It was a common sight on the roads of France in the 1970s. The Renault 4, with its functional, box-like design, sat high (for its size) on its chassis, its front end leaning slightly down as if it was getting ready to dive into the potholes and muddy farm fields. Like its main rival at the bargain end of the market—the even more ubiquitous two-cylinder Citroen 2CV, the celebrated (largely in memoriam) deux chevaux—it was seriously under-powered, taking several minutes to reach its preferred cruising speed of about 80 kilometers per hour. But once it made it, it chugged along happily, using much less petrol than anything else on the road. The gear shift was a challenge—you pulled it out directly from the dashboard, and then twisted it left and right, forward and backwards, in a complex series of motions.
I haven’t seen a Renault 4 in France for many years, although I’ve spotted a few rusting in barns in the Dordogne region, where my sister Liz and her husband Michael live. But the Renault 4 is still the most common taxi on the roads of Antananarivo, the sprawling, noisy capital of Madagascar, which I’ve visited four times in the last year on a project for UNICEF. Many are survivors of the city’s traffic wars with battered panels and out-of-whack alignment.
On some, the ignition no longer works so the driver has to hot-wire the engine. As you rattle up the cobbled streets (Antananarivo is built on hills—a sort of tropical Paris with rice paddies) you try to forget that there’s almost no suspension and just marvel that the car is still running.
There are modern cars and gas-guzzling SUVs on the roads of Antananarivo, but in a country where all indicators—unemployment, poverty, health, literacy—put it in the “least developed” category on most global indexes, you’re pretty fortunate if you own a Renault 4. Out in the countryside, you’re well off if you have a cart pulled by a zebu, the humped oxen used to plough the fields, transport people and produce, and to serve as a sacrifice at traditional ceremonies.