Giles Chapman remembers the car of his dreams, and laments the lack of examples still in existence

Cars with seats that fold into beds always held a peculiar fascination for me. I would spend hours poring over The Ladybird Book of Motor Cars, but it was the Simca Aronde and, more especially, the Renault 16 I'd linger over. For these two motor cars, the book explained, had the wondrous capability of transforming themselves into mobile bedrooms.

I was eight or nine. The Renault 16 seemed to offer the freedom and excitement of sleeping outdoors, like camping in a tent in the garden - the fun of watching the sunrise through the windscreen. I never considered how uncomfortable and lumpy it would really be to bed down on its fold-flat benches.

The instant mattress, however, was but one aspect of the Renault's marvellous, if sometimes quirky, package. Revealed in autumn 1964 as the Renault 1500 and on sale as the 16 the following year, the car is a motoring milestone: the first thoroughly conceived large family hatchback.

So much of what we take for granted on, say, today's Renault Laguna was there in the 16: the five-door practicality, the sure-footed front-wheel drive, the ride comfort, the motorway mile-munching ability, and the generally chic, sophisticated aura of the entire enterprise. Yet this was four decades ago.

The state-owned Renault of the early 1960s was mostly a purveyor of proletarian transport. Basic economy cars such as the 4, the 8 and the Dauphine gave motoring for the masses but hardly stimulated desire. So the company decided both to head upmarket and to innovate with the 16.

The intrinsic appeal was in the car's overall package. The engineering team under Yves George provided a brand new, all-aluminium, 1,470cc four-cylinder engine driving through the front wheels, with long-travel independent suspension by torsion bars giving a softly cosseting - today, some might say sick-making - ride for a nation where road surface quality varied massively. There were disc brakes on the front wheels. An anomaly, however, was a gear lever mounted on the steering column - the 16 would be the last car anywhere in the world to retain this feature when production ceased in 1979.

Still, the column gearchange had a logical rationale, tied up with the car's terrific cabin concept. Removing the lever from the floor allowed even more space for people, especially as optional padded cushions meant that a child could perch up front between the driver and another adult, legs dangling freely.

And then there was the hatchback. By today's standards, of course, the sill was absurdly high, but the luggage accommodation was extraordinary compared to a typical British family car of the time.

Practical French cars had tended to have a habit of looking downright odd, but not this time. Renault hired a talented design consultant called Philippe Charbonneaux to style this luxury saloon/estate hybrid. He'd had a hand in the original Chevrolet Corvette, and his work on the 16 somehow managed to endow a highly practical workhorse with ground-breaking style.

The final 16s were manifestly exactly the same iconic cars as the first, and more than 1.8 million were sold in 14 years. It had been a comfortable winner of the 1965 European Car of the Year gong, but Renault instigated a roster of constant improvements aimed at ensuring that the 16 kept up with newer rivals.

In March 1968, a sporty 16TS came with a gutsier 1,565cc engine, giving 83bhp instead of the 1,470's 55. There was an automatic option a year later.

Then, in September 1973, the ultimate 16 arrived in the shape of the TX. It positively glowed with great features. Its bigger 1,647cc engine gave 93bhp, and there was a five-speed gearbox so the 105mph top speed could be enjoyed in relaxed comfort on the autoroute. Standard kit included electric front windows, central locking, a roof spoiler, rear windscreen wiper, and four piercing square headlights for the obligatory tailgating of timid Brits on French driving holidays. We may have had our caravans, but the Renault 16 driver had his sleeping arrangements already catered for inside the car...

Then there was a line-up of options - tinted windows, air conditioning, leather upholstery, metallic paint and a sliding steel sunroof - to turn a 16TX into a veritable Gallic Rover. In fact, Britain did come up with its own rival to the 16, although the Austin Maxi was a rather mediocre copy. The Renault 20 that eventually replaced the 16 never felt anything like as special.

The 16 is rare now - the scrapyard consumed most of them - so few have survived to the "classic" one. My grandparents' 16, rattling around their farm in the late 1970s, was treated as a rut-conquering way to cart around people and animal feed rather than as a design masterpiece. I never even got to snuggle down, in my pyjamas, on those slippery plastic seats, although my Corgi model Renault 16 had tiny seats that, thanks to a clever concealed control, could become an authentic double bed for an imaginary mini-me.

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