“Hatchback of Notre Dame” – In this transcript the respected motor-correspondent, Mr Archie Vicar, dons his beret to try the new Renault “Sixteen”.
From Driving Illustrated May 1965. Photos by Mr Douglas Land-Windermere. Due to the poor quality of the original images, stock photography has been used.
Olive oil and garlic in the kitchen, filterless Gitanes in his pocket and a pair of slip-on shoes. We all know the fellow. He likes his chicken chasseur and, in the late evening, Jacque Brel croons on his stereophonic record player. Coffee for him, never good old tea. Heaven forbid if the coffee is powdered. Not for this chap a splendid Humber, a stout Riley or even a fine Rover. Such motor cars are not sufficiently sophisticated, too British. Since 1955 the only car for Monsiuer Different has been a Citroen, usually the DS, fitted with its dreadfully overwrought hydropneumatic suspension, fibreglass roof and marshmallow chairs.
The fly in the ointment for this breed of driver has been the shocking cost of Citroen’s brand of engineering. Costly to buy, even more costly to run and utterly impossible to repair, a Citroen is often beyond the reach of many suburban sophisticates and heretofore most of what Peugeot and Renault have offered has tended towards the agricultural. So, all too often, the man inspired by continental life has often had no choice but to park something rather mundane on his gravel drive.
“….ordinary family saloon…”
Renault now think they have just the car for this man, at long last. Inspired finally by Citroen’s lunatic innovation, Renault have finally done something that’s almost original. And they have made it affordable. Their idea is to build an ordinary family saloon with an eccentrically French appearance and a fifth door, a notion originally deployed on Renault’s little Four. The Renault Sixteen can thus be described 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.
“…miles of leaky piping…”
Renault’s originality does not end with the extra door. While the boffins at Citroen have plumbed their DS with miles of leaky piping, Renault have given the Sixteen a wheelbase that differs from side to side. The left wheelbase is nearly three inches longer than the right one. No-one knows why. If that doesn’t sound eccentric enough, then recall that the Sixteen costs far less than a DS. Borrowing further inspiration from Farmer Jean-Paul’s Renault Four, the Sixteen has its 1.4 litre engine mounted longitudinally, just aft of the gearbox and transmission.
In something of an extravaganza, Renault presented the car to me (and to some of my motoring colleagues) on Côte-d’Azur, which is a maritime area on the Meditterranean long known for its associations with Hollywood entertainers and the aristocracy. I have long thought that the more ostentatious is the presentation the more insecure the manufacturer must be about their product. Confident Austin launched the Mini in the loading-bays at Longbridge. We brought our own pork pies.
For the Renault 16 we were made guests at the Chateau St Julienne, a four star palace with breath-taking views around the swimming pool. To get there we flew first class from London to Nice and were plied with improbable quantities of bubbly and foie gras to sustain us underway. By implication, the car was certainly going to be a disaster, perhaps a monstrosity as misbegotten as Citroen’s Ami for which launch I was a pampered guest at the Chateau d’Hermonville for a week before even setting eyes on the car.
Back to the report: I was allowed to rest after the rigours of the flight and, the following day, after a long and very imposing nine course lunch (lobster soup, champagne sorbet, chateaubriand, cheeses, chocolate mousse et cetera), we finally were shown the car and given a summary of its technical specification. The Renault Sixteen has a 11 gallon fuel tank which is smaller than the similarly priced Ford Zephyr but larger than either the Austin 1800 or lovely Wolseley 16/60. The engine produces 58 horsepower and a 4-speed gearbox is supplied as standard.
After the presentation there came a celebratory dinner with a speech by the industrial designer behind the Renault 16’s ungainly appearance. I felt like throwing a profiterole at him. He vehemently denied any rumours that Renault had purloined their design from the madmen at Citroen. Such a thing seems highly unlikely as the car is too fundamentally ordinary and too competent to be a product of Andre’s asylum.
The following day Renault allowed us to see the cars in the metal. This meant we were allowed to stand around in the morning sunshine with large glasses of chilled chablis while some lackeys took great pains to load 34 boxes of vintage red wine into a white-painted Sixteen so as to demonstrate the capacity of the car. This feat is managed by means of a few levers which allow the rear seatback to fold down. The problem with this is that there is only room for the driver and passenger so I am not sure this feature is really all that much use unless you often transport 34 boxes of red wine and have no friends.
“…bottles of Pomerol…”
Renault provided sixteen Sixteens for the test drive. Up to this point there was nothing catastrophic about their new car to justify the generosity offered during the launch. Therefore, I was very nervous indeed about driving the car as I suspected it must be a death-trap or, worse, like a Vauxhall. Dutch courage was certainly in order so I sampled a stiff cognac (1924 was a good year!) before setting off to collect my car. To my consternation, every single test car had been bagged already.
There was no choice but for M. Vacheron to give me the keys of the white car parked outside the hotel. With only 68 horses and 78 pound/feet of torque, the car struggled to move off the line, loaded as it was with 204 bottles of Pomerol ’53. The seats were typically French, as soft as a souffle. The gearchange is mounted on the steering column and functioned in a surprisingly effective fashion.
In a form of nervous overcompenastion, Renault have chosen to fit a few more items to the car as standard than are found in those vehicles against which it will compete. An interior courtesy light, twin sun visors, twin windscreen washers, two (two!) glove compartments and armrests on all doors will tempt prospective buyers if the hunchbacked appearance of the car does not.
However, the penny-pinchers have seen fit to deprive base models of a cigarette lighter. Since all French males are weaned on tobacco, this strikes me as an act of corporate insanity of unparalleled scale. And yet an ashtray is fitted and is generously proportioned. The French are nothing but unpredictable people. If you want a cigarette lighter you must either buy one yourself or pay extra for the so-called Grand Luxe version. This model also comes with reclining front seats. Vauxhall, it can be done!
To drive, the car is not that bad. It holds its line quite well for the front-driven van that it is. The discs up front and drums at the rear managed to stop the car even with the full load of plonk on board, which fact saved my skin when I was a little over enthusiastic on the winding coast road to St Raphael.
Doubting that the car was all that reliable, I carried on piling on the test miles all the way to Dijon (the Hotel le Duc is quite good but the toilets are a not) where I put in a trunk telephone call to M Vacheron and inquired if we could add this car to the long-term fleet of “Driving Illustrated.” He very kindly gave permission. Thus I was able to drive the car and its contents back to Great Malvern and I can report that the car operated quite effectively, returning an average fuel consumption of 26 miles per gallon. The wine probably knocked a few m.p.g. off and I left the manual choke engaged for a whole day which didn’t help matters. I shall report concerning the Renault 16’s durability in future issues.
The ventilation and heating could be improved. The car was stuffy and often either too warm or too cold. An automatic choke would also be an improvement.
Is the Renault 16 a car for Monsieur Different? Will it be enough to distinguish him from the ale-drinking man, with his Woodbines and his Victor or Cortina? It is indeed a little different but perhaps it is even ordinary enough to attract a few customers from Austin, Ford and Vauxhall, which is the most extraordinary thing about the Sixteen.