Curbside Classic: 1976 Renault 6 TL – The 4’s Uglier Sibling

What is implied when describing a car as “very French”? One aspect is technical, i.e. a decidedly left-field approach to everything from how the wipers work or how the suspension is designed. Another is comfort, which is alleged to be a higher priority for French carmakers (very debatable). Yet another is dodgy build quality and/or reliability – YMMV on that too. And lastly, it’s the way French cars look, which can be pretty odd to the uninitiated. Could the Renault 6 be the most “French” car ever?

It certainly ticks a lot of boxes. We’re talking about a car whose left wheelbase is shorter than its right, and whose gearchange looks like an umbrella handle sticking out of the dash. It has softer seats and better suspension than anything in its class – except another French car, of course. The overwhelming majority of these have rusted away decades ago and the interiors were so cheap and nasty as to be both biodegradable and poisonous. Finally, it looks like it was styled by Ray Charles on a bad day. Very French? Extremely French.

So how did this most Froggish of French rides come to be? The story begins in 1961 with the launch of the Renault R4, the Régie’s first front-drive car. Nobody ever accused it of being pretty, quick or luxurious. It was somewhat cute, in its own way, with its smooth, chubby face and rounded tail, but the R4 was designed to be a workhorse, not a style leader. And it was especially aimed at the Citroën 2CV.

As it happened, 1961 was also the launch year of the Citroën Ami 6, a completely reskinned 2CV with a bigger engine and added creature comforts. Citroën were also working on what became the Dyane, slated to replace the 2CV with more hp, a better interior and a hatchback. Renault therefore decided to propose a re-skinned R4 with added edginess and luxury, aping Citroën in every way. The idea of the R6 was sound. The execution, as visitors of the 1968 Paris Auto Show discovered, was less so.

Under the skin, the R6 was 100% R4, at least initially. Renault’s all-torsion bar suspension, also used on the R16, was a real tour de force, though it did mean the cars leaned quite a bit in tight turns. But the roadholding was excellent. The R4’s longitudinal FWD layout, with the transmission in front of the engine, looks odd now, but was not that uncommon in earlier front-drivers, from prewar pioneers like Cord and Adler to the postwar star, the Citroën DS.

When it was launched in late 1968, the R6 met with mixed reviews. One issue was that it initially had to make do with the 845cc engine that used to motivate the Dauphine. At 34hp (DIN), the little straight-4 had a tough job hauling 750kg of car. This was a little better than the R4’s tiny 27hp 747cc mill, but the 4 was over 100kg lighter, too.

But the number one criticism levied against the new Renault was its lousy styling, reminiscent of a toddler’s impression of an R16. Where the larger car had an elegant shape with a high roofline and large glass area, as well as and interesting (if unconventional) design flourishes, the 6 had a fugly face, a low tail and a crude greenhouse that looked like a cardboard cutout.

Renault had a ready-made solution for the lack of power, which they deployed for MY 1971 with the TL: the Renault 8 Major’s 1.1 litre engine, initially producing 45hp. This, combined with the addition of front disc brakes, really improved the car’s sales performance, both at home and abroad. The TL was also available with the SINPAR 4×4 drivetrain, turning the R6 into a bona fide mudskipper.

The R6’s challenging aesthetics were a lot more difficult (if not impossible) to address. For the 1974 model year, Renault unveiled The Big Facelift: a plastic grille with the new corporate logo, square headlights and revised taillamps. It wasn’t much, nor was it seen as much of an improvement.

In fact, some argued it was even worse than the original. But by this point, it clearly did not matter, as the car was selling decently well despite its looks. And the TL’s engine gained an extra couple of hp as well, so at least there was some marginal improvement in there somewhere.

What was the secret behind the 6’s success? For one thing, if you’re inside it, you don’t have to look at it. And the interior was nice and comfy, with very good seats – a “very French” thing that lived up to the hype, it seems. Plenty of cargo space, a large hatch and a much quieter cabin (compared to both the R4 and flat-twin Citroëns, at least) were also high on the list of pluses.

Above: the right side; below: the left. The difference: 5cm/2 in.

The aforementioned comfort was further aided by the famous torsion bar suspension, longitudinal ones up front and a pair of transverse ones at the rear. The latter gave the Renaults of the period their trademark unequal wheelbases – completely strange, very French. Well, very Renault anyway.

The dash, on the other hand, was a rather sad and outdated affair. Nothing to see here, please disperse. And this is about as deluxe as the R6 got. At least this one’s plastics look pretty good, but give it a bit too much sunshine and cracks will magically appear.

Our feature car is beyond pristine, but panel fitment was also a widespread issue in ‘70s Renaults. Not that they were the only carmaker with such issues at the time, of course. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at the competition – it was easier to find 1975 prices for whatever reason, but an almost identical lineup would have applied for 1976 as well.

Note: European cars were subject to an extra shipping fee (500 to 900 Francs), not included here

The R6 TL was not that cheap, for a 1100cc economy car. And that’s in its home market, too. It was a very busy segment: there were even more rivals than I listed here, including the Simca 1000 GLS, the base model Citroën GS, the Audi 50, the Alfasud and the Opel Kadett C. And that’s only counting models with at least four doors – two/three door competitors would add to the mix the likes of Innocenti, Honda, Toyota, Volvo-DAF, as well as the eternal duo, namely the BL Mini and VW Beetle 1200. Not to mention Renault’s own technically identical and much prettier R5…

It’s a testament to the R6’s engineering that is held its own in the face of such overwhelming opposition, and in spite of its many faults, it fared as well as it did for so long. Production in France totalled over 1.7 million units and lasted until December 1979 for the 845cc version and stretched to May 1980 for the TL.

Note that this was only French production. The R6 was also built (and had quite a lot of success) in Spain and Colombia. In Argentina, the ungainly little Renault, produced by IKA, even went through a third series in 1980, with extra black paint and a 1.4 litre engine. This ultimate avatar lasted until 1984, but Spanish production carried on to 1986.

The Renault 6 belongs to that special category of cars whose shortcomings – especially looks-wise – were outweighed by their intrinsic qualities. It’s France’s AMC Gremlin, or Renault’s answer to nearly all of Nissan’s mid-‘70s range.

As the R4 might have said, “It ain’t ugly, it’s my brother.”