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Hammond drives the icons: Renault Clio Williams
I once had lunch with Estelle Skornik, the French actress who played Nicole in the legendary “Papa, Nicole” Renault Clio TV ads. Well, when I say ‘had lunch with’, I mean that I was at a lunch, sitting next to her and about a million car journalist types. I thought I gave rather a good account of myself; I passed absolutely no wind for the full hour and a half we shared together, spilled nothing on her and moderated my language magnificently. She didn’t seem interested in continuing our chat after lunch, so I let her go. Her loss.
But please don’t let any of that floaty polka-dot dress, pouty-faced Frenchy nonsense influence your impressions of the Renault Clio Williams. It’s a monster. A proper, angry little hot hatch that, in so many ways, defines the genre.
Built to homologate entry into the French Rally Championship, it arrived in 1993 and you could have it in blue with gold wheels or in blue with gold wheels. They only built 5,400 of the original version, going on to make a further 6,700 of versions 2 and 3.
The car before you now is car number 001 - the first one made. It used to be owned by Sir Frank Williams, but he had a clearout a few years ago and sold it back to Renault. As you do. I’d better be careful with it, on account of its uniqueness. But, and here’s the thing about the Clio Williams, it’s really not designed to cry out to the nurturing side of anyone’s nature. It wants you to hurt it.
The 2.0-litre four-pot sounds as angry and snarly as you could want; enough even to overcome the faint twinge of awkwardness when you first catch sight of the blue seatbelts. The rest of the interior is pretty modern and certainly acceptable today, despite being 20 years old. And who cares anyway? Anyone looking will see only the chunky, four-square exterior and your grin shining out from inside like a tiger in a helicopter gunship.
It makes 150bhp, enough for 0-60mph to take 7.8secs, which is hardly supercar territory. But it does it with such style, such plucky determination and then, when you’re at speed, the simple joy of feeling the back end swing around to chase the front at exactly the same rate as you lift your right foot off the throttle is horribly, wonderfully addictive.
This is everything a hot hatch should be: fast enough to get you into real trouble if you choose, but also demanding a bit of work to get it there. It’s special, made in limited numbers and valued hugely by collectors today, so there’s a sense of occasion to using it. You’d be guaranteed the occasional knowing nod from passing enthusiasts rather than the dull-eyed adoration of aspirational pop star wannabes as you pass in a supercar. I absolutely want one, and if you get one, I shall be very, very jealous as well as mightily impressed.
Words: Richard Hammond
This feature was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Top Gear magazine