The modern world often strikes me as a remarkably monochromatic place. Stroll around any car park and the chances are that the vast majority of vehicles will be some variation of metallic grey. That sea of dullness might be interspersed with the occasional splash of red or blue, but peer inside even the most brightly hued of modern cars and, unless perhaps it’s a Fiat 500 (I dread to think how those white steering wheels will look once they are a few years old), you can pretty much guarantee that the interior will be unremittingly, overwhelmingly and unforgivably grey. For my sins, I have a modern hatchback that I use for my daily commute across South West London and, although on the outside it’s yellow, inside the thing is as grey as a banker’s wardrobe.
Quite why cars have become so desperately sombre is open to debate, but one thing that’s absolutely certain is that 40-odd years ago things were very different. Designers in the early 70s, probably high on the fumes of injection-moulded plastic, were addicted to colour. It was there to be rejoiced, not shied away from as appears to be the case today. And the bolder and brighter its use, the better. From clothes to cars to ships to architecture, bright hues were omnipresent, and one in particular was king. Orange.
A little research suggests that from about 1970 to perhaps 1974, it really was impossible to avoid – adorning everything from Space Hoppers, Bond Bugs and Anglepoise lamps, to railway stations (I’d strongly recommend a visit Merienplatz U-bahn station in Munich) and speedboats (remember Roger Moore’s Glastron 150 in Live and Let Die?).
As the decade progressed, this striking celebration dimmed, an invasion of brown, ochre and olive green putting an end to the plastic-fuelled party as strikes took hold, unemployment soared and all sense of joy seemingly ebbed away from the world. Before we knew it, the futuristic optimism of the orange era was long gone, its memory fading into a dull and murky past that maybe never existed at all…
But exist, it most definitely did. And, thanks to the people at Renault Classic, I’ve seen the proof with my own eyes.
I’d been invited to France to sample one of the régie’s landmark designs (I’ll be writing about that in due course) but wasn’t prepared for the colourful surprise that awaited me at the vast Flins plant, just west of Paris. Stepping inside one of the nondescript factory buildings I was greeted by the sight of 20 or so carefully chosen vehicles from the firm’s 750-strong collection. Spanning 100 years of production, all were in pristine condition and many were unique, but one in particular caught my eye.
It was orange. Very orange.
I knew that the earliest Renault 5s had been offered in this most high-vis of shades, and that some had boasted a matching interior, but I don’t think I’d ever seen such a car in the metal. And certainly not in such beautiful condition. The effect was dazzling, and really quite difficult to take in.
Can you imagine a manufacturer today offering its latest supermini in such a funky colour scheme? No, nor can I. Yet, in 1972, someone somewhere within this state-owned behemoth decided that a bright orange car with equally orange vinyl seats was a good idea. Whoever that person was (and, ironically, he was probably wearing a grey suit when he made that momentous decision), I applaud him. Just looking at that little R5, I felt that I should have been wearing a polyester shirt and flares in homage to him.
It was an unquestionable case of love at first sight, so when later that morning the curators of the collection announced that I could take any of a dozen different vehicles to reach our lunchtime rendez-vous, I didn’t hesitate for a moment in choosing.
The effect on the streets was dramatic.
You probably wouldn’t expect a Renault 5 to elicit much of a response from passers-by in France. It’s not so long ago that the model was still a common sight there, and it’s hardly an exotic beast. Yet as the last tango in Paris buzzed past, more than a few people just stopped and stared, while one BMW driver calmly announced that it was the coolest car he’d ever seen.
The last time I took to the wheel of a 1970s Renault was over 20 years ago, but the driving experience turned out to be much as I remembered it. The 956cc engine feels remarkably eager and pulls the flyweight 5 along nicely, while the umbrella-handle gearstick sprouting from the ribbed dashboard (one of the few non-orange features of the interior) is light and intuitive. It doesn’t feel all that modern, but it’s a very easy car to drive and amazingly supple over rough road surfaces. Barrelling into corners, it keels over like a sailing dinghy but the skinny tyres just dig in and take you where you point them. My only real gripe was the steering, which is heavier and lower geared than I remembered it, but the shiny thin-rimmed wheel is a tactile delight and wonderfully period.
To be honest, though, from the moment I set eyes on agent orange, the way it drove was already largely irrelevant. This little car was such a wacky celebration of early 70s design that its mere existence was enough to put a massive smile on my face. I want one.