Plastique fantastique

The Gallic pocket rocket in a gossamer glass-fibre shell was a blast in Europe's snow and ice rallies. By Lance Cole
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Imagine a Renault 4. Remove the boxy body, strap a thin glass-fibre jelly mould shell to it, and throw in tuned suspension, engine and brakes. Then evolve it into something more powerful, but just as light. The result is the Renault Alpine (nothing, by the way, to do with a British Rootes car of the same name).

The year this happened was 1955, and the Alpine, or A110, is what emerged - or, at least, it did by 1963, when a Dieppe Renault dealer's son had spent some time tinkering with stock Renault parts and the new-fangled glass-fibre stuff, with help from the Chappe brothers who were pioneering its use in France.

The car's creative genius was Jean Redele, and so good was his work that Renault soon absorbed the project. It was named Alpine after the icy rally known as the Coupe des Alpes. So was born a Renault legend - without which there may have been no Renault Formula One team, and no Alonso-Schumacher title showdown building up nicely.

And guess who cut their racing teeth and car-preparation skills in a Renault Alpine rally team? None other than the current Ferrari F1 team supremo, Jean Todt.

The Alpine was Renault's entry into motorsport, so it's fair to say that the little plastic Renault made history. The new Renaultsport Clio 197 model has some plastic panels too...

Rear-engined, with a GRP body strapped to a central chassis tube, tuned, with go-kart chuckability, yet also fragile, the Renault A110 boasted great traction and an aerodynamic Giovanni Michelotti-designed body, whose carefully shaped rear end was designed to meet the needs of airflow efficiency and engine cooling.

Close your eyes and imagine Cibie headlamps slashing through the dark; smell the ice and snow and hear the howl of that tiny engine; watch a French racing blue-hued shark sweep past in a flash. You're on the Monte Carlo Rally, and the A110 is scything to victory, circa 1970-something.

From 1963 to 1977, with increasingly bigger en- gines going from the 954cc, 55bhp original via 1.1 litres up to the 1.6-litre unit that came from the Renault 16TX, the A110 turned into a 155mph- plus speed sledge. There was even a rare four-seater version.

With tuning tweaks taken from the Gordini and Mignot outfits, the original plastic fantastic grew into a hallmark brand that was also manufactured in Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Bulgaria (of all places). A special-edition 1.8-litre factory car is reputed to have hit 178mph.

Whether in private or in factory team hands, the Alpine provided many with a rush of speed and patriotism. The car won the Monte three times, took the 1973 world rally championship and was placed in 2,000 other events. Fettled Alpines appeared with boot lids propped open to allow the engine bay heat to escape, and with heavy roll-cages somehow fixed to the ultra-thin shell.

In Britain, they found favour with privateers with names such as Hollier, Coleman, Clark (as in Roger) and Moss (as in Pat).

The records say that nearly 10,000 A110s were made, but it is the pure French factory cars that are really worth money now - especially real race cars, not copies; £25,000 might buy you a good one of those.

But the A110 was not the end of the Alpine story, for Renault turned it into a 1980s and 1990s supercar - larger, less nimble, yet still rear-engined, made of plastic and with a power-to-weight ratio that made it very quick. These were the last of the Alpine line - the A310 GTA and the A610. These were wedge-shaped supercars that eschewed the purist principles of their antecedents, yet which still gave Renault something special to play with. But it's the original Alpine - pronounced "Alpeen" - that is the appreciating asset, according to Alpine fans.

Open the flimsy door, struggle down and in, park yourself behind the cluster of dials and sniff the smell of plastic, leather, oil and sweat - it's just like being strapped into a Second World War fighter. The drive is communicative, the way it is in a Lotus, a small old Porsche, or one of those early Saabs Erik Carlsson rallied. There's plenty of feedback - the car seems to talk to you telepathically, and it will let you know when the swing-axled rear end is about to let go in readiness for a big moment. The front brakes seem a bit light, but not as useless as they are in a Lancia Monte Carlo. All told, this is a superb tool for snow, ice, gravel and mud.

The noise is amazing, and the fear is palpable - there's no safety cage here. No matter; the drive is the thing.

There's no doubt that Renault's new little 197 will be given the full marketing hype, but if it comes close to matching the sheer Gallic élan of the Alpine, it too is destined to become a French automotive classic. Please, Renault, give us a Clio in the patriotic blue of the amazing Alpines.

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