French Fancies COTD: Renaultsport Spider

A lot of the cars I have spoken about this week have in some way been compared to, or related to, France’s holy Alpine, so it’s a little awkward now as today’s car was Alpine’s final nail in the coffin. Until the resurrection of course!

Renault, in the 90’s, were killing it in Formula One and were fast becoming the leading engine supplier. They also managed to create one of the finest hot hatches in the world with the Clio Williams. In petrolhead circles, Renault were really starting to make a name for themselves. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for their low production jewel in the crown. The Alpine a610 was not getting anywhere near the praise or sales it deserved. Something needed to change in a big way in Renault’s brand structure.
Renault Sport as an entity has existed since 1976, when it replaced Alpine’s racing division, but RS’s bloodlust knew no bounds and in 1994 they abruptly took over the last piece of Alpine’s puzzle, the famous Dieppe factory.

In truth, Renault’s boffins needed to be free from Alpine’s infernal heritage, there was only one other manufacturer making rear engined sports cars in the early nineties and even they were in the midst of their own financial and sales crisis. No, the nineties favoured revolution over evolution and if Renault was to capitalise on their Motorsport successes they would need something a little bit special.

Hitting the ground running, Renault Sport had a concept ready for the following year’s Geneva motorshow, a midengined race car with no windscreen and that lovely F7R engine from the Williams Clio. “What a cool, ‘out there’ concept”, everyone thought, before moving to the actual cars that could be built. But to everyone’s surprise, the Spider was destined for the road with an optional windscreen (forced option in Blighty). Being a motorsport operation first and foremost, Renault Sport, of course, designed the Spider from the oustet to be a race car also. Made for its own one make series, These cars had a bit more power and a 6 speed racing gearbox. If the video below is to believed, they were more than a little bit hairy. This series provided more than snap oversteer thrills however as if it was not for the spider cup we may not have seen Jason Plato in British Touring-car (Renault quickly snapped him up to drive the Laguna).

The construction was especially interesting, but for perhaps all of the wrong reasons. It was quite an advanced welded aluminium operation produced by Danish specialist Hydro Aluminium. Sadly, for Renault, Lotus also hired out this specialist for an even more advanced glued aluminium structure which ended up holding together the Spider’s closest rival. The cheaper, and arguably more dynamic, Lotus Elise.

Yup, the Elise was unwelcome news for Renault, getting all the unwelcome praise which the pricier Spider could not quite attain. The cars were very similar but it was in the tiniest details that the saviour of Lotus just leaped ahead.

But lets not let this take away from what the Renault Sport Spider did for Renault.

The Sport Spider managed to set up Renault Sport as a tuning house that went on to be the hot hatch benchmark manufacturer of the past 17 or so years. But, of course not before building a couple of mad cap, mid engined Clio’s. I did toy with writing about the v6 instead, but there’s something interesting and slightly tragic to the Sport Spider’s part of Renault Sport’s story. Also, it’s interesting now, as the whole operation has gone full circle with Alpine returning to Dieppe with their hotly anticipated new A110. Which, this time, looks like it could give the arthritic Elise a real thrashing, which has now had more facelifts than John Travolta (lets hope the rumours of an actual new Elise coming soon are true).

Plus, if you ignored all the Lotus praise and bought the Renault instead all of those years ago, well, you’d be laughing all the way to the bank. They’re not cheap now.

Jack Wood

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