavalier and tour de force Ford Sierra, the 21 aimed to be modern, sleek and like no other Renault design before.
Sadly, things never went to plan with the Renault 21, the fit and finish of this all new car left a great deal to be desired. Interior plastics were brittle to the touch and potential buyers were left feeling the whole car both inside and out was designed with a set square. Even though this new model was blessed with a cosseting ride quality, the steering, especially on the larger power units, felt podgy and suffered from alarming understeer. The best handling standard model was the entry level 1.7 which had a traditional east west engine layout. Due to packaging constraints; larger engines featured installation in an Audi-style north-south layout giving the car an unhealthy front end weight bias.
My own experience with the 21 came in the form of an emergency part collection job some years back. The company Astra van had blown up and its guts were lying on a grubby work bench, the workshop manager was away on holiday but had left his three year old company 21 on the premises. Grabbing the keys, I sped off from Northants in the direction of Lincolnsome 80-odd miles away at midnight. The lingering memory of a gutless engine, clunky gear change and lifeless spongy brakes still make me shudder with both disgust and anger. The car had a flat spot and distant miss fire of such proportions that it could almost make you weep.
The huge driver’s seat had support akin to plastic garden patio furniture. So shocked I was at the misery of this big Renault, I almost spun round and took my own steed (a Cortina Crusader I recall) to complete my mission. Nevertheless, I soldiered on towards Lincoln where it started to pour down. It was somewhere on the A46 in driving rain disaster struck and I almost wished that the great Lord would strike me down. As a young mechanic is expected to do, I took a roundabout at a speed you and I would now regard as being optimistic. Any other car, even a Marina on crossply tyres would have took the bend with aplomb, but not the bloody Renault.
With considerable loss of grip, the car slid and clonked the high kerb on the edge of the road thus wrecking the rim and tyre on the nearside front corner. So there I stood dripping wet David Banner style changing the wheel. The rest of the episode went without incident until my lighter ran out of gas on the A1. I noticed the cigar lighter had been used before and the ashtray contained a few nubs so I pressed it in to light up my growler and waited… and waited. Nothing happened for a while, so in the same manner your dad would have sorted the rolling picture on an old TV set, I thumped the console, and yet another disaster took place.
The cigar lighter popped into the air glowing like a bloom furnace and rolled under the driver’s seat duly preceding the melt the carpet. Sliding to a halt somewhere near Spalding, I urgently started to rummage around in the dark for the lighter before it torched the interior only to hear over my shoulder ‘everything okay sir?’ from a Lincolnshire traffic plod. Telling him my plight, he quickly came back with his thermos flask and threw the entire contents under the driver’s seat. Leaving the lay by with his words of ‘be more bloody careful in future son’ the arrival back to Northampton never felt so good.
Shoddy build quality, wonky handling in poor conditions and a nasty interior gave me the conclusion that the Renault 21 was rubbish. Later models addressed some of the quality and reliability issues while the Quadra Turbo models were disturbingly rapid. Sadly, the 21 was always seen as an also ran car when stacked up against the competition.
Later versions also featured more pleasing styling touches and the Savanna estate was almost hearse like in size, but the 21 range was left to limp and stumble on until its replacement in the shape of the Laguna – then the misery started all over again!