This week here at Examiner Motoring, we are taking a somewhat unusual look in our rear-view mirror at a car which never sold by the shed-load – here or anywhere else – but which we still look back at with a fondness energised by what was and still remains a very sexy and very quick French beast.
The car in question is the Alpine A310 which in itself was quite a rakish thing, but when it gestated into the GTA version became something else altogether – something which the French themselves might have lauded as ‘épique’ or ‘héroïque.’
Alpine has been something of curiosity down the years, having been founded on Normandy’s ‘Alabaster Coast’ at Dieppe by local ‘garagiste’ Jean Rédélé who started beefing up Renault 4CVs for competition in events such as the Mille Miglia and the Coupe des Alpes and later at Le Mans and Sebring in the early 1950s.
Buoyed by these successes Rédélé established the Société des Automobiles Alpine SAS, or ‘Alpine’ for short, in 1954 and the following year unveiled the company’s first car, the A106, which was based on the 4CV platform and using Renault mechanicals, but featuring a glassfibre body built on a tubular steel backbone – something which would become an Alpine trademark.
The A106, in turn, gave birth to the A108, which was based broadly on the Renault Dauphine and would subsequently gestate into a 2+2 ‘Berlinette’ design and had engines tuned by the legendary Amédée Gordini.
Then, in 1963, Alpine produced perhaps its definitive model, the A110 which was based on the Renault 8’s mechanicals.
Offered with three bodystyles – Coupe, Cabriolet and Berlinette, although production numbers favoured the latter – the A110 boasted such as double wishbone front suspension, swing arms at the back and all-round disc brakes.
On the engine front, owners were offered a choice of several units from a very hot 55 bhp 956cc four, to a positively cooking and highly tuned version of the 1565cc four cylinder from the Renault 16TS.
This engine featured two twin-venturi Weber carburettors (a long time since such things were mentioned in these columns!) and outputted some 125 bhp at 6,000 rpm and had a top speed of 130 mph (215 kph). As the 60s wore on this car evolved into a faster 2+2 styled Coupe called the A110 GT4 and drove into legend.
Peak performance time for the Alpine came in the early seventies and big rally wins included the Monte Carlo (Ove Andersson) in 1971, while French legends such as Bernard Darniche, Jean-Luc Therier and Jean-Claude Andruet also made hay internationally and helped the car become the World Champion in 1973, beating such as Ford, Porsche and Lancia in the process. Irish legend Billy Coleman even drove one to fifth place in the 1971 Scottish Rally.
By then Alpine had become successful in sporting terms, albeit not so great at selling road cars, shifting a peak number of 1,421 in 1972 to a low of 957 in 1974, that cash started to haemorrhage and Renault stepped in to bail it out.
Merged with Gordini under the Renault Sport banner, Alpine focussed on sports endurance racing and won Le Mans in 1978 with Jean-Pierre Jabouille and the late Didier Pironi.
But we get ahead of ourselves. In 1971, Alpine first mooted a successor to the A110. This was the A310 and it was first seen at the Geneva Show of that year, but it was not a success.
Although it looked good and kept the Alpine DNA by having a fibreglass body and a tubular steel chassis, it was widely reckoned to be underpowered and over-complicated to build.
Originally sold alongside the A110, the A310 was supposed to be a rival for the Porsche 911, but initial versions never met that expectation.
In 1976, the car was restyled and given a new V6 engine and things began to look up, but it was not until 1984 that the GTA version was made and that’s where we come in.
Although badged as a Renault GTA (the Alpine name had been used by Sunbeam and subsequently Chrysler/Talbot) for right-hand drive markets, the car still had Alpine badging in various places and it still bore the essential build characteristics and hallmarks of the brand. It did not arrive here until 1986 and it was then we got our mitts on it.
By then it had gone from being a normally aspirated 2,849cc V6 from the A310 into a 2,458cc fuel injected and turbocharged V6 (from the Renault 25) and power went from 160 bhp to 200 bhp and all of a sudden it was a different animal altogether and those 911 (or 944, anyway) comparisons appeared more realistic.
The GTA was bigger and more user-friendly than its predecessor and was probably more Renault than it was Alpine. Specified additions like the ‘plip’ remote control central locking and electronic door handles seemed more like something from Star Trek rather than from Dieppe, while the massive graphic equalizer – remember them – on the stereo system which took up the whole centre console, was very ‘80’s.
But the bloody thing went like stink and while the 0-60 mph time (as it was back in those days) of 6.3 second might not seem lightning fast, but the 152 mph (250 kph) top speed certainly got your attention. It had a neat five speed gearbox and was rear wheel driven, so the potential for hooliganism was high on the spectrum.
Unlike certain rivals – remember the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth was just coming on stream at the time and it was considered to be truly wild, but it was actually slower to sixty and shy of the Renault’s top speed – the GTA was also a very keen handler and not prone to oversteering you into a road-side farmhouse if you got too keen.
Sure you could massage it sideways if you so wished, but even the 205/50 VRx15 Michelins (which were pretty advanced in their day) were relatively grippy in anything other than a flood and inspired real cornering confidence, providing you with the courage to leverage it into corners you would otherwise give considerably more respect to.
It was not an on-the-door-handles sort of a car; it was much more refined than that and there was possibly more of a grand tourer feel about it under moderate driving than anything of a whipsaw nature. But, once you stoked it up and got it sweaty, it was capable of delivering shattering performance.
With the astonishing grip levels, sensational handling (no power steering, don’t forget) and epic performance, the GTA Turbo was highly accomplished and you also got swanky leather seats, That said, the plastic dash wouldn’t even get a look in at a Dacia design meeting and the build quality was, er, Gallic.
Even if this was badged as a Renault here, certain few cognoscenti – sorry, connoisseurs – knew otherwise. Thus, it is possible that badge snobbery in this part of the world prevented the ‘Renault’ becoming more of a classic than it deserved.
For those in the know, however, and for whom the appellation ‘Alpine’ actually meant something, this was then and still is now a nailed on classic. Fond memories indeed.
The Cost: Approx. IP£30,000 in 1986 – a good one now will cost about £20,000 Stg.
The Engine: V6 petrol turbo – a wow back in the day.
The Specification: A wow – back in the day.
The Overall Verdict: An overlooked classic.
Star Rating: *****