As far as on paper investments go, buying an old French car with 163,000 miles, a history backed up only In a few receipts rather than a door stop sized folder and an MOT history that for the past few years has remained unblemished (almost too good to be true) is a frankly stupid idea, and one I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. However, I am clearly a victim of my own over-optimism, as for the last 6 months, I have been taking care of a Black Gold Renault Clio 182, a car that over the next few hundred words I will attempt to justify my claims that it’s about the most fun that you can have for the price of a pair of bucket seats in a new 911.
Most people put supercars on their bedroom walls or phone screensavers, have visions of wafting about in a Rolls-Royce, or perhaps blasting down to Route Napoleon in an Aston DBS, channelling their inner Bond as they go. I myself have simpler tastes, and have always lusted after the more back to basics driving machines, even years before I could drive. I remember first seeing a Caterham of sorts and being awestruck at its tiny dimensions, absolutely in love with the fact that here was a car, a concept first and foremost coined to get occupants from A to B with minimal effort that had completely flipped this philosophy on its head and instead had been designed to make every time you strapped yourself in the most entertaining and visceral experience it could be, often not even as a mode of transport, just pure entertainment. From then on, I had an obsession with cars that were not only focused around the driver, but were relatively accessible to mere mortals.
This was boosted again by TopGear’s Mitsubishi Evo vs Lamborghini Murcielago segment. Sure, it was the limited edition FQ-400 variant of Evo that cost nearly 50 thousand pounds, but here was a 4 door saloon car that could hold onto the tail end of a supercar costing three times as much. This underdog spirit speaks volumes with me, and the final push in a spiralling obsession for cars punching beyond their price point was Harry Metcalfe’s Evo Diaries video back in 2014, where he recounted piloting a Clio 182 Trophy up a twisty French mountain road, being chased unsuccessfully by Dickie Meaden in a Gallardo Superleggera. I absolutely had to have one of the little French hatchbacks, and it shot straight to the top of the list of cars I would own one day.
Fast forward to the present day and I have one, and before I go into any detail, I would like to tell you to buy one too because it is absolutely superb. The engine is a peach, not quite as screaming as a K20 Civic unit, but has a character all of its own. It hits 5,500 rpm and then jumps to the redline, forcing you to reach for the next gear barely any time after you selected the previous one. The car is alive, any bumps in the road teaming up with the slight torque steer to ensure you are almost wrestling with the wheel, foot buried into the floor. With around 180bhp, I will never try and convince you that it will leave even a modern diesel car behind on the motorway, but give it a chance once you near your destination, when the roads are smaller and corners more frequent, and I am utterly convinced that a well driven Clio 182 will leave almost anything behind on the right stretch of asphalt. The way that a well set up hatchback can corner is a joy. You accelerate towards the entry, turning in with a generous serving of purpose, blip down a gear and lift off, then a dab of brake pressure throws all the weight forwards, causing the front to grip even harder and the back end to go light, pivoting you around the apex in a unique and extremely satisfying way.
In a lot of cases, cars like this can get into the hands of people who want to modify them to take on track, so it is becoming increasingly rare to find one with a standard interior and bodywork that is in one piece. Unfortunately, the reality is that these cars were made for a relatively low cost, which doesn’t come with its pitfalls. The interior can flake over time, the steering wheel either being very glassy and slippery when it’s cold, or sticky and a bit grubby feeling when it warms up. Removing various pieces of the interior like the parcel shelf can help with the incessant rattling and creaking too, as this seems to be the main offender for NVH, a factor which I doubt the engineers had prioritised. Talking of modifications, there were some I had in mind for when I was shopping around, some out of necessity and some because they improve the car somewhat, be it through power or handling. The vast majority of 172 and 182s on the market have a stainless exhaust of sorts, as the steel used to make the original exhausts was not of the finest quality, which in turn caused a lot of them to dissolve under the car within a few years. Another choice modification that is extremely popular is an induction kit, which people will tell you it improves power and various other things, but it’s mainly really because it makes a wonderful, deep whoosh of air rushing into the intake. My car has a Milltek exhaust system fitted, which produces a lovely raspy tone, but isn’t over the top loud because the cat is still there, which would have been a deal-breaker for me had it been absent, and the induction kit is a Ktec racing item, with a lovely blue silicone pipe (when I say lovely, I mean that in the polar opposite way than it would normally mean, and it will be exchanged for a black one as soon as possible).
Handling wise, I have a few more modifications, including a set of Cooksport lowering springs with cup shocks, a Whiteline rear anti-roll bar with a polybushed front anti-roll bar and Speedline Turini wheels off the Trophy version that are supposed to be a bit lighter than the standard ones. These have recently been wrapped in 205 section Nankang NS2R tyres. How good these are for a British winter I cannot reliably report yet, as I haven’t touched any wet tarmac, but in the dry they feel more planted than the old items, offering improved steering feel and grip. However, the larger section over the 195 Bridgestone Potenza that were fitted before has made the car noticeably more keen to follow cambers.
I chose this tyre as I tend not to drive it when it is wet, and if I manage to make it to any track days this year, the Nankangs won’t flake under heat like a road tyre and will inevitably provide more grip. I have a spare set of control arms with Powerflex bushes that I will get round to refurbishing and putting back on, as the ball joints on those were beyond the end of their life to such an extreme that you could actually feel the wheels rocking back and forth as you set off. I currently have a pair of Ktec reinforced control arms, with extra gussets to help with the increased load of a track day. I did this as it was a quicker alternative than rebuilding the others before its MOT, but the too good to be true history has come back to bite me anyway, and the car is currently in the garage having an assortment of issues fixed after putting in an admirable effort to fail the test.
It might sound like I am just complaining about my car, but actually, I love it to bits. I constantly go back and forth about whether it is a sensible idea for an 18-year-old like myself to own a car like this, as it has the killer combo of huge insurance costs, 20-year-old budget car fragility and a fussy diet of 98 RON. Despite this, it still manages to convince me it is worth it. Every time I clamber in, see the aluminium pedals trying their best to shine after many miles of being dulled by heel & toe downshifts and countless pairs of shoes, grip the comically large steering wheel and fire it into life it just makes me smile. A light press on the throttle to ensure all cylinders are running as they should and it settles down, ready to go. Every time I sit eagerly waiting for it to warm up and for the windscreen to demist I fall in love all over again with its lumpy idle and impatient desire for a twisty section of B road. I just can’t help myself but be absolutely enamoured by this car and the snappy agility it showcases in corners, the sound of a thousand angry wasps trying to escape from the bonnet and clawing away at the tarmac.
I might eat my words when the day comes for me to drive something faster, more luxurious or more focused, but as it stands I honestly can’t imagine any car offering up a more grin grin-inducing recipe, and that is a key point now. With the looming insurgence of EVs, fuel prices rising and governing officials aiming to coax us all out of our favourite combustion-engined cars, it is more apparent than ever that we need to enjoy driving proper engines while we still can. Whether they have a high pitched scream, a low, torque-rich rumble or just a fervent desire for raspy revs, they all need to be celebrated. Whatever car you had on your bedroom wall once upon a time, or that you gawped at as it passed your childhood home, now is the time to get into it while you still can. For me, that was a hot little Clio, and as annoying as it can be, I absolutely adore it.