Alpine A110 Berlinette: what France is all about

Published on Tuesday, September 17, 2019.
Updated on Wednesday, October 9, 2019.
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The French automobile industry has produced several mythical models in the period since WWII but the Alpine A110 has a special place in the French pantheon. Is it due to its special looks, or because of its racing victories, or perhaps its image of one-off craftsmanship? Maybe its because of all of these. One thing is certain, it stands out so much for so many generations of car lovers, the A110 has now even been resurrected (read about when we took the new generation A110 for a test-drive). But for now, back to the story of this unique little French sportscar…

Exploded diagram of a 956 cc A110

October 1962, Salon de Paris. On the stand of the small manufacturer Alpine appears for the first time the brand new A110, designed and produced in Dieppe (the A106 was designed in the Paris region). At first sight, there seemed little difference from the A108 Berlinette Tour de France, designed by Philippe Charles. If it seemed to retain its general design, the work of Serge Zuliani went much deeper than it looked. Admittedly, the A110 Berlinette kept the centre beam chassis, inaugurated by the A108, but it was modified to receive much of the mechanical parts of Renault’s new star, the R8: its engine and its front and rear suspensions. 

The A110 during its presentation at the Paris Motor Show 1962 (c) Alpine Planet

The new A110 range at the Paris Show

Inevitably, the fibreglass body also received some modifications, especially in the rear to accommodate the new position of the radiator behind the 4-cylindre, 5 main bearing, Sierra 956 cc engine with 55 horsepower SAE. It’s hard to imagine today any sportscar with such a small amount of power. Yet, at the time, nobody was offended. Alongside the Berlinette, there was a whole range of cars, including a 2 + 2 called the GT4, manufactured by Chappe and Gessalin, as well as a sports coupe and a convertible (all three of them receiving an even lower powered 959 cc engine with only 51 hp).

The A110 1300 G (above) and 1300 S (below)

Although Alpine was a small manufacturer, this wide range of models gave it the means to conquer a wide range of customers, keeping in mind that the A108 remained in production until October 1964. That same year, the A110’s engine sizes increased, first the 1,108 cc with 66 hp SAE (called the ’70’), and then with 95 horsepower, thanks to the engine right out of the R8 Gordini in October 64 (called the ‘100’). With a weight of around 600 kg, the performance was improved, especially with the center of gravity of the Berlinette being so very low: making it easy to attack hairpin curves. 1964 was the year in which sales finally took off for Alpine: Jean Rédélé became recognised by his peers as a true manufacturer, especially as the A110 began to distinguish itself in competition, notably winning its category at the 1963 Tour Auto (less than 1,000 cc).

The A110 1600 S

Natural evolution

Little by little, the A110 continued to evolve towards more sportiness and more power. At the same time, the Berlinette, whose body was the most aggressive, began to hypnotise promising rally drivers, like young enthusiasts reading Jidéhem’s Starter Chronicles in Spirou’s journal. At the end of 1965, the A110 1300 made its appearance with, as its name suggests, an increased displacement from 1,108 cc to 1,296 cc. The symbolic threshold of 100 horses (SAE) was also crossed as the small Alpine packed a whopping 115 hp under its rear bonnet. 

The A110 1300 “85″

In 1966, the distribution agreements signed a year earlier with Renault started to go into effect. This sales network would finally meet the expectations of Jean Rédélé and his Dieppe based production facility, all the while relinquishing some independence to the mark of the ‘Diamond’: this was a blessing in disguise as sales exploded on the upside, requiring Alpine to expand and construct a whole new factory in Thiron-Gardais, in addition to the Dieppe workshops. The A110 also received the new engine from the Renault 16, a 1,470 cc with 90 hp while the 1300 version became the 1300 Super, with this time 120 hp. The power options were becoming confusing as another « 1300 » option appeared, this time the 1,255 cc straight from the R8 Gordini, producing 105 horsepower. The A110 at this point began to carry the radiator back in the nose to accommodate these bigger displacement power-plants in the back.

Rally victories mean commercial success

Far from larger-scale industrial production levels, the A110 was constantly evolving, both mechanically and aesthetically, through a series of successively changing small details. Gradually, the Berlinette began to impress in competition, notably in rallies, a deliberate means of promotion chosen by Jean Rédélé. In 1967, the opening of the Thiron-Gardais plant made it possible to assume increased production rates, accelerated by the agreements with Renault, without the A110 changing in any particular way.

Interior and engine of the A110 1600 S

In 1968 some more changes were introduced. The A110 received new exterior treatment, especially in the front, with enlarged headlights and long range lamps fitted in the nose. New standards caused the reduction of power output on the ’70’ and 1300 engines by a few hp, while the ‘100’ was dropped from the lineup, as well as the 1500, due to lack of sales. On the other hand, the Berlinette started to receive the 1,565 cc engine of the Renault 16 TS with 92hp. 

A new plant near Dieppe

The year 69 was not only erotic but also one of big changes at Alpine, leaving the old workshops of Pasteur Street for a brand new factory on Avenue de Bréauté. The brand now had two modern production facilities and the A110 stood out as the most important French sportscar, despite competition from several other small brands like CG (Chappe and Gessalin) and Matra (with the 530). In competition, the Berlinette continued to show its potential as the range evolved. Farewell to the GT4 and convertible as these models were no longer selling, leaving room for only the Berlinette that continued to evolve, abandoning the ’70’ for a ’85’ Renault 12 TS (1,289 cc and 81 hp), the 1300 becoming the 1300 G (for ‘Gordini’) and the ‘1300 Super’ renamed as the ‘1300S’, with horsepower increased to 132 hp. The 1600 remained in the catalog but now exceeded 100 hp (102 to be exact). At the top of the range sat the 1600S with 138 hp.

The year 1970 was more calm but it must be said that an important new project was underway behind the scenes in Dieppe: the development of the A310 had begun in preparation for its launch in 1971. The A110 evolved very little although the 1600 cc engine was dropped from the lineup. A year later, the A110 range was further simplified to make room for the new A310 and also because the Renault 8 Gordini had disappeared from the Renault catalog, forcing the withdrawal of the 1300 engine and thus the 1300G and S models. The 1600S picked up the new 1605 cc engine of the A310, for reasons of production economies of scale.

The Gendarmerie National Rapid Intervention Brigades drove the A110

World rally title and Renault buyout

Despite its advanced age and the appearance of competition in its own showrooms, with the Alpine A310, the early 70s was the golden era of the A110, ageing a bit but also more and more successful on the rally circuit, winning the World Rally Championship title three years in a row (1971, 1972 and 1973). The legend of the Berlinette was then written on the basis of its rally racing achievements but the situation within the company was not as flourishing as it might have seemed. Production had been paralysed for long weeks in 1972 due to general strikes. This episode had a weakening effect on the company as well as a discouraging and disgusting effect on Jean Rédélé, deciding finally to give into Renault, selling his controlling interest to them in 1973, thus marking the end of Alpine’s independence but not the end of the A110.

Continuing to evolve but now at equal pace with its sister, the A310, the 1600 SC with 138 hp made its appearance in 1973, and then in 1974, was the turn of the 1600 SI (same engine, but injection, for 140 hp). From then on, as the end of its career was approaching, the range was reduced to only one model, the 1600 SX with 95 hp. A year later, in June 1977, marked the final end of production after a grand total of 7,176 French units had been produced.

The A110 1600 SX, the last in the series, is recognisable by its A310 wheels

An international career

The A110 was not only produced in France. Anxious to get money into its coffers, the Alpine of Jean Rédélé had sold manufacturing licenses abroad, for both the A108 and the A110. There were A110 produced under the FASA-Renault brand in Spain, Dinalpin in Mexico, Willys Interlagos in Brazil and even Bulgaralpine in Bulgaria. After a 15 year career, multiple rally victories, international production and an unique design and inimitable line, the A110 had become the emblem of the Alpine name, although less were manufactured than the A310 and for a shorter amount of time. It is the one that inspired Renault’s designers and engineers to revive the brand in 2017.

Today, given the number of versions produced, there are A110 at all prices. But the dream has a price and it is moving higher and higher as the Berlinette hasn’t finished to leave its mark on car enthusiasts of all ages and generations. This little ball of muscle, most often blue, with its adorable face and amazing balance, never ceases to seduce. And it’s not about to stop. That’s the price of nostalgia.

See also our video: An Alpine A110 Group 4 at Tour Auto 2019

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