A Once-Common French Family Car Turned Fall Beauty

There may only be one Renault 16 in America. The remaining 1,845,958 are scattered all over the world. This is one of them, standing proud in fallen leaves.

The 16 is from an age when the French automotive industry was running giddy with wonder. Within a few years of its introduction in 1965, a French car won the Formula One World Championship, another French car won at Le Mans, and Citroën

A Once-Common French Family Car Turned Fall Beauty

built the SM. Instead of a palette of meh and electric weirdness, the French were doing quirky, brilliant things, and not only in race cars and expensive grand tourers. Far from it.

As the production run of close to two million over 15 years suggests, the Renault 16 was not exactly exclusive. Designed as a large family car, it is diminutive by current standards of bloat and power, but it was large for its age and it was brimming with clever engineering eccentricity.

A Once-Common French Family Car Turned Fall Beauty

The rear seats could be swapped out. The engine was in the front but mounted behind the transmission in an early example of front-mid engine thinking. And then

A Once-Common French Family Car Turned Fall Beauty

there was the wheelbase. The Renault 16 had two. Its torsion bar suspension resulted in its left rear wheel set four inches behind the right rear wheel. On the left side of the car, the wheelbase is 107.1 inches while on the right side it is only 104.3. Please take a deep breath. That oncoming headache induced by loony mechanics will pass.

Like a staggering majority of ‘60s cars, it is beautiful in its silhouette and its details. The steering wheel is like a piece of modernist furniture. The grille has a proper beak in it. There is a large and, similarly to the wheelbase, asymmetrical air inlet on the hood. And observe the way the C–pillars hug the rear window and continue in a pair of ridges flanking the roof. Just wonderful.

View gallery »

It was no doubt a very common sight on the European road back in its heyday, but the Renault 16 was killed off in the year I was born and that was over 30 years ago. This is the first one I’ve ever seen. And what a perfect fit for a gorgeous late fall day. Enough to wish for a buttery-flaky croissant and a cruise at 100 mph—the top speed of the 1.6-liter version.