An exploration of ‘new-niche’ vehicles and their true ancestors.
BMW’s new 5-series GT explores the higher H-point flexible hatchback concept, though it’s referred to as a sportback rather than hatchback – but way back in 1965 there was the Renault 16. These two cars are closer in concept than you might think. Sure, the BMW packs a sophisticated powertrain and uses top-quality materials to command a premium price-tag; give or take £40K for the base version (though it ain’t exactly spartan), whereas the R16 was an eminently affordable mainstream vehicle from a fairly dull OEM. Indeed, taking a look at the upright, almost matronly styling of the Renault, you may surpress a chuckle. But wait! There was more innovation packed into this car than you might think…..
The Renault 16 was launched in 1965, with a very astute brief; to combine the practical space of a station-wagon with the refinement and driving qualities of a sedan. In America the R16’s tag-line was ‘The first alternative to the station wagon”. The premise was that with an estate car you very rarely used the full space potential, usually hauling around a large amount of heavy air behind you, whereas a 4-door sedan meant a limited load-carrying potential:
This Canadian ad explains the form-follows-function mantra of the R16 well;
While a German ad shows the myriad of seating layouts possible;
The R16’s designer, Philippe Charbonneaux, (who was involved in the original Corvette design) gave the car a pronounced ‘beak’ and a purposeful stance, with a distinctly fastback rear end.
This was a well equipped car (bear in mind we’re talking the 60’s) . The list of features that were game-changing includes; front disc brakes, a steering-column-mounted gear-lever (to free up floor space), front seats that folded flush with the rears for a make-shift bed, rear seats that tilted and folded forwards for maximum load space, and of course, the rear hatchback. To complete the transformation from workhorse to refined autoroute cruiser, the TX version was awash with luxuries; alloys, central-locking, electric windows, 5-speed gearbox, integrated roof spoiler, and piercing Hella foglights, burning brightly in Euro-yellow;
By the time the R16 had finished production in 1980, pretty much every OEM in Europe had a C/D segment hatchback in their range. It spawned most oviously the Austin Maxi, but also the GM’s Cavalier, Ford’s Sierra hatch, the VW Passat hatch and countless others.
Whereas the BMW 5GT confuses me. It’s offering answers to questions nobody asked; a 5m-long hatchback with a trick tailgate, urban un-friendly because of its sheer size, and out of the reach of most consumers. But it’s not even remotely sporting, either. It comes across as a car conceived by a marketing department – to fill a niche that no-one else is currently offering, necessary or not.. Like the similarly-conceived Mercedes R-Class, I have a suspicion that it’ll end up as a curiosity; innovation for innovation’s sake?…