Like the automotive equivalent of Lockheed-Martin’s Skunkworks, some of the biggest carmakers in the world have teams of engineers hell-bent on making the best performance machines money can buy. In many cases, the performance divisions have become nearly as famous as their parent companies: Ford has the Special Vehicles Team (or SVT), BMW has its M-Division, Nissan has Nismo, and Mercedes has AMG. But there is one legendary tuner out there that lost its name long ago, and doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
For decades, Alpine built a series of rally-fighters that dominated European racing. Like AMG, it began as an independent company, but was eventually absorbed by its larger partner. Based on the humble underpinnings of Renaults, Alpines have always been quintessentially French cars, but a complicated history has taken it on some interesting detours through places like Brazil, Bulgaria, Mexico, and Spain along the way.
In 1950, Jean Rédélé was 24, and the youngest official Renault dealer in France. From his dealership in the northern French town of Dieppe, Rédélé worked on and fielded rear-engined Renault 4CVs around Europe. After success racing modified cars in the Alps, Rédélé decided to build ultra-lightweight competition cars based on the 4CV’s humble mechanicals. In 1955, he presented three of his fiberglass-bodied sports cars (in French red, white, and blue) called the A106 at Renault headquarters, and immediately earned the company’s support.
By the end of the decade, the A106 had been joined by the more modern A108. Longer, more powerful and based on the new Renault Dauphine, the car’s gorgeous fiberglass body had a simple elegance to it, and its modern fastback profile predated the Porsche 911 by nearly six years. Despite the car’s good looks and strong performance, Alpine was nearly broke, and desperately needed help. It found an unlikely savior in Willys, the American company that invented and once built the Jeep, but was now out of the American market and solely building cars in Brazil.
Willys loved the A108, with its simple Dauphine mechanicals and easy-to-build fiberglass body. Sold as the Willys Interlagos (named after a famous Brazilian race track) from 1962 to 1966, it raised the company’s profile internationally, and brought some much-needed cash to the struggling company. In another stroke of luck, Renault released its new R8 sedan, and suddenly everything changed for Alpine.
The R8 was a boxy, modern air-cooled rear engined sedan, and was available with a Gordini-tuned 66 horsepower engine (up from the stock 43 horsepower) and came standard with four-wheel disc brakes – in other words, it was perfect for an Alpine sports car. Looking to upgrade the A108, Alpine added inboard fog lamps, flared fenders to accommodate larger wheels, and rechristened the car the A110.
Almost immediately, the A110 was a racing success. Long, wide, and fast, the car had incredible handling, and unlike the tail-happy rear-engined cars of the day, the car could stick to roads in any condition. Unlike Porsche’s cars, the A110 was too uncivilized to translate into being a successful road car. As long as a Volkswagen Beetle, but just over three and a half feet tall, the diminutive Alpine was hot, cramped, and loud. Still, Alpine had found its niche as a racing powerhouse, and it was dominating races around the world.
In 1967, Renault asked Alpine to take over its motorsport division, and gave it access to its international contacts. From 1968 to 1974, the car was licensed and built in Mexico as the Diesel Nacional Dinalpin, and in Bulgaria from 1967 to 1969 as the Bulgaralpine, and by FASA in Spain from 1965 to 1977, raising the A110’s international racing status, and providing some extra income as the still-struggling Alpine continued to refine its rally-fighter.
In 1970, Alpine introduced the A110 1600s model, with its 1.5 liter inline-four producing 138 horsepower – more than twice the power of the original A110. From 1970-1973, Alpine dominated the international rally circuit, winning the International Championship for Manufacturers. In 1973, Renault took over Alpine, and won the inaugural season of the World Rally Championship. Unofortunately like its predecessors, the car’s R8 underpinnings were beginning to show its age, and by the time the radical Lancia Stratos appeared in 1974, the A110 was all but obsolete. It soldiered on in production until 1977.
The last car to use the Alpine name rolled off the production lines in 1995, but Alpine is still an active (albeit silent) part of Renault. In 1976, it was merged with engine tuner Gordini to create the Renault Sport division. Today, all three Renault Sport models are built in in Alpine’s Dieppe factory, including the Mégane RS 275 Trophy-R, which was recently unseated by the Honda Civic Type-R as the fastest front-wheel drive car in the world.
In 2008, Rumors began swirling that the company was reviving the name for a car based on the Nissan GT-R platform (the two companies have a joint development partnership). After several concept cars, including the Alpine Vision for the latest Gran Tourismo game, there is increased speculation that the legendary nameplate could return as early as 2016. We may never see them in America, but the automotive world would be a better place if we knew that Alpines were out there dominating rally courses all over Europe.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.