Renault 5 Turbo

This pocket rocket was a Group B forerunner with performance to match its outlandish looks. World domination didn’t beckon, but it took a few scalps on the special stages

Profound wackiness was afoot. Renault had succeeded in creating a car that was both instantly recognisable and utterly surreal; a familiar shape that had been tweaked and honed, pushed and pulled to the point of absurdity. All trace elements of practicality were also removed for the sake of performance. When the 5 Turbo broke cover at the 1978 Paris Motor Show few onlookers took it seriously. Surely it was just a concept car. It was nothing of the sort. Conceived as a rally weapon, non-conformity swiftly became the norm as rivals followed suit and built hot hatches with engines where the rear seat should be. In its own way, it foretold the Group B era.

However, unlike its copyists, Renault’s bonkers baby was also an honest-to-God road car – not far off 5000 were sold in various guises between 1981-86. There had never been anything quite like it before, and even now to those of us who came of age in the ’80s images of Jean Ragnotti victorious on the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally in his yellow, white and black Cinq Turbo, or a wildly fishtailing Barbara Carrera leading the chase in rubbish Bond flick Never Say Never Again remain fresh, even if the exact details of their time and place do not.

Dreamed up in 1976 by Renault’s directeur a la direction du produit, Jean Terramorsi, the resultant 5 Turbo (retrospectively known as Turbo 1) emerged in October ’78. It had been quite a journey. Returning to top-flight rallying appealed to the Renault board, but there were bumps in the road. First of all there was the small matter of deciding which engine should be slung into the back of the diminutive 5. The PRV V6 from the Renault 30 saloon was quickly batted away as its heft would have been an issue. The 2-litre four as found in the deathly dull 20 model was also evaluated but it was simply too long. That left option number three, the 5 Gordini’s 1397cc unit, which when multiplied by 1.4 – the regulation’s equivalency formula for turbocharged engines – would result in a notional displacement of 1956cc. Perfect.

In the spring of 1977 a 5 shell appeared at the Renault Sport facility in Dieppe. A tubular frame was installed along with rear suspension robbed from an Alpine A310, with a Garrett T3 turbo now allied to the iron block four-banger. On March 9 1978, Renault Sport chief Gerard Larrouse and engineer Michel Tetu gave ‘Project 822’ its maiden run. With lessons learned, work then began on a second prototype, this time with production in mind, hence an integral ‘superstructure’ rather than some welded in cage. The rear suspension was now borrowed from the A310 Group 5 car, albeit somewhat beefed up. The front of the car was also lengthened as the spare tyre had to go somewhere. Intriguingly, in an effort to disguise what was going on, Renault Sport’s boffins took to carrying out engine development work using a Lancia Stratos test mule, we’re told.

But not for Renault a purpose-built supercar. The new strain of rally car had to retain as close a family resemblance to the regular 5 as possible. The initial design was sketched out by Marc Deschamps, with clay modelling work performed by Bertone. And the Latin styling house’s resident genius Marcello Gandini (who Deschamps would replace at Bertone…) couldn’t resist giving it a tweak or two of his own. But ultimately this outline was rejected in favour of one by Cerisay body builder Heuliez. It was undeniably radical while clearly still a shopping car, the highly stylised wheels beneath the bulging composite wings being reputedly inspired by the shape of a turbocharger fan.

Launched in France on July 1 1980, Renault needed to shift 400 cars for homologation purposes. This was of no great concern as it received as many pre-orders before the first production car had even turned a wheel. Sadly Terramorsi didn’t get to see his vision realised, having died in 1976. His legacy was a car that belied its competition roots to be a huge hit just about everywhere it was sold. So that would be Germany, Italy, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and… not the UK. Instead, enterprising enthusiasts took to importing their own. Similarly, a fair few wound up Stateside where the car continues to enjoy a cult following.

Offered initially with a choice of as many as two hues – eye-watering metallic Pomegranate Red or Olympian (electric) Blue, the car’s cabin was equally striking. The instrument panel comprised 10 bronze-coloured dials which were backlit with a crimson glow whenever the ignition was switched on. And each car received a numbered plaque affixed to the dashboard, not that they corresponded with the chassis number, mind…

Before long some five cars were rolling out of the Dieppe factory each day, Renault following through with the Turbo 2 in 1983, which packed 160bhp (with as much as 210bhp being available), plus steel doors, tailgate and roof in place of the previous aluminium items (although some early Turbo 2s featured the lightweight panels just to annoy future historians). Production continued until early ’86, with around 160 cars finding their way to the UK in period.

Initially a leader in a field of one, by this point the Renault had been overtaken by four-wheel-drive rivals. But its competitiveness hadn’t been completely blunted. On a very limited budget Renault produced what was perhaps the fastest car of its day in Tarmac rallying. Even in early non-homologated form it was super-quick: on its debut in the October 1979 Giro d’Italia, Guy Fréquelin managed one fastest stage time – in the company of Lancia men Walter Röhrl, Gilles Villeneuve and Riccardo Patrese – before the engine packed up. Though further retirements would follow, Renault would score in the biggest way possible on the model’s maiden World Championship start by winning the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally outright. Battle raged between works man Jean Ragnotti and Jean-Luc Therier in the Almeras Porsche 911, with ‘Jeannot’ finally securing victory after Therier went off piste on the Col du Turini.

At the end of that year, Renault Sport began offering the ‘Cevennes’ edition, which was effectively a works-spec car as a kit, the ‘Tour de Corse’ variant being homologated for the Group B category for ’83. With a wider front track and larger wheel arches, it could make use of the latest tyre technology, while power was upped to 300bhp. GpB regs called for 200 cars to be built to appease the rule makers, Renault making as many ‘evolution’ cars before producing a further 20 that were even lighter, stiffer and equipped with a DPV (Dispostif Pre-Rotation Variable) device borrowed from Renault’s F1 programme. This new-fangled doohickey effectively eliminated turbo lag, the new Maxi producing around 350bhp in full-house trim. Such was the Maxi’s pace that Ragnotti won the ’85 Tour de Corse from Peugeot 205 T16 Evo driver Bruno Saby after setting 17 fastest stage times. He was giving away 80bhp, too.

While it perhaps wasn’t a towering success in the World Rally Championship, the Renault nonetheless accrued a staggering number of wins at national level, being driven by a host of big-name stars and a veritable ‘who’s that?’ of local heroes. Saby claimed the French national series in 1981 and Therier a year later, while Ragnotti wrapped up the same title in ’84. With Spanish, Swiss, Hungarian, Yugoslavian and Portuguese crowns to its credit, before you factor in unlikely trackside forays in IMSA and elsewhere, this thuggish little terrier was nothing if not prolific.

Closer to home it was rather less so, although few flew the Renault flag with greater conviction than evergreen rally man John Price. Close on 30 years after he first strapped himself into a mid-engined 5, he’s still making them go faster than seems feasible. “I had the first one in the UK,” he says. “That was in 1981. I always liked Renaults, and had competed in an Alpine A110 beforehand. I went over to France and bought a car and all the right bits and went rallying. It was a proper little supercar and still is. The business side moved on from there and nowadays we’re still preparing them, restoring them and looking after a lot of road cars in the UK and sending spares out to the States or wherever.

“It was built for competition rather than adapted and it shows. You can’t drive one like a hooligan, steering on the bump stops. You have to be gentle. It can be tricky, but if you have a light touch you’ll be fine. Think of it as a go-kart with a lot more power. In the dry it’s very good but it can be difficult in the wet, more so than the MG 6R4s I went on to rally, but then you have to expect that of a two-wheel-drive car with a short wheelbase.

“Finding a good one is the problem. Prices have shot up recently and you’re looking at £10K for a rough Turbo 2. A nice one will start at £20,000 but an early car will be a lot more. Fortunately a lot of parts are available, and we offer Maxi upgrades and so on. Some of our Irish customers run up to 300bhp in hillclimbs.”

If anything, the Turbo 2 and its forebear have undergone a critical rehabilitation of sorts. Once the boy-racer cognoscenti’s car of choice, its ‘out there’ looks in time became a little démodé thanks to innumerable cruddy body kits and other tacky addenda that typified the ’80s after-market. In so many ways it advanced the movement, if by default, only for imitators to dilute its impact. The difference here is that its looks weren’t all about titillation – its intention was matched to form. And should anyone ever think otherwise, even the briefest of sorties will disabuse you. It’s a blast.