Against All Oddities: Renault Rescue!
There is a WhatsApp group chat between myself and two of my closest friends from my time living in Charleston, South Carolina. Connor, Philip, and I text almost daily, despite all of us leaving Charleston and ending up in very different places. Our conversation almost exclusively contains fresh snapshots of garbage cars, amid general automotive banter. It’s usually just idle chatter. Recently, it launched into high gear.
Philip is German, a former co-worker and a fiend for vintage Opels. He took care of my house in Charleston while I lived abroad, bought my Volvo 240, and then moved to back to Germany where he bought my Mk. 1 Renault Clio.
My story with Connor begins, as many friendships do, with an ad on Craigslist. He had an ad posted for a Geo Metro in Charleston and I, being a Peugeot 405 driver at the time, inquired to ask if that was truly a Peugeot 604 in the background of one of the photos. (It was!) We became fast friends, which was natural given our shared desire to fill our lives with strange, often horrible French cars. He now lives in Boston.
About two months ago—in flagrant violation of our group Terms and Conditions—a deluge of inappropriate images came pouring into the chat. You see, it’s expressly frowned upon to flood the conversation with available vehicles while one’s driveway is already full of recent retrievals. Otherwise, our hobby could accidentally spin out of control!
Connor’s offending photos depicted various neglected French cars laying dormant in a New England driveway: The daughter of an elderly Peugeot enthusiast reached out him in hopes of locating homes for five cars. She had little tolerance for fuss and dithering of any sort. Sadly, the elderly man’s wrenching days were behind him and the vehicles were more of a safety hazard than a hobby. The cars—three Peugeot 505 wagons and two Renault GTAs (gasp!)—were be free to whoever had the gumption to show up and give them the love they deserve.
I committed to at least one GTA. Connor laid claim to as many 505s as he could get.
Why would I agree to a round-trip 1800-mile boondoggle for such an unloved vehicle, the Renault GTA? I assume if you’re asking that question, you’re new here. So I’ll clarify: I love AMCs and j’adore French cars. I count myself very lucky to live in a world in which those two things converged.
Some history: The GTA was a one-year-only attempt by American Motors to bring a bit of excitement to the Kenosha-built Renault lineup. The recipe? Take a Renault 9 (aka Alliance) coupe, give it a 2.0-liter engine shared with absolutely nothing else, a unique close-ratio five-speed gearbox, massive (for an ’80s econobox) 15-inch Ronal wheels, stiffer suspension, bigger brakes, a body kit by Zender, great seats, and the steering wheel out of the iconic Renault 5 Turbo. I could go on about how great this plan was, however, it wasn’t. Production figures are iffy, but Renault sold maybe 3000 units before Chrysler purchased AMC and killed the whole thing.
Ok, off my soap box. On to the nonsense planning!
Plan A: The Dream Scenario
I saw a trailer hitch on one of the 505s in the teaser photos, which kicked off a vague hallucination of sorts:
- I would fly to New Haven with a bag of tools
- Connor would drive down from Boston with a trailer and pick me up at the airport
- We’d get the hitched 505 running
- We’d rent a dolly, towing one of the GTAs back South with the running 505
- Connor would trailer another 505 back to Boston and make a trip for the second GTA.
- The fate of the 5th car would be decided on the fly.
Such a wildly optimistic plan required a telehealth-style video diagnosis. Connor drove to Boston with a battery and some hand tools. While he was on site, I gave my phone undivided attention from the comfort of a Food Lion parking lot. With the help of jumper cables, some fresh gas, and starter fluid, Connor brought the car to a state that it could drive onto a trailer.
However, there was something about the 1) sparks shooting from the battery, 2) random flashing of dashboard lights, and 3) powerful cylinder misfire that urged us to at least consider a backup plan. Rotten tires and questionable braking ability further limited our options; barring a complete liquidation of my vacation-day balance for the rest of the year, this was never going to work.
Plan B it have to be. What was Plan B, again?
Plan B: The Reality Check
We conjured up a—relatively speaking—more reasonable scheme:
- The usual travel team (my wife plus Romanian street dog, Lukas) would drive up and tow home over a weekend
- To save some money, I would drag my neighbor’s forgotten tow dolly from the woods and bounce it up I-95 with my 4Runner
- We’d make an appointment for new rear tires on the more promising of the two GTAs, an assessment that would be determined on site
- Connor would arrive from Boston with a U-Haul
- Since Philip could only encourage from afar, another friend named Craig would schlep a second trailer and car back to the site of the French cars for retrieval
This left two of the French cars unaccounted for. In negotiating with the owner’s daughter, we agreed to figure out later how we’d procure the remaining as long as it didn’t turn into a debacle for them.
My wife Dana, Lukas, and I hit the road with plans to stop and
mooch a free night’s stay visit each of our families in Southside Virginia and Philly successively. Assuming all went well, that would land us in the New Haven area just before lunch. Thanks to some traffic we were a bit late, and by the time we arrived Connor’s chosen 505 wagon was already loaded up onto the trailer.
I started off by probing the two Renaults. The black GTA cabriolet immediately failed my “look underneath” test, for which the bar is rather low. The rear floors were caved in, and I was in no mood to perform extensive welding. Luckily, the faded red GTA looked exactly as I expected; a quick wiggle (and resulting lack thereof) of the rear wheel bearings told me it should be fine to drag halfway down the East Coast on new rear tires.
With time ticking towards my 1:00 p.m. date with the tire shop, I started evacuating mud dauber homes with an impact socket while the others tried to free a maroon Peugeot wagon from the grips of a brier.
The tire shop was genuinely confused about what I brought to them, but nevertheless accepted my filthy drop-off. While they were busy knocking off the rest of the dirty, gooey wasp homes, I went back to assist with the loading of the now-freed maroon 505 wagon.
Attempts to start it were met with uncomfortably hot battery cables and clicking noises. Rather than engulfing the neighborhood in a massive stale-gas-and-crunchy-plastic-fueled blaze, we elected to winch it onto Craig’s beautiful trailer. With new shoes, the GTA got shoved on to the dolly. To all of our surprise, the hardest part of that loading day was jostling trucks and trailers in and out of the tight, steep driveway and busy street. With only minutes left on our hands before sunset, we took a quick tour of a few sheds full of parts and grabbed a few items that seemed immediately useful. I snagged some mystery Koni shocks and a novelty gauge cluster from a LeCar.
Though we left two cars and the bulk of the spare parts for a future trip, everyone agreed that this was a monumental step in rehoming innocent vehicles. The elderly owners and their caretakers now have a safer, more navigable driveway, and the three of us were positively delighted with our free cars. I’m pleased to report that aside from the red GTA dribbling varnish out of the tank the entire way home, the trip was a complete success. Substantial restoration work has already occurred—more on that in a future article.