It’s summer 1984. I set out from Oakleigh on my bicycle on my way to the Department of Anatomy, Monash University, where I’m doing my honours degree in Science, looking at neural plasticity in the avian visual system, of all things. About ten minutes into my trip, half way there, Melbourne’s famous weather kicks in, and I get absolutely soaked in a sudden downpour. I return home, have a shower, put on dry clothes, and decide that, at the age of 21, I’m too old to get wet riding a bicycle to Uni. All my mates have cars, so why don’t I?
Of course it's sunny again, so I abandon studies for the day, and ride my bike to a second hand car dealer close to the intersection of Dandenong and Clayton Roads, Burke Brothers (today, there is still a second hand car dealer there). The yard contains numerous beaten-up jalopies, of which two catch my eye; a Peugeot 404 and a Renault 16 TS. My father owned a succession of French cars and I had learned to drive in a Peugeot 504, so I didn’t really look at any other other cars in the lot. The 404 had just been sold, so at $465 the Renault 16 was going to be mine!
This was a fabulous vehicle, quite possibly underrated. Arguably one of the world’s first hatchbacks, under the bonnet was an amazing sight. The engine, a responsive 1600cc unit, was located far back against the firewall and oriented longitudinally, then there was the differential for the front-wheel drive, then the gear box at the front. The radiator required an electric fan (quite an advance at the time) as the engine was so far away. The steering box was right next to the gearbox, so the four-speed column shifter was very direct and pleasant to use. With no transmission tunnel and column shifter, the interior at the front was very spacious.
The interior was very flexible, the boot was quite sizeable under the huge rear hatch, and the rear seat could be removed without any tools required, making it a decent-sized station wagon. With lovely round gauges (including a tachometer) the dashboard was weirdly French. The windscreen wiper washer was a fourth foot pedal, located to the left of the clutch pedal. The bucket front seats were typically French; wide and comfortable.
The TS was the sporty variant with its cross-flow head, with the TL variant instead having the intake and exhaust manifolds on the same side of the engine. I thought it performed pretty well, and it was certainly economical. Back then, with petrol around 40 cents per litre, I could commute to uni and back for about $10 per week, and travel the 260km home to Warrnambool for about $20. It was a very comfortable ride - long travel suspension with torsion bars - not to forget the right and left wheel-bases were different!
It was very reliable, with the only breakdown it ever had being my fault. Back then I was a bit of an amateur engineer, and I thought I needed to know the oil pressure. I replaced the warning light with a gauge, leading to the sensor blowing out and five litres of Castrol GTX being disgorged onto the Ballarat Road just outside Ballan. Luckily I had RACV extended third party, fire and theft insurance that came with emergency roadside assist. The mechanic had some oil and a plug that fitted, so in about 45 minutes I was back on my way.
The car lasted about two years, ultimately dying of a cracked head or blown head gasket or something like that, which caused it to continuously overheat. I drove it into a paddock at a mates place, parked it under a tree, and to the best of my knowledge it is still there. It was replaced with a Renault 12, then a Peugeot 504, then a 205, then a Citroen BX 16GT, then an XM, the last being a car which ended my love affair with French cars. Having said that, the 16 is still my favourite of the bunch.
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