In 2006, I discovered the so-called BABE Rally, where each team had to purchase a vehicle for $250 or less and complete a maniacal cross-country road trip from New York to New Orleans (or, the Big Apple to the Big Easy, hence the acronym). Somehow, I convinced my parents to let me participate as a high-school graduation present and got two friends to come with me. So we started looking for a car; I had already developed an odd taste, so I demanded something more interesting than a Civic or Corolla. Then, one day, a running 1984 Renault Encore showed up on Craigslist. The asking price? $175. Thus began my journey of growing to love one of the most hated compact cars ever sold on U.S. soil.
Before I continue, here’s a brief a history lesson on how these puzzling Franco-American rattle traps came to be: in the early eighties, Renault provided a much-needed investment into the ailing American Motors Corporation (typically known for curiosities like the Gremlin and Pacer), and gained a controlling interest as a result. More importantly, they gained a manufacturing facility in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which was quickly re-tooled to produce an American-ized version of their 9 and 11 compacts. The styling was tweaked for the American market, a two-door coupe and a convertible were drawn up, and voila: America now had the Renault Alliance, available as a sedan, coupe, or convertible. We also got the Encore, a three or five-door hatchback. The car received good reviews throughout its lifetime, but a half-baked marketing effort met with reports of poor build quality to sink the car’s reputation, and after a change in Renault’s management they pulled the plug on their American adventure in 1987. They then washed their hands of the affair, selling AMC’s remnants to Chrysler, subsequently leaving the U.S. market forever.
Our particular car was a very faded red example with the base chain-driven 1.4 liter engine and 4-speed manual. The speedometer was broken, the Tupperware-quality interior was cracked and broken in numerous places, the exhaust was loud, and it was supposedly not safe to drive due to a rear shock absorber that had punched through the wheel well due to rust. After a little investigating, we found that the car relied on its rear torsion bar to stay level…so we just ripped the shock out and drove it home, the driver’s side rear of the car bouncing away as we went.
The shock absorber was only one of a handful of problems plaguing our little French oddity; it needed a rear wheel bearing (which we gave it, after it seized at freeway speed and created a vicious flat spot on one of the tires), a speedometer cable (which we ignored), and an oil change (which I don’t think we ever did in the entire time we had the car). Really, our youthful abandon was clear in just how little mechanical work we did to the car in preparation! Getting the “rally look” down, though, was a clear priority. One of the advantages of buying one of these Renaults and living in Wisconsin is that there are TONS in the local junkyards. We found a rare GTA sports model to cannibalize for parts, stealing its faux-Recaro seats and aggressive steering wheel for our own car.
Eventually the start of the rally was near and we caravanned out to Staten Island with a few other local teams to begin the event. Outside of a failed distributor cap that stuck us in northern Indiana for a few hours, the Encore proved to be surprisingly reliable! Its meager 50-something horsepower was more than adequate to zing three teenagers through twisty Appalachian turnpikes with ease, living out our F1 driver fantasies by carrying as much momentum through the curves as we possibly could and bouncing every shift off the rev-limiter (since we had neither a tach nor a speedometer to go by). It handled the surprisingly well despite being down a shock absorber and loaded with 500lbs worth of people and crap.
At the starting line, people seemed unsure if we were just too inexperienced to comprehend the giant pile of crap we dragged along, or if we were instead just extremely confident in our ability to nurse the poor thing through the long and arduous journey. Reality was probably some combination of the two; looking back on the event, I certainly wouldn’t be as confident today if we were making a similar attempt! After the first day of driving, we hastily added a racing livery with some tape bought from the local Wal-Mart, and kept going. Amazingly it handled the entire journey with ease; apart from replacing the flat-spotted tire in Virginia when it finally let go and performing an emergency front brake job in Tennessee, the Encore required no maintenance whatsoever. On one stretch of road late at night in Alabama, we were drafting another team in a Lincoln LSC as we communicated via radio. They suggested we try to hit 100MPH; tucked into their wake with the pedal to the floor, we unbelievably managed to achieve our goal!
While we didn’t win, we had a blast, and driving the Encore back from New Orleans was no more difficult than the initial trip out to New York. Our $175 AMC/Renault orphan had completed the journey with significantly less trouble than a number of small-block Chevy sedans and Honda appliances that also entered the competition. Really, we never expected the thing to be half as good as it turned out to be. We just beat on it mercilessly, and it kept coming back for more! After the rally, the car was parked for a few months, before briefly becoming a beater for me when I moved away for college. It lasted about two months before the brake master cylinder took a dump; I drove it around relying solely on the handbrake for a few weeks until the frame finally cracked in half and I had it hauled off for scrap.
These “American Renaults” are pretty reviled in modern times, but I loved that Encore. Our experience with it proved that cars can sometimes be much more than the sum of their parts; that $175 gamble took us thousands of miles with a mere couple hundred bucks’ worth of maintenance (and nary an oil change)! I’m now one of those weirdos that will defend these cars tooth and nail on internet message boards; maybe our experience was the exception to the rule, but I’ll never forget our Encore, and I still search Craigslist from time to time in hopes of finding a nice Alliance GTA to experience the pinnacle of the platform.