I rate the Renault 16 as a better car than a Citroen DS in many ways. Like with the Renault 4, the firm took a shrewd look at Citroen’s offering and thought “we can do sis but betterrr.” Apols to French viewers. My accent is terrible.
They were certainly right with the 4, which went on to sell about 3 million more than the 2CV, even if you include all of the Citroen derivatives. They got it right again with the 16 too – 1.8 million sold, compared to 1.4 million DSs. Oh, and that was in just 13 years, compared to the DSs 20-year lifespan.
A brief look at the facts demonstrates remarkable similarity. The gearbox is ahead of the engine, driving the front wheels. The engine is a water-cooled straight-four. The gearbox is controlled by a column change. The suspension is very soft, but the handling is good. There is LOADS of space (the Renault offering it in just 4.2 metres of length, compared to the 4.8 of the DS).
But crucially, the 16 had the hatchback that perhaps the D should always have had. That made it even more practical. It was also much more simple – Renault realising that torsion bars offered full independent springing without the complexity of the Citroen hydraulic kit. Sure, self-levelling suspension is notably absent, and a full load makes the 16 squat like a resting D, but for the vast majority of the time, this doesn’t matter in the slightest.
The Renault doesn’t have the space-age majesty of the D either – something which has helped the latter get recognised as a complete icon of the motoring age. The 16 falls more easily off the radar, not helped by being remarkably prone to rot – and not as good at hiding it as the base-unit construction DS! A pretty D could actually be rotten as a pear. A rotten 16 generally looks rotten!
I’ve only driven one 16 before, and I absolutely adored it. That was a manual, and I was amazed at how pleasant the change was. More recently, Shitefest allowed me to sample an automatic. Not for Renault the curious semi-automatic of the D (a full auto was a later option for Citroen).
Now, 1960s/1970s automatics tend to be rather inefficient things, and certainly if its performance you’re after, then look elsewhere. The Renault rather gently gathers pace, not helped by a gearbox keen to get to top gear as soon as possible. Fortunately, the 1565cc engine has good torque characteristics, so it’s happy to slog on. Press the throttle fully to the floor and it will kick down and pick up its skirts a little, but it’s better to take things easy.
Not that you have to slow down much for bends, as the car steers beautifully. There’s plenty of body roll, but no Citroen fan is worried by such exploits. It goes where to you point it – though I was warned that the tyres are of poor quality. I didn’t exactly have it on its doorhandles.
The ergonomics aren’t brilliant, with the control layout seemingly arrived at by handing them to several different people, and having a game of ‘pin the control on the donkey.’ It seems most of them missed, and one column stalk (for the wipers) simply sprouts straight from the dashboard instead.
I don’t care though. This is the first modern hatchback for the family. It deserves far more credit, especially in this, it’s 50th year. If I didn’t think it’d dissolve in an instant, I’d have one like a shot.