Retrospective: Renault and their Pursuit of Speed

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A company that, when they want to, can make some of the most brilliant and mental cars of all time.

When I originally sat down to do this article, it was going to be a “That’s Me in the Spotlight” post on the Clio V6.

The Clio V6 is a car that I’ve always had a real soft spot for. I think it’s just the insane nature of taking a normal econobox Renault Clio and sticking a stonking great V6 engine in the middle and making it rear wheel drive, and the fact that it was a car of choice for me throughout the Gran Turismo series since the late 90s.

But the more I thought about it, I realised that writing an article on one specific Renault Sport car wasn’t doing the brand justice. Truth is, Renault have been making insanely fast and insanely awesome cars for a very, very long time. A lot of people I know question my love of fast Renaults, and maybe that’s because they think too much about the mundane road cars they’re based on. However, one thing that I will defend to the death, is that when Renault want to make something go fast, they go to town and they give it their all.

The Alpine and Gordini Days

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A Gordini Renault in the now historic blue and white stripes.

To begin with, Renault hadn’t had much interest in the ways of competition and making insane sporty cars. They were much happier to let Gordini and Alpine take the roles of their motorsport division. Mind you, this is no bad thing – Gordini had a string of victories in the late 50s and early 60s with their Gordini Tuned Renaults, sporting the now iconic blue colour scheme – something that Renault still plays on to this day.

Alongside that, Alpine formed a very close relationship with Renault, creating what can only be described as one of the most beautiful rally cars of all time – The Alpine A110. Created in 1961, the A110 comprised of mainly Renault parts in a frankly breathtaking body, and spent much of the late 60s and early 70s being thrashed around the special stages of the Monte Carlo Rally, proudly displaying the Renault badge on the front.

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The Alpine A110 – Drop. Dead. Gorgeous.

By 1976, Renault had majority stakes in both Gordini and Alpine, and decided to form something truly special – Renault Sport. The result of which would be some of the most amazing cars ever to come not only from France, but from the world over. This, was the beginning of the birth of some of the greatest hatchbacks in history.

The Birth of “Renault Sport”

Renault Sport made their debut in the Le Mans and Formula One scenes in the early 70s, with Formula One taking the main priority. After some initial, shall we say, “friction” between the staff of Gordini and Alpine, a quick relocation of their headquarters and putting everybody together in the one place soon sorted out any issues.

However, whilst their Formula One and Le Mans efforts were great, rallying was were Renault Sport really began to shine. It’s also where we saw one of their greatest and maddest road cars ever released – the Renault 5 Turbo. Let’s take a look at some of Renault Sport’s biggest triumphs over the years.

“I know, let’s take the engine, and put it in the middle!”

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Nothing is more 80s than “TURBO” on the side in big letters.

Inspired by the victories of the Lancia Stratos, the head of Renault production cars commissioned Alpine to build a mid engined, rear wheel drive car based on their production Renault 5. After giving Bertone the task of designing a new rear end to fit a 1.4 Turbo engine putting out a stonking 160 horsepower. That’s not a lot you’re probably saying, but considering the standard Renault 5 made roughly 50-60 horsepower, that’s a huge increase. As the original Renault 5 was also front engined and front wheel drive, needless to say the Renault 5 Turbo didn’t share much with it’s standard brethren.

As a thank you for Renault’s dedication to one of the most dramatic possible changes to a car? It won the Monte Carlo Rally in it’s very first outing in 1981.

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It takes a lot to win on your first outing, in any event, never mind rallying.

Sadly, the 5 Turbo’s days of victory were short lived due to the introduction of Group B, which blew everything prior out of the water. However, the fact that Renault even decided to try sticking an engine in the middle of their smallest car, and then sell it to the public, is testament to just how bonkers they were. Of course, they would repeat this feat nearly 20 years later, and for even better reason than before – just because they could, frankly.

 

“I know, let’s make a hot hatch, and name it after an F1 team, but build it ourselves!”

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What Renault do best: Making things go fast, and look cool.

With the dawn of the 90s brought Renault’s replacement for the Renault 5 – The Renault Clio. To enter in rallying, the car had to be homologated to enter Group A and Kit Car classes, which is always good news for us civilians as it means we get a nice “hot” version of an otherwise mundane car. As such, in ’93, we were given what is widely regarded to be one of the best hot hatches of all time (and as somebody who owns a Mk2 Golf GTI… I’m going to agree with them) – the Clio Williams.

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Well, the team were good for marketing if nothing else.

The funny thing is about this though, is that the Williams F1 team had literally nothing to do with the car. At all. No design, no help on the engine, suspension, nothing. Renault Sport literally did it all themselves and just stuck the Williams name on it instead. That, my friends, is what you call modesty. It’s the ghost writing of the automotive world.

After sticking a bigger engine in it and painting it in a shade of blue that is oh-so-90s, Renault decided to whack gold wheels on it before Subaru made it mainstream and call it a day. Nah, that’s not Renault Sport’s style – they reworked the suspension, stripped it bare of anything unnecessary, and created one of the finest all round packages of driving excellence on the market, not just at the time, but even today. Decades later, the Clio Williams still appears on “Best hot hatch” lists, such is the legacy this little wonder has left.

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There were three different versions of the Clio Williams, however there weren’t any major differences between them, bar having a sunroof or not or being a slightly different shade of blue. The first gen of Clio Williams however were the only ones to have a fancy metal plaque on the dashboard giving a number of how rare it is. So there’s that to bear in mind, if you’re a collector.

“I know, let’s take the engine and stick it in the middle, but this time, just for the sake of it!”

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My personal favourite of the mental Renault Sport saga, and a fitting conclusion to a piece talking about just how brilliantly mental they can be.

When Renault Sport took on the Renault 5 Turbo, they did it because they wanted to be competitive in rallying. They were inspired by the Lancia Stratos, and that’s all well and good. However, when they decided to take on the task of fitting a V6 engine from their mid-sized Laguna into the middle of their compact Clio, they did it completely of their own accord.

There was no racing series. Sure, they made their own one-make spec series out of it, but there were no specific motorsport events in mind for the Clio V6, like there was with the 5. They literally just thought, “I wonder if we can do this? Sod it, why not”, and then they did it. And that’s just bloody brilliant.

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A wider stance and set of centre exit exhausts are all that give it away here.

The thing is, the car wasn’t even that much faster than the “regular” hot Clio, the 172 Cup. Thanks to the whole extremely heavy engine relocated in the middle requiring massive restructuring of the entire floor pan thing, the Clio V6 actually weighed a good bit more than the Clio Cup – 300kg heavier in fact – and didn’t have that much more power to compensate for it.

But at the end of the day – who cares. It was an insane amount of fun. No rear seats, a screaming V6 just a few inches away from your ears, and a wide body kit that gave some serious road presence – the Clio V6 was a car that nobody asked for, nobody needed, and Renault decided to give us anyway. And for that, I bloody love it.

 

So the next time someone considers Renault a company that just makes bland and boring cars, tell them with confidence that when they want to, they can make some of the most amazing cars ever created.

They just tend to quite often give us amazing cars we never asked for, but sure as hell are glad we got.

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