Alpine Cel­e­bra­tion

Top Gear (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS: JASON BAR­LOW/PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: ALEX HOWE

Meet the mod­ern-day suc­ces­sor to the French wheels of choice. Hon-he-hon-he-hor. Bon

Alpine, beloved by Frenchies and ral­ly­ing geeks, is back. And this Cel­e­bra­tion con­cept shows it wants a slice of the pie

Alpine’s Antony Vil­lain is the latest car de­signer to ac­cept TopGear’s sketch chal­lenge. It’s not quite The Great Bri­tish Bake Of, but it’s still il­lu­mi­nat­ing. The rules are sim­ple: can you nail the ba­sic form of a car in three lines?

Vil­lain’s task is made trick­ier be­cause we’re talk­ing in the pad­dock dur­ing the Good­wood Fes­ti­val of Speed. BJ Bald­win’s Chevy Sil­ver­ado mon­ster truck has just ar­rived be­hind us, star of a gazil­lion YouTube views and the throb­bing, thun­der­ous an­tithe­sis of Alpine’s el­e­gant and elfn Cel­e­bra­tion con­cept car.

Ac­tu­ally, it sort of sums up the scale of Alpine’s chal­lenge, as it tries to gain trac­tion in a very noisy world. The brand is here in force at FoS, feld­ing a hand­ful of cars from its 60-year history, in­clud­ing 1978’s out­right Le Mans win­ner, the A442b. Prob­lem is, un­less you’re French and/or of a cer­tain age and geeky in­cli­na­tion, you prob­a­bly don’t know much about Alpine. Is it Re­nault’s per­for­mance sub­brand? A Gal­lic Lo­tus? And what hap­pened to that part­ner­ship with Cater­ham? More wor­ry­ingly, does any­body re­ally care?

Well, we should. As Vil­lain’s pen­cil skates across my notepad, it’s clear that the Cel­e­bra­tion – frst re­vealed at Le Mans last month – is a thinly dis­guised pro­duc­tion car. Re­nault will use the real thing to re­launch the Alpine brand in about 18 months’ time, and it will be light, com­pact, and mid-en­gined. Think Porsche Cay­man or Alfa Romeo 4C – punchy, ac­ces­si­ble, shrunken su­per­cars. Vil­lain, who works closely with Re­nault’s de­sign boss Lau­rens van den Acker, is core to the team that has re­lo­cated the com­pany’s aes­thetic mojo, and there’s ob­vi­ously a ton of motorsport ex­per­tise in the wider Re­nault fr­ma­ment. This bodes well. Hap­pily, the Cel­e­bra­tion con­cept is one of those cars that looks and feels in­stantly fresh in the fesh, and chan­nels the spirit of the Six­ties A110 with­out be­ing ob­vi­ously retro. Still, af­ter 20 years MIA, there’s clearly a lot of work to be done.

“Alpine is prob­a­bly best known for its ral­ly­ing ex­ploits, and then Le Mans af­ter that,” Vil­lain says. “I have a clear im­age in my mind of a re­ally light, ag­ile car drift­ing in the Monte Carlo rally. French peo­ple of a cer­tain age defnitely re­mem­ber Alpine. The younger gen­er­a­tion and peo­ple out­side France, well, we know we have a job to do re­mind­ing them about who we are and what we stand for. Where Alpine is known, it is em­braced with great pas­sion and pos­i­tiv­ity.”

True enough. A gen­eral lack of aware­ness cer­tainly hasn’t ham­pered Alpine’s cult sta­tus, and the brand’s roots tick all the right boxes. Dieppe­based Re­nault dealer and Alpine founder Jean Rédélé raced and ral­lied the 4CV to a class win at the 1952 Mille Miglia and al­most man­aged a sim­i­lar feat at Le Mans the same year. The Mich­e­lotti-de­signed 4CV Spe­cial Sport mor­phed into the frst of­cial Alpine, the A106 – “The ad­jec­tive [Alpine] epit­o­mises the plea­sure of driv­ing on moun­tain roads,” Rédélé claimed –

“ALPINE IS PROB­A­BLY BEST KNOWN FOR ITS RAL­LY­ING EX­PLOITS”

and the cars were in­no­va­tive, ro­bust and mod­estly pow­ered but efec­tive motorsport tools.

None more so than the A110; although it ar­rived in 1961, it was still suf­ciently on the money to win the World Rally Cham­pi­onship in 1973 even af­ter its none-more-Sev­en­ties A310 suc­ces­sor had rocked up as Re­nault came to the res­cue (re­mem­ber how many cars and com­pa­nies the ’73 energy cri­sis killed?) Alpine also con­tested Le Mans 11 times, that ’78 vic­tory the last as Re­nault fo­cused on For­mula One, and some new­fan­gled tech­nol­ogy called tur­bocharg­ing. The road-car di­vi­sion pe­tered out with the Esprit-alike A610 in 1995, although the Dieppe fac­tory was kept busy build­ing Re­nault­Sport cars.

The reawak­en­ing was her­alded by 2012’s A110-50 show car, a piece of de­sign eye candy no one was ever go­ing to build a vi­able busi­ness case around. There was also a car­bon-fbre-chas­sied Gran Tur­ismo Vi­sion GT ear­lier this year, pow­ered by a mid-mounted, 450bhp V8, also about as re­al­is­tic as an en­tire squadron of air­borne pigs. We should also point out that the Sig­nat­ech-Alpine A450b is cur­rently com­pet­ing in the WEC, and raced at Le Mans (DNF sadly). “It will show­case our abil­ity in parts of the world that are im­por­tant for our brand,” Alpine’s CEO Bernard Ol­livier com­mented. “This pro­gramme will beneft Alpine’s im­age across the globe.”

In­deed. But the car you see here is what Mon­sieur Ol­livier is bank­ing on be­com­ing the bot­tom-line-fat­ten­ing unit-shifter, and the

cam­paign be­gins now. Like Nissan’s fab­u­lous 2013 IDx Tokyo show car, which re­minded us how funky the Sev­en­ties Blue­bird 510 was, by min­ing rel­a­tively ob­scure source ma­te­rial, the Alpine some­how man­ages to punch way above its weight. It de­liv­ers a warm blast of nos­tal­gia while in­trigu­ing you with its left-feld­ed­ness at the same time. (NB: the IDx, ap­par­ently con­frmed for pro­duc­tion, is now not hap­pen­ing af­ter all. Boo.) As per the TG test, the car is easily, win­ningly as­sim­i­l­able: it has a strong face, a drop­ping line to the rear, hun­gry whee­larches and a clever roof treat­ment. Back to Vil­lain for more in­sight.

“The A110-50 was a pure con­cept. With this car, we fo­cused on the fun­da­men­tals,” he says. “We are work­ing step by step to bring the brand to pro­duc­tion. We’ve kept it com­pact to re­duce weight and to pro­mote a re­ally good power-to-weight ra­tio. It’s a car that you can use ev­ery day, but it’s also some­thing play­ful.”

Vil­lain ad­mits that the A110 is the most iconic Alpine, so be­gan the re­boot with the smaller aux­il­iary lights at the front. The new car’s rear end doesn’t ta­per away as dra­mat­i­cally as the orig­i­nal’s, but the rear win­dow is un­usu­ally pro­por­tioned. There’s a good rea­son for this: one of the A110’s quirks was that its back win­dow was ac­tu­ally a wind­screen pur­loined from another car. The white-coloured inset on the rear is a nod to the graph­ics of Six­ties and Sev­en­ties rac­ing cars (Vil­lain men­tions the Shelby Cobra and Porsche 909). Although pic­tured here with its Good­wood graphic – in­ter­twined Union Jack and French tri­colour – the strip on the chunky C-pil­lar says it all. Vil­lain laughs. “It’s made in France, and we are very proud of that. But it’s not ag­gres­sive or ar­ro­gant.”

Bien sûr que non. It’s small, the en­gine’s in the right place, and you im­me­di­ately want to take it for an im­pro­vi­sa­tional razz along the sort of leafy roads that would give you the col­ly­wob­bles be­hind the wheel of a LaFer­rari or McLaren P1. No word yet on what the en­gine will be, but if, say, the 250bhp, 2.0-litre turbo unit from the Me­gane Re­nault­Sport ended up in there, we’d be de­lighted. No true Alpine ral­ly­ist would choose a dual-clutch auto, but that’s what’s on the cards, and you can’t al­ways get what you want. Be­sides, if they keep the weight pegged to a ru­moured 1,100kg, and can sort out the soft­ware glitches that blighted the Clio RS’s pad­dle-shift, it could suit the car’s char­ac­ter. The Cater­ham joint ven­ture, dis­solved in 2013 amid some frus­tra­tion, will still im­bue the Alpine with a min­i­mal­ist char­ac­ter, although Vil­lain in­sists that’s in­te­gral to the brand any­way. As is a wider Gal­lic ten­dency to “dis­rupt”.

“Chal­leng­ing things is part of the French cul­ture. We take risks, some­times per­haps too big a risk, and it hasn’t al­ways worked out,” Vil­lain con­cedes. “Now we want to com­bine this at­ti­tude with a real con­sis­tency. We want to avoid the wavy up-and-down line, you know?”

“THE ALPINE DE­LIV­ERS A WARM BLAST OF NOS­TAL­GIA”

Alpine fies the tri­colour at very Bri­tish Good­wood... It’s show­down time at the dry

ice fac­tory

Car­bon-fbre wing mir­rors ex­ude Gal­lic

chic. Sacré bleu

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