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Oil spray and stubble dust

Renault R16 (1966)

30/04/2013 05:37 |  Comments: 

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The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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Utterly practical, comfortable beyond words, even revolutionary, but not really famous for its longevity. Meet the wonder-car of Renault from the middle of the 60’s. This very piece received a very…umm…interesting conservation method too.

There are numerous misbeliefs in the car world, like the one that Henry Ford invented conveyor-belt series production (he just made it famous), or the other one, which says Citroen had the first cornering headlights in the DS. The Renault R16 adds another legend to the list: it is often cited for being the first hatchback in the world. Wrong. Well, what did you think?

Renault itself had another contender running for that fame – the R4 introduced four years earlier than the R16 also had a large tailgate incorporating the windshield. But then, even that was preceded by the Austin A40. The more you search, the longer the list becomes. But it's true that the big Renault was the very car that really kicked off the hatchback craze.

But in one respect we should do justice to the R16, because it really presented one absolute novelty – of all the mass-produced cars, this had an AC alternator instead of a DC dynamo producing the current. Such bland, but otherwise practical solutions defined the whole character of this car that – in true Renault-fashion - was produced for umpteen years. Until 1980, to be exact, when the R20/R30 series replaced it.

The struggle for showing up revolutionary ideas would have been pathetic anyways, because the Citroen DS from a decade earlier still cast such a huge, black shadow over the whole industry. One would have needed at least a flying car with the real Brigitte Bardot flopping one of her breasts out in the passenger seat to grab some attention.

No, the R16 isn't liked for its novelties by its owners. What they wildly love so much is its thought over, down to earth solutions, its unsurpassed comfort – DS not counted – and its easy-going nature. But even those who would gladly get a divorce for their R16's are in absolute agreement on one issue: bad production quality. When pressed and neglected, an R16 can erode very quickly – odd bits of the interior start falling off, the electric system turns into an eclectic system, the suspension wears out and rust starts spreading like chickenpox in an uptown elementary school.

We must add though, that with minimal care and a bit of more caring use this car can turn into a mile-munching mammoth – in R16-owning circles you can hear stories of 3-400 thousand km without any major trouble and repairs . This white car, for example, had done 150 thou by the time of the photo shooting, and on that day it was still just as good as when it left the Usines in 1966.

It wasn't rattling, the controls were sharp, it consumed little petrol and – according to the owner – it wasn't losing a drop of oil. The gearshift's action was definite (in fact, there weren't many better column changes made in car history), the stuffing in its seats were hard and springy, and its brakes... Well, its brakes were just as feeble as they had been 47 years earlier. From the way they bite you can easily understand why Renault upgraded the whole range with the stoppers of the R16 TS sports version.

But this doesn't really matter, since there is only 54 PS (according to other sources, 55) shoving the body forward, which, combined with the one-ton dry weight, doesn't amount to an intercontinental missile. It's not really a problem either. The R16 doesn't gobble up the road as a hungry bricklayer does a Quarter Pounder in the McDonald's after work. Instead, it consumes each mile in the way a Parisian connoisseur clears the last smudge of crème brûlée from his plate at the end of a long dinner.

Reclining on the bench seat (this option got the thumbs down in 1967), listening to the friendly hum of the engine, reveling in the rocking motion of the torsion-spring suspension, which is similar to a hovercraft on the waves, the passengers of this vehicle don't travel, but just dream themselves off to far-away locations.

The ambience is so thick it can be cut with a knife. The thin, hard-rimmed steering wheel has a strange cross section – it is round on most of its outer perimeter, but has a flattened part in the area where your thumbs wrap around the wheel – you keep massaging it on the go as you would a Chinese meditation stone. To switch gears with the column shift you don't even have to take your hands off the wheel. While you are gently moving the steering wheel around to avoid the ruts on the road, you just have to obliviously extend your two fingers that you hold the Gauloises with when the steering wheel's direction of the movement is adequate. One hundred percent coolness – it's almost as simple as an automatic, only much more fun.

When you see the shape, the Golf I springs to your mind inadvertently, but the R16 is a much larger car with a length of 4.25 meters. As such it used to have a place among the larger European cars of its time; Renault even dared to boldly call it a luxury automobile, which was probably a wild statement. But it is true: the R16 is an airy vehicle with lots of space in it, way more than the contemporary BMW 1800 Neue Klasse or a Volvo Amazon had. One wouldn't find it cramped even today, even when compared to a present-day Laguna. Whether this is flattery to the R16 or a criticism to the Laguna, you have to make up for yourself.

And this is the moment when you realize how much space is taken up by modern solutions in today's cars, such as the thick carpeting, EuroNCAP-compatible crash structures, slanted sidewalls that serve aerodynamics well. At the time the R16 was designed, no allowances had to be made for those things – this car originally came with a single inside mirror, no belts, no headrests, no rear windscreen heating, and of course, no airbags, ABS, ESP whatsoever. The only nod towards safety was the (somewhat) padded dashboard, the hidden internal door opening knobs and the steering wheel with a recessed middle.

After we were done with the photos, I had maybe just one hour to try out the car, which wasn't much. But I had used a similar, albeit younger, R16 for two long weeks in 1992. It used to be the daily runner of one of my friends, the car already equipped with the larger, 1.6-litre, 65 PS engine, separate reclining front seats, larger, squared-off rear lights, a Blaupunkt radio with motorized station search and a huge sliding roof. It was one of the last, typical, hard-lived, original Hungarian R16's that still could have been seen running around after twenty years of service, with two of its torsion-spring mounting points half torn from the rusty hulk diagonally (and resulting in the car constantly rocking around on the other axis), only three of its cylinders working, a worn out interior, and the rest. You can probably imagine its measly condition.

But it had two huge front seats with a padded piece and a soft armrest in between. If you reclined the seats (due to the absence of headrests they folded completely flat), laid the armrest horizontally, you got a double bed that was better than the one in your apartment. Above all, there was the huge roof to slide out, and no gear stick was poking around where it shouldn't have been. The perfect love car when parked in some desolate lot near to the woods on an August evening.

Fifteen years of glory

The world was informed of the new “big” Renault's coming in August, 1964. The first running prototype was made ready by December of that year and the official unveiling took place in January, 1965 on the Côte d'Azur. The ventilation system was modified in 1967, and in 1968 the R16 TS version was introduced. This was equipped with a stronger engine (65 PS), reading lights, rev counter, and a water temperature gauge. There came some interesting items on the options list too: electric windows in the front, heated rear screen. Even the base-model received the more efficient brakes of the R16 TS in 1969.

The biggest revamp came in 1971: the teardrop-shaped rear lenses were replaced by bigger square-cut ones with divisions between the functions; the 1565 cc engine came from the TS, but it still had the head of the 1470 cc version. The strongest R16, the quad square light TX debuted in 1973, and it got the shove from a 1647 cc, 93 PS engine, pushing it all the way up to 170 kph. By that time the R16 customer could have ordered an automatic gearbox, air-conditioning, central locking and a spoiler made of soft rubber for his car. Production ended in 1980, after 1.8 million cars having been produced. There's the question: how many of them could have possibly remained?

You could say that the car starred in the article is perfect, at least if you take its age into consideration. It belonged to a doctor – living in the city called Pápa in the south-western part of Hungary – who bought the Renault via his aunt living in Linz, Austria (in those times you couldn't directly purchase cars from the West in Hungary). It made its way behind the Iron Curtain in the autumn of 1966, and it is possibly the oldest of its kind in the country.

The car was then bought from the doctor by his car mechanic in the 70's, and after his death his son kept it in dry storage until 2003. Enter a collector from the Hungarian city of Győr, then a lawyer in Budapest, and somewhat later a French car collector's name, who is also living in the capital, made its way into the car's papers. The Renault still has its original owner's manual, or “Betriebsanleitung” that it came with, and also the first receipt from the filling station when it was driven home. The date on it is a day in October, 1966...

The present and past owner met only by fate. There was a classic car rally a few years back. Heading to the Renault after the farewell lunch the owner noticed two suspicious men fumbling around the windshield wipers. They didn't look like meter maids at all. After some questioning it was found out that one of the guys is the son of the mechanic mentioned earlier, while the other is his friend. They noticed the car standing in the queue, but by the time they could get close to it, the doors were locked, and there was nobody to talk to. Not knowing any better, they tried to leave an accelerator cable and a handbrake cable – in brand new condition – on the car, both of them having been bought decades ago.

By a lucky turn of events, it was found out why this car hadn't turned to red dust unlike its kin. The mechanics in Pápa had a trick up their sleeve: to preserve the bodywork of cars that they were regularly servicing for their loyal customers, they would spray the underbody of these with transformer oil and then drive them into fields of stubbles. A sticky goo was formed from the oil and the stubble dust, protecting these cars from the hazards of Hungarian winters.

How they fought the red steel-disease in the biggest rust-traps in a unitary body –the cavities – remains a secret, but I have to admit that this R16 is in a truly exceptional condition, both bodily and mechanically. Of course, it is what some might call an “old man's car”, with a clearly visible dent on one of the sills, and lots of smaller ones on the other sheets. But the most crucial point of an R16, the fixing points of the torsion-bar suspension are intact. The bars on the front are L-shaped and essentially longitudinal, with their short stems attached to the front arms, the long ones extending in the middle, fastened below the region of the front seats. The rear ones however, run across the body, but since two torsion bars cannot be in the same axis, one of them is a bit forward from the other. Hence one of the rear wheels is located a bit forward from the other, leading to different wheelbases on each side. If you are on the lookout for an R16, and you find anything but light surface rust at these fastening points, steer clear of the car, no matter how nice it is.

The plastics weren't designed for eternity either, and the aluminium engine with steel liners, that was a brand-new design for the R16 can also crack, its valve seats may get burnt when it is overstressed, especially when it's cold. Synthetic leather seats are nearly everlasting, but the ones with cloth inserts are much less so – this is why we should appreciate the almost as-new seats of this Renault.

It might not be all too obvious, but the R16 is an icon of French car-making. Its front-end design has become a classic motif, and the Renaults of later times all made a nod to it; just think of Clios, Lagunas, Méganes of the last 5-15 years. The police in French movies also chased villains in cars like these from the end of the 60's to the 70's – remember the one starring Pierre Richard in La Carapate (titled Out of It in the English-speaking world)? Oh yes, there is another stylistic touch: the rear windshield of the R16 sits in a recess in the bootlid, staying true to the aerodynamic teachings of dr. Wunibald Kamm.

There are some really weird – but normal in a Renault of the time – technical solutions apart from the special springs. The R16 is a fwd car, but its drive train is longitudinal. And guess what – its gearbox is up front with the engine coming only after it. This may do wonders to weight distribution, but it effectively rules out easy repairs on the engine. To change the timing chain, for example, the engine has to be lifted out, since the cover is at the back of the engine block, where it could be reachable only if the designers included a servicing door in the middle of the dashboard – which, of course, they haven't. What about replacing the seal on the crankshaft? Gee, that must be worse than falling to sleep after a whole bottle of real Absynthe. No wonder so many R16's have ended up in junkyards when the first major repairs had to be carried out on them.

But the one here, in the pics... It's staggeringly original.

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