Bangernomics: Taking on the Alps in a Renault 4

Ben Coombs buys a Renault 4 unseen off the internet… in Slovenia. Then sets out to drive it... back to the UK. What could possibly go wrong? Well...

As the plane dropped below the cloudbase for the first time, Ljubljana – Slovenia’s laid-back-to-horizontal capital city – appeared before me. My ‘person in Slovenia’ collected me from the airport and soon we were hurtling into town, slaloming through the light traffic in a feisty old Kia Pride which had made the journey out from the UK a month before.

Nestling amid green mountains and luxuriating in a climate which blends the best of both mountain and Mediterranean influences, Ljubljana is pretty much the most pleasant capital city you can ever spend time in. It was almost a shame when the purpose for my visit impeded on relaxing in the well preserved old town, sipping Lasko beer and watching the world go by.

But impede it had to, because back in the UK a week earlier, in what felt like a completely rational course of action, I’d placed a 100 Euro deposit on a 30-year-old Renault 4 which I’d never so much as set eyes on. The Renault – or Benault, as it was quickly named – looked okay, and so soon the deal was done with the previous owner. Beer in hand, naturally.

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Buying the car seemed to be the easy part, however. As the Benault wasn’t registered, it had no numberplates. To get temporary plates, it needed the Slovenian equivalent of an MOT, llocally recognized insurance and various other mundane things which generally cost money.

However, we were lucky in that Matjaz – the previous owner - knew the system well enough to quickly rattle through such obstacles, and after a few hours of pen pushing and euro-peeling, the Benault was registered, insured, taxed, MOT’d and fitted with temporary numberplates; ready for the long drive back to the UK. A few more days chilling in Ljubljana and it was time. One gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon in May, I hit the road.

Slovenia is truly a jewel of a country; an enchanting blur of farm, forest and mountain which rises from the lapping waves of the Adriatic Sea to the cloud piercing summits of the Julian Alps. My two-hour drive to the Italian border took in the best of this tiny nation.

I looped past Bled, where a fairytale church floats on an alpine lake amid soaring crags heavy with castles. Past the still snow-smothered slopes of Mount Triglav; the lofty symbol of a nation enchanted by the outdoors. And past the switchbacked splendour of the 1611m Vršič Pass, over which we’d manhandled the plucky Kia Pride a few days before.

Once the Benault was through the unmanned border with Italy, the Dolomites loomed large in its Landrover-esque windscreen. A succession of high passes guarded our route to the uber-stylish ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo, and my trusty steed was forced to leave the straight and fairly flat for the first time.

As we climbed and plummeted through soaring mountainscapes, the Benault’s character was slowly revealed. A sports car it is not. A meager 34hp was always going to make for slow progress across the Alps and, coupled to a chassis tolerating enthusiastic driving rather than encouraging it, and a gearchange which takes pride in its methodical slowness, our process could best be described as ‘stately’.

But this unrushed yet stalwart character meant there was all the more time to admire the views. And if there’s one thing the Dolomites have wired, its views. Slaloming towards the setting sun, the snow-draped mountains just kept on coming, ethereal in the oblique light. And so did the amazing roads, rising to over 1800m in places, and being taken at a dignified plod by the Benault.

Night set as I headed south out of the mountains, avoiding the heavily tolled autostrada and instead following Italy’s take on A-roads towards the French border. As the ribbon developments lining the road became denser, so too did the traffic; frenzied traffic which took the Benault’s 50mph cruise as an affront and would do everything in its power to barge past.

Couple this with rough, potholed roads and the challenge of navigating off a rather inadequate map, and falling asleep was never a risk. I felt my way through the night towards a milky sunrise above the relentlessly flat countryside west of Turin, where a puncture halted the Benault for the first time, almost 500 miles into its journey.

Buoyed on by the new day, I changed the wheel and pressed on west, the Benault performing flawlessly, as it had done right through the night. Another sweeping high pass saw us forsaking Italy for France and stopping for breakfast in the ski resort of Briancon; a node of glamour amid the sea of mountains.

Once again, the Benault rolled past wave after wave of vertiginous peaks still bearing the last of the winter snows. The highpoint of the drive – literally – came near Briancon, when we summated the 2000m Col du Lautaret, then swept down the curves on the other side to Grenoble, arriving 22 hours and 750 miles after leaving Ljubljana.

Grenoble called for a spot of R&R, and so I spent the afternoon with a friend exploring the old town, taking in the cafe culture and relaxing by the river. The following day it was time to hit the road once again; north, to Fontainebleau.

Once again I was avoiding toll roads, and so the drive took the entire day, but there are few more pleasant ways to spend a day than pottering through the rolling French countryside in a classic car, stopping at cafes and patisseries when the whim takes you, and delighting in the dappling sunlight and clear, smooth tarmac which swept us north in a dreamlike trance.

In the beautiful Foret du Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, the weather changed. Blue became grey. Rain replaced warmth. Gusting winds rocked the Benault on its soft suspension. The pleasure of the slow drive north was eroded by the weather turning against me, and so rather than linger like an unwelcome guest, I made a dash for the ferryport.

Northern France is an open sweep of rolling farmland and melancholy towns which never quite seem to have escaped the weight of their history. As I left Ile de France and headed towards the Somme, the sky swept down towards the earth, pummelling it with torrents of rain.

Although it was only mid-afternoon, darkness overtook us, broken only by the strobing lightning which smashed into the earth. On and on through the maelstrom we pushed, the rain becoming heavier, the thunder more frequent until we were passing through one of the worst storms I have ever experienced.

The highway became deserted, other road users seeking shelter in lay-bys or on verges. Horizontal hail strafed us with a deafening roar, threatening to smash the Benault’s windows and blasting branches off trees into our path, which we swerved around, tyres spinning on the muddy torrent of water which the road had become.

Thunder and lightning came as one now, as if an artillery barrage had finally zeroed in on its target. And through it all, through the bombardment and shrapnel and lightning and driving hail, the little French car soldiered on, its wipers flailing, its wheels sliding and – against the odds – its demeanour still one of aloof disinterest.

And then, as we reached the Somme, it cleared. The hail stopped and the roar of thunder withdrew to become the distant rumble of artillery, echoing through the ages. The air was still, the light sombre. I parked at Vimy Ridge, where 100 years before, one of the pivotal battles of the First World War had taken place. I walked across the still-cratered, pulverised landscape to a memorial, upon which 12,000 names are engraved. The names of those who were never found.

A poppy wreath lay against the limestone; a token, futile gesture to those lost. Around me the humid air felt heavy; charged. Sheep grazed among the craters as I stood alone, imagining. A kestrel swooped on its prey. And then the thunderous rumble which sounded like artillery fire drifted closer, and the smoky darkness returned. And as I hurried back to the shelter of the car, the sky began to weep.

The violence of the storms never relented as I continued through the night to Calais, where the Benault boarded a ferry to its new home in Devon. And there, after a 1800 mile, 5-day adventure across Europe, the next adventure began – getting the mighty Benault road legal and registered in the UK.

But that, my friends, is a whole different story...

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