Alpine A110

France’s finest earned its formidable reputation in top-level rallying thanks to light weight and nimble handling. Just don’t call it a Renault 

So it’s true: your life really does flash before your eyes. Approaching what appears to be an especially tight left-hander – and still gaining speed – the blaring cacophony behind is matched for volume only by a random expletive from the ‘ballast’: sorry, was that thought audible? Surely he’s going to brake. He does: very, very late. The car’s nose tucks in, there’s a small squirm from the back, and then it’s off to the next set of twisties. Nothing to it. Remarkable. Conversation returns – very one-sided; something about the steering – but it’s lost as hyperventilation kicks in. 

Two things: however many times you’re exposed to the Alpine (pronounced ‘Alpeen’) A110, you always fail to appreciate just what an accomplished device it is. And secondly, in the right hands – such as former Clubmans’ ace Tim Moores, the owner of this example – you can cover a lot of ground very quickly. Few cars command your attention quite like this rallying deity, and for good reason. 

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 autonomous 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. 

Jean Rédélé’s life working with cars was seemingly preordained. Born in May 1922 and reputedly 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 that the paucity 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 self-tuned Renault 4CV – complete with self-manufactured five-speed ’box conceived by André Georges-Claude – in events at home and abroad, culminating with three consecutive 750cc class wins on the Mille Miglia from 1952-54 and further honours on the ’52 Tour de France and Liège-Rome-Liège. Predictably, others wanted replicas, and Rédélé soon had a tidy sideline knocking out go-faster bits.

Societé des Automobiles Alpine’s first product appeared in July 1955, the A106 coupé being based on a 4CV platform – naturally – with dumpy styling by Italian ‘pen for hire’ Giovanni Michelotti. Onwards and upwards, the A108 appeared two years later with a backbone chassis that would be a constant theme through all subsequent Alpines. 

Then came the A110. Launched at the 1962 Paris motor show and entering production the following year, it was an instant hit and remained in production until July 1977. With Rédélé displaying a dogged insistence on building the same basic car and developing it from the inside out, there was no Chapman-esque thirst for the next big thing here. 

Which was of little consequence, since the product was so right to begin with. Derived in part from the earlier A108, it too featured a glassfibre shell comprising upper and lower pieces bonded and riveted to the backbone frame. As with so many low-volume cars of such construction, the bodies were never entirely symmetrical because the moulds – and the cars – were made by artisans so each shell was laid up by hand and would inevitably differ slightly one from others. Even so, the overall quality was infinitely better than many shoddy British equivalents of the day. 

The running gear was sourced 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 from the Régie’s three-box saloon came the four-wheel disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering. With component spotting being something of an accepted pastime among car hacks, the A110 remains a treasure trove (in case you hadn’t noticed, the parking lights are from a Peugeot 404 while the front indicators on this 1970 car are NSU Prinz items…) with some 742 components apparently being taken from the Renault parts bin. 

In its original guise, the A110 Tour de France Berlinette featured Renault’s new five-bearing 956cc four-cylinder engine mated to the R8’s four-speed ’box, followed near-instantaneously by the 1108cc ‘Major’ unit. Over time, a multitude of engine options would follow, mirroring Renault’s own development programme, R12 and R16 items all finding their way behind the rear axle. 

It was during 1967, a year after Renault began supplying Lotus with engines for the Europa, that the firm’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 the automotive giant 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 Renault badge being entirely out of proportion to that of Alpine: with minor placings and class wins, the roles were generally reversed. Since the A110 won more often that not, Renault got a lot out of the relationship.

With Jean-Claude Andruet’s 1969 European rally title as an opening salvo, the A110 became a rallying colossus following a 1-2-3 finish on the ’71 Monte Carlo classic headed by Ove Andersson/David Stone. Alpine repeated the feat two years later, with Andruet/‘Biche’ coming out on top in the first round of the new World Rally Championship. Dieppe’s finest bested the might of Porsche and Lancia to take the ’73 series spoils, the same year Renault acquired a 55 per cent stake in the marque. At home, it seemed a forgone conclusion that an A110 would win the French title, with Jean-Pierre Nicolas (1971), Bernard Darniche (1972) and Jean-Luc Thérier (1973) all taking home silverware.

The Champion de France Feminin in ’71 was Christine Dacremont. She finished second in Group 3 on that year’s Rallye de L’Ouest and second in class on the Rallye de St Raphael. In this car. It subsequently passed to Michèle Mouton and, once its rallying career was over, found a new role in hillclimbing. Owned by Moores since 1990, and rebuilt to Group 4 spec, the car’s life isn’t one of light exertion. Tim divides his time between zig-zagging Europe in the A110 on navigational rallies and giving his delicious Ducati Darmah 900SS a spanking on track days. 

This model – the 1600S – is the ultimate variation of the A110 theme. In standard trim, its four-cylinder engine from the Renault 16TS had a capacity of 1565cc, ran on twin Weber 45DCOEs and was good for 132mph. This one has a displacement of 1796cc and puts out about 170bhp at 7000rpm. And the homologation weight for the 1600S was only 650kg, so it most likely tips the scales at about the same heft as a Mini. 

Photographs don’t really lend a sense of scale: the A110 is tiny. The styling – by one P Charles – is pretty without being oestrogen-tinged, the reverse swage line down the rounded flanks and chrome strakes below the rear scoops (the nearside one takes cool air to the carbs, while the offside item feeds the oil cooler) offering pleasing decorative touches: it really is a great-looking thing. 

It’s not the easiest car to get into, though. Banging your head is almost inevitable thanks to the low roofline and wide sill. Having clambered into the constricting bucket seats, 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 a heater. And it’s all the better for it. 

Having located the ignition (it’s beneath the steering 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 ever be derived from something as humble – as proletarian, even – as a Renault 16 engine. 

Off the line, the Alpine is super-rapid, exceptionally tractable from low down and can be heard from about two miles away (or further, depending on wind conditions) when enjoying the upper reaches of the rev band. Even short-shifting, acceleration is as immediate as it is strident. Tim’s quarter-mile time at the Brighton Speed Trials a while back was a little over 14sec. In the wet. With the old, less powerful 1565cc engine. Yet unlike so many modern performance cars in which you feel desensitised to the action, with this car it’s largely intuitive on your part: you’re aware of everything. 

That said, no two A110s ever drive alike. Having hitherto always complained about the Alpine gearchange, I found the Renault ‘Monte Carlo’ five-speeder offers a reasonably well defined shift action despite the serpentine linkages, although the close pedal layout and offset steering wheel still require a little acclimatisation. Naturally, you’re all too aware of the 60 per cent rear weight bias, and stories of tricky handling on the limit are legion, but you’re going to have to do something pretty stupid to get into trouble. Wide tyres and plenty of negative camber ensure that it feels perfectly stable, and cornering speeds are colossal: you’re constantly called upon to make tiny steering corrections but the rack and pinion set-up is a delight. And, despite having so little weight ahead of the cabin on a near-empty tank, the brakes are fade-free, the fronts never threatening to lock up. 

There is so much to love here. Sadly a 1600S is out of reach for most of us: there are only seven on UK roads and you’re looking at more than £40,000 to land one, but even a ‘poverty-spec’ edition will give you endless entertainment. Despite Rédélé’s laissez-faire attitude to selling his wares outside France, there are probably more A110s – and the most adoring retinue – in Blighty than anywhere else in the world. One drive and it’s easy to see why. 

Thanks to Tim Moores: