Stories & Photos: Terry Nicholls' Renault 16TS Restoration

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In the late 1960s the Renault 16TS was one of the best sporting family sedans available. With its then-novel hatchback body (the first to go into volume production), front wheel drive, four wheel independent suspension, all-alloy 1600cc cross-flow engine and disc brakes it set a blueprint for car design that is still slavishly followed by most of today's manufacturers. In July 1969 the R16TS cost $2885 in Australia, about the same as a Holden Premier, but its standard equipment included full instrumentation, radial ply tyres, heated rear window, driving lamps, excellent heater, leather bound steering wheel, full carpeting and a full synchro gearbox.
Terry Nicholls was an enthusiastic early customer for the 16TS. As Terry tells it: "I bought my first two R16TSs in 1969 and 1970. I used them in my work as a rural vet in central Victoria for about 18 months, averaging about 50,000 miles a year. They were ideal for the job, with a versatile load area. The R16s proved to be quiet, comfortable, with good brakes, handling and lights, and economical to run. I suffered the usual early problems of bent lower wishbones and wheel rims but little else went wrong". Then marriage, a stint working overseas, and the usual catastrophes of house, mortgage and children meant that Renault 16s were left behind until 1981 when Terry bought a 1971 TS as a second car that is still in use as student transport.
"About 18 months ago my work position was upgraded to include the option of a new car or cash equivalent," Terry says. "I decided to take the money, since we already had four cars in the family, and put it towards a restoration project. For some time I had been thinking about restoring a 16 and then two 16TSs were advertised in the local paper one weekend. The asking price for the two tired wrecks was $350 and I thought that I could make one goer out of the two. It probably wasn't a good omen when it turned out that the owner was a young local rally driver. His parents had told him that either the cars disappeared from the front lawn or he could disappear from the house!"
Doubtless some would ask 'why bother to restore a Renault 16'. Terry advances some compelling reasons: "The R16 is one of the least compromising of automotive designs of the last 50 years - there is no other car with its distinctive shape. It has some unusual design features such as unequal wheelbases, long travel suspension, adjustable interior layout and headlights. All in all it's a quirky but very able machine capable of excellent point-to-point performance in the country and yet possessing real versatility for suburban use. In time I believe that the 16 will be recognised for what it is - a pivotal point in the evolution of the automobile."
Terry had previously restored an MG but the R16 restoration was considerably more challenging. The Renaults were in much worse condition than the MG and the 16 is a far more complex car, both in its construction and in the level of its mechanical sophistication. One car was just driveable but the other had to be trailered to Terry's house. The non-driver had terminal engine problems. It had been well and truly cooked. "The sump oil looked like a chocolate thick shake" says Terry. "That engine went directly to the tip!"
Then it was a matter of selecting which car to use as a basis for the restoration. One body had a sun roof fitted. "It had some superficial attraction" says Terry, "or at least until I had a decent look at it. The sun roof had been installed with self-tapping screws and copious amounts of Silastic. I decided that the other car was a better proposition."

Terry stripped the 'sun roof' car right down until there wasn't even a fastener left in it before consigning it to the dump. The other car was also stripped but Terry left the complex rear torsion bar independent suspension arrangement on the car. He then sent the car for bead blasting, including the engine bay and boot, at the recommendation of the spray painter who preferred to work from bare metal up.

Bead blasting revealed a few nasties. There was some rust at the bottom of the front windscreen pillar and the car had been previously cut and a new roof installed. "It had either been rolled or a tree had fallen on it." Terry surmises. Despite having about 12 doors to choose from Terry still had a small amount of rust removed from the bottom of the rear doors around the fold. "It was a bit of a nuisance but it wasn't anything like the rusty wrecks that I see people restoring in the British car mags," Terry grins.
After bead blasting the Renault was towed back to Terry's house. Part of the arrangement with the spray painter was that Terry would paint under the wheel arches himself. He did this quite simply by using spray cans of primer and top coat. A local accessory shop mixed the top coat in his selected colour (Renault 'Trak Yellow'). After the finishing the underguards Terry reinstalled the front suspension, checking, replacing and painting as he went along.
Then the 16 went to the spray painter, R & R Paint and Panel in nearby Queanbeyan, who had agreed to do the job on a 'fit in' basis. At R & R's suggestion Terry opted to have the Renault painted in two pack. "I believe that two pack is easier to keep clean although it is more prone to chipping" he explains. At R & R the rust repairs were carried out and all the removable panels taken off and painted separately. The Renault was then returned to Terry's house to have the mechanicals installed and trim work done. While at the spray painters Terry had been busy collecting and overhauling the necessary bits and pieces to do those tasks.
Despite the common perceptions that Renault parts are costly and hard to get, Terry's experience was just the opposite. "Mechanical parts were, generally speaking, easy to obtain and were not expensive", he says. This is partly explained by the fact that, although the R16 was something of a 'niche market' car in Australia, it was extremely popular in Europe, and almost two million were produced between 1965 and 1979. The legacy of this long production run is quite good access to most parts.
Terry's parts search was helped considerably by membership of the Canberra Renault Owners' Club. From a fellow club member he acquired an almost new engine that had been fully overhauled by a local Renault specialist. The overhaul had included some minor performance mods. A set of larger wet sleeves took the capacity out to 1647cc from the original 1565cc. The new capacity was the same as the luxury 16TX that was never sold in Australia. Slight camshaft mods provided some mid-range lift at the expense of a more ragged idle.
A major aid was finding another ex-Club member who was clearing the result of 12 years of Renault 16 wrecking out of his workshop. "It was a veritable Alladin's cave of R16 parts," Terry explained. "All the used parts had been cleaned and systematically stored, along with a lot of new pieces acquired from Renault dealer clearing sales." The find yielded some of the rarer R16 parts, including rear suspension rubbers in good condition and some new lenses.
Much of the work now revolved around painstakingly selecting parts, checking them, repairing where necessary and painting. A wheel specialist re-rolled the rims, sandblasted and painted them, but not completely to Terry's liking. "I spent a lot of time repainting the wheels to get the finish that I wanted," he complains. A local Renault expert checked the gearbox and fitted new synchros. A replacement clutch rounded out the transmission side of things. The brakes were also completely refurbished.
Renault originally used good quality materials for its interiors and the only major re-trimming was to the front seat cushions and a new headlining. A motor trimmer made up a new headlining using the old one as a template. Getting the new headlining in was a bit of a challenge. "I borrowed about 50 or 60 bulldog clips from the office and used them to hold the new lining in place," he smiles. "Once the lining was glued down I carefully put them all back in the correct boxes and returned them to work!"
The remainder of the reassembly was pretty straightforward, although there was the inevitable short in the wiring to deal with that meant the instrument panel had to come out again. Terry was also very apprehensive on starting up the motor as it was an unknown quantity but it has proved to be an excellent unit.
"My aim was not to produce a perfect concours-style restoration, but rather a good everyday car. I derive pleasure every time I drive it and in two pack 'Trak Yellow' it's definitely not a clonemobile", Terry says.
Terry offered me a drive of his car, an opportunity that I quickly took up. As the pilot of a well-worn 16TS myself for the past eight or nine years, I was very interested to see what could be achieved from a major rebuilt. There's certainly plenty of get up and go from the slightly modified engine and it pulls very strongly from round about 2500 rpm. Not that it's lacking in flexibility at the bottom end although the idle is noticeably lumpier than the standard engine. The column shift is one of the best around, better than many floor changes, and there's no trouble keeping up with even quick-moving modern traffic. Renault seats are legendary for comfort and the R16's long travel suspension provides an excellent ride and good handling, albeit at the expense of considerable body roll. All in all, driving an R16 in as-new condition brings home very clearly just how far ahead of the opposition the car was in its heyday.
The complete restoration took about nine months of weekend and after hours work. Terry has a few hard-earned tips for other would-be restorers. "The first is not to restore a car in an open carport over a Canberra winter. I have decided that what I really need is an enclosed, heated, carpeted four car, north facing workshop with a view and a stereo system. The second is don't restore a wreck, get a good body if you can. It will make life a lot easier in the long run. And the third is that there are many automotive services and experts around who can make the job easier at a reasonable price. For example, I found a chap who makes his living by transporting towable cars all over Canberra using a small tow truck and dolly wheels. At $50 a trip it was much better than struggling with a car trailer to shift the car around for spraying, etc. Someone put me on to a guy who, for $60 removed and replaced any glass. The demonstration of controlled force and speed with which he handled the glasswork was worth every dollar."
So, would Terry do it all again? "Well, if my 1971 16TS survives its years as student transport for the family, I'll think about restoring it. But only in my heated, carpeted north-facing, stereo-equipped workshop with a panoramic view!"

Story and pbotographs copyright Col Gardner 1997. This article was first published in Australian Classic Car magazine in February and March 1998.
Magnus Bjelk (

Last revision 2001-08-25