Le Mans, 1952; besides all the financial hardship of the “post-war” era in Europe, a good gathering of the most significant sports-car brands were there: Ferrari, Jaguar, Lancia, Aston-Martin, Talbot, Cunningham and perhaps the most coveted presence that year was the return of the Mercedes-Benz to Le Mans after 22 years of absence. The Germans brought three “W-194”, the gorgeous prototype that later became the iconic 300-SL “Gullwing”, but this might be the subject for another post here at TCM.
Going down to the smaller engine classes we would see some French brands like Gordini, Peugeot and Renault and among them there was a tiny Renault 4CV, driven by a guy named Jean Rédélé, who would finish the race in 17th overall, a very good result by the way.
The 1952 Le Mans was only one more chapter in Rédélé’s career, throughout his life he had competed all over Europe, from the Dieppe Rally to the Monte Carlo Rally; from the Mille Miglia in Italy to Le Mans in France. After a short period of time he became a truly accomplished driver and a good team manager, always behind the wheel of a Renault.
All this loyalty to the brand is easily explained: his father Emile had served as a mechanic for the Renault first ‘factory’ racing efforts and was subsequently granted a dealership in the seaside town of Dieppe.
In 1946, after graduating in business, Jean got a job at Renault where he distinguished himself with his hard work, catching the eye of CEO Pierre Dreyfus. As a result, he was appointed Renault’s official dealer in Dieppe, at the young age of 24.
Rédélé truly believed that whatever wins on Sunday will sell on Monday and for him, as a passionate race driver, it was an easy job to promote his dealership at the race track.
His car of choice was the 750cc rear-engined Renault 4CV, one of the most popular French cars during the 50s. He not only had the support of his own dealership but Renault itself was providing him with some “race-ready” engines. The displacement was getting bigger, from the original 748cc to 845cc, the package would be complete with aluminum head, twin carbs, a spiced up valve cam, and higher compression ratio, the peak power of those engines was around 45HP. The Rédélé’s team was at this point facing an interesting problem: the original 3-speed gearbox from the 4CV wasn’t enough to handle all the power and torque of the new engines; the solution came when Rédélé and his race partner Louis Pons (also a Renault dealership owner) prepared his cars with a five-speed gearbox licensed from André-Georges Claude.
Now the little machine was ready to face even bigger opponents. Jean Rédélé won the first edition of the Dieppe Rally and after that his team started to collect good results all over Europe, not only in rallies but also in endurance races as well.
The team came to the point where there wasn’t much left to modify on the 4CV to make it faster, they came to the conclusion the only thing that was holding up the car’s performance was the car itself.
The 4CV had the typical design of the European cars from the 50s, tinny but “bulky”, not exactly the kind of car you would expect to see on a race track. It was light but of course it could be even lighter and definitely more aerodynamic.
The Beginning of Alpine.
What Rédélé needed was a sports-car and since Renault had nothing like that in his catalog at the time, he went to the right people looking for help: the Italians. He got a deal with the emerging stylist Giovanni Michelotti and from this endeavor was born the Renault Spéciale.
The aluminum body was built by coachbuilder Allemano, in Turin, Italy and the cars were put together by Rédélé’s team in Dieppe. The car’s debut was at the 1953 Dieppe Rally and it score a overall win, leaving behind the more powerful Porsches and Jaguars.
Renault was overseeing the production of the Spéciale to the public but they just couldn’t keep up with the demand.
During the 50s, America was in love with the European Sports-Cars and Renault tried to cash in. They realized it would be too costly to import the whole car, so they came up with this idea: to produce the body in fiberglass in the USA and bring only the chassis and power-train from France. They even renamed the car “Marquis” to be more appealing to the English speaker customers. Above is a piece of advertisement giving emphasis on the three major victories of the car in 53/54: Dieppe Rally, Rouen Cup, and Lisbon Circuit. Unfortunately the enterprise never went further than the advertisement and not a single Marquis was produced in North America.
In 1954, Rédélé was once again at the wheel of a Renault 4CV and he won the Mille Miglia and the Critérium des Alpes. He had a special predilection for competing in the Alps and that passion would play a big role in the future when he had to choose a name for his new car.
Also in 1954 Rédélé’s father-in-law Charles Escoffier, another Renault dealer (yes, it was just like a big family), had commissioned his own sports coupe based on the 4CV. The body, this time in fiberglass, was the work of French coachbuilder Chappe et Gessalin.
The original Michelloti’s design was way more beautiful and refined but the new one was cheaper and had the patriotic factor that it was a creation of a French company. On top of that there was family pressure. Finally, Rédélé gave up and on July 6, 1955, he formalized a partnership with his father-in-law and the “Societé des Automobiles Alpine” was born. He didn’t choose the body design but at least he chose the name.
To prove the intentions of this new company were serious, the very first three A106 produced were sent to the courtyard of Renault’s Boulogne Billancourt headquarters. The cars were painted in the colors of the French flag, the CEOs were pleased with the display and also impressed with the quality of the cars. The big bosses gave Rédélé green light to start the production of the A106.
The most desired A106 was the coach “Mile Miles”, the car was equipped with a stronger suspension (4 shocks in the rear), competition engine and 5-speed gearbox. The “5 speed” A106 was not a very popular choice since the gearbox alone cost as much as a brand new 4CV.
In 1956 Renault had released the successor of the 4CV, the Dauphine. As expected the new car was a huge improvement compared with the 4CV, it has better brakes, better handling, the 760cc engine was replaced by an 830cc with an improved cooling system. Renault kept the same concept of rear-engine/rear-wheel drive of the 4CV, but the new car was structurally stronger.
Suddenly, Alpine had a better platform for its coupes and naturally, that was the perfect time for an update on the A106. The project for the new car sparked a little battle of egos between the top CEOs: Rédélé wanted to bring “Michelloti” back to the drawing table, his father-in-law wanted to keep “Chappe et Gessalin” working for Alpine and the top guys at Renault wanted to give the job to the “Studio Ghia” in Italy.
As the battle progressed, a few prototypes from all 3 coach-builders were produced, but in the end, Rédélé won the war and Michelotti had the opportunity to draw the new Alpine.
Michelotti’s first official prototype was a gorgeous cabriolet version and the car proved the Jean Rédélé’s choice was the best one.
The Ghia prototype wasn’t that bad either and the design eventually saw the production line, not as an Alpine but as the Renault Floride/Caravelle.
The new Alpine was named A108 and the production car was a bit different from the prototype, the front facia became more aerodynamic. The car lost a bit of its original elegance but gained an aura of “race ready” sports-car. The 108 was produced from 1958 to 1962 in France and from 1962 to 1967 in South America.
The A108 was offered in 3 different versions:
And the Fastback officially called “Berlinette”.
Throughout the A108 life, the Berlinette was the most popular version, not only among regular customers but especially among the race teams.
The Renault Dauphine was a huge success, between 1956 and 1967, more than 2 million units were sold. The car was produced all over Europe, Central America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania; it was a global car even before the term was created, but the brand Alpine wasn’t as easy to sell: the car was expensive and not practical for a family, just like any other sports car in the World. The A108 was exported to all over Europe but just a few landed in North America since we aren’t actually very fond of French cars, but there was another market that was waiting for a European sports car: South America.
Both models, the Dauphine and the A108 were produced in Brazil from 1962 to 1967 through a very unusual partnership with the American automaker Willys Overland.
The Dauphine was renamed Willys “Gordini”, a name deeply related to Renault as we will see later on.
The A108 was renamed: Willys “Interlagos”, to honor the most famous race track in South America.
The Interlagos had a very successful racing career in Brazil, especially the ones that competed for the official Willys race team. The cars were painted in a very patriotic yellow and green livery, the same colors of the Brazilian flag.
The A108/ Interlagos was powered by the 830cc, 4 cylinder Renault engine called “Ventoux”, attached to a really good 4-speed transmission. The engine was capable to produce 40hp for the street version, it might not sound much nowadays but was pretty impressive at the time, just to give an idea, at that time, the Germans only got 36hp out of the 1200cc Beetle engine. But the little “Ventoux” has some serious limitations and the worst of them was the crankshaft was supported by only 3 main bearings, which means the engine is prone to failure under severe abuse.
The little French car could go from 0 to 100 km/h in 26 seconds and reach the max. speed of 160 km/h. The real trick here wasn’t much the power but lightweight, the A108 weighs only 575 kg.
In 1962 Renault unveiled the Dauphine’s substitute: the R8. The car would be the last one built on the concept of rear-engine/rear wheel by the French automaker. The R8 was equipped with a completely new 1100cc engine with 60 hp output and the crankshaft now sits on 5 main bearings. This new engine, called “Cléon-Fonte”, proved to be tough as nail, being able to withstand some severe punishment.
The R8 also brought some innovations to the market, it was the first car in Europe to offer a full sealed coolant system, and for a car intended to the economy class, the customers had some interesting options like 4 wheels disc brakes and automatic transmission.
Alpine had now some really good equipment to create a killer substitute for the A108.
In 1961 the Alpine A110 prototype was already done. Jean Rédélé tried to keep as much as possible of the original A108 design for the new car.
Besides the addition of fog lamps, the other visible difference with the A108 was restyled rear bodywork. Done to accommodate the A110’s larger engine.
The new 1100cc engine wasn’t only larger in displacement, it was larger in its dimensions too. The engine block is really robust, with thick walls between the cylinders. It seems Renault had one thing in mind when designed this engine: to make race teams able to machine the block to increase displacement, and that was good news to one guy in special: Amédée Gordini.
Gordini was an Italian born race-driver/engine-technician that worked as a mechanic for Maserati in the early 1920s. In 1926 he moved to Paris where he proved to be a more talented mechanic than race-driver. He worked tunning race engines for the French FIAT and SIMCA and became so good that the teams called him the “Wizard”.
But only when Gordini was working for Renaut that he reached the peak of his career. His team was responsible to prepare specially tuned street engines for the A106, A108 and A110 and also race engines for both brands, Renault and Alpine.
Gordini became the performance brand for Renault, something like what AMG does for Mercedes-Benz.
The “Wizard” didn’t waste time when he received the new 1100cc R8 engine, quickly he increased the displacement to 1300cc and with a few more tricks the engine was pumping out 120 hp, more than enough to push the A110 to a top speed of 190 Km/h and from 0 to 100 Km/h in less than 12 secs. Rédélé and Gordini had one target for all this firepower: Porsche; the Alpine A110 was capable to leave a Porsche 356 eating dust on any given day.
The A110 excellent performance became well known at the race tracks around the world but was at rally racing the car proved to be a real warrior.
The engines didn’t stop getting bigger, from 1300cc they grew to 1500cc, 1600cc and 1800cc. The 1800cc Gordini engines were able to produce 220 hp.
The A110 started to collect local rally victories all over Europe, and Alpine won the World Rally Manufacturer Championship in 1971 and 1973. Alpine was the last “production” car to win the WRC. In 1974 Lancia won the Championship with the mid-engine Stratos which was the first car designed specifically for rally racing.
Alpine kept the production of the A110 until 1977 with few changes from the original. The car was also produced in Mexico, Bulgaria, Spain. In total 1,782 A110 were sold all over the world.
Since 1971 Alpine was producing the A310, the car supposed to carry on the heritage of its predecessors. From 1971 to 1976 it was equipped with the same 1800cc four-cylinder engine of the A110. Being larger, heavier, and no more powerful than its predecessor, the A310 was generally considered underpowered and the customers showed little interest in the car.
In 1977 a new A310 model hit the showrooms across Europe, equipped with 150 hp, 2.9-liter V6 engine. The performance improved and so did the sales but still wasn’t enough to recreate the magic of the A110.
In 1984, the last year of production, only 500 A310 were sold across Europe while Porsche sold 1,600 units of the 911 model.
The oil crisis of the 1970s made a number of victims and Alpine almost became one of them, in order to save the brand, Renault acquired 70% of the company in 1973.
The new owner immediately dissolved the Alpine’s competition department which was one of the financial wounds of the company. Racing would no longer be a priority for the future Alpine cars.
But the lessons learned by Renault during decades of competition resulted in the powerhouse Formula 1 team that we know now today.
Renault tried to keep the Alpine name alive as much as possible and some models like the 1990s GTA, equipped with a twin-turbo V6 was actually a decent sports car but it failed to bring back the customers. By 1995 the name Alpine vanished from the market.
At the 2017 Geneva Auto Show, Renault presented to the world a modern interpretation of the legendary A110.
The new Alpine is a gorgeous sports coupé with the right combination of modern design and styling cues from the original Michelotti’s masterpiece.
Following the Jean Rédélé’s recipe for speed, the new Alpine weighs only 1,100 kg, thanks to a platform and body made of aluminum.
As expected, Renault abandoned the rear-engine layout of the original A108/A110 for the mid-engine concept instead, drastically improving the car’s driving dynamic. The new A110 is powered by a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 250 horses and 236 lb-ft of torque, the little French coupe will zip from 0-100 Km/h in just 4.5 seconds. The engine is attached to a 7-speed dual-clutch, pedal-shift transmission.
Renault is wisely using competition once again to boost sales, in 2018 the company released the track version GT4, powered by a specially tuned 1800cc turbo engine pumping out 300 hp.
Reviving the long-dormant brand was a gamble for Renault in an era of declining sports-car sales, but the retro-styled A110 has proved to be a hit since being unveiled in March 2017.
This demand has created a backlog stretching 14 months, in response Alpine has increased the production from 15 to 20 cars a day and they are ready to create another shift at the Dieppe assembly line if the high demand continues.
Renault has done a terrific job bringing the Alpine brand back. The new A110 lives up to the original models, it has the style, the personality, and the performance to carry on the Alpine heritage to the next generation of customers.