We have the FIA to thank for the current rash of homologation specials. The recent alteration of minimum production requirements from 400 to 200 for Group B has made it feasible for the major manufacturers, particularly those involved in rallying, to create limited production vehicles which bear only an outline resemblance to the parent car. As if to confirm that a limit of development has been reached for two-wheel driven cars, the latest generation have turned to ever more complicated 4wd layouts, borrowing engines and components from any model in the range and relocating them within the smallest of bodyshells to save weight.
Thus we have BL’s 6R4 Metro, with a mid-mounted V6 and central gearbox, and front-rear differential, soon to do battle with Peugeot-Talbot’s 205 Turbo 16 which uses an offset transverse four-cylinder block behind the passenger to drive all four wheels.
But while the complexity of most of these pint-sized exotics will ensure their continued rarity and high price, the forerunner of them all has quietly surprised its own creators by becoming a modest commercial success.
The Renault Turbo caused a sensation when it was introduced a few years ago because it was the first special to relocate the running gear from front to mid-mounted, turning the Renault 5 from a small family hatchback into an aggressively-styled two-seater. The mechanical transplant, although it seemed daring at the time, was relatively simple, as it merely involved moving a complete unit from over the front wheels to over the rear wheels. The 5’s system of having a longitudinal engine behind the front wheels driving a transaxle in front of them needed only to be rotated to provide the ideal central location for a more powerful engine.
The whole exercise was carried out under the supervision of Renault’s adventurous design department, and the result was that the bulky wheelarches and aerodynamic trimmings were neatly incorporated into a competition special which also had street appeal. The original model sold at a hefty price, trading on its rarity and its luxurious, even outrageous interior, but continuing, steady sales prompted Renault to simplify production by installing the standard 5 Gordini interior and at the same time taking the opportunity to drop the price, since the numbers produced had run into four figures instead of the few hundred originally envisaged.
The Renault Turbo 2, as the simplified version is called, does not figure on Renault UK’s model list, and the 40 or so road-going cars in this country are all privately imported. There are one or two companies who specialise in these cars, and it was one of these, Designer Cars of Fulham, London, who were good enough to lend one to MOTOR SPORT for test.
Illogically, the first impression of the car is how small it seems; the extended width appears to accentuate its compact length. The view from the driver’s seat is identical to that from a normal R5 — until one looks behind. Where the rear seats would be, there is instead an upholstered luggage deck concealing the engine, and topped by straps to hold the shopping in place. Access to the engine is not easy, since to protect the crew from noise, heat, and fumes, Renault have used heavy insulated panels which are unlatched by undoing eight fastenings with a hex key, and which remain tied to the car by the luggage straps. Once all of these are undone, however, it is as easy to work on the engine as it would be under a normal bonnet.
Heat soak from the turbocharger is minimised by a stainless steel guard which dominates the engine-bay, and cooling is induced by a complicated system of fans and trunking which variously collect intake air, intercooler air and manifold cooling air. There is a thermostatic radiator fan up front, and a powerful fan forces air through the engine-bay for up to 20 minutes after switching off to dissipate the very high temperatures generated by the turbo. The block is essentially the Gordini version of the pushrod R5, displacing 1,397 cc, but boosted by a Garrett T3 turbocharger to produce 160 bhp at 6,000 rpm and 163 lb ft of torque at a relatively low 3,250 rpm. Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection is fitted.
A twin-plate clutch transmits the power to a five-speed transaxle at the rear of the car, and thence through a limited slip differential to the 220/55 HR 14 tyres. Front tyres are a narrower 190/55, but as there is no room to carry a front spare, let alone a rear or one of each, Turbo 2 owners will have to risk using the illegal spacesaver spare tucked under the bonnet. The only luggage space is right at the back of the car where a shallow compartment will take a couple of soft bags. Yet in this respect the Turbo 2 is no worse than most mid-engined two-seaters.
Because of its limited production, only left-hand drive models are available from the factory, but Designer Cars will convert customers’ cars to rhd for around £1,400 on top of the £9,900 purchase price. Our test car was a standard southpaw, and it proved to be of no real disadvantage either in town or on fast roads, where the quick-responding steering and engine made even overtaking easy.
In fact, despite its projecting arches, the opalescent white Renault proved an admirable town car. The Gordini unit is punchy even off the turbo, and both steering and gearchange are fast and precise, allowing the car to be slotted confidently in and out of traffic. The ride is a little joggly at town speeds — not unpleasantly so, merely confirming the competition breeding — but smooths out by the time fifth gear is reached, so that motorway travel is calm and quiet, with little wind noise.
What characterises the Turbo 2, however, is its ability to change direction with a flick of the chunky steering wheel. With its stubby configuration and central engine, the little car follows instantly every twitch of the grippy front tyres, the steering getting very heavy as cornering loads increase but easing off again as the boost winds itself up and catapults the car out of each bend. It feels as if it will hang on for ever, but with such a short wheelbase it is not going to be easy to catch when its limits are exceeded. Only a brave or a foolish driver would need to explore these uncharted regions, though, as there is terrific enjoyment to be had on this side of opposite lock using the go-kart steering and red-line acceleration.
Standing-start figures, always rather academic, have even less relevance to turbocars which do not exhibit the wheel-spinning ability required for clock-beating, but nevertheless the Renault can comfortably return 7s to 60 mph. Unfortunately those few moments wait for the oomph to arrive can often see the intended gap in the traffic snaffled by the ubiquitous Golf or Escort when trying to join a fast main road. Once rolling, though, careful anticipation and choice of gear will ensure that that delicious push in the back is on tap when required. Supporting the 5 in and 7.5 in alloy rims are wishbones at all four corners with coil springs and telescopic dampers, replacing the transverse rear torsion bars of the R5 which endow it (uniquely?) with unequal wheelbases left and right. Four vented discs of 10.2 in diameter provide impressive stopping power in the dry, but in heavy rain the front tyres showed a tendency to lock rather easily, since they carry only 40% of the car’s weight.
Instrumentation is comprehensive and legible, especially at night when the Regie’s red lighting really does seem more restful than traditional green, but the seats are disappointing. These look as if they have been borrowed from some stodgy saloon, and make the driver do all the work of holding his body upright on bends. Their very high mounting is because directly beneath is the 11.2 gallon fuel-tank, which at the 25 mpg we attained will take the crew about 280 miles.
Viewed as a spin-off of the Regie’s competition programme, the Turbo 2 appears to offer a lot of performance for the money, but is in itself rather difficult to classify. Is it a two-seater saloon with no luggage space, or is it one of the few sports cars that even the arthritic can get in and out of easily? It undoubtedly has “arrival value”, even in London where Porsches and Ferraris are far from rare, but its abilities are wasted in town, despite its surprising handiness there.
Perhaps it would best suit a single town-dwelling car enthusiast who can escape for a hectic weekend sprint to Silverstone, Oulton Park, or the Welsh lanes, for a relaxing tourer it is not. And if such a creature is relatively rare, that may be the reason that there are only 40 cars in the UK.. . . — G.C.