Some cars are international superstars. The Porsche 911, for example, is known and respected worldwide for its looks, heritage, and sporting prowess. But other cars are national heroes– revered in their homeland, but less known to the rest of the globe. The Renault Alpine A110 is one of the latter; while its world beating rally performance in the late 1960s and early 70s is the stuff of legend and every French schoolboy of the 70s knew what an Alpine was, the low volume car never sold in the US meaning only the true cognoscenti are aware of its exploits on this side of the pond.
Like the Porsche 911, the model is small, light, and rear-engined, making for a tail happy car suited to rally racing. It differentiates itself with a body that is lower, wider, and has a fiberglass bodyshell mated to a steel backbone chassis based on a Colin Chapman design. The engine is a 4-cylinder Renault Gordini racing motor, which only made 140 hp even at the peak of its development. Nevertheless, the Alpine was the winner of the very first World Rally Championship back in 1973, which assured its place in the pantheon of great racing cars. The Alpine road cars were produced in very small numbers, yet today an A110 can be had for less than the 911S, which is a far more common car. The A110 was also produced under license in several other countries, including Mexico where it was known as the Dinalpin. Today, those desiring the look and feel of an A110 at a bargain price can still find Dinalpin’s for sale in the US for much less than a French-made car.Recently I was fortunate to have a short ride in a perfectly restored Bleu Alpine A110 1300 Berlinette, one of the few that somehow found its way to this side of the Atlantic. Though I have watched a lot of footage of these cars in action, and even saw one in my high school years, to behold the diminutive French rally car in person once again was like finally meeting an old pen pal; I knew everything about it, but had no idea what to say. Sadly the streets of Jersey City are not terribly interesting nor welcoming to mid-century fiberglass sports cars, so we had to zip from stoplight to stoplight, making for a terribly interrupted cadence.
The car has a magnificent and raucous exhaust note that I found intoxicating, and considering the engine’s small displacement, the coupe was quite eager to get up and go. The chrome-ringed Veglia Borletti instruments and diamond quilted upholstery are pretty much the epitome of 1960s sporting feel. Above your head there’s a thin fiberglass shell, with its delicate foam headliner. I don’t think there is a cooler interior out there, honestly.We drew plenty of looks as we motored through town, with plenty of smiles and thumbs up. Yet no one could be quite sure of what they were seeing! We didn’t have enough time to really see what the car can do in terms of handling, but even based on my limited time in the car, there is no doubt that on a twisty forest road upstate, the A110 would be pure magic. Hopefully there will be a next time! Words and Images by: Bradley Price, a New York-based designer, car nut, racing history buff. He founded the Autodromo brand in 2011, and divides his spare time between his stable of vintage Italian cars and running the car blog Automobiliac.