Gallery: new Renault Alpine concept meets its A110 grandfather
Alpine, beloved by Frenchies and rallying geeks, is back. Jason Barlow meets the Celebration concept
Alpine’s Antony Villain is the latest car designer to accept TopGear’s sketch challenge. It’s not quite The Great British Bake Off, but it’s still illuminating. The rules are simple: can you nail the basic form of a car in three lines?
Villain’s task is made trickier because we’re talking in the paddock during the Goodwood Festival of Speed. BJ Baldwin’s Chevy Silverado monster truck has just arrived behind us, star of a gazillion YouTube views and the throbbing, thunderous antithesis of Alpine’s elegant and elfin Celebration concept car.
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Actually, it sort of sums up the scale of Alpine’s challenge, as it tries to gain traction in a very noisy world. The brand is here in force at FoS, fielding a handful of cars from its 60-year history, including 1978’s outright Le Mans winner, the A442b. Problem is, unless you’re French and/or of a certain age and geeky inclination, you probably don’t know much about Alpine. Is it Renault’s performance sub-brand? A Gallic Lotus? And what happened to that partnership with Caterham? More worryingly, does anybody really care?
Well, we should. As Villain’s pencil skates across my notepad, it’s clear that the Celebration – first revealed at Le Mans last month – is a thinly disguised production car. Renault will use the real thing to relaunch the Alpine brand in about 18 months’ time, and it will be light, compact, and mid-engined. Think Porsche Cayman or Alfa Romeo 4C – punchy, accessible, shrunken supercars.
Villain, who works closely with Renault’s design boss Laurens van den Acker, is core to the team that has relocated the company’s aesthetic mojo, and there’s obviously a ton of motorsport expertise in the wider Renault firmament. This bodes well. Happily, the Celebration concept is one of those cars that looks and feels instantly fresh in the flesh, and channels the spirit of the Sixties A110 without being obviously retro. Still, after 20 years MIA, there’s clearly a lot of work to be done.Advertisement - Page continues below
“Alpine is probably best known for its rallying exploits, and then Le Mans after that,” Villain says. “I have a clear image in my mind of a really light, agile car drifting in the Monte Carlo rally. French people of a certain age definitely remember Alpine. The younger generation and people outside France, well, we know we have a job to do reminding them about who we are and what we stand for. Where Alpine is known, it is embraced with great passion and positivity.”
True enough. A general lack of awareness certainly hasn’t hampered Alpine’s cult status, and the brand’s roots tick all the right boxes. Dieppe-based Renault dealer and Alpine founder Jean Rédélé raced and rallied the 4CV to a class win at the 1952 Mille Miglia and almost managed a similar feat at Le Mans the same year. The Michelotti-designed 4CV Special Sport morphed into the first official Alpine, the A106 – “The adjective [Alpine] epitomises the pleasure of driving on mountain roads,” Rédélé claimed – and the cars were innovative, robust and modestly powered but effective motorsport tools.
None more so than the A110; although it arrived in 1961, it was still sufficiently on the money to win the World Rally Championship in 1973 even after its none-more-Seventies A310 successor had rocked up as Renault came to the rescue (remember how many cars and companies the ’73 energy crisis killed?) Alpine also contested Le Mans 11 times, that ’78 victory the last as Renault focused on Formula One, and some newfangled technology called turbocharging. The road-car division petered out with the Esprit-alike A610 in 1995, although the Dieppe factory was kept busy building RenaultSport cars.
The reawakening was heralded by 2012’s A110-50 show car, a piece of design eye candy no one was ever going to build a viable business case around. There was also a carbon-fibre-chassied Gran Turismo Vision GT earlier this year, powered by a mid-mounted, 450bhp V8, also about as realistic as an entire squadron of airborne pigs. We should also point out that the Signatech-Alpine A450b is currently competing in the WEC, and raced at Le Mans (DNF sadly). “It will showcase our ability in parts of the world that are important for our brand,” Alpine’s CEO Bernard Ollivier commented. “This programme will benefit Alpine’s image across the globe.”Advertisement - Page continues below
Indeed. But the car you see here is what Monsieur Ollivier is banking on becoming the bottom-line-fattening unit-shifter, and the campaign begins now. Like Nissan’s fabulous 2013 IDx Tokyo show car, which reminded us how funky the Seventies Bluebird 510 was, by mining relatively obscure source material, the Alpine somehow manages to punch way above its weight. It delivers a warm blast of nostalgia while intriguing you with its left-fieldedness at the same time. (NB: the IDx, apparently confirmed for production, is now not happening after all. Boo.) As per the TG test, the car is easily, winningly assimilable: it has a strong face, a dropping line to the rear, hungry wheelarches and a clever roof treatment. Back to Villain for more insight.
“The A110-50 was a pure concept. With this car, we focused on the fundamentals,” he says. “We are working step by step to bring the brand to production. We’ve kept it compact to reduce weight and to promote a really good power-to-weight ratio. It’s a car that you can use every day, but it’s also something playful.”
Villain admits that the A110 is the most iconic Alpine, so began the reboot with the smaller auxiliary lights at the front. The new car’s rear end doesn’t taper away as dramatically as the original’s, but the rear window is unusually proportioned. There’s a good reason for this: one of the A110’s quirks was that its back window was actually a windscreen purloined from another car. The white-coloured inset on the rear is a nod to the graphics of Sixties and Seventies racing cars (Villain mentions the Shelby Cobra and Porsche 909). Although pictured here with its Goodwood graphic – intertwined Union Jack and French tricolour – the strip on the chunky C-pillar says it all. Villain laughs. “It’s made in France, and we are very proud of that. But it’s not aggressive or arrogant.”Advertisement - Page continues below
Bien sûr que non. It’s small, the engine’s in the right place, and you immediately want to take it for an improvisational razz along the sort of leafy roads that would give you the collywobbles behind the wheel of a LaFerrari or McLaren P1. No word yet on what the engine will be, but if, say, the 250bhp, 2.0-litre turbo unit from the Megane RenaultSport ended up in there, we’d be delighted. No true Alpine rallyist would choose a dual-clutch auto, but that’s what’s on the cards, and you can’t always get what you want. Besides, if they keep the weight pegged to a rumoured 1,100kg, and can sort out the software glitches that blighted the Clio RS’s paddle-shift, it could suit the car’s character. The Caterham joint venture, dissolved in 2013 amid some frustration, will still imbue the Alpine with a minimalist character, although Villain insists that’s integral to the brand anyway. As is a wider Gallic tendency to “disrupt”.
“Challenging things is part of the French culture. We take risks, sometimes perhaps too big a risk, and it hasn’t always worked out,” Villain concedes. “Now we want to combine this attitude with a real consistency. We want to avoid the wavy up-and-down line, you know?”
This feature was originally published in the August 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine