Perks of the job Company car poser: Renault 16, Fiat 125 or Ford Cortina? Thrusting young executives were spoilt for choice with their company motorsin the late ’60s, says Andrew Roberts as he compares Renault 16TS, Ford Cortina 1600E and Fiat 125S. Photography Tony Baker.
125S vs 16TS vs 1600E Fiat, Renault and Ford battle for the hearts and wallets of young executives
Some of our more seasoned readers might remember ITV’s series The Power Game, the opening credits of which had Patrick Wymark and his various acolytes posing on the steps of one of the brutalist tower blocks that symbolised the new London of the 1960s. Wymark’s Sir John was the role model for those young executives who, to quote Peter Cook in Bedazzled, were determined to turn England into a land of: “Tastee-Freez and Wimpy Burgers, of concrete runways, motorways, aircraft, television and automobiles, advertising, plastic flowers and frozen food.”
Yes, image was all, and for those go-ahead types who sported a Tom Jones haircut with daring 3in sideburns, the right set of wheels was essential. The Triumph and Rover 2000s were reserved for the next pay grade, however, and while the Arrow-series Humber Sceptre may have looked sharp, it still had a slightly middleaged personality. As for the Vauxhall FD Victor, that seemed too bulky and the Wolseley 16/60 was a car for pipe-smokers who had not yet recovered from the Suez Crisis.
So, the first choice of company car would have been the Cortina 1600E, launched in October ’1967 as the third of Ford’s Executive range. The first was the ’1965 Zodiac Executive MkIV, a vision of gold-metallic magnificence decked out with every conceivable extra and thus ideal for wideboys who couldn’t quite run to a Jaguar MkX.
Two years later the Corsair 2000E stunned fleet managers with possibly the most enthusiastically tasteless hubcaps in automotive history. But, with the Cortina 1600E, Ford achieved the perfect balance of tradition, style and pace. The matt-black grille, RoStyle wheels and Wipac auxiliary lamps lend the Cortina a faintly menacing aura that is just the right side of flamboyant.
Equally important, the 1600E’s interior is welcoming and elegant without any of the archaic overtones of a Farina MG Magnette or indeed looking naff in the slightest. It would have been all too easy for the cabin to slip into the abyss of1960s pseudo-luxury – look on YouTube at George Lazenby in the Lyon’s Maid Fruit Parfait advert for a perfect example – but the Ambla and wood veneer blend is discreet and wholly contemporary. The featured car is a second-generation 1600E, introduced in late ’1968, with the sculpted rear seats adding to the air of quiet refinement.
And it is all too often overlooked that the 1600E was based on one of Dagenham’s best-realised designs. The original Consul- Cortina, with its subtle fins and signature taillamps, was perfect for its intended late Macmillan-era customer, just as the 1966 reskin gave the Mk2 an equally appropriate look. The slim pillars and brilliantly proportioned lines make the second-generation Cortina one of the hippest British cars of its day, and another key to the 1600E’s appeal is that its handsome visage is reinforced with genuine performance. Aside from the leather-covered steering wheel, cutpile carpets and the clock was the GT’s proven crossflow engine, combined with the lowered suspension from the Cortina II Lotus.
All of this results in genuinely E-class transport that is light years apart from a Cortina 1300 with a painted dashboard and rubber mats. The 1600E is testament to just how right a mass-produced car can be when all of the elements are carefully considered. The 1600E motorist would have enjoyed a fine gearchange, roadholding that belies the Cortina’s humble underpinnings and an engine note that is crisp but never harsh. Whenever the 1600E driver – ensconsed in his reclining bucket seat – overtook a grey Cortina De Luxe allotted to a junior commercial traveller, he knew that he had finally made it.
For the sophisticate, however – that is, someone who drank foul coffee and pretended that he understood Ken Russell’s documentaries – there was the still-unusual alternative of foreign cars. In the late 1960s, fewer than 10% of vehicles on British roads were imported. This was a time when any front-drive, five-door saloon would have definitely been considered unorthodox – even if it didn’t have an asymmetrical wheelbase.
Renault had concentrated solely on small family cars since the demise of the Frégate in 1960 and devised the 16 to win sales away from potential Citroën ID19 customers, as well as from motorists who regarded the Simca 1500 and Peugeot 404 as cars for an older generation. The success of the R4 led Renault to use front wheel drive on its new mid-size offering and, to further ensure that the ‘1500’ boasted as much verve as possible, Philippe Charbonneaux – who had a hand in the original Chevrolet Corvette – was commissioned to style the coachwork.
The media’s appetite was whetted in August 1964 when Renault released pictures of the new 16, as it was then badged, and the first examples reached the general public in April ’1965. By the end of that year, the R16 had been declared the first French Car of The Year and had created a new sub-genre of middle-class transport that offered superlative standards of comfort. All that was lacking was performance. To counter those complaints, the 16TS made its debut in March ’1968. The 1470cc engine was bored out to 1565cc, complete with a new cylinder head with inclined valves into a hemispherical combustion chamber, plus a twin-choke Weber carburettor. And the brakes were servo-assisted discs to cope. Compared with the Cortina and the 125S, the Renault is a beguiling combination of modernity and venerability. The former is represented by the front-wheel drive, the hatchback bodywork that looks at least a decade younger than its actual age and such clever touches as the map-reading lamp for the front passenger and two-speed wipers that could be controlled via either a dashboard- or foot-operated switch. The latter aspect of the Renault is embodied by a facia so well stocked with arcane-looking switches and levers that it appears as if it was recently salvaged from the Marie Celeste.
Once you settle yourself into the extravagantly comfortable front armchair – the better to enjoy a commanding view – you are faced with a full array of instruments and a stout-looking steering-column gearlever that is quick and positive in action, in keeping with the 16’s effortless character. The Renault’s rivals may revel in their aggressive engine notes but the 16TS seems more refined, offering that magic-carpet experience that was unique to French cars. The Renault can handle any corner without disturbing the occupants, and not even the worst British B-roads can ruffle its demeanour of insouciance. Aside from its performance and equipment, the other major selling point of the 16 was its versatility. The brochure promised seven different ways of arranging the seats, but we only tried one – the ever-popular ‘suspending the rear backrest from the grab-handles’. It is at moments such as these that you realise just how La Régie’s refusal to bow to the design conventions of the ’60s produced a car that was chic, practical and utterly delightful in almost every way.
The Cortina and the Renault could not be described as low-key – understated, yes – but the Fiat revels in plain, almost severe lines that are mirrored by an equally businesslike cabin. A 125S is a reminder that the Italian bourgeois demanded a certain sense of quiet dignity in their transport, so the interior trim positively breathes late-1960s executive chic – from its carpeted floor to a spectacularly fake ‘wood veneer’ dashboard. There is certainly no room here for leopard-skin steering-wheel covers, black and white chequered wiper blades or any other period sporting ephemera, but the Fiat is confident enough in its sense of performance not to require any flashy trinkets. This is the car for the man who believes himself to be the Mastroianni of the A33, despite his marked resemblance to a young Tony Hancock.
Just as the 1966 Fiat 124 was devised to eventually replace the 1300, the 125, launched the following year, was to supersede the 1500 in addition to attracting motorists trading down from a big 2300 Berlina. Fiat combined the 124’s central hull with the floorpan of the 1500, a longer bonnet and boot, plus, for added vibrancy, quad headlamps. The 125 was intended to be capable of 100mph, which precluded using the engine from the taxi drivers’ favourite – the befinned 1800. Instead, Fiat took the Aurelio Lampredi-designed 1.4-litre twin-cam from the freshly launched 124 Sport Coupé and gave it a longer stroke, raising the capacity to 1608cc.
From 1968 onwards, Fiat offered a 125S (Speciale) with a five-speed gearbox and an engine good for 100bhp, thanks to a modified cylinder head and a Weber carburettor, making an enjoyable sports saloon even more tempting.
In ’1969, however, FSO of Poland began production of its own 125, which subsequently blighted the original car’s reputation, because the Polski- Fiat – powered by the old 1500 unit – is to the Speciale what Showaddywaddy were to the Elvis Presley Sun Sessions. The heavy steering for parking is a small price to pay for one of the most overlooked Q-cars of its generation, a seemingly bulky family saloon that could out-handle and out-accelerate many a ‘traditional’ sports car.
The 125S is also extremely well appointed in the best Fiat tradition – the hand throttle is an especially nice touch – and our ultra-rare survivor makes you regret all over again Turin’s decision to use that flimsy Soviet steel.
Each of our trio would have been at home in the car park of the Captain’s Table on the M1 as their respective owners wined and dined a Judy Geeson-lookalike secretary on 19s worth of fillet steak and French fries, followed by Black Forest Gâteau. The fact that values of used 1600Es remained high after the model was superseded by the Mk3 2000GXL confirms its status as one of Dagenham’ s greatest cars. Put simply, the 1600E set the standards for all future prestigious Fords, yet few managed to attain them.
As for the Fiat, many a British dealer can be thankful that severe import duties were still in place, such is its blend of practicality , dynamism and thrilling engine note. But our victor has to be the Renault. It is idiosyncratic, eminently usable, decadently comfortable and has the finest rear seat folding mechanism of the ’60s. It is a car that makes you forget about mundane vehicles and just gives you the desire to speed down the A10, with a Francis Lai film score blasting from the 8-Track cartridge player.
Thanks to Andy Navarro (1600E); Paul Kolk (125S); Chris Hayward (16TS); Cortina Mk2 & 1600E OC (www.mk2cortina-1600e.co.uk); Renault CCC (www.renaultclassiccarclub.com); and everyone at Brunel University (www.brunel.ac.uk)