Home » For Three Days In California, This Once-Forbidden Renault Twingo Was The Best Car On Earth

For Three Days In California, This Once-Forbidden Renault Twingo Was The Best Car On Earth

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I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in the past four years: the cost of every hobby I’ve ever had has skyrocketed in price, regardless of the subculture. Film cameras, vinyl records, vintage fashion, old hi-fis, even Hot Wheels—everything I’ve ever gotten into as a means to have fun on the cheap becomes an investment opportunity or a status symbol.

Nowhere has this been more intense than in the automotive world; the combination of pandemic vehicle shortages drying up normal used car supplies, intense investor focus on previously-despised cars, the average American car on the road getting older than ever, and rising new car prices thanks to general economic weirdness have all created a deeply weird and inaccessible moment for many people who love to drive. I knew that the cars of my youth wouldn’t stay cheap forever, but I didn’t expect cheap cars to disappear entirely.

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[Editor’s Note: Welcome Victoria Scott, who has written for a number of automotive outlets, including The Drive. I personally remember her from her pieces on her amazing Toyota Hiace adventure. -DT].

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Photo: Victoria Scott

Even if I somehow didn’t need to sweat the ever-rising cost (and trust me, I do), the sudden spike in car values still visibly shifted the dynamic of the hobby. Welding your differential and drifting until the tires blow off is no big deal in a $3,000 car—I’d argue it was a crucial rite of passage for me—but it becomes a vastly different proposition when the exact same vehicle is suddenly worth $15,000. Unless you’ve got money to burn, using that old JDM rear-drive coupe to shred feels a lot more irresponsible than it did a few years ago. 

For me, it’s caused a noticeable change in tone in the automotive world. The enthusiast oddballs daily-driving valueless cheap “classics” have become harder to spot in the increasingly dense sea of v-neck-tee-and-a-Rollie hard parkers who increasingly treat their cars like investments because they are investments. 

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Lately, I’ve felt weirdly out of place in a world I once was so at home in I made a career out of it. I’d dissociated–observing something I loved that remained so familiar, and yet had become so markedly different—and I needed some sort of antidote to escape it.

The cure appeared in the form of a little teal pill.

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Photo: Victoria Scott

The 1994 Renault Twingo

This little teal pill is a first-generation Renault Twingo. It is a city runabout designed by Frenchmen, built by Brazilians, and driven by any European on a budget who needed a car. While it has somewhat of a legendary presence on the internet due to its smug visage—Twingo plushies abound—there seem to be precious few people who’ve ever bothered importing one to the U.S. Exact numbers are difficult to confirm, but I’ve heard rumors this is only the fourth or fifth one to make landfall in the States, and since they only hit the legal 25-year mark in 2019, this seems plausible. 

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Photo: Victoria Scott

A closer look reveals it’s understandable why the humble Twingo has avoided the hypebeast fate of, say, the Nissan Skyline. Its 1.2-liter eight-valve four-cylinder boasts all of 55 horsepower and offers the idle qualities of a 1950s tractor engine on a cold start; top speed arrives at about 80 miles an hour. It has a five-speed manual whose gearshift wobble could make a Weeble blush

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Photo: Victoria Scott

Its standard amenities list, especially in its first years of production (including 1994, when this car was made) basically begins and ends with “seats and four wheels”; ABS, airbags, electronic locks, power anything, an automatic transmission, and even an internal trunk release wouldn’t even be offered as options until much later in the model’s life. (The top-trim Wind package installed on this car did feature the mild suggestion of air conditioning and a cassette deck, both of which no longer work.) 

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Unlike other de-contented cheap classic hatches from Europe, the Twingo never achieved any sort of motorsports stardom despite its 1,700-pound curb weight. A racing homologation version was built as a concept, but it never saw actual track time, and a cursory glance of European amateur rally and hillclimb videos shows that most grassroots-level drivers rarely bother campaigning them.

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Photo: Victoria Scott

On top of all this, first-gen Twingos are also absurdly common, with over 2.6 million produced during its nearly twenty-year-long production run. Ultimately, this means that old Twingos are basically worthless in Europe; this example, remarkably clean aside from a rocker-panel dent and some paint scuffs, was about $1,200. Shipping one to the U.S. is significantly more than that. As investments go, it’s a pretty damn stupid one.

Luckily, I know a guy who really likes making stupid investments.

Why We Do These Things to Ourselves

 

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That guy—an old friend who has an eclectic collection of older cars—happened to travel to Europe last year. He drove this Twingo, fell in love with it, and decided to bring it home mostly because he wanted to (and it could serve as a daily driver with a bit more room than his current around-town car, a 1992 Honda Beat.) His friend who’d accompanied him had also decided to import an exceedingly teal and green Mercedes Benz W124. 

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Photo: Victoria Scott

Three months later, both cars arrived at a port in Benicia, California, and needed to reach their final homes in the Seattle area. My friend called, inviting me to drive the Twingo home with him. I agreed immediately. 

We headed for California Route 1, one of my favorite stretches of road in America and certainly one of the most beautiful places on the continent, and drove on toward Seattle. 

We Go In The Twingo

On Route 1, I found that the Twingo is actually remarkably comfortable on long drives. Its interior, aptly described by another friend of mine as “a Bop-It turned inside out”, is spartan but its seats are more pleasant than most modern cars, with utterly phenomenal back support. 

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Photo: Victoria Scott

Despite my six-foot-one stature, I had plenty of head and leg room, and never got sore. We stashed two suitcases, two camera bags, and a lot of cheap California booze in the trunk without any issue; at another point, we got four people comfortably seated inside. Diminutive as it is, the Twingo’s wheelbase is as long as its dimensions will physically allow, and so it soaks up bumps well. It’s no Cadillac, but it’s a lot less punishing than almost anything I’ve driven at its price point of dirt cheap. 

Beyond cruising, it’s a bit less enticing. The transmission… shifts gears. Do not expect a Honda-like, mechanically-precise throw. Its powerband, if it can be called that, does not encourage high-RPM antics; it’s quick enough to pull away from stop lights, but aerodynamics have a diminishing effect on speeds above 40 mph. I found myself desperately plotting my lane changes as I headed into uphill stretches to keep the 1.2-liter four-banger moving us at the speed limit. Any poorly-planned braking on a grade meant that 40 mph was about all you’d receive.

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Photo: Victoria Scott

The real reason the Twingo never achieved motorsports success became more obvious on the many, many turns of Route 1. Wrung out as a maximum-momentum car, the Twingo scrubs speed in even the slightest corner long before understeer can actually be induced; its low power means you can forget about adding speed mid-corner to try and push it toward its limits.

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Photo: Victoria Scott

Its standard brakes do not need ABS because they are not strong enough to lock, and so they refuse to contribute to any kind of lift-off oversteer. Its steering is manual-rack communicative, yes, but the Twingo will simply go where you aim it, and slowly. Despite its impish looks, it’s actually boringly responsible on the roads. 

Collector Culture and The Experience

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Photo: Victoria Scott

If it sounds like I was disappointed, I wasn’t. The Twingo was indeed the medicine I needed to cure my dissociation. I didn’t need high-stakes speed or razor-edge handling or lavish appointments to evoke fond memories of why I enjoy cars; I needed to experience an experience. 

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It is my staunch belief that the final perversion of collector culture is to turn useful objects into assets, thereby destroying their utility. The minute that rock chips and door-dings become an existential threat to a car’s worth, the car loses its original purpose; simply put, investments cannot be useful objects. 

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Photo: Victoria Scott

This stands in direct opposition to everything that made me fall in love with cars to begin with. Automotive museums have their place, but the highest aspiration of my hobby was never to walk around my own personal Petersen Museum, watching the cars I’d dreamt of collect dust as they stored value for me; I want to experience them. I want to drive. 

Ultimately, I think this has been the root of my disconnect from the automotive world around me. I can only gawk at “clean examples” for so long before I find myself wondering what they could have accomplished, what stories they could have told if the odometer had been allowed to roll a little bit further. 

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Photo: Victoria Scott

Therein lies why the Twingo was the perfect car to rekindle the joy I’d been missing for so long. It is not an exceptionally quick car—not even slow-car-fast—and it isn’t inherently exciting to drive.

It does, however, have very big windows, and it is defiantly opposed to collecting value. It is meant to be driven.

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Photo: Victoria Scott

And so we drove it, and I stared out those big windows as the beautiful world rolled by, and that was all I needed to rekindle my passion. The Twingo, with its frugal ethos and minimal accessories, reduces the mathematical equation of what a car is down to its simplest terms. With all the complicating variables removed, the experience took center stage.

Simply put: the odometer ticked up, and I got a story to tell.  

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Photo: Victoria Scott

The Twingo is a comfortable little city car; I’m sure my friend will get great use out of it in Seattle. More importantly though: it will be used and driven. The mileage will keep climbing, and it will keep having stories to tell. 

The best car is the one you drive. For three days in California, a ’94 Renault Twingo was the best car in the entire world.

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Photo: Victoria Scott

Victoria Scott is an automotive writer and photographer whose work has appeared in The Drive, Jalopnik and many other places. Her book, Postcards From the End of the World, is on sale now. 

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Kostas
Kostas
1 year ago

I got one in 2008 and still daily it. Bought it with 110000Km and now it has 245000Km. It’s just an awesome simple little car, in outside, inside it’s another story – it has a lot of room. With a set of alloy wheels it becomes even comfier because it doesn’t read anymore the small potholes. It’s a 1998 model with D7F engine. It’s a Swiss knife of a car.

Alec Weinstein
Alec Weinstein
1 year ago

Been reading you for a while, this might be your best work yet.

Rapgomi
Rapgomi
1 year ago

The best car is the one you drive – Absolutely right! We briefly met and I saw the lovely Twingo in person right at the end of your trip. It makes me happy to see and read the backstory of its arrival. Great story & pictures!

And I truly believe the Beat will be found and returned to its home.

Guillaume Maurice
Guillaume Maurice
1 year ago

tell your friend : cars from this era didn’t have infotainement systems, and most of the time they were actually sold without the radio-tape thing.
Even if it’s a Renault one, it cna be replaced. There’s two small holes on each sides you need to have the right tool ( a pair of u bent piece of metal of the holes size and with straights long ebough to reach 5cm or so deep ) to extract the whole unit ( tape + radio ), disconnect it ( plugs are standardized ) and reconnect a working one.

Toyec
Toyec
1 year ago

Proud ex-Twingo owner here ! It was my first car, and I loved it. We still use it in the family. People are still impressed by the rear seats space. And that was BEFORE I show them it can slide back !!! Best packaging ever seen I guess, and will remain undefeated with the increases in safety.

The only real defect was for the first ones (like yours) the Cléon-Fonte engine, reliable but 30-years-old and as such slow, noisy and not even fuel-efficient. Renault had a much modern “Energy” 1.2, but they could not use it as the intake wasn’t compatible with the angle of the hood due to the OHC and they feared it would cost to much to modify it (the Twingo was designed on a budget, it’s a miracle they made it and even earned a little money with it).
But then they upgraded the Energy into the D-engine, and they could finally put it there, like in mine. And trust me, there aren’t much better small engines even now (the 1.0 that replaced it is a quite unrefined 3-cylinder).

Also, I would like to correct two things about this great article :
-First, I don’t know to were you heard Brazilians built Twingos. Maybe a confusion with Colombia, were it was very popular ? (hence the Shakira stuff, likely) And this one very likely comes from Valladolid, Spain.
-Second, yes the Twingo did race ! We have a monotype competition in France, called the Twin’cup, which is quite popular. They use first-model-years Twingos and replace the Cléon by a 1.6 (it doesn’t work with the D motor, I don’t remember why).

Okay, I already wrote too much, but I feel the urge to add some more comments. Do you know there are still a lot of Twingo 1 in Europe ? Maybe, but the reason might surprise you. It’s not only that they are sooooo cute people cherish them. It’s just that they are unkillable. It makes sense, actually. As I said, they were designed with a very tight budget in mind. The consequence ? Parts were often already proven, and there’s just far less parts than in a normal car, so not much can break. It’s the same tools that made the success of the Dacias. Actually, the Twingo helped Renault master the cost-engineering, and was the necessary step before the Dacia (and “Renault Entry”, with the Kwid, Triber, Oroch…) success.

Come on, one last thing. You know what you remembered me, with your brilliant demonstration that things are made to be used and enjoyed, not just stored to gain “collectability” ? Uncle Scrooge comics books from Carl Barks and Don Rosa. The moral was more or less the same. Oh, and Toy Story 2 of course…

Who is the Leader
Who is the Leader
1 year ago

It’s worth remembering that even the worst car can be made something special with the right scenery and fun traveling companions. I have fond memories of traversing Going-To-The-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in. . . . . . a white Kia Soul. Now, when I think of Souls, I think of the aching beauty of Glacier.

Pisco Sour
Pisco Sour
1 year ago

Your van adventures were some of my favorite car-related (and life-related) reading in a very long time…glad to see you on here!!

I think your friend’s Spanish Twitter mentions regarding the Twingo may have something to do with Shakira…

Victoria Scott
Victoria Scott
1 year ago
Reply to  Pisco Sour

aww thank you so much!! I’m glad you enjoyed them so much <3 also yeah I saw a LOT of Shakira jokes in there (*and a bunch about Murcia, the autonomous community(?) where the car's plates say it was registered!)

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
1 year ago

Great article, fun car, but really I just came here to ask if you’re joining the autopian??? Absolutely loved your vanscontinental express series and would love to see more of your stuff here!

Victoria Scott
Victoria Scott
1 year ago
Reply to  Brandon Forbes

no this was just a freelance piece, but I hope to have more stories here as a freelancer in the near future! Thank you so much, I really appreciate it! <3

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
1 year ago

As someone who dailies a kei car, I can attest to all of these things. But no matter what, it does become more valuable once it is over here and since getting spare parts isn’t super easy nor cheap, I still cannot make myself not care about denting it.
As for the wisdom of such investments, I bought a Toyota at auction in Japan for $1400 and spent $3900 bringing it here. The only comparable I have seen over here was for sale for $10,750, so maybe the math does add up in the end.

ZeGerman
ZeGerman
1 year ago

Very happy to see Victoria now contributing here at The Autopian! I really enjoy her writing and photos.

Scorp Mcgorp
Scorp Mcgorp
1 year ago

I can’t adequately put into words how excited I am to see one of my favorite automotive writers pop up on one of my favorite automotive sites! Squee! I really hope we get to see more here. I think Autopian could definitely use more introspective writing about cars and the way they – um – move us.

Regarding the Twingo, that’s such a fantastic little car. and by fantastic I do not mean pleasant to drive. it’s fantastic in its honestly, its utility, and its cheap and shipper interior.

The Twingo reminds me of the 1993 Geo Metro (Suzuki Swift in global manufacturing cosplay) i drove for several years. i was a gift from my wife’s grandparents, who’d used it to putter around Arizona in their retirement years. they’d dutifully road trip it up to Wisconsin every year to visit the Grandkids before eventually puttering slowly in the right lane of the interstate back down to their retirement community.

One year they decided they’d had enough, and they were moving back to Wisconsin to have more time with family ( and to get some much needed support as they were getting up in years and living so far from others was getting more difficult). and so, as they were staying put, they treated themselves to a brand new (to them) 16 year old Buick. The Metro was given to us as we had just had our 2nd child, and having only one vehicle (my 2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec-V) was getting challenging.

Driving it was an exercise in letting go of expectations. it was also the very opposite of driving my Sentra. the Sentra had a 2.5l with the 6 speed manual. after a few bolt-ons, it could break the tires loose in 3rd if you drove it right. Our new Metro had the tiny 1.0l 3 cylinder, and was the detuned 49hp XFI version, so anything resembling a hill was met with full gas pedal down and decreasing speed until one hit the top of the hill.

Despite the incredible lack of speed and acceleration, the rusting exhaust, and the rough ride from the tiny 13 inch tires, it was an incredible mileage makes, averaging 48 mpg through my 2 years of using it as a commuter. it was a similar teal shade to the Twingo, with a much less chipper interior, but it did it’s job, and was the most honest car I’ve ever owned. i wish I’d never sold it. it was the start of my love of tiny hatchbacks, and i wouldn’t be driving my Abarth today without it.

William Domer
William Domer
1 year ago
Reply to  Scorp Mcgorp

I remember driving my wife’s Jetta to visit her family in DC. From Wisconsin. I loved that car but every time we hit a ‘mountain’, or even a big ‘hill’ we had to turn off the A/C or the forward motion would decrease to about 40mph. LOL, my first car was an old Karmann Ghia. I think it had 39hp, and it was hilarious fun. So since then I rarely had anything over 4 cylinders.

Victoria Scott
Victoria Scott
1 year ago
Reply to  Scorp Mcgorp

Thank you so much, I’m so flattered!! Having driven a Yugo, a CR-X (which I really should review some time) and now this Twingo, and having had fun in all of them, I feel like a Geo Metro should be next on the list haha. I just love tiny hatches too!

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
1 year ago

Renault do indeed make some damn comfy seats.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 year ago

Outstanding story and pictures, Victoria. What a perfect addition to a site that celebrates all cars and all people who love them.

My fiancé and I are set to honeymoon in France at the end of the year. Maybe I should bring back a souvenir … ?

Phuzz
Phuzz
1 year ago
Reply to  Geoff Buchholz

Pick up a Peugeot or a Citroen. That way you can satisfy your urge for a quirky French car, but you’ll get a car that’s not completely rubbish.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago

Welcome, Victoria!

Enjoyed the linked article on your Supra. I especially liked your honesty about having taken it to the level at which it wasn’t an especially practical daily: I’ve found that most gearheads aren’t very open to admitting that. I never got the chance to as by the time I was seriously into cars I was a single parent. Decades later, I can afford it now, but prefer viewing the mountain scenery from the fun seat rather than wrenching on my shitbox on the weekends. Smiles rather than bloody knuckles.

The juxtaposition of your personal growth against the modifications to your Supra makes for a great story arc. I’ll have to reread that again in a few days. Glad to have you here!

Victoria Scott
Victoria Scott
1 year ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Thank you so much! That story was really my intro to being a writer, tbh, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’ve done a lot of introspective writing in my career (that van series was another example) but that one with the Supra is still one of my favorites.

JerryLH3
JerryLH3
1 year ago

“It is my staunch belief that the final perversion of collector culture is to turn useful objects into assets, thereby destroying their utility. The minute that rock chips and door-dings become an existential threat to a car’s worth, the car loses its original purpose; simply put, investments cannot be useful objects.”

THIS! In two sentences, Victoria beautifully summed up the worst part of the collector hobby right now. It doesn’t describe every collector, but it’s starting to describe a too-large proportion. Or at least it feels that way.

Simon Staveley
Simon Staveley
1 year ago

When the 2nd generation Twingo came along it lost some of its charm but it did lead to a brillian spin-off – the Wind. Twingo floorpan with a 2 seat convertible body and not one of these silly folding metal rooves – oh no. Apparently Renault bought the license for the roof mechanism from Ferrari that was used on the 575 Superamerica and then used it for the Wind.

I manage to snaffle a cheap one in Ruby Red with a tan leather interior with 120k miles so will be able to use it and not worry about it becoming a garage queen.

Petter hjalmarsson
Petter hjalmarsson
1 year ago

Now you really need to drive a Twingo with sunroof, it is really nice and it feels very open with the low waistline. I lucked out and got one in teal like the one in the article but with sunroof for just 600 euro, most thing work most of the time 🙂

667
667
1 year ago

Summer road trip with a twingo with the sunroof is one of the best cheap thing you can do. The open sky at night, lost somewhere in the countryside, while slipping in the car… (Because you can lay all the seats flat)

Great Success
Great Success
1 year ago

This is why I bought a toyota starlet canvas top. Ever since I visited France in 2018 I’ve loved the twingo, but they are not available in NZ at all. The starlet was probably the closest thing

Matti Sillanpää
Matti Sillanpää
1 year ago

I have soft spot for small hatches like Twingos, Pandas, 207:s, etc. They are a bit like naked bikes, the speed is exaggareted and they feel much faster than you actually go. Which is just how it should be in fun car. I mean anything else is just numbers. My granpas old Panda on twisty gravel road was perceivedly the fastest thing ever :D.

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