Ragnotti drives Renault 5 Turbo 1 (sideways)

The first generation mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo 1 proves to be a supercar killer – especially in the hands of its original test driver...

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It's quiet. Too quiet. Isn't that how most American action movies used to start? But I am not in America; this is France, Alain Delon country. It is quiet because I am standing respectfully in front of the Renault Classic HQ in Flins, and parked in front of it is a red Renault 5 Turbo 1. We're waiting for Jean Ragnotti, motorsport legend. For a moment, I'm lost for words.

In the flesh the car looks... resolved. Unlike some homologation specials of the era it is not only about wide wheelarches and extra vents (and of course engine relocated into the boot). It's about the harmony of it all, and that's quite unexpected. I have seen these cars before but it is way different when you are holding the key in your hand. It just seems so right. There is a sound reason for that, but let's be patient.

In the mid-1970s the rally world was no longer the natural habitat of the ageing Alpine A110 that was gradually ceding the scene to Lancia's flame-spitting Stratos. Renault, in order to remain competitive, needed a lightweight mid-engined car, which it definitely did not have in the production line-up. The decision was made to convert the popular Renault 5 into a homologation monster.

Reportedly, this idea appeared for the first time in a conversation between Jean Terramorsi and Henri Lherm, driving home together to Billancourt from Dieppe in a Renault 16. Tired after a long day, they started discussing creating a Renault 5 version that would be capable of shining in international competition, and which would use a turbocharged engine. The 'turbo' bit made sense in view of Renault's involvement in introducing turbocharging to Formula 1 at that time.

Renault was still fully owned by the state back then. Nevertheless, after Terramorsi's sudden and untimely death, the Renault Sport team based at Alpine's old place in Dieppe (renamed BEREX in 1979) continued to work feverishly on a small budget, led by talented individuals such as Gerard Larrousse and Bernard Dudot, whose names you may recognise from their later exploits in F1.

The mechanicals were quickly arrived at, including a four-cylinder turbocharged engine (bigger displacement motors were rejected due to their poor power-to-weight ratio). The gearbox was a modified unit from the big Renault 30 TX hatchback. The styling was entrusted to Bertone. And the guy at Bertone who was given the job to design that distinctive rear end was Marcello Gandini – yes, of Miura and Countach fame – although the first basic sketches were done by Marc Deschamps, a Renault in-house designer working under Robert Opron, and the Gandini work was finalised for production by Alpine's Yves Legal.

Prototype testing was handled mainly by Formula 3 driver Alain Serpaggi, and he was responsible for the uncommonly good brake pedal feel (the first prototype, incidentally, was painted black and ran for the first time in the spring of 1978). Among the other test drivers were the indefatigable race and rally driver Jean Ragnotti and the future French rally champion and Peugeot competition boss, Guy Fréquelin.

Their input brought many important developments, including the replacement of the carburettor with Bosch K-Jetronic injection and the installation of contactless transistorised ignition. The engine, with its compression ratio lowered, was fed intercooled air with the aid of a Garrett T3 turbocharger. The car was quickly approved for production, and the beginning of the manufacturing run in 1980 catered for the 400 units required to receive Group 4 homologation.

The production was no simple affair, as at the time Renault lacked low-volume production facilities. The regular bodies, made at the factory in Flins, were trucked to French bodywork styling and production company Heuliez in Cerizay, where the wide rear panels were welded on and the body lengthened by 5cm.

Then the bodies were taken to the Alpine factory in Dieppe, where the aluminium body panels and the plastic bonnet were installed, along with the engine and gearbox assembly. The alloy roof was riveted to the body (it alone saved 5kg), and the body was finally painted. Every car finished at Dieppe was test-driven on the roads of Normandy to check assembly quality.

Light and ferociously quick, while not terribly challenging to drive for professionals, the car proved to be a great basis for modifications, and its Cléon-Fonte four-cylinder 1.4-litre turbocharged engine delivered from 160bhp (standard car) to 350bhp (last rally iteration, Maxi, 1985). It achieved its maiden win in the World Rally Championship in the hands of Jean Ragnotti in 1981 on the Monte Carlo, and twice won the Tour de Corse, again driven by Ragnotti. It only became obsolete when the powerful group B cars entered the scene, most of them with four-wheel drive.

The civilian car was first produced in the form you see here, now known as Turbo 1. This was followed by the Turbo 2, cheaper to make, with fewer bespoke parts and as much as possible taken from a regular Renault 5. But the first generation car remains the one. I have always dreamed of driving one, hard, across the French countryside.

A closer inspection of the Renault Classic specimen reveals that the blue carpet covering the engine in the rear is intact, and that there is an unexpected solidity to various parts of the car, missing from such legendary greats as the Countach, which in period looked like it had been assembled between bites of pasta by workers sipping a cheap Chianti. Everything fits, and everything works. This is not a rally workshop bodge with bits added on as they were needed. This is a work of genius.

The original Turbo is really light, less than 900kg, because so many parts were fashioned out of lightweight materials – and you can feel it. The weight is concentrated in the middle of the car, the way it should be for a low polar moment of inertia, but still the interior, with its idiosyncratic steering wheel, feels spacious. For two people only, of course – the engine fills the rear.

On the road it feels direct, ready to change direction, sharp, on its metric TRX tyres. This car will forgive and forget a lot of behaviour that would put a supercar driver six feet under. In contrast to the later, TWR-engineered Clio V6, it has enough steering lock to catch a slide if you make a mistake, and the on-the-limit demeanour is proof of the genius of the engineers, aided by Ragnotti and Serpaggi.

The engine note is not intrusive, but meaty and real. No rattles or cheap noises here: the build quality was prerequisite to rally success. Even after a long autoroute journey and a jaunt on twisty B-roads I wasn't tired.

The car feels friendly, and transparent, and reacts in a progressive manner to all inputs. The weighting of the pedals, and the gearshift (tricky because of the positioning of the engine), not to mention the ergonomics, are all far superior to those of the Italian supercars offered in the same period. No need for the short legs and long arms of an orangutan either. The only thing wrong with the car is that I have to give it back.

Granted, this is only a civilian car, with a low level of engine power output. I am certain that the full-fat Maxi rally car would scare me witless, especially if I tried to drive it like Ragnotti. When he won the Monte in a 5 Turbo, it snowed, there was ice, and he took a lot of risks. One of the Audi Quattros crashed out of the rally, the other broke down.

Questioned about his win, he is typically modest, and only admits that it was 'sometimes difficult' when he hit a patch of ice while on slicks. After the Renault 5 Turbo Jean Ragnotti went on to compete in the 5 GT Turbo with front wheel drive. I ask him whether he cared if a car was front- or rear-wheel drive. 'No. It's all the same. With front wheel drive you just need more space to do the same things.' And he winks at me.

Most people never will drive like Ragnotti, but a lot of people, given a chance, would be thrilled to discover that the real supercar of the 80s was not a low-slung Italian monster, but a diminutive, crazy hatchback from France.

Photography by Blazej Zulawski

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