Motor Trend began its November 1968 test of the Renault 16 with a treatise on what the automobile (as a general concept) meant to contemporary society. "Used to be, back when half the U.S. population was still unborn, that the 'family car' was whatever old banger the folks had around the house," the magazine wrote.
"It wouldn't matter much whether it was old or new, since all cars were, really, pretty much the same. A Model A gave you scant room for five people, no mechanical options, and no trouble.
"And that's all you got if you bought, say, a nice new '39 Ford. Five seats, a three-speed gearbox, plain cloth upholstery… that was it, and everyone accepted it.
"Why not? The car was not as much of a symbol then. What you did with it was more important than what people might think you could do with it. Your car might say something about your financial or social position, but it did not have to represent your masculinity, your youth, your cosmopolitanism.
"Your car didn't label you quite as strongly as cars do today, which isn't all bad."
France's Renault saw an opportunity. For the first half of the '60s, it had been lacking a middle-range automobile with a more prestigious image. Americans, in particular, thought of Renaults as small, rear-engined, and aimed at the bottom end of the economy car market.
It was a pity. History, as Road Test magazine reminded its readers, was full of inventions of French origin. The French, so often unpredictable in their reactions and planning, had at least the well-founded reputation of being ingenious and quick minded.
French motoring journalists had long been muttering over their Gauloises about the need for a new mid-market Renault, one boasting revolutionary styling and engineering that would combine the proletarian R4's five-door versatility and front-wheel drive with ride comfort and performance, all encased in more bourgeois coachwork.
Now, Renault's American dealers could offer a family sedan that had capabilities approaching that of an imported wagon.
The 1965 Renault 16 set a new standard of aesthetic design and technical concept. It was the first of the utility estate-car types, with front-wheel drive, an exceptionally smooth ride, and a revolutionary body consisting of a two-box shape with a tailgate at the rear. This was the blueprint for the five-door hatchback which would become, and in Europe remain, the most popular body style.
It could lug loads, but it was stylish. It could carry passengers in comfort, but a flip of the seats turned it into a miniature van. The "modular" rear seats could be reconfigured into several positions or removed completely, making the car hugely spacious inside.
The seating arrangements, and the aerodynamic shell which surrounded them, had largely settled the shape and dimensions of the car. Externally, the body was shaped to give low drag, which permitted fast cruising with a moderate consumption of fuel. It was also notably clean, in the sense that mud was kept down and not deposited over the rear window (the curse of conventional station wagons). Renault's aerodynamic research team had realized that low drag, ventilation, and stability in side winds were all part of the same problem, and they were quite successful in all these departments. Perhaps their most important achievement was the almost total suppression of wind noise - another bane of station wagons.
However, the Renault 16 offered more than just practicality. Only hydraulically suspended Citroëns could match its compliant ride, and its roadholding was extremely impressive given the plushness.
Indeed, despite its somewhat controversial appearance, R16 was extremely well received, beating the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow to the 1966 Car of the Year award. Some thought it ugly, but all agreed that it was distinctive and functional.
There was, however, no escaping the very French design. At its very launch, at a presentation on the Côte d'Azur in January 1965, Renault had crammed in thirty-four boxes of wine to demonstrate its capacity. The umbrella-handle handbrake was mounted on the dashboard, while the gear lever was a column-change affair. These character dimples limited its appeal to Americans.
Perhaps because it was so advanced at the time of its introduction, the Renault 16 never seemed as dated as similar cars from the era. The 16's qualities - sumptuous, comfortable seats and ride, good accommodation, and practicality - remained evergreen, even as the haphazard placement of minor controls, copious roll, and lack of power steering could grate.
By the time the Renault 16 ended production in 1979, almost every European automaker offered a hatchback of one sort or another; and Renault itself had six. Two of the six, the 20 and 30, had been developed to jointly replace the 16. Both cars bowed out in 1984 with just three quarters of a million built – a fraction of the almost two million Renault 16s made. No Renault aiming for the near-luxury market has since replicated its success.