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The List

 

Renault Alpine A110

 

If your only experience of the World Rally Championship has been the televised coverage during the past decade, you would be forgiven for thinking that it has always been about ugly four wheel drive Japanese saloons taking improbable angles around forest tracks with serious looking Scandinavians at the wheels.

 

But it was not always this way. Before the Imprezas and Evos, before the Group B Quattros and Lancias, before even the rear wheel drive Escorts there was the Alpine A110. Few rally cars have ever been so low, lithe and attractive; the A110, together with the Lancia Stratos, remains the high point in rally car aesthetics, before form was so brutally dictated by function, and it is this quality that has gained it a place on The List.

 

Like a Porsche 911, the engine is hung right out beyond the rear axle, but unlike any of the later 911s, it is a compact and relatively light four cylinder affair, which makes the handling less overtly tail-led than its Teutonic contemporary. The steel backbone chassis, similar to that of an original Elan, is clothed in a curvaceous glass-fibre body, which enables the low kerb weight of under 700 KGs (or in modern terms, less than a Series 1 Elise.)

 

To drive, it is perhaps a 1970’s 911 that initial acquaintance suggests that it most resembles, although there is far less of a feeling that it wants to fling you backwards into the nearest hedge than in the Porsche. It is also more nimble, being around thirty percent lighter than a contemporary 911, although the lack of power from the small displacement engine means that it won’t be beating its German rival in any drag races. There is, though, a delicacy to the steering and chassis balance that more than makes up for any power deficit, and explains why the Alpine is still popular amongst historic rally drivers.

 

In some ways it has more in common with the much lauded Elan, in the sense that the driver is able to feel exactly what the tyres’ contact patches are doing and how weight transfer can be utilised to eliminate understeer. The only major difference is that the Alpine’s balance is slightly less benign than the Lotus’, although this is more than compensated for by the ability of the French car to put the power down very early in corners – something afforded by the rear biased weight distribution.

 

Trail brake deep into a corner to minimise any washing out of the front end, and the back end will gently come round as the car rotates on its axis. A quick correction of the steering, a well-judged application of throttle and you are drifting. Unlike in a high grip, modern rear wheel drive car, this is not time wasting, show-off stuff – performed correctly it is the quickest way round a corner in an A110, with its skinny, high profile period tyres.

 

Being a rare, but not exotic competition car, the Alpine is not an ostentatious display of one’s wealth – it is an affirmation of one’s ability to distinguish the true great from the merely good.





 
 

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