The early days of Alpine
Alpine is a legendary brand, in France. Back in the early 50s, the Renault 4cv was light, widespread and inexpensive. And with the introduction of the “1063”, there were now some performance parts available. It was the perfect start for a small sports car. A few Renault dealerships and a few racing drivers tried their hands at building a sportier 4cv. Yet, nobody went as far as Jean Rédélé. In 1953, he asked Michelotti to draw him a coupé and Allemano made the body. He thought he hit big with Plasticar. This US-based company wanted to manufacture the Rédélé special, aka Le Marquis. The car was exhibited at the 1954 New York Auto Show. Unfortunately, that was it.
Rédélé went back to France and he built a second car. He had some success, at the wheel a 4cv “1063”, on the other side of the Alps. Hence the name Alpine. Rédélé’s father in law, Charles Escoffier, was also a Renault dealer. Escoffier had greater connections with Renault. The body of the first Alpine were built by Chappe and Gessalin, in Paris outskirt. Then the final assembly was at Escoffier’s dealership, in Paris. The first Alpine, the “Coach Tour de France” (later known as the A106 -Alpine 1063-) used many parts sourced from Renault. It was a cheap solution, but the greatness is that it didn’t look cheap. Alpine headquarter’s was at Rédélé’s dealership, in Dieppe, in Normandy. The first sale manager was a cheese wholesaler!
Renault Dauphine Gordini & The Alpine A108
In the meantime, Renault brought Amédée Gordini’s workshop and hired him to make racing engine. Gordini’s first job was the Dauphine Gordini. Alpine used its engine for the larger A108. Rédélé used Ferrari as an example. Since Ferrari launch the 250 Spider, Alpine made a A108 cabriolet and following the 330 GT 2+2, Alpine made a 2+2.
Everything changed in the sixties for Alpine. Rédélé got himself a genuine factory, in Dieppe. Renault became a shareholder. The racing team got more budget and the small Alpine prototypes tried their hand in the 2l category, in the world championship. The company also started to built some F3 and of course, there was the 1962 A110. It was basically a A108 with a new nose and using the R8 Gordini’s engine. Renault took over Alpine’s sales management. Some cars were made in Spain, Bulgaria and Brazil, through Renault’s partners. Gordini built a V8 with two 4-cylinder blocs. This V8 was used for a prototype and even an F1. Back then, Renault was a state-owned company. But in the late 60s, another company applied for subsidies: Matra. There wasn’t enough public money to fund both racing programs. Matra was more successful and also better-connected politically. In 1968, Alpine had to withdraw from Le Mans and the F1 never raced. A few month earlier, during the May unrest, the Dieppe factory went on strike. Jean Rédélé felt betrayed by his workers. After that, he wanted to sell Alpine. Toyota was a serious candidate. Yet, switching to Toyota meant closing the company for a couple of years in order to adapt the A110 to Toyota parts and getting rid of all the Renault parts. Rédélé couldn’t accept that. So, in 1969, he accepted the lesser offer of Renault.
Alpine Rally Success
Let’s go back to racing. Matra had a monopoly on circuit racing. Yet, Renault kept a factory racing team in rally. The A110 had numerous engine retrofit and it became a competitive rally car in the early 70s. One could say that world rallying was still in its infancy. Manufacturers like Ford or Fiat only competed in selected events. Alpine was also picky, but less picky than the other. And so, it won the championship both in 1971 and 1973. By that time, every French rally driver had a A110. The French rally championship was basically an Alpine Cup. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. In 1971, Renault launched the A310, the A110’s successor. It was supposed to be more of a GT and it was designed for the V6 PRV. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t get the V6 until 1976. It started with the 1.6 engine of the R16. The same engine as the contemporary A110, but in an heavier car. The A110 lasted a couple more years, then the fans couldn’t stop crying. The A310 wasn’t a rally car and Renault took the controversial decision of letting all its pilot go. The new one were doomed. At least, Jean Ragnotti got the very first French rallycross championship, with a A310. Meanwhile, Alpine made its comeback in Le Mans. Then, Renault had a great F1 project. In order to bring all its forces together, Gordini race engine activities, Alpine racing chassis activities and the Elf-Switzerland Racing team were physically merged into Renault Sport. Amédée Gordini retired and nobody could complain on his behalf at Gordini. Alpine felt it was in a dead-end. They had to built the very predecessor of the infamous Yellow tea pot, the A500. They contacted the press to gather some publicity and have the Renault F1 project rebranded as an Alpine F1 project. It was effortless. In 1977, Renault entered the F1 championship. One year later, in 1978, Alpine won Le Mans and departed from motorsport.
1980s & 90s
As Renault grew bigger, Alpine seemed smaller and smaller. The Dieppe factory started to build some low-volume cars, like the Espace or the R5 GT Turbo. In 1985, the A310 was heavily facelifted. The car was now known as a Renault (brand) Alpine (model) and it carried a Renault badge. An American version was considered, but it was a collateral damage of the sale of AMC to Chrysler. To cheer up the fans, Renault set up the Europa Cup, a one-make championship with races prior to European Grand Prix. Purists said that the Renault V6-powered Venturi was the only French sports car. In 1990, with the 1000 Miles, Alpine became a brand again. It was too little, too late. In 1991, the car was facelifted again and became the A610. “A610” was a far-cry from Alpine denominations. The look was meh. More important, it costed more then a Porsche 968 or a BMW M3, who had better performances. Finally, in 1991, no one wanted to spend a fortune on a car with too many bits taken from the Renault part-bin. It was a complete disaster. Renault wasn’t just a company building cars in France, for French. They wanted to get some traction abroad. They bring Alpine in markets like UK (where Peugeot had a trademark, thanks to Sunbeam.) They fell that the demographic was old. The average A610 buyer had bought a A110 25 years earlier! In 1996, they pulled the plug. The Spider was launched as a Renault Sport. On its last year, only 6 A610 were sold.
After that, it was a time of rumours. From time to time, news of an imminent brand-new Alpine was out. Most of them were fake. Renault indeed built some Alpine prototypes. But the risk was too high to be taken… And sometimes the feedback during tests was poor.
New Alpine for a new generation?
In 2012, Renault celebrated the A110’s 50th anniversary with the appropriately named Alpine A110-50 concept. It was the first use of the Alpine logo for 16 years. One year later, the Signatech-Nissan Le Mans-racer was rebranded as an Alpine A450. The idea behind it was to get some branding awareness for Alpine, from the younger generation. Renault wanted to go back to the A110 and act as if the A310/GT/A610 never existed. The manufacturer asked Caterham to share the costs. Caterham and Alpine would both launch the same car (with visual discrepancy), built in Dieppe. Caterham withdrew and Alpine had to soldier on, on its own. Bringing the car was a huge challenge. The first prototype was deemed “boring” by test-customers. It had to be redesigned. Now, the first A110 is slowly coming out of the Dieppe production line. 6 years after the A110-50. There are still many questions to be answered. Can Renault handle a niche-manufacturer like Alpine? They killed the Gordini brand the day they launched a diesel Clio Gordini. Are they able to avoid this mistake of short-term benefits vs brand-building? Also, what about Alpine outside France? How will the A110 be welcomed in countries without history of Alpine in the 60s and 70s (that is, almost every country in the world)?
Alpine Cars: alpinecars.com