The pug-nosed Renault Estafette is a quirky, cheaper VW Bus alternative
As Volkswagen Bus prices smash through the mesosphere to join Elon Musk’s Cybertruck on Mars, living the #vanlife becomes more expensive than settling for a suburban two-story. If intergalactic travel isn’t your thing, financially speaking, there’s an alluring alternative to the Bus lurking right across the Atlantic—at a Black Friday-like price.
Meet the Renault Estafette. It’s drop-dead cool, more practical than a Bus, and much cheaper, because most collectors either forgot about it or never knew it existed. Introduced in 1959, it was briefly sold in the United States, where it went by either Hi-Boy or Petit-Panel, and in Canada, where it kept the Estafette nameplate Renault originally assigned it. While most long gone, the pug-nosed vans enjoy a small but loyal following in France. I borrowed a 1976 example to find out what it’s all about.
The Estafette represented Renault’s first attempt at making a front-wheel-drive vehicle, and clever packaging made it far more usable than its German rival. In a Bus, the cargo compartment is sandwiched between the engine bay and the front seats. In the Estafette, the four-cylinder is directly ahead of the front wheels, so it offers a flat, low, and unobstructed cargo compartment—which, considering its shockingly small footprint, is huge. The regular model stretches 160 inches long, 70 inches wide, and 76 inches tall, though longer and/or taller variants were once available. To add context, this Estafette is about three inches longer and two inches wider than a modern four-door Mini Hardtop, and eight inches shorter than a Bus.
A whole 70 inches isn’t much space for two seats and an engine, but you didn’t think you’d find a Chevrolet 350 behind the grille, did you? At launch, the Estafette’s only available engine was an 845cc four-cylinder rated at 32 horsepower. The 1108-cc, 45-hp four that appeared in 1962 was replaced in 1968 with a 1289-cc unit, which put 43 horses under the driver’s right foot. Renault kept variants of this engine in production until 1996, but that’s a different story for a different time. The Estafette was always water-cooled, and most variants came with a four-speed manual transmission that has one of the wackiest shift patterns I’ve ever seen.
Stepping inside feels a little bit like canyoneering. The driver’s door slides back, minivan-style, rather than swinging outwards. So far, so good. Now, drop whatever you’ve got in your hands, grab the handle attached to the A-pillar, put your left foot on the edge of the front bumper, and pull yourself up until your butt lands in the driver’s seat. The ignition barrel is on the right side of the steering column, and the parking brake is a lever right above the gas pedal, so starting the Estafette doesn’t involve an ounce of Gallic quirkiness. Speak your parting thoughts if you’re traveling with a passenger, though, because conversation is damn near impossible once the four-cylinder comes to life. It’s a relatively loud engine to begin with, but in this van it’s screaming only four inches from your ankle under a thin, poorly-isolated cover. Every explosion echoes throughout the cabin; it sounds like a sewing machine on dope.
Function over form was the Estafette design team’s guiding principle, so the shift lever simply pops up from the gearbox, as on certain vintage Alfa Romeo models. Shifting the four-speed manual requires putting your right arm behind you, like if you’re trying to hide a surprise from someone, and a significant amount of concentration until the shift pattern gets branded onto your brain. First gear is left and up, second is down from there, third is right and up, and fourth is down again.
Push in the clutch, put the transmission in first gear, realize that’s actually second, put it in first for real, and you’re off. Did you forget to close the door? That’s fine, the Estafette was designed to be driven with the sliding door open. There are no seatbelts, but there’s a factory-fitted chain (I can’t make this up, folks) that stretches across the door opening and latches onto the hinge to catch you if you start sliding out. It’s an admirably optimistic feature in a van where the driver performs crumple zone duties.
First gear is a stump puller, so you can race away from a stop sign, but you need to quickly find second. While 43 horsepower doesn’t sound like much, the Estafette weighs 2226 pounds, which makes it about as heavy as a modern-day Mazda MX-5 Miata. Its 65 pound-feet of torque allow it to keep up with modern traffic with relative ease until it runs out of breath at about 55 mph. The suspension is soft, so it bobs down the road like one of those parcel-shelf dogs—and the passengers feel every bump because they’re sitting over the front wheels. The brakes are there, which is all you can realistically ask of them.
Driving the Estafette across southern France brought back memories of the 1973 Bus I owned in the 2000s. It’s just as awkwardly charming, and, once you get the hang of it, equally relaxing. One of the main differences is that you can fit far more stuff in the Estafette than in the Bus, whether you’re into camping, mountain biking, hauling engines from the junkyard, or peddling pottery on-the-fly. Plus, you can load whatever you’re carrying through the three rear doors or the human-sized sliding door on the passenger side.
Renault made 533,208 examples of the Estafette between 1959–1980. Automotive jingoism ruled the commercial van segment during that era, so most of the production run remained in France. Germans bought Buses, Italians preferred the Fiat 238, and Brits had several home-brewed options to choose between, including the original Ford Transit. As you’d realistically expect given the model’s cargo-hauling vocation, many examples were driven into the ground by a succession of merciless owners. The good news is that old cars rarely die in rural France; they merely sit patiently waiting for a new lease on life, so finding a clean, straight survivor to drive as-is or to fully restore is relatively easy.
Plan to spend about 8000 euros (approximately $9000) for a turn-key van in good condition inside and out, or around 3000 euros (roughly $3400) for a dented, rough-but-running model with mismatched seats like the one shown here. Those figures correspond to panel vans; people-carrying minibuses, campers, and pickups command a premium because they’re not as common. The ultra-rare, Unimog-like Castor variant fitted with a Sinpar-developed four-wheel-drive system is the holy grail. Either way, if you’re buying in France, ask the seller for a valid contrôle technique, which is equivalent to a safety and emissions inspection in the United States and mandatory for all vehicles regardless of age or body style.
And, last but not least, live your best #vanlife by touring the French countryside in your Estafette. Check out tiny towns where every street is drenched in history, stop at roadside restaurants (try the duck), and go hiking off the beaten path. You’ll come home with a cool van, stories to tell from a memorable road trip, and more money in your pocket than your neighbor who just bought a Volkswagen Bus.