Dreams of Blue: From the WRC to NYC, this Drive Was Two Decades in the Making
It’s tough to get an appreciation for how tiny the Renault-Alpine A110 really is until you see it dwarfed by another small car — like a Ferrari Dino 246 GT. That’s exactly the view I have now, as the nondescript Jersey City garage door rolls up and the overhead lights click on above owner Phil Toledano’s small, but impressive, collection of cars. The A110 has been on my must-drive list for roughly two decades, after having been gifted my first “real” car book from my father sometime around the age of 10. Back then, in the semi-glossy pages of “The World’s Great Cars,” the electric blue Alpine stood out with its semi-awkward styling, looking half insect and half spaceship. But the little bug-eyed rally car made a strong impression on me. Twenty years later, flanked by several great cars in a small urban lockup, it still does.
The story of the A110 starts in Dieppe, France, in the late 1940s, when 25-year-young Jean Redele took over his father’s Renault dealership. Though sales of the recently released, rear-engine 4CV were booming, Redele was more interested in racing and performance. In 1952, he modified a 4CV in his workshop and drove it to a class win at the Mille Miglia, catching the attention of Renault’s competition department. The same year, Redele began marketing aftermarket performance parts for the 4CV, and purchased the rights to manufacture a five-speed conversion kit for the factory three-speed gearbox.
With backing from Renault, Redele took a dramatic leap: to produce a turn-key automobile based on production Renault running gear. Using the Alpine name in celebration of his last 4CV victory in the 1953 Criterium des Alpes, Redele entered production with the A106, a rear-engine, two-door coupe based on the 4CV chassis that drew heavily from an earlier Michelotti-designed, Allemano-built prototype he had unsuccessfully tried to market in the U.S. While the styling lost a little in translation from prototype to production, the A106 achieved some success in showrooms and motorsport. Redele entered the A106 at the Mille Miglia, with his hired drivers earning a podium-class finish in 1956, which led to the availability of special competition suspension and engine parts.
In 1957, Redele introduced a new two-door, rear-engine coupe dubbed A108 that used the more modern mechanicals and suspension from the Renault Dauphine. Returning to Michelotti for design work, Redele launched the car with two seats and essentially the same chassis as the A106. But in 1960, a two-seat convertible and 2+2 coupe version were introduced with a new platform that was longer, with a steel backbone design that integrated the front suspension crossmember and the rear engine mounting cradle. That basic assembly was bonded to the fiberglass body to create a relatively light, strong, and rigid unit-body structure. The new chassis would form the basis for all subsequent A110 models. Styling remained similar to the A108, the most notable changes being the four-headlight front design and a wider rear end that would accommodate engines of larger capacity than even the 998cc offering in the A108. The car’s appearance was instantly more aggressive, foreshadowing the success it would bring in motorsport.
Despite its similarities to the late A108, the A110 was blessed with a number of improvements over its predecessor. Running gear came from the new R8, a rather boxy compact sedan that boasted a number of technological advancements for its class, including four-wheel disc brakes, a durable five-bearing engine, and a sealed-for-life cooling system. The suspension used R8 double A-arms up front and swing axles at the rear, located with a trailing arm on each side. Early cars had either 956cc or 1108cc R8 units (A110 1000 and 1100), neither producing more than 50 hp. By 1964, Renault tuning firm Gordini had developed a performance engine with hemispherical combustion chambers that produced roughly 89 hp from the larger engine, and in 1966 came a bored-out 1296cc engine that produced upward of 120 hp to create the A110 1300. Four-speed transmissions were standard in all models, with an optional five-speed unit available.
With more power, Alpine realized it had a serious sports car on its hands. Starting in 1967, the 1470cc Renault R16 engine (also used in the Lotus Europa) found its way into the A110 1500. The 1600 model came in 1969 with a displacement increase to 1565 cc, and in 1970 a tuned version with twin Weber 45 DCOE carbs created a whopping 138 hp for a top speed of over 130 mph. Motorsport-oriented options began to populate order sheets, including integrated rollcages, lighter bodywork, varying gear ratios, and a limited-slip differential.
While the A110’s relatively small-displacement engines and short wheelbase weren’t ideal for circuit racing, they were perfect for rally racing, where the Alpine’s strong chassis and durable mechanicals excelled. Alpines were regularly entered into a new European manufacturer-based rally championship series from 1970 to ’72 and came away with several wins, including an overall victory at the 1971 Monte Carlo rally with driver Ove Andersson. The height of the Alpine’s rally success came in 1973, when factory-backed A110s dominated the season to win the first manufacturer’s title in the newly created World Rally Championship series. A110s were less competitive at road racing events such as Le Mans, where even special aerodynamic bodywork couldn’t compensate for a relative lack of power.
The following year, the Lancia Stratos came to rule the WRC roost and even a new fuel-injected 1605cc engine and double A-arm independent rear suspension from the new A310 couldn’t keep the little Alpine in winning form. Still, privateers continued to enter cars, and road-car production continued in 1300 and 1600 form until 1977, when concentration went solely to the larger, more luxurious A310 road car. An era had ended at Alpine.
Back in the garage, while Toledano disconnects the trickle charger and attends to a few other odds and ends, I walk around the little Alpine. I’ve never before been so close to one in person, and the advice Toledano gave me in an e-mail the previous week (“bring a shoehorn”) seems less of a joke now. I’m invited for my first sit-in, and I hesitantly oblige. There’s no real elegant way to climb into a vehicle that stands just 44 inches tall, but I find the best thing is to slide my right leg in first and across the narrow space that separates seat from steering wheel. Then, I shift the rest of my body in, sliding across the single-piece bucket seat for which I’m about 20 pounds too large.
Inside there’s more space than you’d think; it’s comfortable with my legs outstretched slightly to the right, and plenty of shoulder room. Headroom is limited and, at just under 6 feet, I’m not convinced I’d fit with a helmet on — I barely fit without one. The gorgeous Veglia Borletti Italian gauges seem out of place in a French car, but Alfa Romeo was partnered with Renault in the mid-century, and built many an R8 in Italy.
The car fires up immediately, and setting off, the steering is light and responsive and the pedals are much the same way. The gear lever moves through its gates with precision, though the action is rather notchy and the throws from the tall lever are long. The power is certainly adequate, though it never quite pushes me back in the seat.
Really, the A110 wouldn’t be too exhausting a car to drive on a long trip, save for the sheer din of that little R8 engine. The engine in Toledano’s car has been bored out to 1440 cc and fitted with twin sidedraft Dell’Orto carbs. Add some cam, and Phil says it’s good for around 125 hp. And this thing is loud. Earplugs are probably a good idea, but then all that glorious sound would be muffled. The engine note is surprisingly rich for such a small engine, growling rather than rasping, and trying its best to sound larger than it actually is. When the Alpine is stationary, its rear wheels seem to carry an obscene amount of rear camber, but on the road, it all works. The car feels lively and spirited, with a little hopping over road imperfections. Tuck the car into a bend, though, and it hunkers down and feels remarkably stable.
One thing the Alpine isn’t is daily transportation. It’s too noisy and jouncy, too small and rare to be subjected to the morning commute on a regular basis. But for those early morning weekend drives, when the air is crisp and most of the world is still asleep, there are few cars whose wheel I’d rather get behind.
I’m often afraid to meet childhood heroes, or drive cars I’ve put on a pedestal for so many years. I know enough to realize reality rarely meets expectations. When it was time to put the A110 back in the garage and close the door, I had pangs of sadness. It wasn’t that the A110 had left me underwhelmed; it was that I didn’t own one. I guess that means I wasn’t disappointed. Thanks, Phil.
1975 Renault-Alpine A110 Berlinette
Engine 87.9-cu-in/1440cc SOHC I-4, 2×2-bbl Dell’Orto carburetors Power and torque (SAE gross) 125 hp @ 7200 rpm, 94 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm (dynamometer estimate) Drivetrain 5-speed manual RWD Brakes front: solid disc, rear: solid disc Suspension front: control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; rear: swing-axle, radius arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar Dimensions L: 151.6 in, W: 61.0 in, H: 43.8 in Weight 1400 lb Performance 0-62 mph: 7.5 sec, metric quarter mile (400m): 15.4 sec, 62-0 mph: 160 ft (Istituto Sperimentale Auto e Motori, Anagni, Italy, A110 1600S) Price when new $10,000 (est.)
ASK THE MAN WHO OWNS ONE
PHIL TOLEDANO loves cars, to the mild displeasure of his wife. He’s a photographer in New York City, and is lucky enough to own some of the cars he drooled over
as a youth.
WHY I LIKE IT: “I love how it looks. I love how tiny it is. And, of course, I love how it sounds. It’s the sound of being 11 years old and watching rallies on television in England.”
WHY IT’S COLLECTIBLE: It’s the homologated road variant of the car that won the very first World Rally Championship
RESTORING/MAINTAINING: Parts for standard engines are available from Europe, and mechanicals are fairly reliable. Trim pieces are tough to come by, as are rare Gordini bits.
BEWARE: Fiberglass bodies don’t rust, but try an Alpine on for size to make sure you fit in one before taking the plunge.
EXPECT TO PAY: Concours-ready, $55,000; solid driver, $32,500; tired runner, $20,000.
JOIN THE CLUB: Club Alpine Renault (clubaplinerenault.org.uk)
THEN: “Alpine feels they can make a rear-engine car handle almost as well as a central-engine one, with all the advantage this brings to space saving. This applies even where fast going is involved.” — Paul Frere, Motor Trend, December 20, 1969
NOW: The A110 languished as an offbeat French curiosity for years, but no more. The car’s raw, evocative driving experience and unique styling have pushed demand and pricing to new levels.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Motor Trend Classic.