The newly-reborn Alpine isn’t just a reanimation of a single deceased sports car brand; it’s part of a revival of an entire kind of car, years ago left for dead.
Alpine is easy to forget not just because their cars never came to the United States in any meaningful numbers, but also because they don’t quite fit into our current understanding of the kinds of cars a company should produce.
It would be easy to say that Alpine was something like the French version of Porsche. Both made sports cars. Both stubbornly stuck to rear-engine designs. Both had their heyday in the mid-1960s building road cars perfectly suited for racing.
The first race a Porsche 911 was ever entered in was a rally, and that’s exactly where Alpine made their mark too. It was the cult classic Alpine A110 that won the first World Rally Championship in 1973. That point almost discredits the car’s huge success back through the ‘60s when the car was developed.
The A110 was not a powerful car. It only came with a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine derived from the basic Renault family hatchback of the day and it only made 155 horsepower.
The trick was that the Alpine was incredibly light. In race trim it only weighed 685 kilos, or 1,500 pounds. Road trim put it around 780kg, or 1,700 pounds, which is still half of a modern sports car like the Porsche 911. Though the A110 had 155 horsepower, they were about the most furious 155 horses imaginable. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a louder four cylinder than an Alpine A110. These are tiny little cars, but they scream like monsters.
And they drove like monsters too. “It’s like driving around in a condom,” recently-sold Alpine A110 owner Phil Toledano told me over the phone. “You’re wearing the car in a way that few cars do. You walk up to it and you think you won’t fit, but you get in and everything is just perfect. Jäger instruments in front of you and all the quilted leather.”
On the highway, he says, it’s so light that “if someone sneezes you change lanes.” But he furthers that it really is as sweet and wonderful as you think. “On the small roads,” he says, “all the clichés are true.”
“It’s a genius car to drive,” Phil said.
The Alpine A110 used a fiberglass body and a very lightweight chassis to make their somewhat meager drivetrain work. One report from back in the day claimed the earliest Alpine bodies were so thin that a strong wind would dent them. It was all part of a very strong (and easily forgotten) French tradition of low-power/low-weight performance cars, one that dwindled away for the most part in the 1960s.
The company nearly joined its fellow French lightweights like Panhard and Deutsch-Bonnet in the automotive graveyard in the ‘70s. Alpine was not a big operation. It was started by a Renault dealer and it only had a handful of employees working out of a little factory in Dieppe. Alpine didn’t have much but a strong partnership with Renault, and that partnership turned into ownership in ‘73 when Alpine no longer had the resources to stay independent.
This was all part of Alpine’s operation of making do with what it had. They never got big power or bespoke engines. They never got the biggest names in car design to style their cars. But Alpine always found a way to make their cars light and fast and sweet and striking.
Small as the firm was, they competed in rallying, endurance prototype racing, Formula 3 sprint racing, and they even built a (never raced) F1 car. Alpine made their little motors work at the 24 Hours of Le Mans thanks to amazingly dramatic streamlined bodies. The 2.0-liter turbo V6 in their A442 prototype hit 227 mph on its way to winning overall in 1978. And Alpine did fantastically well in rallying, most notably when they dominated the legendary Monte Carlo Rally with a 1-2-3 finish in ‘71 thanks to excellent agility and traction for their size.
The only other company like them was Lotus. Both often went with fiberglass construction that saved cost and complexity. Both used relatively common parts, packaged in an uncommon way. And both made magic by keeping the weight of their cars down as low as possible.
The Alpine A110's successor, the A310, lived a very Lotus-like life. It was on the market for a hugely-long 15 years (1971-1985) and it never weighed more than 2,100 pounds.
Also, it looked like it fell out of an angular science fiction future we never lived. Look at the full-length headlights on the early ones.
And the interiors were incredible. I want to live in there.
And the later ones got this tough, European muscle car kind of look. There was only a PRV V6 (the same one you’d get in a big Volvo or a DeLorean), but it was still a rear-engine sports car like a French 911. Again, Alpine was like a cross between Porsche and Lotus, and that just doesn’t fit into our current conception of how a car can be.
Though this is exactly what the new Alpine promises to be.
As Autocar has reported, the design of the car uses the mechanicals of the front-wheel drive Renaultsport Clio, but oriented for a mid-engine platform. It’s sort of designed like someone cut a Renaultsport Clio in half and made the front drive section run the rear wheels. And then I guess the rest of the car would be built forward from there? This is a confusing analogy.
The point is that the new Alpine, much like the old Alpines, uses pretty pedestrian components in a non-pedestrian manner.
We just don’t have many sports cars built using ordinary parts mounted in an extraordinary fashion. The affordable midengine sports car is one of the few entire segments of cars that has disappeared from the market today.
Porsche doesn’t build a cheapo 914, Toyota doesn’t make a low-cost MR2, and GM is definitely not making a new Fiero. The only company out there trying this is Honda with the lovable S660, but it’s a long way from fitting in with America’s more supersized market.
Now, here is where we get into some speculation. Renault has said the car will be sold “on five continents,” but we don’t know for sure that it will come to the United States. That doesn’t diminish my joy about the car; I love that a major manufacturer is going after this idea, whether it is destined for America or not.
The other issue is more pressing; it’s not clear how affordable the new Alpine will be. Alpines in the past might have used affordable components, but their small factory, low production numbers, and high cost of labor meant that their vehicles were priced like premium items. An Alpine A310 cost around $30k back in the ‘80s, which is more like $68,000 today. That’s not Porsche 911 money, but it’s not exactly within reach of the common man. The same was true of Alpine’s later efforts.
The evolutionary A610 cost Porsche-grade money, though its technology was getting a little dated by the ‘90s, as Jeremy Clarkson opined on old-old Top Gear.
We’re seeing the same story with the Alfa Romeo 4C; the economy car components don’t translate to an economy car price.
So there is a potential that the new Alpine will end up like the company’s most recent shot at a mid-engine sports car: the easily forgotten Renault Sport Spider.
The Spider came out in the mid ‘90s and was built from the ashes of Alpine, which had died a few years before. They even made it in the old factory in Dieppe.
The problem was that Renault priced the Sport Spider a healthy margin more expensive than even a Lotus Elise. Again, Renault used the four-cylinder engine out of the company’s family hatchback, but they priced it like a small exotic.
But just as there is precedent for the car being expensive, so too is there potential that the car will bring a level of driving quality and design to a market that has been largely ignored. Even if the new Alpine gets priced in match with a new Boxster, it will be a weird, welcome, and hopefully low-weight addition to the market. And given how well Alpines and Renaultsport’s recent cars actually drive, I can’t help but be excited.
Photo Credits: These photos belong to Elf, where noted, brought to the Internet by Bradley price on his blog Automobiliac. There are more on his site and you should go look at them all because they’re amazing. All others come from Renault. I guess a lot of these images were taken by Alpine, but Renault has owned Alpine for nearly half a century now. I think it’s fair use.