Michèle Ray is the head of an amazing brave female ‘Elle’ quartet who decided to embark on an incredible 40,000-km journey in two Renault 4 cars.
Whilst the 1960s may have witnessed style icons, Mary Quant and Brigitte Bardot on the cover of just about every fashion magazine; according to worldwide lifestyle magazine ‘Elle’ it was the snazzy-looking Renault 4 that lit the touchpaper when it came to the fairer sex.
According to its loyal readers, the quirky French automotive icon was tactfully described as ‘the best car for Madame‘. Efficiency, robustness and a very ‘soft suspension’ system were just a few of the complementary factors listed by those who took part in the reader’s survey.
In 1965, an inquisitive young 26-year-old called Michèle Ray decided it was time to put those ‘complementary factors’ to the test. As the head of an enterprising ladies’ quartet named ‘4 Elle’, she begins a spectacular expedition from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska with two unsuspecting Renault 4 cars.
Joining Ray on the epic journey was Éliane Lucotte, Betty Gérard and Martine Libersart. Making good use of the 4’s spacious layout, the ambitious quartet pack everything they need and eventually reach the start-point of their road trip; Ushuaia in the extreme south of Tierra del Fuego.
The ‘Elle’ Quartet Journey Begins
On June 11th a 40,000-kilometer journey over mostly unpaved roads lay ahead, but first the small matter of dealing with 30 centimetres of freshly fallen snow…
Enduring pothole after pothole, the fab-four make use of the three-week special training in a Renault factory before the start of the trip, with Ray uttering the words “The R4 is a car for women for more than one reason. Easy to drive, but above all easy to lift!”.
Unlike the average package tour with comforts thrown in, the fully loaded ‘expedition Michèle Ray’ navigates through Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Central America, Mexico, USA and eventually Canada.
Carrying just about everything from Jerry cans, tools, spare wheels, and even film equipment, that leaves only one suitcase for clothes which the four have to share sparingly during the entire trip.
Endless washboard runs in Argentina and several hours of sometimes heated arguments with the usual stubborn Brazilian officials cannot stop the brave French women. Before crossing the virtually impassable Mato Grosso, for safety, the odd carbine, ammunition and machete is added to their growing list of itinerary.
Such is the desperate terrain, the 4 are continuously unloading their Renaults to negotiate the most difficult areas. As soon as the car is loaded again, it’s only a few meters before it sinks into the next pit. Even the welcomed breaks are no relief, as Michèle Ray and her companions need to ration groceries to save weight. Only a few oranges and warm milk donated by the locals provide the frugal source of fuel on the menu. After 1,300 kilometres of ‘driving blind’ without any precise directions, they finally reach San Ignacio in Bolivia.
The next stage leads through the cordillera to Chacaltaya. The versatile Renault 4 easily climbs the 5,200-meter accent with ease. Even at these heights, the tried and tested four-cylinder power unit stays loyal in spite of the lean mixture.
Peru and Ecuador conquered, the two teams lose sight of each other and the crews find themselves 400 kilometres apart, with Michèle Ray and her companions joining Central America in the middle of the rainy season. There are streams to cross over and over again with many bridges washed away making life even more difficult.
On the North American west coast, distance is covered much more efficiently. 1,000 kilometres can be achieved in a single day and the goal is getting closer. With only 1,500 kilometres left, the expedition is once again put to the test.
The outside temperature is now -18°C, a stone smashes the windscreen of the lead vehicle. Michèle Ray grits her teeth, wraps herself in a sleeping bag, which she barely closes with safety pins, and relentlessly drives on. Every 60 kilometres she makes a stop to warm up again.
Both Renault 4s finally make it to their destination in Alaska without any major problems.