Against All Oddities: Renault Rescue!

Renault GTA! Matthew Anderson

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.

The Peugeot-flavored teaser image. Matthew Anderson

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!

GTA, driver’s ed edition. Matthew Anderson

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.

The Recon

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?

Matthew Anderson

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.

It may look like it, but Connor doesn’t actually need another Peugeot. Matthew Anderson

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.

Lukas and Dana have become accustomed to such scenes. Black GTA cabrio center, red GTA far left. Matthew Anderson

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.

All about making that GTA. Matthew Anderson

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.


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    I was about to award points for for being responsible and downright safe in your collecting of these cars. Then I remembered that these are old, decrepit French cars. So, let’s call it a wash.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the Renault. Although I know some had reliability issues, others were pretty solid. It honestly seemed like a good idea, after the gas crunch of the early 70’s and then again in the early 80’s. Here was a small car that rode and handled well and also looked good, although may not have been screwed together all that well. Honestly, though, not a lot of stuff was back then.

    Although it took some effort and time on your part to rescue these, like you said, at least they didn’t go straight to the junkyard. An you were just out a week of time. I hope they clean up well if nothing else you’ve got a story to tell.

    Hopefully they clean up well and can be passed on to someone

    I appreciate you writing about your adventures with these forgotten and unloved vehicles. It could be because I’m like minded and also an engineer. I’ve always said that the level of enjoyment I get out of my vehicles is inversely proportional to the amount of money tied up in it.

    I can’t remember ever seeing a Renault in central MS, but I do remember seeing one Citroen (DS I think?) around town when I was young in the early 90s. But I would’ve jumped on the chance to pick up all of these if they were within an hour or two of me.

    I loved my GTA cabrio! I eventually gave it to a friend to use as a Sunday driver on a restricted-use collector policy because I could not justify $1000 in frame welding to pass an insurance inspection for unrestricted use. I was able to find a timing belt set (the motor was in some other Renault, can’t remember what) and rear drums from Rockauto (probably for the Alliance it was based on), but switchgear for the windows was unobtainium, as was interior trim. For what it was, it ran beautifully, cornered like a lighter E30, and sipped fuel. Enjoy your GTA!!! Nice work, guys.

    In the 80’s I purchased an Alliance new. Generally a nice car. Comfortable up to 70 (no hills), top speed with a ski rack, 63mph!!!

    Having owned a total of 12 Renault 4CVs (never more than 3 at a time) dating back to 1963, plus a Mexican-assembled R4, you could say I kinda like ’em! My first one–which I still have–was my daily driver for 14 years, has been to at least 23 states, plus a jaunt to Mexico City (and back!) and a class winner (under 1 liter sedans) in 23 autocrosses. One of my current three is a completely original ’48 (1st year of production), the other is a one-of-one USA spec 56 convertible barn find that awaits restoration.

    On my recommendation (a scary scenario) my sister-in-law bought an Alliance when her Gremlin was totaled, and drove it daily in all sorts of downstate New York bad weather (she was a health care aide) and it served her for 12 years, 100k+ miles, and only was disposed of when the local AMC dealer refused to work on it. Amazingly, almost no rust.

    There was nothing wrong with French automotive engineering–it was just different. And it took Renault awhile to build their cars for American useage: 10-15,000 miles per year; interstate highway speeds, really cold winters. Once they got that figured out–with the 1963 R8, and subsequent models, they were reliable, inexpensive and economical. Japanese and Korean manufacturers had to go through the same learning curve.

    I had a ’55 4CV in 1965, I was 13 and learned to drive in it. We lived in rural South Carolina and owned 7 acres cross crossed with red dirt roads. I drove the He’ll out of that little car!

    Much like another ‘guest’ writer, Josh Arakes, Matthew your stories are a highlight of my Hagerty reading! And, like I suggested to Josh, I hope a full book of your trials and tribulations is documented. You could have European and American editions! Lukas is (likely) loving the experiences, but the look on Dana’s face is often an amused, ‘ugh’, as in photo #14.
    Can’t wait for the many follow up articles on the French Connection! Thanks for keeping the unusual and cool cars in our minds-eye and for the great stories!!

    I am from Wisconsin, and thanks to AMC we have a few of these old tin cans still around. My best friend in high school got an ’83 Alliance as his first car back in ’02. Thanks to that wonderfully fuel efficient but otherwise questionable RENIX throttle body injection system, coupled with the lack of car knowledge we 2 had at the time, starting it in the winter was a 2-man affair as one of us would be under the hood manually working the throttle body and liberally applying starter fluid, while the other was inside cranking it. By the time we gained enough knowledge to get the car starting reliably in our senior year of high school, the car was so far rusted away we scrapped it. Good times.

    There was a beautiful condition GTA at the Greensboro (NC) Classic Car Auction in early November. Astoundingly nice. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a GTA before. The consignor said he found it in Georgia. He also brought two early 80’s Nissan pickups. The GTA sold for about $6800 including premium.

    So, I find this story fascinating. Having grown up in CT, gone to college in New Haven, and being a Peugeot dealer in Fairfield, CT, I can’t help but feel that I have some connection here. The local Peugeot dealer was in West Haven and I knew them well. Can you share some names? Maybe I can fill in the blanks. In addition I was partners with the Renault dealer in Wallingford, CT, so what’s the history on the GTA?

    I’ve owned two Renault Alliance’s. The first wasca plain-jane econobox, the second, an ’87 GTA. At the time, I also owned and still do own, a 1987 Mustang 5.0 GT. The GTA handled like a friggin’ slot car! Cornered absolutely flat and would run circles around the 5.0. Still one of the best handling cars of the era. Good on you for even knowing what a Alliance GTA was. Have fun with it.

    You forgot the best thing about a GTA — it handles like a Corvette! It would pull 0.89 G’s on the skid pad from the factory. The 89 Corvette would pull 0.88. It wasn’t quite as fast as a Gold GT, but quick enough with a five speed. I almost bought one once. It had a broken a timing belt and no compression in any cylinder — at least two bent valves per cylinder (16V head). This was in the mid 90s. The only source I could find for new valves was Canada. I priced them (all 16 — wouldn’t know which were bent until head was off), and took that (but not labor!) off what the guy wanted. He declined — decided he’d use the great seats in another car before he let it go cheap. I didn’t want to save it bad enough to have way more money in it than it would ever be worth, so I’m sure it eventually went to the scrapper.

    Reminds me of when I took a bus trip to purchase an 86 Alliance convertible with only 30,000 original miles on it. In the middle of winter. It was a two owner car that had been in Bennington Vermont since day one.

    Turned out to be a great car and made the trip from Vermont to central Illinois with few problems. The only issue I encountered was the alternator light coming on. That turned out to be a wiring that rubbed through a bracket and shorting out. A little black electrical tape and on the way. Repair didn’t take 10 minutes.

    Drove the car for many years without issue. Sorry folks, but some French cars can make the grade. Even the hills across central PA. Still have it and it still runs well. But the floors require some attention. Otherwise the car is solid. To me it is an economic way to get into old cars if somebody wants to. Now for the next trip. 1951 Olds Super 88 from Wisconsin to IL.

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