Here’s a debate worth having: what did the major car producing nations contribute during the 1960s, really? Here’s my take on it in really broad strokes. Britain? Well, there were two areas that the UK had a firm grip on; posh stuff and cheap stuff. The middle ground, the kind of stuff that families drove around in, was pretty nondescript to say the least. Germany? Fantastic engineering, but not a huge amount of imaginative design with the middle classes in mind. Italy? Elegance and advanced engineering was everywhere, but the really good stuff was — as with the UK — pretty much reserved for the wealthy and wealthier. Japan was nowhere, Sweden was as eccentric as it always was, and the USA was power, marketing and status crazed, but didn’t do a great deal of thinking outside the box — aside from the Chevy Corvair Greenbrier, which essentially was a box.
France, though, was another matter, as we’ve already seen with the Citroen ID19, and we’ll see again in this ’66 brochure for the Renault 16. Welcome back to The Carchive
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“Exciting, dynamic lines. A while new concept of comfort, space, adaptability. Seats to luxuriate in. Silence to think in. Performance to exhilarate in.”
France was seriously right at the top of the pile where it came to forward thinking design in the 1960s, especially where it comes to the kind of cars that ‘normal people’ might aspire to, and the geometrically styled Renault 16 was, in its own way, equally innovative as the ‘it came from outer space’ Citroen ID and DS, even if the technology was a little more down to earth. It’s interesting to note that, on Renault’s attempted inroads to the US market, the importers didn’t really know how to describe the 16’s form and labelled it as the Sedan-Wagon.
Launched in 1965, the Renault 16 enjoyed a long career. Top models were eventually supplanted by the Renault 20 while the rest of the range found its replacement in the Renault 18, with the last 20s trundling off the Le Havre production line in 1980. That fifteen year run gave the competition ample time to catch up.
“There’s been an interior revolution in the Renault 16. New fascia, new air control, new cigarette box, new heater control. Everywhere you look, everywhere you sit, there’s proof of the thought given to the design of this car, which gained three separate “best car of the year” awards when it was introduced.”
A long look at the 16, though, demonstrates a particularly Renault trait. Look at its shape and proportions, and you’ll see that despite being a demonstrably clever and effective design, it had very little real influence outside the Renault lineage. It joins the pantheon of brilliant dead-ends that includes the Renault Avantime and Vel Satis, although it obviously sold in far, far bigger numbers than either of its Millennial descendants.
Perhaps the 16 was so different in its design that imitation would have been too glaringly obvious to be attempted. Off the top of my head, the family car that comes closest to matching the 16’s upright stance is Britain’s Austin Maxi of ’69. However, the resemblance must be purely accidental; the outcome of using the centre section and doors of a much bigger car (the Austin 1800 saloon) as the basis for a smaller hatchback model.
“Look hard at the ultra-soft seats. Notice the double thickness. Realise what fantastic standards of luxury they must give.”
The 16’s upright nature meant masses of headroom, and non-slouch seats meant that legroom wasn’t an issue. This gave the impression that interior space was more plentiful than it actually was, and the column-mounted manual gear selector (necessary because of the gearbox positioning ahead of the North-South mounted engine) made for a clear floor.
It was in sheer versatility that the 16 played its trump card, though, and could reasonably be seen as a forerunner to the MPV or, lack of off-road credence notwithstanding (although the long-travel suspension did absorb big bumps with ease), an SUV before its time. The rear seatbacks were top-hinged, and could be pivoted into any number of positions, including a raised mode that doubled the length of the luggage compartment (in combination with the seat cushion being tipped forwards).
Or the rear seatback could be inclined to match the angle of the front seatback to form a “rally resting” position, or the front seats could be reclined to the horizontal where they would abut the rears to form two full-length (if rather bumpy) beds. Note, the Maxi did the latter, but the Renault had a four-year lead.
“You’ll be hard put to defeat the Renault 16 when it comes to the question of luggage. With its absolutely unique interior adaptability, there is almost no limit to the quantity or shape of luggage it can accept”
For all the 16’s cleverness, when the very conventional Renault 18 arrived in 1980, it fell far more inline with the three-box sedan format that the world seemed to be rather more comfortable with. Aside from being front-wheel drive, the 18 was little more forward thinking than the ultra-conservative Ford Cortina and Taunus that dominated the ’70s family car sales charts. 1975s Renault 20, though, was rather more respectful to the 16’s way of doing things, but disguised it with a longer, less upright body design.
And now? Well, now there aren’t really any cross-category cars any more. You have to choose between a family hatchback, a sedan, an MPV or an SUV, with the latter increasingly becoming the default choice. Even if a major manufacturer was brave enough today to launch a machine like the Renault 16, an unconventional looking family car that really nails what its users actually need from a car, it seems likely to be met by indifference with the crowds collectively replying “nah, we’re alright, thanks” and head off to buy an SUV.
Which brings us back to my opening gambit about 1960s car design around the globe. Wise corporate eyes would see little point in innovation unless your domestic market has an appetite for it. In North America, fairly rigid, proven templates for success were in place, so why deliver the unexpected? The same was true of the UK to some extent, although British buyers did show rather more interest in the Renault 16 than our friends across the Atlantic, although the brand was obviously more familiar to us than to them.
It could probably be argued that the global appetite for innovation in car design is at an all-time low, unless embracing new ideas brings some kind of social remuneration, such as the prestige of early-adoption, or the virtue-signalling of driving an expensive electric car. Either way – with the possible exception of the Dacia Logan LCV, it’s hard to think of a single family car anywhere on the globe that really stands out for offering something truly unique.
(All images are of original manufacturer’s publicity materials, photographed by me after being found on eBay for £1.07. Copyright remains property of Renault)