Renault has announced the sale of 50% of the former Alpine factory in Dieppe, more recently known as RenaultSport, to the British-based, Malaysian-owned Caterham organisation.
In the early 1950s, Renault dealer Jean Rédélé discovered that the 4CV model had huge potential as a rally car and later began building a lightweight competition car using the 4CV’s mechanical parts in a fibreglass body – the Alpine-Renault A106. This was the progenitor of the line of cars from Rédélé’s premises in Dieppe which led to the A110 in 1962, using the more powerful engine from the Renault 8 to become a legend in its own lifetime, ultimately claiming the inaugural World Championship for Manufacturers in 1973.
In that same year, however, Alpine’s sales of its little sports car tumbled by more than a third in the wake of the world oil crisis, prompting Renault to buy the concern and with Alpine’s expertise prepared the turbocharged engines that would sweep to success with at Le Mans and, ultimately, in Formula One. Its A310 meanwhile continued the tradition on which Alpine was founded, and in 1986 the highly-evolved GTA appeared – and remains one of the most under-rated sports cars in history.
For the last 20 years the Alpine brand has been retired in favour of RenaultSport, which was the preferred badging to be found on the Renault Spider and performance-tuned versions of the Clio and Mégane hatchbacks. RenaultSport has continued to enjoy considerable success in rally guise with cars such as the Clio S1600 and R3 rolling out of the Dieppe factory, and now it seems that the Alpine name will be revived in partnership with Caterham.
Originally a dealer for Lotus cars in the 1960s, Caterham founder Graham Nearn bought the rights to the Lotus 7 from Colin Chapman in 1973 and ensured that his minimalist design remained in production for its adoring legions of fans. After more than 50 years in production the Caterham 7 remains the benchmark for purist driving thrills, and the brand was purchased in 2011 by Malaysian tycoon Tony Fernandes during his protracted legal battle over the right to call his Formula One team ‘Lotus’.
Fernandes is keen to modernise the product range and aim it squarely at the affluent markets of Asia. Although efforts are being made to market the venerable 7 in these new territories, it is more likely that a sleeker machine will be required to tempt buyers who know and care little about the 7’s pedigree. Caterham is a very small firm to embark on a ground-up design, so the partnership with Renault – which builds its engines in F1 – makes sense.
From January the newly-merged company will be officially called the Société des Automobiles Alpine Caterham. It is believed that the first new product will be a two-seater sports car with an alloy chassis, costing about £35,000, that will be badged as either a Caterham or an Alpine, depending on the individual market.
And what do you think can sell a brand’s performance credentials in countries where there aren’t many race tracks? Oh yes, wouldn’t it be a lovely thing to see an Alpine rally car once again, mes amis?