I’ve told people about this car for 25 years, and finally — FINALLY — thanks to help from a world-famous “social media expert,” I managed to find photographic evidence: The town of Ogunquit, Maine, once had a Renault Le Car police cruiser.
UPDATE: We got a much better photo of Ogunquit Police Department’s Le Car from John W. Jacobs III. It’s at the end of the article.
Let’s go back in time, to America’s bicentennial.
I was a young lad of eight years old, and my parents had a small camper in the town of Wells, Maine, just a few miles up the coast from Ogunquit Beach, one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in America. “Ogunquit,” in fact, translates to “beautiful place by the sea” in the indigenous Abnaki language.
In 1976, I first saw this funky French car lettered up in Ogunquit Police Department livery. It wasn’t around long — maybe three or four years — but that bizarre little machine jammed itself in my hard drive for the next 30 years.
The mid-to-late 1970s were a challenging time for America. We’d just experienced an oil embargo that resulting in fuel rationing and mile-long lines at the gas station. The economy was a disaster. Inflation was rampant and the Federal Reserve jacked interest rates up to near 20%.
They didn’t call it the Malaise Era for nothing.
All over the country, municipalities were as strapped for cash as everybody else. Not only did they not have the money to buy vehicles, they were looking for any way possible to save fuel.
Most of the police cars were still the big, sturdy, full-size American sedans you recognized from ADAM-12 and CHiPs, but small towns were experimenting with unconventional cop cars to keep their budgets in the black. They began experimenting with cars like the Renault Le Car.
The Le Car was the identical twin to the Renault 5, pronounced “cinq” in France. Since nobody knew how to pronounced “cinq” here, and “five” seemed like a weird name for a car, the marketing and advertising folks came up with something unique. AMC had recently entered into a sales partnership with Renault to distribute its cars here. For $3,583, the Renault “Le Car” — a three-door hatchback informally known as the “French Rabbit” — delivered 40 miles per gallon, had front-wheel drive, and provided a decidedly French driving experience.
The town of LaConner, Washington was early in the municipal use of the Renault Le Car, and famously had its gold cruiser used in a Le Car print ad:
“Gas is killing us,” said LaConner’s Police Chief, Russ Anderson. “With Le Car, we were able to decrease our budget and increase our mobility.”
Budgets were being crushed all the way across the country in Ogunquit, Maine, too. Yes, most of the police cars in town were still Plymouth Satellites, or 9C1-equipped Chevrolet Caprices like the one above, but it helps to understand that the summer resort town of Ogunquit is jammed with traffic every day from May to October. Parking violations make up the bulk of its crime profile, so a small car, good for darting in and out of traffic and parking almost anywhere, made all the sense in the world.
Ogunquit was and still is — by Puritanical New England standards anyway — a cosmopolitan little town. Like Provincetown, Massachusetts, it’s had been recognized for years as a premier destination for LGBT tourists. It was also a major destination for French-Canadian tourists coming from Quebec, who drove all kinds of odd European cars, towing even more odd European campers along the seacoast.
The Le Car might have been the perfect police car for a 1970s-era Ogunquit.
For years, I tried to explain to people that I knew of a New England town where a Renault Le Car could’ve pulled you over for speeding. I was accused of peddling what would now be described as “alternative facts.”
When I was a writer and editor at Hemmings Motor News, around 2004 we put together a pictorial of odd police cars and I got in touch with the Ogunquit Police Department, but in that pre-social media era, when people actually had important things to do, I couldn’t get anyone to give me the time of day to goof off searching through piles of old photographs.
Then I met up with Sgt. Tim Cotton, who has nothing better to do than goof off.
He’s the Public Information Officer for the city of Bangor, Maine’s police department, and the driving force behind the Bangor PD Facebook page. If you don’t follow it, stop what you’re doing right now and get over there. The Bangor Police Department’s page is on the cusp of hitting 200,000 followers, because it’s honest, engaging and this kind of nonsense is exactly what it’s good at.
Tim and I both contribute regularly to Car Talk, and we had dinner a few months back. I put two-and-two together and figured if anyone could help me track any photographic evidence down, it would be him.
Sure enough, three days later, an email arrived in my inbox from Tim, with a scanned newspaper clipping of the car I’d been told was a figment of my imagination for the last 40 years. Right there — literally — in black and white was the Renault Le Car.
At Tim’s request, Lt. Matthew Buttrick of the Ogunquit Police Department dug through what I can only imagine was a pile of clippings about to be recycled and found this sole image of the 1976 Renault Le Car, lettered just the way I remember it.
Tim told me Lt. Buttrick noted he’d “been there for 18 years and has never been asked for a pic of that car.” Lt. Buttrick, a million thanks for the effort because now I don’t have to endure anyone’s ridicule any longer. Except for the fact that I’ve been thinking about a Le Car since 1976.
One thing my memory failed me on was the emergency light. I remember it being an abbreviated light bar, like the one on the LaConner Police Department car, rather than the “bubblegum machine” light on the one in the article. But now that I’m thinking about it, Ogunquit may have actually had TWO Le Car police cars, which may be why I remember it that way.
If anyone can confirm that, or has any other photos — perhaps in color — send them along to me at email@example.com, and we’ll amend the article.