Visit the sea-side town of Laguna Beach, California on just about any day of the week and you’re bound to see all types of exotica roaming the streets. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches. You name it, they’re here. In such a rarified automotive atmosphere it takes something pretty unusual to turn heads and keep them turned. Of course, while people who see this A110 rally car parked in a brick-lined alleyway obviously know the little car is unusual, they’d probably be surprised by its impressive resume. The latter includes a very long list of world rally wins. It may look great in an urban environment but it would be much happier on a dirt road, slithering sideways on a flick of opposite lock or leaping enthusiastically over a brow in the road.
Though the A110 is in large part an enigma to most Americans, in Europe its bug-like profile and friendly, multi-headlight face is a more familiar sight. “Because the A110 won the World Rally Championship in 1973- along with the Monte Carlo Rally three times- it is considered a French national treasure,” explains James Selevan, who owns the A110 in question that is attracting not only stares but a lot of questions from passersby. And though Selevan’s example now lives a largely pampered life in sun-drenched Southern California, like most A110s, it spent a good deal of its life on the European rally circuit. If it were not for a serious health issue, Selevan would be racing it here in the U.S. as well.
The origins of this extremely successful machine can be traced back to one Jean Redele, a Frenchman who in 1954 founded the Societe Anonyme des Automobiles Alpine, more simply referred to as Alpine and pronounced “al-peen.” As a young man, Redele had an innate mechanical intuition, and before long acquired a degree in engineering, after which he went to work in the family Renault dealership. But then came the dark days of WWII, which meant the family had to scrape by for several years by working less on cars and more on agricultural equipment. Eventually the family business recovered from the ashes of the war. By the early 1950s, Redele had begun campaigning a Renault 4CV on the European racing circuit. His efforts yielded three consecutive wins in the 750cc class at the famous Mille Miglia, to name but a few of his accomplishments with his home-built French racer. His success garnered him attention from others, and he was soon building speed parts for Renaults that were based on his research and development.
When Redele founded Alpine in 1954 with the intention of making cars, his first product was the A106 coupe, which was based on 4CV underpinnings and clothed in rather unfortunate looking styling conceived by Michelotti. Two years later the A108 appeared, which featured a more performance oriented backbone chassis under the fiberglass body, a concept inspired in part by Colin Chapman’s Lotus Elan.
At the 1962 Paris motor show Alpine revealed the car that the company is most associated with, the A110 Berlinette Tour de France. Once production commenced in Dieppe, France in1963, the A110 became immediately popular. Production stretched until 1976. Like the A108, the A110 consisted of a fiberglass body that was bonded to a backbone chassis. In order to accommodate the motor, suspension and brakes that were sourced from the new Renault R8 sedan, Alpine made some minor changes to the A106’s chassis and body. Renault’s 5-speed synchromesh was used.
Initial examples were powered by a 956cc inline-4 that produced 51 horsepower, but over the production run the engines grew in displacement and power, culminating in the 1600S model that used the motor from the Renault 16TS. On an unofficial basis, there were even 1800cc race versions built by some racers that produced 180 hp. With a homologation weight of 650 kg (just over 1400-lbs) for the 1600 cc model, it doesn’t take much to realize that a race-spec A110 was a very quick car.
In 1967 Alpine worked out a deal with Renault that would allow the A110 to be sold and serviced through the latter’s dealership network. Renault began backing Alpine’s competition efforts, mainly in rallying, and benefited greatly from the prestige that rubbed off from the A110’s competition successes. In 1969 Jean-Claude Andruet won the European rally title, and after that there was no stopping the little French racecar, which went on to take its drivers to a 1-2-3 finish at the 1971 Monte Carlo rally, with Ove Andersson and David Stone taking the first place finish. The triple Monte Carlo result was duplicated in 1973, and the same year Alpine went on to win the first ever championship of the newly formed World Rally Championship for Makes.
That year, A110s easily won nearly every race they were entered in. Since the A110 was also licensed to be made in Brazil, Mexico, Bulgaria and Spain under a variety of different names it also experienced many additional wins all around the world, sealing its well-deserved reputation as a landmark rally car. In addition to countless international wins, A110s won the French rally championships in 1971, 1972 and 1973.
The A110’s career as a racecar ended when Lancia homologated the ground breaking Stratos in 1974, which rewrote the rule book for rally cars. Despite attempts to improve its performance through the addition of fuel injection and changes to the motors and suspension design, the A110 was soon relegated to the history books. It left behind a competition legacy that has yet to be repeated by the French when it comes to rallying.
Selevan first laid eyes on the A110 when he was on a summer vacation in France in the early 1970s. “I saw them running around on the streets,” he recalls. “They were a really hot car back then. I decided then that I would own one someday.” It took more than three decades, but in 2005 he fulfilled his dream. “I had a thing for these cars for nearly forty years,” he says. It was actually on a whim that he started searching the Internet to see if there were any for sale. His casual search quickly evolved into a more serious quest to see if he could actually park an A110 in his garage.
“I found a yellow one in Connecticut, but it was Mexican made,” he continues. “I did some homework and discovered that the most desirable ones were the ones that had been made in Dieppe, France.” He also wanted a later model, which had a several improvements over the early cars such as a bigger 1600cc motor, an independent rear suspension as well as a revised engine installation that made them easier to remove if they needed to be worked on.
Selevan quickly discovered that there are not that many remaining A110s, a result of their competition use and rather fragile construction. “There are not a lot of them around. Of the approximately 6,000 that were made, most are not on the road, since they’ve either been wrecked or destroyed from racing,” remarks Selevan. In his search, he came across Yves Boode, who lives near Chicago and who vintage races an A110. “He was extraordinarily helpful,” says Selevan. “He referred me to someone in the Netherlands who in turn had heard of one in Manchester, England, so I contacted the owner. When I first approached him he was not that excited about selling it, but entertained the possibility since I had gone to the trouble of tracking him down.”
Despite the seller’s reticence to part with the Alpine, a later 1600S models, a deal was made, albeit at a steeper price than Selevan had anticipated. Before he knew it, he was on a flight to England to see his purchase in person. Once there, the owner took him for a ride in the A110 on the winding, tree-lined country roads of Northern England. “The car was just amazing,” recalls Selevan. “It had a Halda Twinmaster rally computer, a built in fire extinguisher, a larger 1800cc motor, Quaife limited slip and the stock 5-speed.” Since the owner had entered the car extensively in vintage rallies, it also came with an invaluable assortment of spares, including extra front and rear windows, engine blocks and wheels. This particular example was also appealing since it had undergone an extensive body off restoration some years ago, so there would be no hidden surprises under the fiberglass bodywork.
Once Selevan had the Alpine shipped home and then snipped his way through the red tape that involved importing it, he drove it for a year before deciding to do some work to it. Initially, the intent was to simply put some period correct graphics and stickers on it to make it look more like a vintage rally car. When he acquired it, it was painted Alpine Blue with only white number dots on the doors. “It was a worldwide search to find all the right stickers,” says Selevan. The stickers included such evocative names as ELF (fuel), Ferodo (brake pads), Cibie (rally lights) and of course Tag Heuer.
Once he had gathered the right graphics though the project quickly began snowballing. “I thought, if I’m going to put graphics on it, I should probably repaint it, and then I thought, if I’m going to repaint it I should probably pull the motor and all the glass… all because I wanted to put some decals on it!” While the car was apart, Selevan also refreshed the suspension, installing new bushings and generally cleaning everything, as well as going through the brakes. He also fixed a leak in the transmissions half-shafts by installing dual o-rings, a fix he engineered himself. Once the body was repainted in the original shade of blue, Selevan applied yellow accents that he designed himself but that were inspired by photos of racing A110s he had found. Once the car was reassembled and put back on the road, he’s continued to use it regularly.
“I drive the car on the road almost every day and it has become my daily driver,” says Selevan. “It’s not a great car for a long trip but fun for getting around town.” Using the Alpine regularly has also led to some unusual interactions. “I have had French expatriates and vacationers follow me home just to look at the car, as they are rarely seen in France and never here in the U.S,” he says.
When I meet up with Selevan and his rally special on a gray November morning, first impressions of the Alpine are that despite its bantamweight dimensions it has loads of presence. Its exterior is dominated by the wide 13-inch diameter, three-piece Gotti alloys, wide fender arches and imposing rally lights. The door swings open easily, which, given its fiberglass construction, is not surprising. Once we’ve crawled inside (not the easiest task, since it requires some contortions that remind me I have muscles I rarely use sitting behind a keyboard) it feels as intimate as its exterior dimensions suggest. The roofline is just above my head, and the view out the raked back windshield is narrow, all the better for focusing on the road in front. The seats are simple, one piece items that are covered in diamond-pattern vinyl and corduroy centers for a distinctly Seventies flavor.
There are several things in the interior that are tip-offs to the Alpine’s rally intentions, namely the Halda Twinmaster (an odometer that reads to 1/100th of a kilometer) and Tag Heuer timing gear that are mounted on the passenger’s side. The Tag Heuer timing gear was added by Selevan after he acquired the car. He won’t reveal the price, but hints that the setup was far from cheap, not to mention the fact that it had to be sourced through international channels. There’s also a map-light mounted on a flexible stalk for the navigator to call out rally routes in the dark of night. Just beyond the grippy three-spoke wheel are round, green-on-black gauges. The ignition key is another clue to this A110’s competition past. When Selevan hands it to me, I find there is a 5-inch long aluminum paddle bolted to it. When I ask about it, he explains that the previous owner affixed the paddle to the key so that he could turn it in the ignition, located under the steering wheel, when he had racing gloves on.
Once we’ve pulled the four-point Willans harness on tight, we fire up the Renault inline four. At idle the motor is actually not as loud as the abbreviated exhaust would lead you to expect, but blip the revs and the four-cylinders voice rises quickly in volume, brap-brapping aggressively. After we’ve pulled away from a stop and gotten up to speed, the sound is somewhere between an Alfa Romeo inline-4 and a Ferrari Dino V6, with a deep, thrumming burble spilling out of the exhaust. There is also a terrific intake snort from the huge 45DCOE carbs as they inhale great quantities of air and fuel. Meanwhile, the five-speed gearbox whines loudly regardless of rpms, which adds another layer to the Alpine’s arsenal of sounds.
When we find a spot to fully engage the throttle, the A110 leaps to attention and rockets down the road, its dearth of weight allowing it to accelerate in a way that would embarrass a lot of more modern cars. The tuned Renault engine revs quickly and enthusiastically, and even though we shy away from the redline during our test drive, the midrange power is still more than enough for quick progress.
As we guide the Alpine through a series of bends, initially the steering response seems shockingly quick, the car turning and rotating around its axis seemingly as quick as our brain tells our hands to turn the wheel. Like an early 911, the front feels delicate and light, while the rear-engine layout, which results in a weight bias of 40/60 front to rear, is a pendulum working in our favor to get the whole car to rotate around the corner. It’s extremely quick-witted and takes some getting used to, but it’s also instantly apparent why the A110 was four-wheeled god on a rally route. And like a 911, the location of the motor over the rear axle imbues the A110 with terrific traction as we accelerate out of turns. Though the rear-weight bias could certainly send the car from a balanced drift to facing the road the wrong way in a nanosecond, the stiff suspension and wide Colway Intermediate vintage race tires that this one rides on makes the limits very high. It would certainly take some stupidity to surpass them on a public road.
As I climb out of the Alpine after my all too brief encounter, it crosses my mind that of all the cars I’ve been able to drive over the last few years, the A110 ranks as one of the most memorable. It’s a sentiment that’s shared by its owner too. In addition to the Alpine, Selevan owns a couple of Ferrari Dinos and a 512 BBi, to name a few from his collection. But it’s the rambunctious French rally car that’s driven the most. And in that company, the fact that the Alpine gets favored so much speaks volumes to just what an amazing car it still is.