How do you capture the essence of a city or town? What makes a particular place hum, sing and buzz? Is it the people? The culture? The architecture? Food? It is, of course, all of these things. And more. For us at CarAdvice, it is, unsurprisingly, also the cars.
We are privileged to travel around the world for our job, visiting cities, countries and far-flung corners we might otherwise never see in our lives. And apart from experiencing so many different cultures, one of the things that stands out for us is the sheer diversity of automotive culture around the world. In essence, the cars people own.
Tourrettes is a typical mountain-top village in the Var department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France. Sitting 592 metres above sea level at its highest point, and with a population of around 2600, Tourrettes offers magnificent views over the surrounding area.
While the area has evidence of human occupation dating back to the Neolithic era, it’s in 1010 that Tourrettes was first recorded by name. Yeah, you read that right… 1008 years ago. Think about that.
Feudal wars in the 13th and 14th centuries saw the mountain-top village expand into a stronghold, including the construction of a castle by Bertrand de Villeneuve, who became lord of Tourrettes in 1321. The Tour de l’Horloge (clock tower) is the only remaining part of that early stronghold. The village continued to spread throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, while the Villeneuve family continued to rule the lands.
But, as is so often the case in French history, the last member of the noble Villeneuve family, Louis-Henri, was arrested by the revolutionary Law Court in August, 1792 for being an open supporter of the King of France. He met his fate like so many noble men and women in France at the time, going to the guillotine on 5 June, 1793.
The village fell into decline in the 19th century, but entered a renaissance in the 1950s as a hub for tourism, which feeds the local economy to this day.
But, enough history. What makes Tourrettes so special in an automotive sense is that due to its mountain-top location and the extremely narrow confines of its cobbled streets and lanes, cars are rare in the village. The villagers do own cars, of course, but they park in the large car park at the foot of the village, completing the journey to their homes on foot. That said, some villagers do drive cars into town, and those cars err on the side of small and compact.
Here then, is your automotive snapshot of Tourrettes, one of the prettiest castra (fortified villages) in the south of France.
Based off the popular second-generation Renault 5 city car, the Renault Express first saw service in 1985 and remained in production until 2000. How much was based on the Renault 5? Everything forward of the A-pillar is identical, as are the front doors. From there backwards, it’s all delivery van.
Under the bonnet, the French workhorse featured a 956cc petrol engine with a whopping 31kW of power and 63Nm of torque on hand. There’s no quoted 0–100km/h time, but the 1100cc engine that replaced it was said to scoot the van into triple figures in a blistering 20.1 seconds.
The Express was eventually replaced by the Renault Kangoo, which remains the company’s workhorse delivery van to this day.
Okay, there’s nothing particularly interesting about Ford’s city car, but this one stood out because of its ‘racing’ pretensions. Those red stripes are matched inside by red trim on the seats and the steering wheel, and came as part of Ford Europe’s Individual presentation pack that allowed a degree of personalisation.
There’s no performance bump, despite those racy stripes, the second-generation Ka pumping out 51kW of power and 102Nm of torque from its 1.2-litre petrol engine. The second-gen Ka, in production from 2008–16, was well ahead of the bell curve in terms of equipment, with inclusions such as Bluetooth connectivity, wireless voice control, a USB outlet, MP3 compatibility and audio controls on the steering wheel. Wicked!
A mainstay of French movies since, well, forever it seems, the Renault 4 first hit the road in 1961, and remained in production until 1992.
Designed and manufactured as a rival to Citroen’s quirky 2CV, the Renault 4 was dubbed the ‘blue jeans’ car by then Renault boss Pierre Dreyfus. Although marketed as a wagon, the Renault 4 is now widely acknowledged as the world’s first mass-production hatchback.
The Renault 4 was the first car from Reggie built on a front-wheel-drive platform, which improved interior space. So too, the dash-mounted gear lever.
In all, around eight-million Renault 4s were sold over a four-decade period, plus a smattering of special editions, including this one spotted in Tourrettes, a 1988 Renault 4 Clan. What was special about it? Nothing, except for some ‘Clan’ decals. No, really.
Still, under that oh-so-French snout lies a 1.1-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with an astounding 25kW of power and 74Nm of torque. Zero to a hundred? Glacial. But when a car’s this cute, who cares really?
If you were paying attention to the previous photos, you may have noticed an Easter egg lurking in the background. Yep, that’s an original VW Golf GTI hiding just behind the Renault 4. And it was in mint condition.
To be honest, a 1970s vintage Golf is about as big a car as you could safely and easily navigate up the narrow streets of Tourrettes.
The Golf GTI has an interesting history, a genuine and unofficial ‘skunkworks’, conceived and developed in a cloak of secrecy by VW Press Department head Anton Konrad and VW engineer Alfons Löwenberg. The pair enlisted the help of Gunter Kühl, also from the Press Department, suspension engineer Herbert Schuster, chassis engineer Jürgen Adler, an enterprising chap named Hermann Hablitzel who smuggled parts from the ‘skunkworks’ project into regular VW tests, and Franz Hauk, who developed the EA827 engine.
The first prototype was actually built as a Scirocco and was powered by the 1.6-litre EA827 engine with dual carburettors and a lowered and stiffened suspension. Having plucked up the courage to show off their unofficial GTI project, the original ‘gang of eight’ presented the car to Volkswagen’s Chief of Research Ernst Fiala. Curious, Fiala drove the car and immediately declared it “undriveable”, thanks largely to the stiff suspension tune and excessive noise from the intake system.
Undeterred, the cloak-and-dagger development team changed out the carburettor-fed 1.6-litre for a fuel-injected version sourced from the Audi 80 GTE, using Bosch’s K-Jetronic system that reduced intake noise while also bumping up power output. During a meeting allegedly taken place over beer and sandwiches (the meeting was, according to Konrad, “actually over coffee, and my wife baked a cake”), it was decided the project should be based on the two-door Golf.
Horst-Dieter Schwittlinsky from VW’s marketing department now came on board and, sensing a marketing opportunity, immediately bestowed the ‘GTI’ acronym on the skunked Vee Dub. Interesting fact, GTI is typically an acronym of the Italian Gran Tursimo Iniezione (English: Grand Tourer Injection) and refers to a fuel-injected car. The 1961 Maserati 3500 GTI was the first car to sport the ‘GTI’ name, but it was the 1976 Golf GTI that popularised the three-letter acronym and brought it to the mainstream.
Now an open secret in the corridors of VW HQ at Wolfsburg, the prototype Golf GTI was presented to senior Volkswagen management early in 1975. And having received management approval, the team enlisted a ninth member, Gunhild Liljequist, and it is she who conceived of what would become the GTI’s iconic interior. Tasked with creating features that would distinguish the GTI from the regular Golf, Liljequist designed the tartan seat trim and dimpled gear lever, both features that remain in the GTI to this day.
The Golf GTI was unveiled to the public at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show and production was given the go-ahead. Originally, VW hoped to sell 5000 cars, the homologation number required to qualify the GTI for the Group One Production Touring Car class. Yeah right. By the time the Mk1 was replaced by the Golf GTI Mk2 in 1984, VW had sold a total of 462,000 of the original Mk1 GTI.
The rest, as they say, is history.
MORE: The Cars of Düsseldorf