Once a common sight across Europe, much-loved French cars from a bygone era rattle along the streets of Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo, doing their duty as private vehicle, taxis or even police cars.
The Renault 4L and the Citroen 2CV, which have made way for sleek younger models elsewhere, are still part of daily life on the Indian Ocean island, battling up its steep hills and wheezing towards top speed on its dusty main roads.
“There’s no question of a car chase,” admitted one uniformed police officer sitting in his white 4L, complete with a rooftop beacon and police signage, parked on guard close to the presidential palace.
“But it does have the advantage of not consuming much petrol,” he added.
Nearby, in the shade of jacaranda trees, several other 4Ls and 2CVs serve as taxis waiting for customers.
The two models are celebrated worldwide as masterpieces of design, representing Europe’s post-war boom and the explosion of car ownership — but their heyday has long passed.
Rijason Randrianantoanina, a 37-year-old taxi driver, is proud of his “magnificent” 2CV, which he has owned for 16 years.
“It was made in 1978, but it’s a solid car,” he said.
The body is suffering from some patches of deep rust and the fuel gauge does not work anymore.
The 2CV tank contains only 28 litres, and its driver must be a good judge of petrol usage.
“I have a gauge in my head, you just have to get used to it,” he said.
The “go-to” mechanic
Starting from the 1960s, 2CVs and 4Ls were imported into Madagascar from France and Belgium, while models were also assembled on the island until the 1980’s.
It was while working at the Somacoa plant that Elysee Rakotondrakolona learnt to dismantle and erect the quirky 4L.
He is now the go-to 4L mechanic in Antananarivo, in the busy, working-class district of Antoamadinika.
“The 4L can go where even modern 4x4s cannot go — because it takes only three people to lift it,” he said dryly.
In his open-air garage, squeezed between an “aesthetic hairstyle” salon and a donut stand, the chassis of old 4Ls are piled on top of each other.
Here, resourcefulness reigns supreme.
“I take parts from Renault 5s for the front axle unit of the 4L,” said Rakotondrakolona, wearing blue work overalls almost as old as some of his wrecks.
“Our national speciality as Madagascans is that when you see two pieces that look alike, we know how to adapt them. It is the ‘make-do-and-mend’ system.”
The only problem that is unsolvable is a broken gearbox. “Then, there is nothing to do,” he said.
Easy to repair, almost unbreakable and fuel efficient, the 2CV and 4L are well-adapted to survive in Madagascar.
No official figures are available but thousands are still on the roads of the former French colony which is one of the world’s poorest countries, with almost four in five people living in grinding poverty.
Back in the garage, a worker patiently straightens the dented bodywork of a 4L using a small hammering tool, while others remove the engine from an orange model to modify its chassis.
“It goes everywhere:”
One customer Bruno Rasolofomanantsoa, a rice farmer, had brought his 4L for a major operation by “doctor” Rakotondrakolona, who will transplant an engine into it from another car.
Rasolofomanantsoa, in his 50s, uses his hard-working vehicle to carry fertiliser into his paddy fields, and he admires its simplicity.
“If you have a problem in the middle of nowhere, to find out what is wrong, just open the hood,” he said.
“But it does have the advantage of not consuming much petrol,” he added loyally.
Riri, a taxi driver, is also happy under the hood of his trusty old Renault.
“I repair it myself, I learnt on the job,” he explained, as he waited for customers near the palace.
On his sign, one “N” in Antananarivo has fallen off. But his 4L, which dates from 1975, is always reliable.
“It goes everywhere even when there is flooding because the ignition is high,” he said.
Original spare parts are however increasingly rare, he laments.
Traders have long imported parts from Europe, and Indo-Pakistanis settled in Madagascar have now got into the trade, said Riri.
“We do not know if these are copies or not” he joked.