Dieppe diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

| 14 Feb 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here


The security man’s puzzled frown broadens as he peers into the ‘boot’ and discovers two and a half litres of turbocharged V6.

“What is it?” he finally enquires, despite having examined nose and tail for clues. The badges, it would appear, are not to be trusted.

I reply that the mystery coupé is an Alpine-Renault, but he doesn’t look convinced.

“Ah,” he replies after a lengthy pause during which he attempts to reconcile the information, eventually filing it under UFO, or Unidentified French Object.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

It’s a common occurrence, owner Andrew Jones later tells me.

The GTA was the first Alpine-Renault to be marketed in the UK yet, from 1986 to ’92, a meagre 582 were built with right-hand drive, making it a rare sight on British roads.

But while that brief foray onto these shores failed to produce any meaningful sales, across the Channel the marque enjoyed a long and illustrious career spanning more than four decades.

The Alpine story begins in Dieppe in the early 1950s. France’s youngest Renault dealer Jean Rédélé had developed a series of performance modifications for the 4CV and, with co-driver Louis Pons, began to notch up some impressive victories.

Having come close to winning the Rallye Monte-Carlo in 1950 and ’51, he took a strong class win on the ’52 Mille Miglia – a feat that he would repeat in 1953 and ’54.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

The idea of producing a sports car upon which to pin post-war French pride began to germinate in Rédélé’s fertile mind and, in ’52, having failed to stimulate interest among domestic coachbuilders, he commissioned Allemano to construct a Michelotti-styled coupé on the 4CV platform.

That car led to the first production Alpine, the A106, which would in turn give birth to the Dauphine-based A108.

A sleek little Berlinette version of the latter would appear in 1961. Featuring a tubular steel backbone chassis designed by Rédélé and his cousin Roger Prieur, the Berlinette gave a clear indication of the direction the marque would take – both in terms of styling and purpose.

A knee-high fastback with a glassfibre skin and a Gordini-tuned sting in its stubby tail, the car would be superseded in ’63 by the definitive four-cylinder Alpine, the A110.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

Like its predecessors, the A110 was offered with a range of bodies – including Cabriolet, 2+2 Coupé, and Berlinette – but, given Rédélé’s dream of a spiritual successor to the blue racers of yore, it’s unsurprising that production was heavily biased towards the latter.

Beneath its neatly proportioned shell, the A110 ditched Dauphine running gear in favour of R8 mechanicals, which meant double-wishbone suspension at the front, swing arms at the back and disc brakes all round.

A bewildering array of four-cylinder engine options was offered, ranging from a cooking 55bhp 956cc R8 unit, to a highly tuned twin-Weber version of the 1565cc motor from the 16TS – turned through 180º and mounted behind a five-speed R12 Gordini gearbox in the Alpine’s pert rump.

Tipping the scales with a dry weight of just 545kg (1200lb), the Berlinette had an enviable power-to-weight ratio, ensuring excellent performance, but – unlikely though it may sound – the car’s greatest virtue lay in its astonishing cornering prowess and traction.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

A hefty dose of negative camber plus short suspension travel and an unfeasibly low centre of gravity endowed the coupé with unrivalled ability on snaking asphalt.

Writing in Autosport, an excited John Bolster described the roadholding as being so outstanding that it defied all rational explanation.

‘The rear can be hung out to a great angle,’ he enthused, ‘yet the sudden uncontrollable breakaway of the typical rear-engined car never takes place.’ So much for swing-axle suspension being a liability, then.

Unsurprisingly, the A110 began scoring some impressive competition results, cementing its immortality eight years into its career with a 1-2-3 on the Rallye Monte-Carlo in 1971 – an achievement that would be repeated two years later.

The spectacle of the diminutive blue cars sideways in the snow became as emblematic for the French as the dominance of Matra at Le Mans in the early ’70s. A legend had been born.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

Keen to capitalise on that historic victory, a new model – the A310 – was hurriedly launched at the Geneva Salon in 1971.

Development work had begun in ’68 and, with a spacious new factory to pay for, the ever-astute Rédélé had made the decision to pitch the car further upmarket where greater profits were to be had.

Far from being a direct replacement for the A110, the A310 would complement it and the two models would be offered alongside each other until 1977.

Pitched squarely at the Porsche 911, the A310 would follow established Alpine practice, employing the familiar steel backbone beneath its glassfibre body.

Power would come from a Renault 17 four-pot slung behind the same R12 Gordini transaxle used in the A110.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

Chief among the technical developments was a revised double-wishbone rear suspension set-up.

Aimed at improving refinement without damaging the Berlinette’s legendary cornering ability, the improved rear end would also be adopted in 1973 for the final four years of A110 production.

The most radical departure was the A310’s Michel Beligond-styled body, its aggressively angular outline at once leaving the sensual ’60s curves of the A110 looking antediluvian.

During the car’s development, aerodynamicist Marcel Hubert had paid much attention to detail, and neat touches included the adoption of a distinctive nose with six Cibié headlamps nestling Citroën SM-style behind glass covers.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

The A310 looked as if it had been conceived with night rally stages in mind, although it would never dominate the sport in the same way its forebear had done.

Its most notable results were a brace of thirds on the Tour de Corse (in ’74 and ’76) plus the French Rally Championship title in ’77, as Renault – which had taken a 55% stake in Alpine in 1973 – shifted the Dieppe company’s competition focus towards Le Mans.

As before, the press heaped accolades on the A310’s handling, Motor observing that it ‘cornered as if on rails’.

Less impressive, given the new car’s intended GT role, was the lack of luggage space, while there was also a whisper of disappointment that the Renault ‘four’ didn’t offer quite the supercar pace that the rakish lines promised.

The latter failing would be addressed five years into the A310’s lifetime, finally establishing the model as the 911 rival that it had always purported to be.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

Announced at the 1976 Paris Salon, the revised version – identifiable by its more orthodox quad-headlamp front end and a chunky rear spoiler – packed an all-alloy V6 engine in its shapely tail.

Fed by an unusual combination of one single- and one twin-choke Solex carburettor, the 2664cc Douvrin unit produced 150bhp and a useful 151lb ft of torque, giving 0-60mph in just 7.2 secs and a top speed of 140mph.

In the interests of mechanical longevity, the R12 gearbox was dropped in favour of the stronger four-speed transmission from the R30, although a five-speed unit would become available in 1980.

In six-cylinder guise, the A310 would remain in production until 1984, its replacement being unveiled at the Geneva Salon in March of that year and – in a first for the marque – launched in the UK two years later.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

Whereas the A310’s styling had been a radical leap forward compared to the A110, the third generation of our triumvirate – the GTA – was very much a case of subtle evolution.

Longer, wider and taller, the shape had strong echoes of the A310, but careful attention to streamlining made it the most aerodynamic production car of its day, with a Cd figure of just 0.28.

Although retaining the backbone chassis and glassfibre body construction of its predecessors, the thickness of the steel was reduced by 0.6mm while the strength of the plastic shell was much increased.

The GTA’s structure was said to offer four times the torsional rigidity of the average family hatchback of its day.

A removable subframe supported a revised 2849cc version of the A310’s V6 developing 160bhp, while in the autumn of 1984 a fuel-injected 200bhp 2458cc turbo unit from the R25 joined the line-up.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

A road car rather than a racer, the design brief for the GTA had called for improved ease of use, with better accessibility, space, comfort, stability and manoeuvrability.

The result was noticeably more Renault than Alpine – a far more grown-up concept, it had clearly been engineered with everyday driving in mind.

High-tech features included ‘plip’ remote central locking and electronic doorhandles, while the centre console was dominated by surely the most comprehensive hi-fi system ever to grace an ’80s production car – a graphically equalised button-fest clearly conceived for big-haired power ballads.

Alpine may have abandoned the Col de Turini in favour of China in Your Hand, but the Dieppe firm had far from sold out.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

The press was full of praise for the GTA, highlighting its refinement and superb traction.

Autocar reckoned that ‘for the first time Renault has a powerful weapon to pitch against Porsche’.

British buyers remained sceptical, however, the mass-market badging of UK versions doing nothing to further its cause.

The Alpine name was owned here by PSA, so right-hand-drive cars were at first sold simply as Renaults.

A facelift to become the aggressive wide-body Le Mans in 1990 further improved the dynamics, while in 1992 the car was heavily reworked to become the A610 – the last model to sport the Alpine name.

A highly competent development of the ’84 car, the A610 boasted 250bhp from its 3-litre V6, endowing it with a 165mph top speed.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

To climb behind the wheel of Andrew Jones’ GTA today is to travel back to an era of massive Motorolas and red braces.

If the ’80s are your thing, you’ll love this low-slung leather-clad shrine to the yuppie dream. True, the dash is every bit as plasticky as that of a Supercinq, but in no other aspect does the car underwhelm you.

The unassisted steering is superb, the ride cosseting and the performance dramatic.

Overcome the initial turbo lag and the Alpine leaps towards the horizon at an astonishing rate, while phenomenal grip means that bends are dispatched with uncanny ease.

This is a blisteringly fast and competent 2+2, and it’s a great injustice that so few found takers in period.

Marque snobbery? Humbug! Pay for a Porsche badge if you will, but you’ll be missing out on a superb sports car and transcontinental express.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

After the refinement of the GTA, Crispin Forster’s A110 is a loud and brutal hooligan.

Alongside its ’80s stablemate it really is tiny, but boy does it punch above its weight. Hard acceleration is accompanied by a guttural growl from the Gordini ‘four’, and you discover what all the fuss is about when you reach the first corner.

Floor the throttle and the A110 roars around bends at a stunning pace, the steering amazingly communicative as the scenery flashes by in a surreal blur of this-shouldn’t-be-possible adrenalin-fuelled excitement.

It really is staggering, yet feels utterly benign – on a twisty mountain pass, I can imagine few cars being more inspiring. Plus, if you’re not in the mood for B-road lairiness, just park it and drink in the exquisite shape and faultless detailing.

From the delicate air scoops with chromed strakes atop the rear wings to the gorgeously purposeful dash, there’s nothing about the A110 that fails to impress.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

Yet for all the magic, I’m not sure that I’d want to drive any great distance in the A110.

The firm ride and gruff soundtrack are probably best sampled in small doses, and I think that it would be hard not to treat every road as a rally stage – much to the detriment of your licence.

Which brings me onto the A310. It’s not as polished as the GTA Turbo, and it lacks the raw appeal of the A110, yet to my mind that makes it the perfect compromise.

With greater mass hanging behind the back axle line than in its petite sister, the A310 is more pendulous in its handling, but the steering is superb, the performance exhilarating and, although the Douvrin V6 is hardly the world’s most sonorous powerplant, the overall driving experience is supremely addictive.

The A310 is deceptively quick – it goes like stink, in fact – yet it’s wonderfully cosseting.

Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA
Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA
Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA
Classic & Sports Car – Dieppe Diamonds: Alpine A110, A310 and GTA

The spongy seats are far softer than those of the GTA, and the narrower, oh-so-’70s cabin more inviting.

And then there are all of those fabulous quirks – from the bizarre clap-hands wipers to the floor-hinged pedals to the love-it-or-loathe-it styling. This is what all junior supercars should be like.

Way back in 1979, I invested several weeks’ pocket money in a copy of The Observer’s Book of Automobiles. From that I first learnt of the A310’s existence and, as a six-year-old, I was transfixed.

Having now driven one, I’m still utterly entranced by this most enigmatic of sports cars.

Few people on this side of the Channel may know what it is, but don’t let that put you off.

The A310 is a truly great machine.

Images: Tony Baker

Thanks to Crispin Forster; Andrew Jones; Paul Fraser-Sage: Alpine Renault Restoration


Factfiles

A110 Berlinette 1300G

  • Sold/number built 1963-’77/8505 (all)
  • Construction tubular steel backbone chassis, glassfibre body
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 1255cc ‘four’, twin Weber 40DCOE carburettors
  • Max power 105bhp @ 6750rpm (SAE)
  • Max torque 86lb ft @ 5000rpm (SAE)
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent all round, at front by double wishbones, coil springs rear swing axles, trailing radius arms; anti-roll bars, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 12ft 7½in (3850mm)
  • Width 4ft 9in (1450mm)
  • Height 3ft 8½in (1130mm)
  • Wheelbase 6ft 10¾in (2100mm)
  • Weight 1202lb (545kg)
  • 0-60mph 7 secs (est)
  • Top speed 128mph
  • Mpg 28
  • Price new FFr26,900

  

Alpine Renault A310 V6

  • Sold/number built 1976-’84/9276
  • Construction tubular steel backbone chassis, glassfibre body
  • Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 2664cc 90º V6, with two Solex carburettors (one single- and one twin-choke)
  • Max power 150bhp @ 6000rpm
  • Max torque 150lb ft @ 3500rpm
  • Transmission four- or five-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs all round, ventilated at front, with servo
  • Length 13ft 11¼in (4248mm)
  • Width 5ft 5in (1651mm)
  • Height 3ft 9¼in (1149mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 5in (2270mm)
  • Weight 2161lb (980kg)
  • 0-60mph 7.2 secs
  • Top speed 140mph
  • Mpg 24
  • Price new FFr139,000

  

Renault GTA V6 Turbo

  • Sold/number built 1984-’92/6289 (all)
  • Construction tubular steel backbone chassis, glassfibre body
  • Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 2458cc 90º V6, Renix fuel injection, Garrett T3 turbocharger, air-to-air intercooler
  • Max power 200bhp @ 5700rpm
  • Max torque 210lb ft @ 2500rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes ventilated discs, with servo
  • Length 14ft 2½in (4330mm)
  • Width 5ft 9in (1753mm)
  • Height 3ft 11in (1194mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 8in (2337mm)
  • Weight 2535lb (1150kg)
  • 0-60mph 6.3 secs
  • Top speed 152mph
  • Mpg 30
  • Price new £23,635

READ MORE

Renault’s lively 5s: Gordini Turbo and Turbo 2 on track

Your classic: Citroën GS 1220 Club

Bargain ’50s greats: Healey vs Morgan vs TR2