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.
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.
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.
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.
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.