The formative days of the world Rally Championship were dominated by a small car built by a small French firm. John Davenport explains how they made it big
We sat at the start of the opening special stage. The pace notes were on my knee and, behind our heads, the engine burbled away through its twinchoke Dellortos. We were cocooned in a flimsy fibreglass shell. The front wishbone was just a few centimetres away from my right foot Above it was the fuel tank. The vulnerability was manifest The marshal counted down. Our pulse rates mounted. Relief was necessary and so, to the astonishment of those outside the car, we yelled like Sioux warriors, only stopping when the flag lifted and our blue projectile rocketed towards the first comer.
We did not win that 1972 Monte Carlo Rally. The gearbox broke on the last night when we were leading, but the experience of rushing round French mountains inside an Alpine Renault A110 is one of my strongest memories. You may have felt exposed, but their light weight and agility made them competitive on any rally.
My companion, Ove Andersson, had won the Monte Carlo the year before at the wheel of an Alpine, and the marque would go on to win the first rally world championship, in 1973 — an incredible achievement against the might of Fiat Ford, Lancia, Saab and Citroën.
These little French sports-cars had been in competition for almost two decades before collaring the most prestigious title in rallying. Their participation had been split between rallying and racing, which reflected the wide interests of the company’s founder, Jean Redele. It was not until 1968, when Regie Renault took a serious interest in his cars, that their rally career blossomed.
The story begins with the humble 4CV, of which over a million were sold between 1946 and ’61. Redele was the son of a successful Renault dealer in Dieppe. A bet with the local Peugeot agent about the relative merits of a Peugeot 203 and a 4CV led to an unofficial test on public roads. It was followed by entering the cars in a local rally. Redele won his bet and acquired a taste for competition. He entered the Monte Carlo, and before long, was taking 4CVs on the Mille Miglia, Coupe des Alpes and Liege-Rome-Liege.
But he wanted to make his own cars. He already had a deal with his friend Louis Pons to have five-speed gearboxes with dog-clutches built into 4CV housings. He now approached Italian designer Michelotti to design an aluminium body that fitted onto a 4CV platform. The car was called a Redele Special. He contested three national events with it, winning on each occasion. He then sold the manufacturing rights to an American. It was to be called ‘The Marquis’, but the project never came to fruition.
Back in France, Redele approached the Chappe brothers, who had the fibreglass expertise to make a similar car based on some 1952 sketches by Michelotti. Redele decided to call his manufacturing company Alpine after winning a Coupe des Alpes in 1954 with his faithful 4CV. The new car was given the number A106, with the Franglais suffix of Mille Miles. It is not certain where the numbering system came from, but it is probably significant that Redele had won his class in the 1953 Mille Miglia at an overall average of exactly 106kph.
The A106 was formally launched in July 1955 and soon became the favourite mount of motors-porting Frenchmen. It won its class on the Mille Miglia, the Tour de France and in countless rallies. A whole generation of senior rallymen cut their teeth with it: Henri Greder, Jacques Feret, Guy Verrier and Jean Vinatier to name but a few.
In October 1957, the A108 was launched. Like its predecessor, it was based on Renault components, but now Redele had the Dauphine to draw upon. The result was a car that, at first glance, looks like an A110. By this time, both models were available with a wide range of engines 747cc, 850cc, 904cc and levels of tuning ranging from 40 to 70bhp.
Then came the A110 that represented new thinking. It was not just a fibreglass body added to a conventional chassis the two were built as one. This was a superb, compact car that benefited from the running gear of, first, the Dauphine, then the R8.
It took to competition like a duck to water, Jose Rosinski posting its first win, on the 1963 Rallye des Lions. Equally at home on mountain or track, the A110 racked up good placings and class wins. But it was not powerful enough, despite its 650kg all-up weight, to make a big impression on the major rallies. It was also, as Jean-Pierre Nicolas commented when choosing it as his favourite rally mount, “a car built more for circuits and Tarmac roads but we made it into an all-rounder”.
Why did the Alpine A110 not dominate earlier than the beginning of the ’70s? It seemed to have everything going for it: light, small, low centre of gravity, rear engine, plenty of traction. It helps to understand if one assesses the performances of the R8 Gordini and the A110 in that strenuous 24-hour test known as the Tour de Corse. The R8 Gordini, with its 1100cc engine boosted to 1300cc, won Corsica in 1964, and again in ’65. On the latter occasion, an A110 with a 1143cc engine came in second. In ’66, an R8, this time with a 1440cc engine, won again.
On each occasion, the R8s were in the prototype category, which meant bumpers, seats, trim — anything not needed — could be removed. They were not quite as light as the A110, but were light enough to make best use of their power advantage.
The trusty Renault engine was a single camshaft pushrod, while its international opposition was lining up with twin-cams and 50 per cent more horsepower.
Help was on its way. The arrival of the R16 engine, with its five-bearing crank and superior construction, led to a 1500cc, and eventually a 1600cc version, of the A110. And Renault’s help wasn’t just technical, it was commercial, too. The supply of engines, powertrain and suspension parts, plus PR and distribution, enabled Redele to produce cars in sufficient quantities for homologation. And once the A110 1600S was recognised in Gp4, thanks to annual production in excess of 500, the rally results started to come.
Its international debut was on the 1970 Monte Carlo, where JeanClaude Andruet missed a passage control and Vinatier crashed. But it went on to win the San Remo and Acropolis with Jean-Luc Therier and Corsica with Bernard Darniche. The following year, it won Monte Carlo, San Remo, Austrian Alpine and Acropolis with Ove Andersson, while Nicolas won Geneva and Portugal, and Vinatier won the Coupe des Alpes.
Andruet won the French and European championships in 1970. Nicolas took the French title in 1971, while Alpine won the International Championship for Makes, the precursor of the world championship.
During 1971, Alpine homologated the 1800cc version of the A110. In rally tune, this was only some 25bhp short of its opposition, in a car that still only weighed 720kg. The extra weight created problems for the transmission, and it took most of 1972 to get the new R12 gearbox engineered for the car. Towards the end of that year, however, Nicolas won the Olympia Rally and Andruet the Tour de Corse. It was a mere whiff of what was to come in 1973.
Andruet, Therier, Darniche and Nicolas were unstoppable. They won six of the new World Championship events, secured the title for Alpine Renault (the new name for the company which had been bought by Renault at the end of 1972), while Therier also took the French title.
The 1800 stayed competitive for another two years. It had, however, lost the initiative on gravel roads to the Ford Escort RS, while on Tarmac, like all the others, it was demolished by the Lancia Stratos steamroller.
Alpine Renault responded with the A310, a heavier car with the same engine. Later there was the A310 V6, by which time Renault were discovering ways of making their own cars go quickly. They also had one eye on Formula One…
Alpine would never again reach the same rallying heights.