Flashback: The Detective’s Renault 16

A Renault 16 from the OldMotors archives today as we flash back to booming 1970s Abidjan, the cosmopolitan heart of Côte d’Ivoire. Admittedly, it doesn’t look so “cosmopolitan” here, but at the time Côte d’Ivoire (usually anglicized to “Ivory Coast”) was a hugely prosperous country and Abidjan’s skyline growing by the day.

The country’s amazing economic growth after independence in 1960 – stemming largely from agriculture – eventually meant a booming market for cars. Being a Francophone country with strong ties to France (purposefully cultivated by President Félix Houphouët-Boigny) – naturally the French makers dominated and particularly Peugeot and Renault.

It’s not clear if this gentleman is the owner or an employee, but his car gives the name of a private security agency on the side, so we’ll say he’s a private detective. What’s he driving? The unconventional and very successful Renault 16. Not exactly the same as Jim Rockford’s Firebird or Frank Cannon’s Lincoln, but maybe not so far off from Columbo’s Peugeot and more practical for real world detective work than any of them.

In America, the 16 was often regarded as a trouble-prone also-ran, but in France, Côte d’Ivoire, and many other countries, it was a pragmatic and reliable workhorse.

The 16 was in some ways new territory for Renault, whose last large car, the Frégate, had been mostly ignored by the market. The Frégate was a very conventional and conservative car, was late to market and got off to an unhappy start. Rushed into production, it was underpowered and had many early quality ills. It got much better, but largely languished on the market, and Renault dropped it in 1960.

If the Frégate was conventional to a fault, the 16 was destined to be the polar opposite. 

Designing the Renault 16

In 1958 CEO Pierre Dreyfus was casting around for a Frégate successor. The first idea, presented by staffer Michel Beligond and industrial designer Gaston Juchet, was essentially a bigger, flashier, but conventional replacement – a big 6-cylinder rear-drive sedan called “Project 114.” The 114 was rejected by Dreyfus: “We have to do things differently. Cars must no longer be just four seats and a boot.” 

Dreyfus’ point was that there had to be some sort of market differentiator and that if Renault was going to get back into larger mainstream cars, it had to do so in a unique way. What he wanted to see was something that offered more space efficiency – and he sent Juchet and engineering director Yves George, formerly of Chenard-Walcker and Chausson, back to the drawing board.

In early 1961 Renault was getting ready to launch the R4 (and its short-lived, cheaper companion, the R3) and it was this project which informed “project 115” – the code for what became the 16, referred to quietly in the press at the time as “the upcoming Renault 1500.”

The 4 was a big open box inside, with tons of room. It used an existing family of engines from the 4CV, but mounted between the front axle and the firewall driving the front wheels –  like a Citroën. It also had four-wheel independent torsion bar suspension, which resulted in a big space savings but an unequal wheelbase on both sides. The same ideas could easily be translated into a much larger car, and that’s what Juchet and George did.

Juchet and Beligond worked under design director Claude Prost-Dame, and cooked up a highly unusual looking but very contemporary shape. It was purposefully designed for form to follow function – inside it would be cavernously large, 

The layout was fundamentally the same as the R4, just larger. In this case, the only weakness was that in a relatively compact car, the larger engine was waaaaay back into the wheelbase, making it a bit difficult to service. But the placement made for excellent weight balance.

The torsion bar setup was retained and enlarged, yielding typically French body roll but excellent handling and a soft ride. The long-travel of the rear suspension made it excellent for rough roads, just as on the R4. 

Juchet’s best idea was giving the car a hatch out back. There had been “hatchbacks” before, though they weren’t necessarily called that. A decade earlier Citroën and Kaiser-Frazer had offered family cars with big opening hatches. But the R16 was very different – unveiled at Geneva in 1965, was the first modern 4-door family hatch.

“Hatchback” was not really a popular term at that time, and in the USA, the R16 was marketed as a “station sedan,” a hybrid of wagon and regular family sedan. At the time, there was really nothing else quite like it until the Austin Maxi in 1969. Toyota launched a “fastback” Corona in late 1965, but it was rarely seen outside of Australia and Japan and definitely less roomy.

Its shape and weird wheelbases were unusual, but inside the car was a model of space efficiency. Seats folded down in multiple different combinations, there was even a provision for child seats. When everything in back was folded flat, the interior was more like a van or a proper wagon than any other regular euro family car.

Power came from 1,470-, 1,565-, or 1,647-cc “Cléon-Alu” alloy block-and-head fours typically mated to a 4-speeder. Most R16s were not particularly fast, but the top-spec 1,647-cc cars were speedy for that class of car at the time.

In 1969, a full automatic was added – unusual in any European family car then, but it was only a modest seller. Later on there were also premium versions like the TX, with a five-speeder and dozens of power options including central locking, not a typical feature on a car designed in the early 1960s.

Because of its practicality, it was hugely popular as a family or a work car (as cabs or sometimes police cars). 1.85 million of them had been sold by the time production ended in 1980.

The excitement in the R16 line in the mid-1970s was on the TX, though it was a slow seller. The less flashy L and TL were more workhorses, and we suspect monsieur is showing off one of those here. Off to the next case!

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