Back in time with the new Alpine A110
Is the new Alpine A110 the modern sports car classic fans can love too? We take a classic French roadtrip to the Alps to find out. Well, someone has to do it...
It’s not your rose tints making you think classic cars can be more fun than new ones. Technology inevitably makes them faster, more refined, safer and better equipped. But the roads we drive them on haven’t changed, they’re busier than ever, speed limits are lower and more strictly enforced. As a result, the opportunities to cut loose seem increasingly fleeting.
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Take the classic French roadtrip for instance. Once a rite of passage for any car fan, the days of blasting along traditional poplar-lined rural roads at 100mph or cheeky flat-out runs along the péage are long gone. Indeed, the speed limit on single-carriageway roads in France was just this summer reduced to 80km/h – a mere 50mph and little more than a frustrating trundle in most modern cars.
Less of a problem if you drive a classic though. And, potentially, good news for the return of Alpine, whose revival of the A110 Berlinette deliberately rejects obsessions with pointless horsepower and technological gimmickry.
It’s a modern car with a dual-clutch automated gearbox, aluminium construction and turbocharged engine. But we’ve already seen how its production line at Alpine’s Dieppe headquarters has a pleasingly old-school atmosphere. A chance to drive it beyond the factory gates and to the Alps that so inspired founder Jean Rédélé is an opportunity to discover if it delivers on the same behind the wheel.
Having triumphed in local rallies, Rédélé’s ambitions quickly took him further afield. And from the factory we head 50 miles south to the Rouen-Les-Essarts circuit, site of a class victory for his Michelotti-designed, 4CV-based coupe back in 1953. This was two years before Alpine was formed but effectively set the blueprint for what was to follow – taking the new A110 there seems an appropriate homage.
Beyond a bus stop displaying the words ‘Auto Circuit,’ there’s nothing about the D938 to suggest you’re on a classic road circuit. But as the tree-lined road twists its way downhill the mind wanders classic racers doing the same in everything from saloon cars to single-seaters.
Fastest lap holders in its various configurations include everyone from Eddie Cheever, Ronnie Peterson, Jochen Rindt and Maurice Trintignant, while Dan Gurney scored Porsche’s sole Grand Prix win here back in 1962 – suffice to say this was a proper track in its day.
The uphill return is quieter and the Armco barriers give it more of a racetrack feel while a couple of hairpins throw in some excitement. While less well-known, it’s great to drive and well worth the small diversion en route to a certain 24-hour race venue 125 miles further south…
Alpine’s association with Le Mans goes back to the very beginning, Rédélé driving in his 4CV in the early 50s while the brand later competed successfully in the index of performance and efficiency classes in a series of beautiful, Gordini-engined prototypes. 40 years ago Alpine powered Renault to the overall win, Renault announcing on the very same day it would henceforth focus its factory effort on F1 instead.
More recently Alpine-branded LMP2 cars have competed here too, making a sunset-lap of La Sarthe an evocative thing to be doing in the new A110. The museum has its temptations but there’s still a long way to the Alps…
But not before the predictable pit stop at Reims-Gueux. Though its straights were less challenging than the twists and turns of Rouen there’s a lot more to see, thanks to the intact pit buildings and grandstands looming over the agricultural plains.
The nature of the track favoured the aerodynamically efficient cars like Alpine’s M65 and in 1965 it took a class win in the 12-hour race here. The new A110 is also comfortable and composed on the long cruise. But the original was a rally car and it seems only appropriate to go in search of mountains and hairpins.
It would be tempting to retrace the route of the 1954 Alpine Rally, in which Jean Rédélé won the Coupe des Alpes and returned to Dieppe inspired to name his brand as he did. But reality means matching the stamina and fortitude of those 50s drivers is a little too ambitious in the time available.
British drivers and cars were well represented too, Stirling Moss and John Cutts sharing a Sunbeam-Alpine while there were class wins for Frazer-Nash and an Aston Martin DB2. Most prestigious of all was the team victory for Triumph and its trio of works TR2s. And in the thick of it Jean Rédélé in his 4CV-based coupe.
Today these roads are paved, mainly two-lane and in many cases you’re protected from the scariest drops by sturdy safety barriers. Back in the day they’d have been gravel, narrow and often covered in snow and ice, the lunar-like, singletrack and scarily exposed Col du Galibier the closest you can get to a road with that Alpine Rally feeling.
The A110 is brilliant fun too, making great use of its punchy power delivery, balance and lack of weight. A good 200kg lighter than the Porsche Cayman it’s priced against it’s also commendably softly sprung, ride quality that makes motorway cruising a cinch also gobbling up bumpy Alpine roads.
The original A110 was, of course, rear-engined with its in-line Renault 8 motor slung all the way behind the rear axle. Like a 911 this gave it superb traction and, although the new car has a transverse, mid-mounted engine, it has the same slingshot feeling out of the hairpins. Even modern brakes are tested on these roads though and at the bottom of the 2,360m Col d’Izoard the fancy Brembos are smoking and ticking loudly with the heat build-up.
The way the new A110 channels the spirit of Alpine for the modern age, both in looks and driving style, proves immensely charming though. Most impressively you can enjoy the drive at (or within shouting distance) of the new 80km/h limit, the Alpine’s performance more relevant than many of its rivals.
That it achieves this with lightweight construction, compact size and relatively prosaic Renault running gear is, of course, in keeping with Alpine’s original vision. Which goes to show, the old ideas are still relevant. Even when they’re applied to modern cars.
With thanks to DFDS Seaways for getting us from Newhaven to Dieppe and back.
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