As a dormant firm for almost two decades, highlights Iain Robertson, the Alpine brand has been focused on a subtle reintroduction, since its 2016 launch concept that very few critics believed would ever make the transition to full production.
Specialist car companies proliferated across Europe in the years post-WW2. While genuine austerity (not the enforced, politically hyped version) was a good reason not to indulge, the feelgood factor was as inescapable then, as it is today. A great many of them survived, including Lotus Cars and Ginetta. Equally, many fell by the wayside, victims of a combination of fiscal and administrative demands, factors that have terminated brands such as Jensen and TVR.
Created in the mid-1950s by French sportscar fanatic and gifted rallying enthusiast, Jean Redele, a rear-engined, Renault-based format was chosen for Alpine’s availability; many of Renault’s most popular models of that era were rear-engined, including the R8, R10 and the larger Floride coupe and convertible. The company was relocated to a new production facility in Dieppe, northern France, in 1969, by which time Renault’s popular 1,565cc four-cylinder engine (which also found a home in the mid-engined Lotus Europa) was powering the compact A110 model to various rally wins. Boasting the use of lightweight materials in their construction, the earlier Alpines preceded a glory period during the 1960s and early 1970s, when competition success lay around almost every corner, culminating in victories in the Monte Carlo Rally and the overall World Rally Championship (as it existed then) and, later, at the Le Mans 24 Hours race.
Sold in 1973 to Renault, the Alpine brand continued to produce specialised racing cars for its customers, as well as a run of semi-exotic sports cars that included the A310 and later A610 models. However, there was a problem with selling the Alpine range in the UK, mainly because another French car group, PSA, owned the model name Alpine (which had been attached to a Sunbeam model, inherited by the company, when it acquired the remains of the Rootes Group). As a result, even the popular Alpine modified version of the Renault 5 had to be renamed R5 Gordini for our market.
However, the final Alpines rolled off the Dieppe lines in 1995 and Renault effectively abandoned the premises. Alpine became mothballed for nearly 20 years, until the brave plans were revealed in 2012 to revive the enterprise. Four years later, still without a full production commitment from Renault, the Alpine Vision concept was displayed in Monaco, making a grander debut at Geneva in 2017, with the international media driving tests commencing in December of that year. Eighteen months later, both Pure and Legende versions of the new A110 model are being supplemented by an even more focused A110S version.
Yet, there is an intriguing aside nestling in the middle of that purported period of ‘inactivity’. Renault continued to use the Dieppe plant as a short-run facility for its various rally and racing cars. However, any plans to revive Alpine were stymied by the economic crisis of 2008, as Renault put a freeze on any future development intentions. In 2012, the UK-based Caterham Cars, itself a specialist that had revived the original Lotus Seven and developed a substantial following for it, made a successful 50% bid for the Dieppe works. However, it was a short-lived arrangement, as barely two years later, Renault repurchased its 50% stake just prior to announcing that a potential new sportscar might be built there.
Back to the new model, it develops 40bhp more than its 248bhp ‘standard’ version of the 1.8-litre mid-engined powerplant and is intended to provide a more engaging driving experience. Its elegant aluminium alloy bodywork features innumerable evocative design elements in its mere 1.1-tonnes kerbweight and shapely profile. Yet, the A110S remains a modestly practical sportscar for today, with two, carpeted luggage compartments, one beneath the glazed engine cover (100-litres), with another 96-litres beneath the bonnet.
Cockpit access is significantly better than with the original A110S (pictured), the livery of which highlights its motorsport intentions. Once on-board, the high quality of materials, the detail finish, convenience features and comfort levels are abundantly clear, further underscoring its value as a classically relevant sportscar for a modern era. Unlike the purpose-built A110S of fifty years ago, the latest version is easy to drive, handles with the precision expected of a well-sorted mid-engined car and provides thrilling performance (0-60mph in 4.1s; 164mph top speed; 288bhp) from its revvy Renault-derived engine and 7-speed, twin-clutch, automated-manual gearbox, operated via steering wheel located paddles.
List prices start from 66,500Euros, prior to adding options, and it will be available in right-hand drive form, from later this year (if you are interested, reservations are being accepted now). While a matt finish (Gris Tonnerre) is a signature colour for the new A110S, orange stitching replaces the Alpine blue on the interior trim, echoed with orange brake callipers behind the dark grey GT alloy wheels. A carbon-fibre roof option saves a further 1.9kgs but accentuates the more purposeful stance of the new model, which is still only 18 months old. Alpine is not intended as a major volume sportscar but it does add a touch of exotic spice to Renault’s otherwise rudimentary UK model range.
Destined to be a genuine rarity, the latest iteration of Alpine, as a specialist sportscar maker, will be far more popular and accessible than most of the earlier models made since 1955. Its viability as a business vehicle lies with the personal preferences of company bosses and ‘user-choosers’.