Stories & Photos: The lemon Renault 16

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I was doing some surfing and ran across your web site on the Renault R16. It brought back many good memories and a lot of bad ones too.

In my home town of Billings Montana, I was part of a close group of friends who ended up having several R16’s among us. It started when John Aldrich traded his R8 off for a used R16. He had phonemonal luck with his R8, mileage and durablilty, and like most Americans, wanted something a bit more roomy. He also had marginal eyesight, and for a while was limited to daytime driving only. At night he would have one of his friends drive the R16.

He found it quite useful for hauling console color TVs. Only a van could carry them, but when he removed the back seat it was no problem getting a large square box in the back. The versatility of the design sold several of his friends, including me, to buy one.

We had a very good dealer, Empire Motors, and before long there were R16’s running all over Billings. They sold like glasses of lemonade on a hot summer day. And back before the days of expensive gas, we would get 30 miles per gallon. That made long distance travel around the state quite cheap. Most of all everyone remarked on how comfortable the seats were. The 1969 models were underpowered, but could hold their own on the Interstates. The ‘71 models were despised, as they ran out of headroom at 70 mph. Passing at that speed was simply a matter of pressing the throttle to the floor, waiting and praying, and waiting some more. And the ‘71s had a much poorer heating system. There were many times that the heat just couldn’t keep up with slush or snow accumulating on the windshield. Driving in a Montana winter became that much worse when you couldn’t see out the front!.

The Achille’s heel to the R16 here in the States was the lack of easily available parts. We were slaves to the dealer and the astronomical prices. The standing joke was getting an air filter element. One from an Edsel worked just fine, as long as you turned it upside down inside the container. And the poor reliability of the peripherals on the car. U-joints were expensive, and had to be replaced. Distributors wore out, alternators gave up the ghost, the Solex carburetor was finicky at best, and all the other little headaches. Even the tires were an oddball Michelin style that required the use of tubes. Every flat I had required either a new tube, or a new tube AND tire. That and the ritual of head torqueing. My first car fell victim to a warped head because it wasn’t told to me I had to torque the head, and I traded it off for a second R16. This time it had a tan interior, instead of the flesh-searing black. This one I religiously torqued the head. But it never overcame the image of a lemon.

When it ran it ran good, but when it quit, it was a basket case. Soon it knew its way back and forth to the shop. By the time my 1971 R16 had 55,000 miles it was pretty much shot. Last known problem was a cracked intake manifold, and my last trip in it was in the fall of 1976. My friends discovered other weaknesses as well. Only one of the original group still has his. It was the only one purchased new, and is in storage now. He quit driving it in 1984 when the engine ended up with burned valves from the lower octane gasoline being phased in. Like most others, the metallic paint pretty much disappeared where exposed to direct sunlight..

By 1980 they disappeared off the streets. Nowdays if I see one that is still physically running, it is quite unusual. Last one I saw was in Kansas City about 1990, sitting forelorn behind a dilapadated building.

All of us who owned them agree that it is a marvelously engineered but poorly built automobile.

Gary Hildebrand
Magnus Bjelk (

Last revision 2001-08-25