The Renault 16 probably needs little introduction, but if you need a refresher this is a good place to start. Unarguably, it is one of the cars that Europe produced that showed the way forward was, technically, a lot more interesting than the Ford Cortina or Vauxhall Victor.
Cars like the Renault 16, the Morris 1100, the FIAT 124 and Peugeot 204 suggested, in the early 1960s, that there was more to Europe than ¾ scale American products and that some genuinely innovative and exciting engineering solutions were available.
The Renault 16 (known colloquially as the R16) had many interesting ideas – let’s have a quick canter through them.
Front wheel drive – not new, or even by 1965 that unusual. BMC had been offering transverse engines for 6 years, it was nearly 30 years since the Traction Avant, nearly 20 since the Citroen 2CV and 5 years after Renault’s 4, a 2CV re-imagined for the 1960s. But Renault took the opportunity to make it a truly integral part of the car, and really built on it to create a fully cohesive product.
Longitudinal front mounted gearbox ahead of the engine – by putting the engine behind of the gearbox, Renault were able to keep the impact of the front wheel drive configuration on the weight distribution to a minimum, as well as easing access to the gearbox and clutch, just in case. The engine was initially 1470cc, than from 1968 1565cc, later 1647cc, 4 cylinder, OHC and the gearbox 4 speed, later 5 speed on certain models, or a 3 spreed automatic. Power was 55PS initially.
Column mounted gearshift – a direct consequence of the gearbox location but the floor was kept clear (behind a noticeable engine intrusion though) and the column mounted lever was ergonomically at least as good as a floor mounted one.
The hatchback – this was the key to fully utilising the benefits of the front wheel drive configuration – a long, low uninterrupted floor and a rear bench seat that folded in various ways and could be removed entirely made this the next best thing to a pickup, a panel van and a traditional estate. Or even a caravan. The hatchback revolution started here.
Comfort oriented interior – the big and soft seats, big windows (an underrated and now much missed luxury), head room and flat floor all worked with the long travel and supple suspension to give what was probably the best conventionally sprung ride this side of the Jaguar XJ6.
(Seen here alongside a 1973 Renault 15)
Soft, long travel suspension – the car had torsion bar suspension all round and this is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of it; the question that people ask when studying the specification of the Renault 16 is “Is it true that the wheelbase varied from side to side?” (I was very puzzled when I found out, aged 10, and even more disappointed that my Dad didn’t know why. Dads know everything, don’t they?). But, here’s the proof.
The rear suspension was by transverse torsion bars (shown below) and the resulting offet was about 2 1/2 inches. Look carefully at the rear wheel cutout, the door and the bumnper and you can see it.
Finally, though out equipment – long before many such items were commonplace, the Renault 16 was progressively offered with a 5 speed gearbox, 2 speed windscreen wipers, a heated rear window, a rear screen wiper, electric windows and central locking (this may not sound exciting, but Rover did not offer central locking on any car until 1976, and Ford in Europe not until 1977).
Even now, apart from the Citroen DS and the Peugeot 504 Cabriolet, I can think of no other way I’d prefer to cross through France. And, before you ask, I have heard of the French TGV train and the Airbus A320.
And that lever in the slot by the headlight – to adjust the headlight beam alignment when the car was laden. Later, this was placed under the bonnet, away from interfering pedestrians and now replaced by an electrical switch on the dash, of course.