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.
[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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
I wish I could speak Spanish so I could reply to more of the comments I've gotten over the last couple days. There's no real story to the Twingo besides "I wanted one so I bought one and brought it here" but I appreciate all the love (or hate, I can't actually tell)
— Jarren (@rusty_speednut) February 15, 2023
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.
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
what "weird car twitter" doesn't tell you about the Twingo is that the interior is basically like if you turned a Bop-It inside out pic.twitter.com/o8d0aP6rY7
— walking mirage (@atomicthumbs) January 28, 2023
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.