INTERNATIONAL TRUCK STOP - Where Renaults are reborn

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Will Shiers visits Renault’s used trucks factory in France, and finds it was worth the arduous, less than sanitary journey to get there.

Photo: The Range D flying through France.

Renault Trucks has found itself lumbered with a glut of fleet-spec secondhand Range T tractor units in Europe. In an attempt to improve their desirability, it’s hit upon a novel idea, and is transforming them into what it considers to be more desirable alternatives. It is so convinced that this is the way forward that it has invested a great deal of money in a purpose-built used trucks factory in Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon, France. It sounds like an interesting concept, so I decided to take a trip to France to find out more.

Normally the 965km journey from London to Lyon would be made by air, but on this occasion Renault Trucks UK gives me the option of travelling by road instead. It’s got some marketing material that needs collecting from its Lyon HQ, and I agree to do it in a Renault Range D. Separating England and France is a 32km stretch of water known as the English Channel (the French have another name for it, but that’s not important). When driving I generally prefer to cross it by ferry, but on this occasion Renault has booked me onto the Eurotunnel, so I’ll be travelling under it instead. The 50km tunnel opened in 1994, and while I’ve been through it numerous times as a passenger, this is the first time I’ve travelled in one of the freight-only trains. I’ve got an open ticket, and arrive at the Folkestone terminal on England’s south coast at 6.30am, naively thinking I’ll avoid any congestion. Each year 1.6 million trucks travel through the tunnel, carrying 21.3 million tonnes of freight, and it seems like half of them are here today! I’m sat in a massive traffic jam, inching along, burning unnecessary fuel.

Photo: Used Renault P-Road ready for round two.

My Range D 18-tonner is not only the smallest truck in the line, it also seems to be the only one wearing British licence plates. Although there are 8320 international licences (representing 138,000 trucks) in the UK, these days only a tiny fraction of them actually travel abroad. British hauliers are consistently undercut by Eastern European rivals, who have the advantage of being able to buy cheaper fuel and pay lower wages. After 90 minutes of queuing I finally reach security, which consists of a bloke with a stick poking the truck’s curtains. I have absolutely no idea what that’s supposed to achieve, but he’s clearly satisfied, as he waves me on.

Truck drivers aren’t allowed to remain in their cab during the 40-minute train ride, so having driven aboard, I exit the cab, and wait on the platform for an antique Mercedes-Benz Vario minibus to pick me up. Actually, minibus is too glamorous a description for this evil-smelling, vile contraption. It’s actually a van with windows, and grubby grab handles dangling from the ceiling. Although my tetanus jab is up to date, I still make a conscious decision not to touch anything on-board. As I disembark the van, it suddenly occurs to me that I am the only one not wearing Adidas tracksuit bottoms and flip-flops, and I feel decidedly overdressed. Having never travelled this way before, I had just assumed that there would be a chance to buy some food on the train. Alas, the closest thing to a buffet carriage is a very basic vending machine.

Photo: A UK P-Road being stretched in the used truck factory.

During the journey, and having watched a pointless information video showing me how to board the train correctly (a bit late now!), I decide to use the toilet. It’s a long way to Lyon, and I intend to have as few comfort breaks as possible. OK, the toilet, where do I start? I have a sneaky suspicion that it may actually be a portal to hell! Not only is it filthy, but also the toilet is blocked, and the contents are just an inch away from the brim. Whenever the train rocks, it sloshes onto the floor, splashing onto my shoes. Thank goodness I’m not wearing flip-flops. It’s a huge relief when the train stops and I board another Mercedes prison bus, which screeches to a halt by my truck, bringing the degrading experience to an end.

The Range D had a makeover in 2013 when the entire Renault Range was refreshed. Vast quantities of money were thrown at the Range T, C and K, but I can’t help thinking that they ran out of money when it came to giving the Range D its revamp. It’s fair to say that it’s not the prettiest truck on the road. That said, the interior is reasonably comfortable, and well specced too, but could definitely do with another refresh. Some of the switchgear is illogically positioned, and I’d like to see deeper cup holders too. But I can’t fault the driveline, which consists of the 8-litre engine, rated at 180hp, and the 6-speed Optidriver transmission. Gear changes are quick and precise, and the unladen truck certainly doesn’t waste any time accelerating.

I take the motorway all the way, which costs more than 150 Euros (NZ$250). But it’s money well spent, as traffic is minimal and the road surface is excellent. I can’t fault the service areas either, which on the whole are clean, and have plenty of parking spaces. It’s a refreshing change from what I’m used to back in Blighty. I sit on the limiter at 90kmph all day long, overtaking other trucks on the inclines. But carrying fresh air isn’t so helpful on the downhill gradients, and everything storms past me. The truck is fitted with a Brigade 360 camera, and what a great piece of kit it is too. Being able to see all around the truck is helpful while preparing to overtake on the motorway, and a huge blessing while navigating Lyon’s busy streets. I park up for the night, take a much-needed shower in order to wash away the Eurotunnel experience, and arrange to visit the used trucks factory the next morning.

Used but not abused
The donor trucks enter the Bourg-en-Bresse used truck factory as a mix of left- and right-hand-drive 4x2 and 6x2 tractors, and leave as 2- or 3-axle light construction tractors (X-Road), or as 2-axle rigids (P-Road). The X-Roads are beefed-up somewhat, allowing them to cope with light off-road work. They all get the off-road transmission package, a diff-lock and a manual accelerator. Externally they come equipped with headlight guards, orange roof beacons, a sun visor and a black name plate as standard. There is also an extensive options list, which even includes the day and night cab. Although X-Roads are aimed squarely at light construction use, Renault’s senior vice president, Emmanuel Duperray, tells me that the truck maker has also sold a number into general haulage, to “image-conscious companies”.

P-Roads undergo a more extensive transformation, and the lengthy conversion includes the removal of the cab. New chassis rails are fitted, with wheelbase options of 5600mm, 6000mm or 6500mm. By offering this conversion, Renault says it is tapping into a major shortage of used Euro 6 rigid trucks. Because of their excessive power (most being 430hp or 460hp), many are destined for drawbar operations, and leave the used trucks factory pre-wired for a coupling. Another market being tapped into is HGV driving schools, with Renault offering a crewcab conversion, with additional side windows and dual pedals. The age of the donor vehicles can range from two to five years old, but the bulk of the trucks I saw at the factory were built in 2015. Mileage varies depending on what markets they are destined for, but all fall within the 300,000km to 450,000km range.

Photos: Trucks in the workshop getting a second lease on life.

The conversion of P-Roads and X-Roads can take anywhere from 30 to 120 hours, depending on what’s needed, a good proportion of this time being devoted to software updates. Conversions are costly, to the tune of 15,000 Euros (NZ$25,000) in the case of some P-Roads, and Duperray admits that while overall the project is profitable, the individual conversion costs are not always recouped. “The idea was never about making a huge profit,” he insists, “it’s about stock rotation.”

This year Renault anticipates selling between 700 and 800 X-Roads and P-Roads, and ultimately expects 10% of its European used truck stock to pass through the used truck factory doors.
In all honesty, I’m not convinced. While there may be a place for the X-Road, especially in Africa (see sidebar), the P-Road strikes me as a more difficult sale. How many operators are in the market for what is effectively a 460hp sleeper cab 18-tonner? That said, I wish I were driving one home instead of this Range D. Not only is the Range T a vastly superior truck, but also I might be able to hide on the bunk when the Eurotunnel Mercedes prison van shows up!

Other markets
The X-Road light construction trucks have proved popular in parts of the Middle East and Africa, especially in countries whose road conditions are in a poor state of repair. Duperray explains that trucks destined for these markets are downgraded from Euro 6 to Euro 3. “We are talking about fully homologated Euro 3, and not one of those black boxes you can purchase for 50 Euros ($83),” he says. Downgrading also allows the trucks to run on poorer quality diesel.