Six and a bit years ago, I needed a cheap temporary car, and after a few too many drinks one night and an online auction, I became the new owner of a nine-year-old Renault Clio with 143,000km. It came time to say goodbye at just after 260,000km when a long trip overseas came calling, the list of things that would need doing in the future came to $1800, and the registration was due. The stars were aligned for its life to come to an end.
It was a 2003 five-speed 1.4-litre Renault Clio Expression Verve. The Verve being a limited edition with CD player, alloy wheels and the obligatory ‘Verve’ stickers. It also has four airbags and ABS, as well as air-conditioning and five lap/sash seatbelts. It has 72kW of power but feels like more, although that feeling seems to disappear as the car is aged.
I’ve owned nine cars in my life, and this would have to be the one I’ve bonded with the most. Even more so than my first car. There’s something about this car that just does everything it’s supposed to so well. So much about it is just so French.
The car has been great on fuel, with the spreadsheet I’ve kept for the last 110,019km showing I’ve used 6852.89 litres of (95/98) fuel costing $10,028 for an average economy of 6.23L/100km, or 9.11c per kilometre. I also have a V6 TF Magna on dual fuel, which by comparison uses 11.67L/100km of gas and petrol for 11.68c per kilometre. What the Clio saves on fuel (maybe $500 a year) is offset by higher servicing, parts and other repair costs.
Over the 120,000km of ownership I’ve spent $7719 on maintenance. I was shocked at that figure when I added it all up, but that includes $1054 of tyres, a timing belt and water pump, brake master cylinder, brake discs and pads, lower engine stabiliser, replacement of lower engine mount, some smaller repairs and 10 services. Normal services alternate between around $300 and $450 each. So, in hindsight it’s not that unreasonable.
I don’t treat the car as delicately as a 15-year-old European city hatchback should be, rather I take advantage of its brilliant chassis to enjoy corners. It’s also gone on many rural tracks that it really shouldn’t have gone on, and through a few creek beds that were pretty far from what it was designed for. Having said that, it’s got a 1200kg towing capacity, so it was designed to do some unexpected things.
I’ve always treated it with the knowledge that I’d get to buy a new car when I killed it, particularly given it was only supposed to be temporary. We have some amazing roads throughout rural Victoria and I love taking this car on them, although more power would be nice.
I’ve had a six-foot stepladder in the car at the same time as a wheelbarrow, which was much easier than five adult occupants at once, carried 2.7m-long curtain rods in it (with nothing sticking out) and done 2600km over three days. Not really the types of things this car was designed for, but along with numerous IKEA runs, this car has never failed at anything I’ve thrown at it.
It’s a car that felt so strange at first, but now it all makes so much sense and other cars feel awkward. The seating is more upright and perched, the key goes in at a strange angle, and it has the standard Renault steering column-mounted audio control pod that journalists despise, but owners like myself love. The rear seats come out completely for big loads, and it can tow 20 per cent more than its own weight.
About the only French quirk I don’t like is the plastic dipstick that’s inaccessible to adult fingers. It’s supposedly resolved by the digital display that says ‘OIL OK’ every time you turn the ignition on, but that necessitates placing your trust in French electronics (which have been completely fine, except for random airbag warning lights). I use a coathanger to get the dipstick out. It’s also the only car I’ve ever seen that has the seats bolt in from under the car – an absolute pain to take out.
Why did I keep a temporary car for more than six years? Because it’s so fun to drive, and there is such a bond. The French really know how to make great-handling small city hatchbacks, even though this one lives in the country. My biggest regret is that I bought this one by accident. If I’d known how good they were, I’d have spent more time looking and got a mint-condition Privilege (with the bigger 1.6-litre engine) or the brilliant 2.0 Sport. Or if I’d known how good they were 15 years ago, I would have bought a brand-new one.
But it didn’t die a quiet death. It went out absolutely fighting. A friend did the Shitbox Rally in May, driving from Brisbane to Darwin. Sadly, after hundreds of hours of work, the car they were taking couldn’t go, so I gave them the Clio.
The Shitbox Rally is the largest private fundraiser for the Cancer Council, with each team raising funds to rally. The 2018 rally raised $1.9m, and all up the rally has raised $15 million for cancer research. 2019 will celebrate its 10th anniversary and will run from Perth to Sydney via Uluru. Teams in the rally do an outstanding job of raising money, with the average being just under $10,000. Teams are now raising for next year’s rally, so if you see anyone about taking donations, or selling things, throw a few dollars their way.
The thing that surprised me the most about the one rally I went on, was the support that it provides for people to meet others who’ve lost family members and close friends to cancer. Many people have made lifelong friends with people they would never have otherwise met.
But back to the Clio. The guys did a few repair jobs, added some extra bits and had it decorated by a class of six-year-olds; one of whom had been undergoing chemotherapy to fight cancer.
My biggest fear was it wouldn’t make the start line given the list of problems. But aside from some bottoming out from being overloaded for two weeks of camping and road trip, it made it up from Melbourne to Brisbane relatively trouble free. On the second day it blew a shock absorber and one of the door handles stopped working, but on the fourth day the drama happened. The passenger seat airbag went off (the seat had recently been replaced, and the airbag hard-wired in – obviously not properly), the driver's side front strut collapsed, and a large rock ripped a hole in the sump. It got put on a trailer to get to camp.
One of the great things about the rally is they try to get as many cars as possible back on the road for the next day. At the end, the cars are sold off to raise even more funds for the Cancer Council. With no hoist, the car was tipped on its side to access the sump to undertake repairs. I was following about 30 teams on Facebook, and most of them posted a picture of the Clio like this. On the plus side, that would have made changing over the front seats so much easier than when I did it.
The sump was patched, the strut welded, suspension filled with tennis balls, and the car was tipped back up before being filled with oil to head back on the road for day five. The car made it through day five, but at camp that night both struts were cracked, and the car was deemed non-repairable and left to rest in a paddock in the NT.
This $1800 car gave me way more than I ever expected. It ran on the smell of an oily rag, despite needing more care from a mechanic than a Toyota. And after I decided to send it off to the wrecker, it started a 4500km adventure driving from Melbourne to Brisbane, then on roads a 15-year-old French city hatchback never should, before finally giving up over 2500km into the Shitbox Rally.
I don’t know what I’m going to replace it with. I’m kind of tempted to find another phase-two Clio, but this time a Sport.