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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Renaultsport + Caterham = Alpine Awesomeness

From top-left to bottom-right: Alpine's Dieppe factory, Caterham's previous joint venture, a LOUD concept and all these things together.

If you haven't been brushing up on your '70s motorsport history and/or obscure French brands, and haven't played Gran Turismo 4 or 5, you can be forgiven for not knowing about Alpine. Despite being around from 1955 to 1995, they didn't really make a global impact on sports car building. Founder John Rédélé started out in the early '50s by using Renault 4CVs in road races and rallies like the famous Mille Miglia and Coupes Des Alpes (Alpine Rally), getting class wins in those and many other events besides. He went on to make special versions with performance upgrades like a 5-speed manual transmission to replace the 3-speed auto, and custom aluminium bodywork to save weight for his trips to Sebring and Le Mans (which, along with rallying, was something his car company would go on to have success in, but that's not our focus here). This lead to the Michelotti-styled Alpine A106 in 1955, which was moderately successful and spawned a convertible version later on. This evolved into the sleeker A108 in 1959, which I would find more information about if it wasn't superseded by the A110 in 1961, which is the Alpine sports car you need to know about. Largely because Caterham and Renaultsport are bringing it back (sort of) with an A110-50 Concept-based mid-engined sports car.

The A110 solidified Alpine's place in motoring folklore. Like all Alpines - and indeed the Renault 4CV - it was rear engined, meaning that you won't go long talking with someone about it without hearing "French 911" at some point. Like the 911, the arse-drive coupé had a penchant for rallying, racking up a 1-2-3 finish at the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally in 1973. Where it differs from the Porsche is that the engines it used were all small inline-4 units from mainstream Renaults (although the '67-8 "1500" version used a hot one from the Lotus Europa, which is a bit cooler). The '70s "1600 S" sported 140bhp from 1.6 naturally-aspirated litres, which doesn't sound like much until you hear the weight figure of a measly 620kg, which is the same weight as a 2010 Formula 1 car + driver! Alas, it could only manage another five victories that year, and didn't win again in the preceding ones. But the blue berlinette had made an impression, enough of one for Alpine to make similar cars for the next decade or two, during which it became more and more Renault-owned. Their last car was the '86-91 Renault Alpine GTA (also called A610), a V6-powered, fibreglass-bodied "French 911" (again) that even with turbo power could only ever get 200 horsepower out of 2.5 litres. It didn't better the German 911 and the company eventually ran out of money, calling it quits in 1995, forty years after they had started.

Renault have tried bringing back the iconic brand before, as its sporting prowess grew, but to no avail. Then it tried bringing back the iconic Gordini brand (Renault engine tuners - sort of what BRABUS is to Mercedes-Benz now), but that revival merely consisted of costly special paintjobs for existing Renaultsport hatchbacks, which probably put some people off the idea of them bringing back Alpine in case that cynical nostalgia-marketing happened again. But why do Renault need to bring back an old sports car brand anyway? Isn't a host of hoontastic hot hatches enough? Well, in the real world, yes, but if you want to give your brand a sporty image, a sports coupé of some sort wouldn't go amiss, and Toyota has just successfully made a successor to a cult classic of its own (with help from Subaru) for that very reason, so why not?

Because it's expensive, and this is Renault, a company that recently halved its range in the UK due to low sales (RIP Modus, Wind, Laguna, Espace, and hello Twizy...), and they're not just struggling here. Developing a ground-up sports car would be a huge gamble for them, and not one that would necessarily pay off, seeing as there are plenty of sports cars out there from brands you'd expect to make a sports car, which Renault isn't. Nevertheless, they've shown us with the Alpine A110-50 Concept that they're serious about at least wanting to do it, and if a joint-venture sports car can be successful once, then by Gordini it can be successful a second time!

Of course, current Formula 1 tie-ups lead them immediately to two great sports car companies: Lotus and Caterham. Lotus are in a bit of a state themselves now, so their rich and ambitious offshoot was the way to go, as Caterham want to start expanding their range beyond the Seven (originally a Lotus) which they've been refining since the 1970s to help it remain king of the driver's car hill. Caterham have actually been on a joint venture before, with the 2011 Lola-Caterham SP/300.R, a raw, visceral semi-racing car that you can't even use on the road. Combine this level of hardcore with the genius engineers at Renaultsport, who have been making the best hot hatches now for a good five or ten years and who are surely begging for a rear-wheel-drive chassis to work with, and the prospects are tantalising. Well, when I say begging, they do already make the mid-engined Megane Trophy silhouette racer, one of which was sacrificed to make the A110-50 Concept. Normally when a flashy concept car comes out it is merely a showpiece with some cheap engine or electric motor to move it around on stage, but this is a tube-framed 880kg monster with 395 fully functional French horses and 311lb/ft of twist, courtesy of a 3.5-litre racing V6 connected to a six-speed sequential racing gearbox, which sends the force to the road via a mechanical LSD, while 21" wheels are controlled by fully adjustable double-wishbone suspension. It also generates a fair bit of downforce with working aero elements like the front splitter and noticeable rear wing, and features a revised exhaust system that's even meaner and louder than the racing car (seriously, I've been about 10ft away from it at full throttle. It's loud)! That's one hell of a recipe.

Of course, it's unlikely to stay that way, especially in terms of tube-framed-ness and usage of full-on racing parts. Chances are it will weigh a little more and come with an inline-4 like the Alpines of old, because it's lighter and easier to package. It'll be packaged in the middle rather than aft of the rear axle, because only Porsche does that nowadays (and even then only with the model that hails from the 1960s and demands it) because mid-engined cars are better-balanced. Don't expect it to turn into a Porsche rival though; Renault made their statement clear with the A110-50, and Caterham probably don't know what the word "luxury" actually means, although Malaysian airline (and Caterham) owner Tony Fernandes can let them know about that when he needs to. So, never.

What we're expecting then is a light, driver-focused Lotus Elise rival, made from a joint venture between the company Lotus created and the company they've partnered with in Formula 1. Supposedly it'll cost around £35-40,000 when it goes in sale in three or four years' time. I reckon I could save up that much by then if I get started soon...

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