One of the more interesting marques around today is one that once was known only to rally afficiandos, but is now making a name for itself as it re-emerges after years of being dormant. The marque in question is Alpine (which, by the way, is pronounced al-peen.)
The company’s origins lie in Dieppe, a small port in Normandy in Northern France with a population of less than 35,000. In France, Dieppe is best known for its scallops.
It also happens to be twinned with Brighton, which is just up the coast from me. Like Brighton is to London, so Dieppe is to Paris. Both lay claim to being their nation’s first seaside resort, with Dieppe tracing its origins as far back as 1824. Both towns also happen to be the closest beach to their country’s capital.
But Dieppe is a long way from the Alps – nearly 1000 km – so why did a car manufacturer based there name itself Alpine?
The business was founded in 1954 by Jean Rédélé, a Renault garage owner from Dieppe whose hobby was modifying cars for rallying. By 1956, he was the youngest Renault dealer in France. He would go on to be as successful racing cars as he was selling them.
With his modified 4CV Renault, he achieved success in the Mille Miglia and the Coupe des Alpes. And it was the latter race that inspired the name.
At the time, Rédélé was unaware that the British car company Sunbeam had already launched a model with the Alpine name and this naming issue was to cause him problems throughout the company’s history. It was one that would be relatively short-lived.
His first production car was the A106. While the company’s focus was on rallying, it was a very expensive undertaking for a small business producing just two cars a week.
In its heyday, Alpines were regarded as some of the best rallying cars around.
Indeed, the original rear-engined A110, styled by the leading Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, was hugely successful in the 60s and early 70s.
It also had a distinctive look, notably in the way its four headlights were positioned – something one associates more with rally cars than road cars. What’s more, most A110’s came with the marque’s equally distinctive turquoise blue paintwork – Alpine Blue.
In 1969, Rédélé opened his new Alpine factory in Dieppe. However, the cars were complicated to produce, requiring many more man hours which made them expensive.
But they were enjoying tremendous success in rallying. In 1971, Alpines took the first three places in the iconic Monte Carlo Rally.
With the company almost continually on the brink of closing, Renault finally acquired Alpine in 1972. The very next year saw the birth of the World Rally Championship. It was dominated by Alpine with their A110.
Despite this success, just four years later, in 1977, the A110 ceased production. And with it, so effectively did Alpine.
There was no A110 replacement, largely because of the game-changing Lancia Stratos – launched in 1974 – meant mid-engined cars were the way forward and Alpine’s lacklustre sales simply couldn’t justify the investment.
The Dieppe plant however kept going, producing hot hatch variants of cars such as the Renault Clio, a few of which even bore the Alpine moniker.
In 2007, at the age of 85, Jean Rédélé died. And it appeared so had the marque he had created.
My first connection with the Alpine came at the Festival of Speed when I saw an original A110 – mounted on a wall at a Renault exhibit. I remember just how good it looked and the photo I took of it remains one of my favourites.
The next time I saw an A110 was also at Goodwood – one was in the paddock at Revival. Again, the photo I took of it that day is another favourite. But back to our story…
A new Alpine did surface, briefly. Called the A310, it was intended to be the A110’s successor. But the global oil crisis decimated the sports car industry and put paid to it.
The new model was just too thirsty and too expensive to make. It didn’t last long and by 1995 the Alpine marque was effectively mothballed.
After years of speculation that Renault had plans to revive the marque, things looked like they were happening in 2012.
That year saw the arrival of the A110–50, a stunning prototype created by Renault to mark the 50th anniversary of the original A110 in 1962.
Styled by Yann Jarsalle, it was a dramatic looking supercar, finished naturally in the iconic blue paint (with orange accents)
Although it was a one-off never intended for production, that same year, Alpine Renault did begin a joint project with British sports car manufacturer Caterham to create a brand new car.
However, just two years in, Caterham dropped out. That could have been the end of Alpine, but not for the first time, Renault stepped in and saved the project.
And then things went quiet. For years.
But the rumours of something very exciting just wouldn’t go away.
It would take until the end of February 2017 before the first official pictures of the all-new A110 surfaced, just days before the car itself was unveiled at the Geneva show the following month.
Although both cars shared the same name, the new model now had a mid-rather than a rear engine. And, in keeping with the brand’s DNA, the car was extraordinarily light, its aluminium body weighing in at just over 1100 kilos.
I got to see it in person when it made its UK debut at the Festival of Speed.
Designed by Antony Villain, the new A110 shared clear DNA with its predecessor. To my eyes, it was a brilliant example of how to reimagine an old model and still retain sufficient resemblance so it looks familiar: the four headlights, the sculptural bonnet detailing being just a few examples.
Since its 2017 relaunch, Alpine has taken over 5,000 cash-secured reservations. All 1,955 Premiere editions. were sold within a week, resulting in a 14-month wait-list for the new car, despite its £52,000 price tag.
In response to this demand, Alpine increased production from 15 to 20 cars a day. Today, the Dieppe factory employs around 400 and the new A110 looks like it will be even more successful than its predecessor.
In September 2018, the first new A110 was delivered to a UK customer and the same month at Hampton Court Palace, I got to see both the old and new models side by side at Concours of Elegance.
The closer you look at the new car, the more you see how successful Alpine have been in bringing it up to date, whilst keeping the spirit of its forbear. Not only that, but they’ve also produced a car that doesn’t look like everything else on the market.
I really hope that this time the Alpine marque thrives and continues to produce distinctive cars in the years ahead.
2021 saw a huge development for the marque when Renault rebranded their F1 outfit to the Alpine division, swapping their black and yellow livery for the blue colour synonymous with Alpine’s motorsport heritage. As a demonstration of their commitment, the Alpine F1 team also welcomed back two-times world champion, Fernando Alonso, as their lead driver.
Looking at the F1 car’s livery, perhaps the most significant detail are the words written behind the driver: Renault E-Tech. By all accounts, it appears Renault now wants Alpine to become its high-performance electric brand, taking on the likes of Polestar and Tesla. Rumours are that no less than three new battery-powered Alpines are currently in development: a hot hatch, a crossover, and an A110 replacement.
Behind the image: All these images, with the exception of the F1 car, were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens. Shot at Festival of Speed, Goodwood Revival and Hampton Court Palace.
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