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Wednesday 22nd April 2009


PH HEROES: ALPINE A110

Richard Heseltine on the rear-engined racer that stitched-up 'The Monte'

So it’s true, your life really does flash before your eyes. Entering a 90-degree left hand sweeper a little bit faster than is entirely appropriate and somehow we’re still shiny side up. This little blue missile simply hunkers down, finds more grip than seems feasible and, after only a little correction, sets about devouring the next straight.


However many times you’re exposed to theAlpeeen A110, you always fail to appreciate just what an accomplished device it is. That and how much ground you can cover. Few cars command your attention quite like this rallying deity, and for good reason.

Just don’t call it a Renault. Or a Renault-Alpine as their keepers tend to get a mite tetchy. For the greater part of its existence Alpine was an entirely independent marque. And, as was once typical of the specialist sports car industry, it was the brainchild of an individual, the sort of inspirational visionary who turned a passion into a lasting legacy.

Born in May 1922, Jean Rédélé’s future was seemingly pre-ordained. A gifted mechanic at an early age, the future motor mogul gained an engineering degree before returning to Dieppe and the family Renault agency. Except the scarcity of cars in the immediate post-war years ensured that he and his father were reduced to fixing farm machinery in order to survive. Gradually the business got back on its feet and young Jean began campaigning a demon Renault 4CV – complete with self-manufactured five-speed ’box – in events at home and abroad culminating with three consecutive class wins on the Mille Miglia. Predictably, there was demand for replicas, and Rédélé soon had a tidy sideline knocking out go-faster bits. In 1955, he started making complete cars and the die was cast.


Launched at the 1962 Paris Motor Show, and entering production the following year, the A110 was an instant hit and remained in production until July 1977. With Rédélé displaying a dogged insistence on building the same basic car for eons and developing it from the inside out, there was no striving for the next big thing here.

Which was of little consequence as the product was so right to begin with. Derived in part from the earlier A108, it too featured a glassfibre bodyshell comprising upper and lower pieces bonded and riveted to the backbone frame. As with so many low-volume cars of similar construction, the bodies were never entirely symmetrical because the moulds – and the cars – were made by hand. Running gear was looted from the newly announced Renault R8, with unequal-length wishbones and anti-roll bar at the front, swing axles at the rear and coil springs all-round. Also lifted were the four-wheel disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering. In total, some 742 components were robbed from the Renault parts bin.

It was during 1967 that the French manufacturing giant’s diamond-shaped badge first appeared on the A110’s nose: Rédélé had negotiated a deal whereby Renault would sell and support Alpine through its dealer network. Bit-by-bit, it increased its support, helping to finance Alpine’s competition activities while basking in the reflective glow of rallying success. Wins were routinely trumpeted in splashy ads with the legend Renault being entirely out of proportion to that of Alpine: with minor placings and class wins, the roles were generally reversed. And seeing as the A110 won more often than not, Renault got a lot out of the relationship.


With Jean-Claude Andruet’s ’69 European rally title acting as an opening salvo, the A110 became a rallying icon following the 1-2-3 finish on the ’71 Monte Carlo classic. Alpine repeated the feat two years on and bested the might of Porsche and Lancia to take the ’73 series spoils, the same year that Renault acquired a 55 per cent stake in the marque.

This model – the 1600S – is the ultimate variation of the theme. In standard trim, its ‘four’ has a capacity of 1565cc, runs on twin Weber 45s and is good for 132mph. The homologation weight for the 1600S was just 650kg, yet photographs don’t really lend a sense of scale: the A110 is tiny. A fab looking thing, too.

If not the easiest of cars to get into. Banging your noggin is something of a given thanks to the low roofline and wide sill. Having clambered into the constricting buckets, the cabin is cosy rather than claustrophobic with a surprising amount of headroom and excellent all-round visibility. Large Jaeger instruments are clustered within the crackle-black dash’ with few concessions to luxury save for, ooh let’s say, a heater. And it’s all the better for it.

Having located the ignition (it’s beneath the wheel), the opening barrage from the Alpine’s tail is of the oh-dear-God variety. Loud doesn’t quite cut it. The surround-sound bellow is improbably potent leading you to ponder how it could be derived from something as humble as a Renault 16. Off the line, the Alpine is super-rapid, tractable from low down and can be heard from about two miles away (further depending on wind conditions) when enjoying the upper reaches of the rev range.


That said, no two A110s ever drive alike. The five-speeder here offers a reasonably well defined shift action despite the serpentine linkages although the close pedal layout and offset steering wheel still require a little acclimatisation. Naturally, you’re all too aware of the 60 per cent rear weight bias, and stories of tricky on the limit handling are legion, but you’re going to have to do something pretty stupid to get into trouble. Wide boots and plenty of negative camber ensure that it feels perfectly stable and cornering speeds are colossal: you’re constantly called upon to make tiny correction but the steering is a delight. And, despite having such little weight fore of the cabin on a near empty tank, the brakes are fade free, the fronts never threatening to lock up.

Sadly a 1600S is out of reach for most of us: there are only seven on UK roads and you’re looking at £40K plus to land one, but even a ‘poverty-spec’ edition will give you endless entertainment. Despite Rédélé’s laissez-faire attitude to selling his wares beyond France, there are probably more A110s in Blighty than anywhere else outside of its homeland. One drive and it’s easy to see why.

 









 

Author: heselt