When Americans think of Renault, they either remember the bargain, late-’70s, French econobox known as Le Car (or Renault 5 in Europe), or they draw a complete blank. The States, unfortunately, have never had the benefit of experiencing Renault’s more exciting offerings, like the Megane and the Clio, and we’ve also never had the privilege of driving the high-performance Alpine A110 rally car — a car with the humblest of beginnings that rose to become an icon.
What It’s All About
The Alpine series of French race cars were initiated by the youngest Renault dealer in France, Jean Rédélé. He spent his time modifying Renault 4CVs for racing in the French Alps and found the kind of success that warranted attention from his employers. When he created his first Alpine, the A106, and showed it to the executives at Renault, they gave the car their full support. The A106 was followed by the more powerful A108, which used the better Renault Dauphine as its platform (rather than the 4CV). Like the A106, Renault re-skinned the A108 with a sportier and sleeker body with a fiberglass rear. Then, cash ran thin and Renault needed a backer, which thankfully came in the form of American company Willys-Overland Motors.
Willys took the capable A108 and sold it as the Willys Interlagos between 1962 and 1966. The car raised much needed money for Renault, which then successfully launched their new R8 sedan. The R8 was a family car with 66 horsepower, an air-cooled rear-mounted engine and disc brakes at all four corners. The boxy, almost ugly R8 would become the basis for the stunning and slick Alpine A110. The transition from the already handsome A108’s design was made more dramatic with new body work — bigger fenders for the upsized wheels, twin rounded fog lamps set deep into the fascia, and a more powerful rear tail section consisting of new horizontal taillights, new air intakes on the flanks of the trailing edge and a wider stance to accommodate for the bigger engine. Though the aesthetics helped, these changes were primarily meant to send the A110 to the races.
Thanks to its peerless handling and its impressive traction and speed, the A110 quickly became a winner. It took French rally races in the late ’60s and then in the 1970–1972 seasons it took numerous wins in the Championship for Manufacturers. One of its most significant wins was the 1971 Monte Carlo Rally. In 1973, the A110 entered in the World Rally Championship and became the world’s first SRC champion.
In its first year, 1962, the A110 had a 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine with 95 horsepower. It also had a rigid steel chassis with fiberglass body construction for lightness, just like the A108. After winning several rallies in France in the late 1960s with iron-cast R8 Gordini engines, the car was fitted with the aluminum-block Renault 16 TS 1.5-liter engine — good for 138 horsepower and a top speed of 130 mph — along with two dual-chamber Weber 45 carburetors, five-speed manual gearbox, front suspension with wishbones and coil springs, rear swing axle suspension and four-wheel disc brakes.
The fantastic handling could be attributed to its length, width and short three-and-a-half foot height with a low center of gravity. Other rally cars that would lose the tail end too easily were inferior to the A110’s balance and tractability. There wasn’t a road surface on which the A110 wouldn’t shine, and it was this capability that made it so dominant on the rally circuit, taking 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in the 1973 Monte Carlo Rally.
Why It Matters
Renault’s decision to fully support the Alpine project was a brilliant move, putting them permanently on the rallying map. The fact that the A110 was based on a run-of-the-mill family car is noteworthy, but that it had a run as a dominant force in rally is what makes it legendary. A110 cars today are rare and coveted, largely thanks to the illustrious competition history behind it. An Alpine A110-50 supercar was built as a 50th anniversary homage to the original, which reflects the renown that the A110 rally car garnered in its brief, yet illustrious, racing career.