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Renault R16 Driving Impressions

After months of sitting, the museum’s 1973 Renault R16 started easily and quickly settled into a nice idle.

The low-back seats are very comfortable. The black synthetic fabric reminds me of my family’s ’72 Ford LTD’s indestructible “Brougham” fabric – after years of abuse, it never stained, never snagged, never faded.

The seatbelts are unconventional. There is a long-ish receptacle end, and a long-ish shoulder belt from the B-pillar, but no lap belt. Adjusted properly, the shoulder belt and long anchor end sort of form a lap belt, but it rides higher than it probably should for safety. They are still 3-point belts, just unconventional.

In their 9/68 review, Road & Track said the belts were a little difficult to adjust, but, once properly set, were comfortable and effective. But, once belted in, it was not possible to reach the dash-mounted controls, such as the choke button and parking brake release.

At 6’2”, I had 4” of headroom, which is good. But, in order to properly address the steering wheel, I had to scoot closer to the pedals than I like. This resulted in the 4-on-the-tree shifter smacking my knee at every 2nd and 4th gear upshift. I adapted after a little while, but still, the proportions are just a bit off for me. Another misstep I noticed was that, even at 6’2”, I really couldn’t fully see the odometer without leaning forward. It is half-obscured by the lower edge of the dash.

The dash is very simple – just a linear, very legible white-on-black speedometer, a fuel gauge, and a voltmeter, plus a brace of warning lights.
The R16 goes down the road very well. The 1.6l-four pulls well, but isn’t a high-revver. It makes noise rather than power! The Gallically-comfortable ride soaks up bumps and potholes with almost-Citroën effectiveness – far better than any of my daily drivers!
The power-assisted front disc/rear drum brakes are excellent, with a firm pedal and no wandering. Interestingly, a rear anti-lock valve is used. This allows the rear tires to continue to roll in a panic stop, maintaining control instead of sliding. Sort of pre-anti-lock braking.
Wearing polarized sunglasses and looking through the non-polarized, but somehow-coated, windshield give the impression of looking ahead from inside a Reticulated Python. We’ve seen similar phenomena on other French cars – the glass is not polarized, but sometimes a large dark circle is apparent, or polka-dots. The R16 is definitely reptilian.

Steering with the thin-rimmed 16” steering wheel is heavy at low speeds, but not overly so. It lightens a great deal at roadgoing speed, and is light and direct, but a bit on the wallowy side. And there is zero road feel, also unlike my daily drivers. I can’t tell what the front tires are doing. Self-centering after a turn is also a little strange. At low speeds and high speeds, it centers strongly after a turn, but at medium, urban street speed, it sometimes seems to have no intent on self-centering, and on more than one occasion, I had to consciously steer it back out of a turn.

In their 9/68 review, Road & Track called it “wheel snatching”, and attributed it to pronounced front caster settings. They also noted that the suspension, plus the Michelin X tires, result in a car that “can be driven quickly and with confidence…soaking up bumps and dips at speed without the loss of poise.”
It’s not an autocrosser! Even modest cornering speeds elicit a good bit of tire squeal. On my test ride, I came upon a large WeatherTech box in the middle of the road after a curve in the road. The R16 handled the L-R-L jink without any hesitation, but it did squeal a bit, and body roll was pretty strong. Even though 58% of the weight is on the front wheels, it does not understeer as much as expected, and tucks back in after lifting off the power, much better-behaved than a Mini. It goes where it’s pointed – it just won’t tell you what it’s doing, and it may not return when and where you’d expect. Perhaps our example is just out of alignment? Or it may be a product of its very unusual wheelbase, which differs right to left! To make room for the transverse torsion bars, the left side is almost three inches longer than the right.

The engine is a 70hp, 1565cc inline-four, driving the front wheels. Around town, it’s quick off the line, and has no trouble with traffic. Highway power was adequate. 115kph (72mph) was smooth and relatively quiet, but it really had little more to give for passing. Still, it was fine at the limit, and had no trouble maintaining speed up hills. Crosswinds were felt, but not objectionable, while truck buffeting was a little more noticeable.
The peaks at the edge of the roof sheet metal no doubt add to both aerodynamic efficiency, but also add stiffness to the structure without the intrusion of structural members inside taking away from headroom.

Period reviewers also liked the distinctive look the cant rails and other “razor-edge” creases gave the car, helping it stand out from the crowd.
The pressed aluminum door sills are embossed with the Victor Vasarely-designed Renault diamond – a nice detail which wouldn’t be missed if it weren’t there, but shows an uncommon but appreciated attention to detail in a low-priced car.

The backs of the front seats are scalloped, as are the rear door panels, giving more rear seat room and comfort without taking away from anything else. The owner’s manual shows six different seating arrangements that are possible. The rear seats may tilt forward, are fore-aft adjustable, and also may be removed entirely for large, bulky loads. This unusual ability, for the time, led Renault’s marketers to advertise the R16 as a “Sedan-Wagon” in the UK and USA.

Brochures proclaimed it “A Bold New Idea in a Compact Size!” There wasn’t a word yet for what it was. Today, we might call it a five-door or a crossover.
The headlight adjustment knob falls easily to hand under the right side of the dash. A similar feature is also found on period Citroëns. Perhaps it was a French regulatory requirement? These small, softly-sprung cars are very sensitive to their passenger load, and it’s essential for maintaining proper aim.
Under the left side of the dash is a hot water valve. One may control the amount of heat sent into the cabin, send it to just the lower half, leaving the dash-level vents feeding cool air for driver alertness, or full hot upper and lower. A pair of levers on the right direct the air as desired, and even open an outer flap for fresh air under any conditions.

The R16 was an important car, not only to Renault, but also to other manufacturers. In the R16, Renault showed that a large, middle-class FWD car with a hatchback and flexible seating arrangements could be popular.

It is said that Chevrolet studied the R16 in planning their first FWD mid-size, the Citation. Architecturally, the two cars are very similar. Today, FWD hatchbacks are everywhere, but the R16 was a pioneer in the segment.

A journalist from Motoring Illustrated described it as “a large family car, but one that is neither a four door saloon and nor is it quite an estate. But, importantly it is a little different.” Stuck with the baggage car at the press introduction on the Cote d’Azur, he was amazed to see the seats folded up and 34 cases of red wine stowed in back! Driving it with such a load was uneventful, and afterwards he had nothing but praise for the 16.

Racer Sir Sterling Moss famously said “There is no doubt that the Renault 16 is the most intelligently engineered automobile I have ever encountered and I think that each British motorcar manufacturer would do well to purchase one just to see how it is put together.”

The R16 was European Car of the Year in 1966, and sold over 1.8M during its 15 year run. Its influence on modern car design cannot be overstated.