When I went to Germany in 1984, our family’s only vehicle was still that Chevy van with the unattached rear seat. Dad may have been content to let his children rattle around loose as he drove us around town, but something about a 120-mile Interstate trip from South Bend to O’Hare Airport made him think twice. Dad borrowed my grandparents’ car for the trip.

While I was gone, Dad decided it was finally time to buy a car. When I flew home from Germany, the family picked me up at O’Hare in this 1983 Renault Alliance.

This wasn’t just any Renault Alliance; it was the top-of-the-line Renault Alliance MT. The MT stood for Motor Trend magazine, as this car had been named the Motor Trend Car of the Year. The car had a little plaque on the dash that read “Motor Trend” and “1200” – apparently Renault thought these cars were special enough that they numbered them. The Alliance MT had every option and was, by 1983 standards, totally tricked out. My favorite options were the AM-FM-cassette stereo and the three-way front seats. A clever “rocking” adjustment set the entire seat’s angle, making it comfortable for tall and short drivers alike. This was a very small car, after all – the rear seat was a torture chamber for all but the vertically challenged. My brother and I, at 5’10” and 6′, knew that all too well. Mom is 5’2″; she loved the just-her-size Renault.

Just after I got my driver’s license, a friend from my Germany trip started her freshman year at Notre Dame and wanted me to come see her. So I borrowed the Renault and headed across town. As I came off South Bend’s only in-town onramp I managed to hit a low concrete divider, shredding the left front tire. I mean, that tire was destroyed. And then it turns out that Discount Tire had put one of the lug nuts on at a slight angle. Did you know that when you do this with a high-powered pneumatic lug wrench, the nut instantly fuses to the stud? I’ll spare you the details of just how beside-himself angry Dad was and skip to the part of the story where we drove the car on the rim to get it repaired. Discount Tire, at least, considered the flat to be covered by the road-hazard warranty. I never made it to see my friend.

Our dog couldn’t work the clutch.

Just before my senior year in college, Dad sold the van and bought himself a Ford Escort. He told me I could take the Renault with me to school. But a few days before I was to leave, my brother had a minor accident that creased the front left fender. We were sure that Dad would put my brother through the grinder over it and probably make him get it repaired right away – and I’d never get the car. So we engaged in a bit of subterfuge. For the next few days, we parked the car at home in ways that limited Dad’s likelihood of seeing the damage. But when I had to load the car for the trip, Dad wanted to help. My brother thought fast and said, “Dad, just bring Jim’s gear to the door, and I’ll load it in the car.” It worked. When I got to Terre Haute, I put the car right in the body shop, and sent my brother the bill.

It was on the trip to Terre Haute that I learned another of the Renault’s great features: it got 45 miles to the gallon! Its light weight, 1.4-liter engine, and 5-speed transmission equalled top fuel economy. That was great news for someone who still thought $10 was a lot of money. I could drive approximately forever on a tank of gas! The tradeoff, however, was that the car was slow. I mean, this car was sloooooow. It had trouble getting out of its own way. One day, I took it out on a deserted highway, clicked a stopwatch, and punched it as hard as I could. It took 45 seconds to get that car to 60 miles per hour! If you think that’s bad, I had a girlfriend who also had a Renault Alliance, but hers had an automatic transmission – and it was even slower.

By now it was 1988. Alliances had been on the road for several years and were gaining a  reputation for poor reliability. Ours had only 75,000 miles on it, but it started to fall apart. The first repair was when a fuel injector failed, to the tune of $236.98. I’ll never forget that price because as a broke college student it shocked me to the core! Then the clutch failed. I had a rebuilt clutch installed for $400. One frigid day, the driver’s door handle came off the car in my hand when I tried to get in. The door wouldn’t latch, and I had to hold the door shut as I drove the car to a mechanic. Did you know that no matter how hard you’re holding onto an unlatched driver’s-side car door, when you make a left turn it’s going to open?

The cassette deck died that year, too, and I couldn’t afford to replace it. Because I went to engineering school, I had plenty of budding electrical engineers as friends. One of them said he thought he could fix it, so I removed it from the dash and handed it to him. Weeks went by. I asked about it, and he said he was working on it. More weeks went by. I went to his room to check on it, and found that he had un-soldered every last diode and capacitor from the circuit boards. Each bit was carefully placed and labeled on newspaper spread across his room. I thought my poor tape deck was a goner! But he found a single diode that had failed, replaced it, soldered the whole thing back together, and installed it in the dash. The cassette deck worked again! But ever after, turning on the radio also turned on the parking lights.

I had my first white-knuckled driving moments in that car. I’ve already written about the time I spun it halfway through the town of Fulton. Another day I was driving at night down a lonely state highway in a downpour when a semi passed me. Not only did the water pouring off its tail blind me, but the turbulence knocked me out of my lane. I slammed on the brakes and stopped inches from a farmer’s fence.

Then there was the day I couldn’t avoid a giant pothole. I shredded another tire and knocked the front end out of alignment. I was hopping mad about it and started making phone calls because somebody was going to pay for this damage and it wasn’t going to be me! The short of that story is that the Terre Haute city attorney determined that the pothole was in CSX Railroad’s right-of-way. It turns out that a railroad has to maintain the pavement within so many feet of a crossing. So I called CSX and, with considerable tenacity, got through to someone with the right authority and explained my story. He didn’t flinch; he cut me a check.

After I graduated and got a job, Dad wanted his car back so my brother could drive it his senior year at school. I bought a new Chevy Beretta and Dad and my brother came to get the Renault. My brother drove it that year and most of another. By this time the Renault was having more serious mechanical issues and didn’t always start. Dad wanted to sell the car to my brother for $1,000. My brother offered $500 but thought even that was too generous as he had put $500 into it just keeping it running. Dad dug in and they couldn’t negotiate a deal. My brother eventually decided to just pay Dad the grand, but before he could write the check a teenager in a beater Ford Maverick with neither insurance nor license plate ran a red light and T-boned the hapless Renault.

My brother wasn’t hurt but the car was a total loss. The insurance company wrote my dad a check for $1,500. My brother still gets mad when you bring up the story of how he could have broken even on the old clunker.

My goodness, I think the only car or driving story I didn’t link to here was the one about my Ford Pinto. And look, now I have.


11 responses to “Das Renault”

  1. Aaron Moman Avatar

    The cassette deck repair story is classic nerd! I love it.

    1. Jim Avatar

      You can imagine how my heart sank when I saw my tape deck’s bits strewn across my friend’s room!

  2. Joy Jensen Avatar
    Joy Jensen

    I loved my 1988 Renault Alliance! Black, automatic and digital display dashboard. I loved that car long after I totaled it side-swiping a semi, bouncing off the highway divider and accidentally throwing it into Park at 70 mph on a Canadian highway. I still miss my Renault. *sniff*

    1. Jim Avatar

      Joy, if the collision damage didn’t do your poor little car in, Park at 70 mph certainly did! Those Renaults were made out of aluminum foil, or so it seemed. I once witnessed a head-on collision between an Alliance and a Ford Escort. The Escort could drive away; the Alliance was a goner.

  3. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    This is a great story. I actually chuckled right out loud for several seconds when I read the part about the radio turning on the parking lights. Too good. :D

    1. Jim Avatar

      I still scratch my head over how the tape deck was in any way related to the parking lights!

      1. Lone Primate Avatar
        Lone Primate

        I once had a short circuit in my steering column that kept my brake lights from working (except, strangely, for the eye-level one in the rear window). The double-duty the wiring in a car pulls just to save a couple of bucks in copper can be astounding. :)

  4. David Avatar

    Wonderful car story, Jim. You got a lot more “fun” out of it than just driving!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks, David! Most of my cars have been fun in one way or another. Well, except for the two family cars I’ve owned. I’ll share about those next.

  5. Roger Meade Avatar
    Roger Meade

    A great story.

    We have an Alliance story too. So, in early ’94 we had just bought a new Dodge Intrepid for my wife to drive. We took it on a road trip to far northern Michigan to visit our daughter and her husband in Iron Mountain in January. We left Flint after I finished an afternoon shift job. It was already about 10 below zero. We had some wine in the trunk among our travel gear. The further north we drove, the colder the overhead readout got, minus 15, minus 20!

    We got to Iron Mountain about 9:00 am, started emptying the trunk and discovered the wine had frozen and pushed the corks out of the bottles!

    That night was clear with a full moon. Every chimney in town was smoking straight up without stop. The temp went to -35f.

    The next morning we decided to go out for breakfast. We would take the new Intrepid of course. It refused to start, or even make much of an effort in that direction. After a few minutes outside, my pant legs felt like stovepipes. My daughter’s car also would not start.

    My son-in-law jumped into his beat up, worn out, black (was there ant other color?), Alliance, and it started immediately. So we all climbed into the little car that could, bundled up like eskimos, and got to breakfast a bit late.

    Roger Meade

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Your SIL got one of the good Alliances then. By the end, ours refused to start 3 days out of 5. My brother drove it daily by then and had a whole host of tricks he used so that it could take him to work.

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