Renault 21: more than just a number

The Prisoner TV series had it all. A catchy soundtrack, a charismatic lead actor in Patrick McGoohan, a gripping storyline and a rather sinister weather balloon, which just happened to be called Rover. But The Prisoner didn’t have a Renault 21. Well, not until some 20 years after the original TV series first aired.

The year was 1989 and Renault’s Sierra-rivalling 21 had just been revamped. Keen to promote it as more than just a facelift, Renault UK enlisted the help of one of the country’s best-loved cult TV programmes. Patrick McGoohan co-wrote and starred in The Prisoner, in which he would become known as special agent Number Six.

As the title suggests, Number Six was a prisoner who spent the series trying to escape from the Village, otherwise known as Portmeirion. His chief enemy was Number Two, who – under the direct orders of a Number One – was doing his best to thwart Number Six’s continued attempts to break free. PetrolBlog’s younger audience may be struggling to keep up with this and indeed its relevance to the Renault 21. And no jokes about number ones and number twos please.

But wait, surely the Renault 6 would have been more apt? Well yes, but that had been discontinued many years earlier.

No, using The Prisoner as the basis for a Renault 21 TV advert, complete with the Rover weather balloon, was a triumph of advertising brilliance. And yes, that sentence did include three famous motoring marques.

Naturally, Renault does without the famous Lotus 7 belonging to Number Six, or indeed the Mini Moke taxis, choosing instead to give the Renault 21 a starring role. Clever stuff, especially as Mr Family Man would still have fond memories of watching The Prisoner as an impressionable youth. In fact, they probably still had nightmares about being chased through Surbiton by a weather balloon.

But if you think the use of Portmeirion and the famous TV series was clever, you need to pay close attention to the ad itself. Whilst the action unfolds, the art director manages to get a number of crucial messages across to the audience.

Like the remote central locking, the figure-hugging sports seats, the sunroof, the five-speed gearbox and the unwelcome backfire upon start up. Or was that the sound of a lightning bolt? Moving on…

Yet despite being the undoubted villain of the piece, it is Number Two who delivers the key lines. “Number 21 looks different, what’s going on?” – a direct reference to the fact that this was a new Renault 21. And “why can’t they catch him?” – clearly linked to the Renault 21’s lightning pace.

Renault-21-The-Prisoner

It’s a classic, if oft-forgotten ad of its time, from the days when French car TV ads ruled our Radio Rentals small screens. And let’s not forget this was a Renault UK ad, not some generic, vanilla-flavoured pan European nonsense fest.

Naturally, the Number 21 escaped from the Village. Through a railway tunnel to be precise. Though we’re not entirely sure what happened to G400 UHM, as the DVLA has no record of it. If you know the whereabouts of this former TV star, please get in touch with PetrolBlog.

As we know from the French Car Critical List, the Renault 21 needs to fear extinction more than the weather balloon. A mere 223 remain on the road, with a further 445 listed as being off the road, presumably blocked in by some overzealous Rovers…

Which is a shame, as the Renault 21 offers all the hallmarks of big French cars from its era. A supple suspension set-up, supreme ride qualities and a sumptuous interior. Just don’t mention rust or electrical gremlins.

Renault 21 rear

What’s more, the Savanna seven-seat estate makes for a practical and spacious workhorse. It’s a little known fact that Vince Clarke and Andy Bell of Erasure fame named their 1990 hit, Blue Savannah, after their time with the Renault 21 station wagon. Early demo versions of the 12-inch single even contained interior shots of the Renault 21 and an embossed Renault logo. Possibly.

As you’d expect, most of the Renault 21s that come up for sale are of the Turbo variety, but for French sake, we need to keep them all alive. After all, the Renault 21 is more than just a number. It’s a free car.

Hang on, that doesn’t quite work. Values may be low, but people aren’t giving them away just yet…

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

2 comments

  1. July 30, 2014
    Rafael

    Umm, my father bought a five door 21 in 1990. It was a bland and mediocre car, and built quality was, well, typical early ´90s french (although it was built in Spain). Only the spacious interior and very good ride comfort were their redeeming features. Mind you, with a 2.1 unblown diesel engine and 74 sad horsepower, it was no ball of fire.
    But it had air conditioning, and that was all that mattered to my father in the boiling summer of ´90. Indeed, the 21 was a big sales success in Spain because the whole range had air-con as standard.

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  2. February 12, 2016
    Nmg

    Just new to this site but what a lovely trip down memory lane. The R21 ad I remember had Cream’s “I feel free” as the theme tune and a grey R21. Was it an earlier ad?
    I remember a relative of mine buying a new Ereg Renault 21 Monaco. Metallic brown with cream leather and loaded to the brim with electronics. I remember it being more expensive than a BMW 318 or Audi 80e st the time and My 12 year old mind could never figure out why he never opted for the classy solid German choice. In later years I realised he served a large part of WW2 in France and had driven Renaults ever since. I remember him driving a 30 TX, 21 Monaco, Laguna RXE and finally a Safrane (which had a different grille depending on spec, I believe). Thanks PB for bringing back happy memories.

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