1974 Renault R12

With the VW van a no-go, I was forced to return to school without a car. I knew it wasn't a necessity, but I still didn't like having to live without wheels. I got through the Fall semester, but I was pretty miserable not being able to go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted. But by the Spring semester, my new friend Brad came to the rescue. As part of the bargain for him to buy my Citroen, he acquired a 1974 Renault R12 in good condition, and sold it to me cheap.

The car was a small, 4-door sedan. It had a 4-cylindar engine that had the same ass-backwards front wheel drive configuration that the Citroen had. The dash board was simple but elegant. The ass-backward engine layout mandated rather complicated shift linkage, and gear shifting took some getting used to. My experience with the VW van proved very helpful. It didn't set any speed records, but it had fully independent suspension which gave it remarkably good handling. While the interior was not spacious, it did make very effective use of the space it did have. For what was essentially a low-end economy car, both the front and rear seats were remarkably comfortable. While the body styling was nothing special, it was a clean design, and was rare enough to make it distinctive.

I hadn't specifically been a Renault fan. I was aware of them, but didn't think much of them one way or the other. But this car made me a convert. It's combination of basic simplicity and comfortable sophistication was unique in the automotive world. It paled in comparison with the Citroen, but so did its complexity and maintenance requirements. My appreciation for French cars in genearl, and Renault in particular, was growing.

Here I am pictured with Brad and his R12 wagon

This picture compares the wagon and sedan models

I drove the R12 throughout the rest of the school year. It performed well on long trips and short. By the end of the year I found work at a Summer camp in Connecticuit. I would be gone all Summer. I packed all my belongings in the little car, and off I went. It did just fine, and it got me around the area, but at one point the alternator failed. It was an easy fix, but I was not in a position to locate a replacement at the time. To tide me over until I was back home, I just bought a battery charger and juiced it up every few days.

About half-way through the Summer I decided to take a couple weeks off from my Summer job and set out on my first major road trip. Being a naive, fearless kid I had no qualms about embarking on this long journey without a working alternator. At first it wasn't a big problem. I set out through the Adirondack Mountains to my fraternity house. The car made it no problem, and I charged the battery overnight. When I left there I set out to Buffalo to visit a college friend. Again it did just fine, and I charged the battery again that night. It was a little like driving a modern, plug-in electric car.

With things working well, I got ambitious and decided to head to Washington DC to visit one a pledge brother who had just graduated. This would be the farthest distance I would attempt to go on a single charge. At first things were fine. I made it all the way through Pennsylvania and Maryland, and inside the beltway. But the directions I had been given weren't that great, and I had trouble finding a critical turn. I had to drive back and forth and back and forth searching for the turn-off, with the battery draining all the while. Finally I figured it out, found the turn, and I started seeing landmarks again. I was almost there. But I missed one last turn, and had to pull into someone's driveway to turn around. Wouldn't you know it, the car died before I could back out onto the street again. I was actually in a pretty swanky neighborhood of Washington DC. I had no idea what kind of power borker lived in that handsome home. All I knew was I was blocking his driveway, and he'd probably be coming home from work soon. I had an Incredible Hulk moment where I mustered up super-human strength on pure adrenalyn. I would heave the car back a couple inches, use my own foot as a wheel chock, suck it up, and heave it back again. I actually managed to get it out of the driveway and onto the street, and then stood panting for a few minutes. Once I collected myself and looked back at the directions, I determined that I was close enough to my destination that I could walk the rest of the way. My pledge brother's landlord drove me back with some jumper cables, and we got the car back to the house where I could charge it up again.

From here I went up to visit another fraternity brother on the Jersey shore. I made it there on one charge. After that I went to see yet another fraternity brother who lived on Long Island. I went up past Manhattan and over the Cross-Bronx Expressway. I was a little freaked out on that stretch, because the scene looked like something out of the Road Warrier. The shoulder was littered with derelict wrecks that had been totally stripped out. I knew that if my car died there, it would become just another one of them. But I got through okay, and quickly hit the Long Island Expressway. I still had enough juice to keep going.

Everything was good. Or so I thought. This being my first major solo road trip, I was not yet aware that my sense of direction was such that given a 50/50 chance, I had an uncanny predilection for going the wrong way. And that's what happened. Rather then head East out to the island, I somehow managed to head West, and towards Manhattan. It took me a while to figure out why the skyline kept getting closer. But finally I realized what I'd done, and had a total freak-out. I wasn't freaking out over the low amount of charge left in the battery as much as the sheer terror of getting lost in NYC with a low amount of charge left in the battery. I very quickly found myself at the toll plaza for the Mid Town Tunnel. I was good and goddammed if I was going to pay a toll to get into the city just to turn around and pay another toll to get back out, so I kind of nudged a traffic cone out of the way, made an illegal u-turn, and headed back out on the Long Island Expressway.

At least I could relax now. I was headed in the right direction and the car was still running. But a half-mile later I came over a rise in the highway, and I saw outstretched before me rush-hour traffic moving bumper-to-bumper for as far as the eye could see. I knew this would totally kill the battery, and I was sunk. But rather than panic, I pulled off an exit, found some random strip mall, snuck behind to the alley where deliveries were made, and plugged the battery charger into the first outside outlet I could find. In fact it worked rather well, because the rush-hour traffic thinned out while I was waiting. I made it to my friend's fine.

While I was visiting this guy, I almost drown swimming in the insane ocean surf whipped up by Hurrican Gloria down in North Carolina, but that's another story. A couple days later I was on the ferry across the Long Island Sound, and headed back to Connecticuit where I would finish out my Summer job.

I made one more shorter road trip before the end of the Summer. This one turned into a disaster. I got caught up in a huge back-up at the Newberg-Beacon Bridge, but this time the problem wasn't the battery. The car started overheating. I pulled off the road to check things out. The overflow bottle had plenty of coolant in it, and I was naive enough to think that meant that the radiator had enough coolant in it. It didn't. With no clear alternative, I just kept driving it, and wound up cooking the head gasket. I got home and had Brad check it out with me. When he realized what I had done he wanted to kill me. But he was gracious enough to help me pull the head and replace the gasket. But I had to call my Summer job and tell them I wouldn't be coming back for the last couple weeks.

I continued to drive the R12 for my final year of college. By this time I had replaced the alternator, and the car was back to performing very well. The body, however, after having survived two Northcountry winters and my general negelct, was beginning to rust rather badly.

After I graduated, with nothing better to do and nowhere else to go, I moved in with my pledge brother in Washington DC. It transported me and all my belongings, and performed very well in my daily commute through the hectic Washington DC traffic. At one point the muffler basically disintegrated, but by this time I had my motorcycle down there as well, so I just rode that and left the R12 parked.

Alas my time in DC was all too brief. I rode the motorcycle home and returned later for the R12. If I had been a little more resourceful I would have cobbed the exhaust system together just to get it back home, but instead I paid top dollar for a professional repair. By this time the rest of the car had almost entirely disintegrated as well. The new exhaust system was the only solid part of the car. I actually had to put pieces of wood on the passenger side floor so that things wouldn't fall through to the road surface below. Winter was coming, and I knew that it wouldn't make it to Spring. I sold it back to Brad, who intended to transplant the engine and drive train into a solid R12 that had a dead motor. By this time I had driven this car significantly longer and farther than any other car I had ever owned. I would gladly jump at any opportunity to own another one like it.

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