SIXTY YEARS AGO… THE BIRTH OF ALPINE
With the benefit of hindsight, Jean Rédélé’s destiny was clear to see. Raised from a very young age in a world dominated by cars, racing and Renault, he also distinguished himself through an avant-garde vision of technology and business.
Born on May 17, 1922, Jean was the eldest son of Émile Rédélé, a Renault dealer based in Dieppe and formerly an official mechanic for Ferenc Szisz, the brand’s first ‘factory driver’ back at the beginning of the century. Once he had completed his studies at HEC business school in Paris, Jean came to the attention of Renault’s management for his ground-breaking business ideas. At the age of just 24, he became the youngest car dealer in France as he followed in his father’s footsteps.
Reasoning that ‘motorsport is the best way to test production cars and victory is the best sales tool’, Jean Rédélé entered his first competitive events four years later, at the age of 28.
After a trial run at the Rallye Monte-Carlo in 1950, he triumphed in the inaugural Rallye de Dieppe behind the wheel of the new 4CV, defeating a plethora of significantly more powerful rivals! This nationally-acclaimed victory convinced Renault to entrust him with a 4CV ‘1063’ – the special racing version – for the following season. While this enabled him to maintain his run of success, Jean Rédélé worked hard to improve the performance of his vehicle. This quest led him to Giovanni Michelotti, from whom he ordered a 4CV ‘Spéciale Sport’, the chief feature of which was an aluminium body that was rather more aerodynamically streamlined than the original vehicle. Over the course of time, this collaboration between the French rally driver and the Italian designer gave birth to three unique models.
While awaiting the delivery of his new car, Rédélé continued to compete in his ‘1063’ as his friend Louis Pons – a Renault dealer in Paris and Etampes – became his co-driver. Always seeking to enhance performance, the pair funded the development of a five-speed gearbox, designed by André-Georges Claude. This played a particularly important role in their record-breaking class victory in the Mille Miglia, the famous road race held between Brescia and Rome.
Jean Rédélé’s career path next took him to the Le Mans 24 Hours and Tour de France Automobile. In 1953, he finally got his hands on his 4CV ‘Spéciale’, and on his very first outing in the car, he won the 4th Rallye de Dieppe ahead of two Jaguars and a Porsche! The following year, the Rédélé/Pons pairing triumphed in their class for the third time on the Mille Miglia, before going on to prevail in the Coupe des Alpes. “I thoroughly enjoyed crossing the Alps in my Renault 4CV, and that gave me the idea of calling my future cars ‘Alpines’, so that my customers would experience that same driving pleasure,” he would later reveal.
The notion of creating his own brand preyed upon Jean Rédélé’s mind, and it was his father-in-law who helped him to turn his dream into reality. Owner of the Grand Garage de la Place de Clichy on rue Forest, Charles Escoffier was one of the leading Renault dealers of the era. When he asked his son-in-law to assist with the development and marketing of a series of ‘Coaches’ already commissioned from Gessalin & Chappe, it proved to be the catalyst for the foundation of the ‘Société des Automobiles Alpine’ on June 25, 1955.
THE A106: THE BEGINNING OF AN INCREDIBLE ADVENTURE
When envisioning his future creations, Jean Rédélé was keen to focus on the following basic principles: simple yet competitive mechanicals, using the highest proportion of production parts possible and all clothed by a lightweight and attractive body. In some respects, Charles Escoffier’s ‘Coach’ adhered to these prerequisites… even if Jean Rédélé did not take the credit for it!
Designed by Jean Gessalin and built by the Chappe brothers, the first prototype was presented by Escoffier to Renault’s management board in February, 1955. Once its homologation had been approved, Jean Rédélé made a number of modifications, borne out of the 4CVs developed in tandem with Michelotti. The ‘Coach’ took on the name A106: ‘A’ for Alpine and ‘106’ in reference to the code name of the 4CV (1062), which served as a source for parts.
At the beginning of July, three Alpine A106s in the colours of the French flag – one in blue, one white and one red – paraded through the courtyard of Renault’s headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt. Even if he was not particularly fond of the design of the first Alpine, Jean Rédélé was nonetheless extremely proud to have become a full-fledged car manufacturer in his own right.
Mechanically, the Alpine A106 used the same chassis and suspension as the 4CV. The 747cc, four-cylinder in-line engine was offered in two versions – one producing 21hp, the other 38hp. This first Alpine stood out above all for its polyester body, fitted to the original chassis of the 4CV.
As options, it was possible to equip the A106 with the ‘Claude’ five-speed gearbox or the ‘Mille Miles’ suspension, composed of four rear shock absorbers.
True to his principles of continuous improvement – at a time before ‘Kaizen’ had entered the motor industry vocabulary – Jean Rédélé relentlessly sought to make advances to the A106. Tiring of Gessalin & Chappe’s reluctance to evolve the vehicle, the Dieppe native elected to open his own production facility: RDL. This spirit of independence was further evinced in the launch of a cabriolet version, designed by Michelotti and unveiled at the 1956 Paris Motor Show. A third variation saw the light of day in 1958: the A106 ‘Coupé Sport’ – effectively the cabriolet but with a hard-top!
With 251 cars produced between 1955 and 1960, the A106 enabled Jean Rédélé to successfully establish his business – but that was only the first phase…
A108: THE FIRST BERLINETTE
Should we talk about the A108 or the A108s? There were so many different body types and configurations that it is difficult to paint an accurate picture of the history of a model of which 236 examples were built between 1958 and 1965.
The A108 appeared for the first time at the 1957 Paris Motor Show. The body of the A106 ‘Coach’ – produced by Chappe & Gessalin – and the RDL cabriolet were initially retained, with the real changes taking place under the bonnet: the engine from the 4CV was replaced by the 845cc ‘Ventoux’ powerplant from the Renault Dauphine. Over time, it became possible to instead opt for a re-bored 904cc unit prepared by Marc Mignotet, or the 998cc engine from the Dauphine Gordini.
The style evolved too, based on a variant of the A106 conceived by Philippe Charles, a young designer aged just 17! Using the Michelotti-designed cabriolet as his starting-point, he covered the headlights with a Perspex bubble and made the rear of the car longer so as to achieve a slimmer and more streamlined shape. Jean Rédélé entered two of these berlinettes for the 1960 Tour de France Automobile (for Féret and Michy) and the model’s critical success was such that the new look was soon transferred across to the cabriolets and ‘Coupé-Sports’ produced by RDL.
Another significant corner was turned in 1961, with the generalisation of the ‘beams and backbone’ chassis across all models. This architecture was based on a robust central beam, onto which were grafted side rails that supported the front and rear sub-frames. Enhancing stiffness and reducing weight, this innovation would be the secret behind the superb handling of Alpine cars throughout the generations.
THE WILLYS-INTERLAGOS: TESTAMENT TO AN INNOVATIVE EXPORT POLICY
Whilst well aware that international expansion would likely yield fresh channels of growth, Jean Rédélé came up against insufficient finances, meaning he was unable to create and develop a traditional export network. Undeterred, he found another way in suggesting to industrial partners that they manufacture his cars under licence.
It must be said that Alpines were relatively easy to assemble, even for unqualified labour. They were also highly-regarded for their reliability, since they used mass-produced mechanical components from Renault.
Following a failure in Belgium – where less than fifty A106s were manufactured by the Small factory – it was in Brazil that Rédélé achieved a breakthrough. The Willys-Overland firm, which already manufactured Dauphines under a Renault licence, began production using equipment supplied by the Dieppe factory. From 1960, ‘Interlagos’ models – named after the famous Brazilian motor racing circuit – left the Sao Paulo workshop. At first glance, only the trained eye could distinguish an ‘Interlagos’ from its Alpine A108 sister car.
This partnership continued with the A110, and in total, around one thousand berlinettes and cabriolets were produced up until 1966.
As in France, these Alpines manufactured across the other side of the Atlantic proved to be very capable in motorsport, most notably in endurance races such as the Mil Milhas. Indeed, it was after starting out in ‘Interlagos’ models that the likes of Carlos Pace, Emerson Fittipaldi and brother Wilson Fittipaldi headed to Europe in order to climb the career ladder all the way up to Formula 1.
This collaboration served as a model for similar agreements in Mexico (Dinalpin), Spain (Fasa) and Bulgaria (Bulgaralpine). All-in-all, nearly 15 per cent of Alpines were built under licence abroad.
HE A110: QUITE SIMPLY A LEGEND
In providing the visual identity conceived by Philippe Charles and the ‘beams and backbone’ chassis architecture, the A108 laid the foundations for the A110, which appeared in 1962. As the 4CV had done for the A106 and the Dauphine for the A108, it was the R8 that acted as a parts bank for Jean Rédélé’s latest creation.
The relationship with Renault – close from the very first day – was further strengthened when the French manufacturer tasked Alpine with representing it in motorsport. What’s more, from 1967, every car produced would bear the official name ‘Alpine-Renault’.
Buoyed by the brand’s excellent results in rallying, the Berlinette went on to achieve tremendous commercial success. In order to respond to increasing demand, Alpine found itself needing to adapt its manufacturing set-up, with production henceforth shared between the workshop on avenue Pasteur, the original Dieppe factory and the new plant in Thiron-Gardais (Eure-et-Loir).
Over the course of its different versions, the A110 evolved constantly. The 1108cc engine was succeeded in-turn by 1255cc, 1296cc, 1565cc and 1605cc units. Outward changes were minor, but frequent: a grille incorporating four headlights, extended wheel arches, front radiator, removable rear apron… In 1977, production drew to a close with the 1600SX, fitted with a 1647cc powerplant.
FROM THE BERLINETTE TO THE GRAND TOURISME
Designed in compliance with the instructions of Jean Rédélé himself, the Alpine A310 looked set to enable the brand to capitalise upon the success of the Berlinette – but the oil crisis of 1973 brought a shuddering halt to the upward momentum and caused a significant drop in sales. Bit by bit, Alpine picked itself back up by evolving its new model, introducing fuel injection in 1974, the V6 PRV engine in 1976 and the same rear suspension as the Renault R5 Turbo in 1981…
In 1985, the new GTA made its debut. This model marked a further departure for Alpine from the spartan concept of the Berlinette as it turned its attentions towards the Grand Tourisme world. In its range-topping version complete with V6 Turbo engine, the GTA generated some 200hp, which led the media to dub the car as a ‘fighter jet for the road’!
In 1990, the A610 joined the Alpine line-up with a 2,963cc V6 Turbo powerplant. Despite the press praising its handling abilities and dynamic performance, this model struggled to find its niche amongst the public and was discontinued in 1995.
After production of the A610 ceased, the Dieppe factory focused its efforts on the manufacture of numerous high-performance models for Renault Sport, from the R5 Turbo to the Clio R.S., Renault Sport Spider and Clio V6, much like the Renault 5 Alpine had been made there before them. Today, this historic site – which has always proudly retained the Alpine logo on its walls – is right at the heart of the brand’s rebirth.