Imported from Kenosha: 1984 Renault Encore

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.

216268_1003164051773_9416_n

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.   215646_1003165211802_3005_n (1)

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.

205503_1003165331805_3802_n

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!

217082_1003166691839_5612_n

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.

208679_1003167171851_8573_n

7 thoughts on “Imported from Kenosha: 1984 Renault Encore

  1. I had an ’84 – bought it new way back when. Loved it. 52 mpg on trips – drove Norwalk CN to Cleveland on one tank of gas. 162K miles – only dropped a cup or so of oil per 10K miles. Had to sell it to State Farm when one of the crackheads in my neighborhood smashed into the (parked) car. Total expenditures on the car were about $14,000 (gas, repairs et al) over the 162K miles. I’d get another one when they reintroduce it. The gas milage put today’s cars to shame.

  2. I’m still driving a GTA convertible in the summer. The cars were definitely built to a price and it showed (surprised if that girl didn’t dent the hood in the photo, as slight as she is) but they were rock solid cars if maintained properly (like doing oil changes and especially, changing the timing belt on schedule). I drove my old one 192K through the worst of Canadian winters and it would pass a lot of Hondas that couldn’t make it through the snow. My current car only sees summers but has 156K on it and counting, currently down because a (cheap) plastic clutch adjustor gave it up after 28 years and I have to find a part. Simple, cheap, reliable driving with surprisingly great handling is what these cars have always meant to me

  3. I bought a brand new 1985 Encore LS 3 door in June of that year. Mica Red metallic paint with the Garnet Red interior, tinted glass, rear defrost along with the standard cloth sets, full instrumentation, 175/70R tires, a little extra bright trim made my LS look like it cost a thousand dollars more than it actually did. The car did suffer from some build and materials quality issues, (lots of flimsy plastic), but I loved it!
    It got great gas mileage from the 5 speed transmission mated to the 1.4 L engine. When I made several trips from WI to VA, PA and KY, 48-50 miles per gallon was common. That transmission was geared tall! I was probably only pulling 2850 rpm’s at 65 mph? Also from a design point it was laid out very well; good outward vision, lots of interior room from the “pedestal seating”, logical, easy to read instrumentation, and a very simple single point throttle body fuel injection system. It went through the deep Wisconsin snow with ease, handled well, and had the typical French good ride quality and minimal wind noise at highway speeds
    Replacement parts were very reasonable, not that I needed a lot anyways. It was the usual things after about 134.000 miles, and 16 years were: a couple of exhaust systems, one water pump, two batteries ( the first factory one lasted seven years), three clutch cables, one pair of front discs and brake pads replaced, rear brake shoes (wow… about every 25,000 miles), and a wheel bearing, a ball joint and a couple of half shafts. No, contrary to popular belief, the head gasket or Ducellier alternator never took a puke on me. It used virtually no oil between changes. Not bad, I think any way.
    The key to it’s reliability and longevity? No fuel or engine sapping A/C. No unreliable, designed for the American market, automatic transmission. No power steering I don’t need because my arms are not toothpicks. Ziebarted, (remember them?), when new. Regular maintenance and knowing how to properly drive a vehicle also helped. Yes, most Americans beat on their cars like a rented mule and the lightweight Renault, for the most part, could not take it. Come to think of it, unlike myself, a lot of the first owners and especially subsequent owners of these vehicles were, how can I say… part of the “trailer park crowd”.
    My vehicle met it’s end on a dark, damp early November night when I bagged a 12-point American Whitetail deer using the car’s hood and windshield . I launched the furry woodland creature into the opposite side of the road ditch. It was a waste of a perfectly fine piece of machinery. I too had to sell mine to State Farm for a lousy $1600.
    By the way, tell the author that there was no “Alliance GTA” in ’87, it was simply called the Renault GTA. As there was not one reference to the Alliance, either on the car or in advertising or literature back then. Try to get it straight guys.

  4. I bought a brand new 1985 Encore LS 3 door in June of that year. Mica Red metallic paint with the Garnet Red interior, tinted glass, rear defrost along with the standard cloth sets, full instrumentation, 175/70R tires, and a little extra bright trim made my LS look like it cost a thousand dollars more than it actually did. The car did suffer from some build and materials quality issues, (lots of flimsy plastic), but I loved it!
    It got great gas mileage from the 5 speed transmission mated to the 1.4 L engine. When I made several trips from WI to VA, PA and KY, 48-50 miles per gallon was common. That transmission was geared tall! I was probably only pulling 2850 rpm’s at 65 mph? Also from a design point it was laid out very well; good outward vision, lots of interior room from the “pedestal seating”, logical, easy to read instrumentation, and a very simple single point throttle body fuel injection system. It went through the deep Wisconsin snow with ease, handled well, and had the typical French good ride quality and minimal wind noise at highway speeds
    Replacement parts were very reasonable, not that I needed a lot anyways. It was the usual things after about 134.000 miles, and 16 years were: a couple of exhaust systems, one water pump, three batteries ( the first factory one lasted seven years), three clutch cables, one pair of front discs and brake pads replaced, rear brake shoes (wow… about every 25,000 miles), shocks and struts once, and a wheel bearing, a ball joint and a couple of torn-boot half shafts. No, contrary to popular belief, the head gasket or Ducellier alternator never took a puke on me. It used virtually no oil between changes. Not bad, I think any way.
    The key to it’s reliability and longevity? No fuel or engine sapping A/C. No unreliable, designed for the American market, automatic transmission. No power steering I don’t need because my arms are not toothpicks. Ziebarted, (remember them?), when new. Regular maintenance and knowing how to properly drive a vehicle also helped. Yes, most Americans beat on their cars like a rented mule and the lightweight Renault, for the most part, could not take it. Come to think of it, unlike myself, a lot of the first owners and especially subsequent owners of these vehicles were, how can I say… part of the “trailer park crowd”.
    My vehicle met it’s end on a dark, damp early November night when I bagged a 12-point American Whitetail deer using the car’s hood and windshield . I launched the furry woodland creature into the opposite side of the road ditch. It was a waste of a perfectly fine piece of machinery. I too had to sell mine to State Farm for a lousy $1600.
    By the way, tell the author that there was no “Alliance GTA” in ’87, it was simply called the Renault GTA. As there was not one reference to the Alliance, either on the car or in advertising or literature back then. Try to get it straight guys.

  5. I WON my 1985 Renault Encore from Coca Cola in Denver. I entered a sweepstakes at an Albertson’s grocery store to win a car and the next day they called!! I still have her and she runs sweetly. Sadly I will need to sell her soon and it will break my heart. I pray I find someone who will love her the way I have. She still gets 48 mpg and looks really great for her age.

  6. It was sold as Americas cheapest new car you could buy. and it was a good car “at the times”, but times have past now, as I still drive mine on a daily basis, and 83 Alliance with 245,000 on it. it still is reliable, but has it’s cheapness and quirks for sure. Parts now are almost non-existant, as one must be inventive to keep it going. I have owned and still own all the years of production, 83-87 Alliance, Encore and the last of the 87 blowout car, the Alliance GTA car. Yes, officially called that, but most guys call it the Renault GTA. It came with a 2.0 and 5 speed tranny, and is the most coveted Renault made car from USA. French cars can be fun and cheap, and decent too, you just have to work on them. Rust outs can be a problem, as in the above story, as mine have also. But 245,000 miles on an original motor– not bad I’d say. Joseph Wagner, cincinnati ohio

    • Wow, you have owned every year of the Renault Alliance 9 and Encore 11 plus the GTA? They were built to a certain price point for sure. The Chevette Scooter and the Escort base model beat the lowest starting price Encore though. When I bought my ’85 Encore LS brand spanking new, and started a month later at the Subaru(st) dealer, the boys there gave me a lot of s___t. I loved my car but even the dealership that sold it me it was not that good.
      You have got to be kidding me, parts are not available? I know that on high mileage Renaults, the rear torque tube independent suspension wears out causing sag and there are no replacements available. I can also see NOS body and interior parts, but not the normal wear items like filters, tune-up, brakes and exhaust, maybe. Try Rock Auto, eBay, or the internet. It is not like 20 years ago when the auto parts store was your only option for needed replacement parts. A few wierdos must have stashes of Renault stuff out there. Even I have a small quantity left over after my Encore met it”s end with a 10 point buck almost 16 years ago.
      The new GTA was never refferd to as an Alliance, in advertising, brochures or badging. I guess they wanted to get away from that name after less than excellent reputation of earlier models. It conjures up an “old man sedan* picture in people’s minds too, it does for me anyways. Besides it was a LOT different from the other Alliance models hence it was separate model.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s