Renault R8 Gordini

This ’60s learning tool for some of the biggest names in French rallying and racing has plenty of Gallic flair, but is hard to come by in its original form
By Richard Heseltine Photos by Howard Simmons

The glory of the moment was muted by the need to rig proceedings. Unofficially, mind – nothing too blatant. Over a balmy weekend in July 1970 at Castellet-Paul Ricard, Renault chose to showcase its brave new world, the R12 Gordini, and invited owners of the outgoing model to pop along and witness its replacement in action. And witness it they did; principally its angular backside being handed to it by the R8 Gordini in a series of match races. Some 2000 owners – almost a quarter of all customers – were present, vividly reflecting the affection the Huit inspired. A certain degree of marketing-driven mischief-making then ensued to make sure that the Douze won something, anything. The fix was in and this act of chicanery has since entered into performance Renault lore.

All of which means little in Blighty because, well, the R8 Gordini has always been treated with a certain degree of smug disdain. Same too for all rear-engined Renaults for that matter. The whole ‘widow-maker’ reputation forged by Dauphines turning turtle in the ’50s (those that hadn’t rusted away – this was a car seemingly made out of Alka-Seltzer) transposed onto subsequent models. The swing axles and hindmost weight distribution method of doing things tended to elicit opinions, informed or otherwise. But while some models were indeed a mite scary, the same can be said of most British production saloons from the period: try pedalling a Vauxhall PA Cresta in the wet at anything more than walking pace and you’ll soon experience one of those moments where startle precedes impact.

Thing is, when breathed upon by Amedée Gordini, the little Dauphine was a useful rally weapon, one which set the template for subsequent generations of hotted-up Renaults. ‘Le Sorcier’ had made his name in the 1930s extracting improbable power outputs from proletariat engines before building his first Simca-based single-seater in 1946. Stepping up to Grand Prix racing, the habitually cash-strapped tuning deity put in some giant-bothering performances. Same too in sports cars, but, by 1957, the coffers were parched and Gordini the marque faded away. Gordini the man, meanwhile, still had some currency, and was retained by Renault as a consultant. Applying his magic – and his name – to the Dauphine, the Italian-born engineer redesigned the little four-banger’s cylinder head (complete with inclined valves), making a sufficient difference for the new performance tiddler to win the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally outright, while placing second and third a year later.

Further iterations followed but it was the R8 that really caused a commotion, if only in its homeland. Arriving in 1962, it was bigger than the Dauphine and decidedly square-rigged, while retaining the same basic layout. Predictably, a Gordini-labelled edition was soon in the offing and arrived at the ’64 Paris Motor Show: its 1108cc ‘Major’ four-cylinder engine was lightly worked over, the four-speed transmission receiving slightly shorter gearing. Outwardly identifiable from its lesser brethren by its larger headlights, it was warmly received but this was just a taster. Two years later, Renault ushered in the larger displacement 1300 model which represented more than a mere makeover. Much, much more.

Unlike the regular 1100 edition, the latest strain featured an entirely new engine block with wider spacings between the cylinder liners. Its hemispherical combustion chambers, opposed valves and ‘masked’ plugs were descended directly from Gordini’s racing engines, albeit simplified and cheapened (at Renault’s insistence) by the adoption of a block-mounted camshaft rather than twin overhead items. Other deviations included the adoption of Weber DCOE 40 carbs in place of the equivalent Solexes, and an alternator instead of a dynamo. Allied to this was a new five-speed close-ratio ’box which addressed a common complaint that the old four-on-the-floor was too slow-witted between third and top.

Just to heap on the competition-led pointers, the 1300’s bodyshell featured lighter-gauge wings and doors with additional plating in place to reinforce stressed areas. Auxiliary long-range lights afforded rally reference points, as did an extra 25-litre fuel tank in the front boot compartment, with a change-over switch being mounted on the floor that was accessible to either driver or co-pilot. Completing the ensemble were wider 4½in wheels (rather than 4in on the regular car) and fully reclining seats. The Huit Gordini’s sporting credentials were immediately obvious, with contemporary road tests often talking of ‘turbine smoothness’ from the outboard four pot. A particularly effusive Doug Nye gushed in Autosport in 1967 that, “The steering is delightfully direct and quick while the servo-assisted brakes are the best I’ve ever sampled.”

While rarely a force on the world stage, there were more than a few competition successes closer to home with the Gordini winning the 1964 Tour de Corse, the first of a hat-trick on that event. As late as ’67, it won the Rallye dei Fiori and the Three Cities, as Renault increasingly turned to (future subsidiary) Alpine for its competition forays.

If anything, the model’s place in competition lore is deserved more for the drivers it inspired than for outright results. Future rally aces such as Guy Fréquelin, Jean-Luc Therier, Jean-Claude Andruet and Jean Ragnotti all learned their trade in these cars. More than that, between 1966 and 1970, the Coupe R8 Gordini one-make series spawned a whole generation of future French track stars, with the likes of Jean-Pierres, Jabouille and Jarier being among the better-known alumni.

Dropped for good in 1971, the R8 Gordini’s cult status was already assured. As with most competition-orientated road cars, a fair percentage were rogered to within an inch of their lives or bounced off the scenery, so survivors are scarce. In recent years, prices in France have rocketed which has given rise to an active – and growing – faking industry. Detecting a clone is a bane even for experts while the paucity of original parts – particularly cylinder heads, servo units and trim items – ensure that anything unique to the Gordinis is highly prized. Steering wheels – the vast tiller that came with the model originally was often the first thing to be junked in favour of something smaller – are particularly hard to find.

And your chances of seeing a Gord’ in the UK are slim. The right-hand-drive 1100 was manufactured alongside the ‘normale’ R8 and as many as 200 are believed to have been imported. By contrast, the RHD 1300 was built to special order, and only eight to 10 are known to still exist over here. Within the past few years, a few more may have been bought in from South Africa where a small assembly plant existed in the late ’60s but, either way, this is a super-rare car.

An appealing one, too. From a period where most mainstream saloons were seemingly penned with the aid of a set square and a blunt pencil, designer Phillipe Charbonneaux’s literal take on three-box idiom might not be pretty but it has charisma in abundance. Admittedly, much of this is down to the colour scheme, this example like so many others being blessed with the optional – and oh-so-groovy – racing stripes. Inside, it’s a similarly rational design with not much in the way of Gallic glitz: utilitarian would be closer. There’s oodles of space, both fore and aft, a sense that’s heightened by the expansive greenhouse and flat floor.

And it’s noisy, naturally. Rev-happy, too. The 1255cc four-banger is remarkably stress free up to – and exceeding – 7000rpm. Period factory figures quote a top speed of 111mph and 0-60mph time of 10.2 sec. All of which is believable as the screaming cacophony out back is commotion itself: it sounds quick if nothing else. It’s a gem of an engine, with no fluffing or hesitation.

The same cannot be said of the ’box which, thanks to the serpentine linkages, is a mite vague: nothing you cannot get used to, and having that extra cog does add a welcome dose of refinement when cruising. It’s only when you’re really pressing on that you wish it was tauter across the gate.

What really impresses is the ride quality. Here running on 13in rims rather than the usual 15in items, it’s perhaps not as cosseting as it would be factory-fresh, but the R8’s remarkably supple nonetheless. Sure-footed, too. See any period image of Gordinis in competition and the wheels are usually at jaunty angles. Thing is, the cornering stance appears more dramatic from the outside. Yes, you’re constantly aware that there’s little weight over the front end, but it never really threatens to do anything silly. And the steering is a joy, loading up beautifully without the expected vagueness on the straight ahead. Same too for the brakes which scrub off excess speed without any nerve-shredding lock-up shenanigans. Ultimately, you can feel the back end shimmying a little when pushed, and this may feel a little unsettling to the uninitiated, but the rear swing axles won’t start swinging unless you’re unimpeded by restraint. The lesson is simple: don’t lift.

With the R8 Gordini came a sense of impending obsolescence. The rear-engined approach effectively ended with it, yet this is the performance icon that’s remembered with misty reverence, if only in France. The altogether more conventional R12 Gordini that followed was frictionless and mundane by comparison. It lacked ebullience. It lacked soul. It lacked flair for all the seemingly avant garde flourishes. The R8 Gordini had all three and still does. But then it’s hip to be square.

Thanks to: Gordini owner Gary Creighton, Tony Gomis and Tim Moores