CC Twofer: 1973 & 1975 Alpine A310 – The French 912?

Boy, this is going to be a challenge. Don Andreina, the sorely missed recently returning contributor from Down Under who authored so many quintessential CC posts, really outdid himself when he wrote up the Alpine A310. We’re talking deep, thought-provoking stuff here, a complex mosaic of thoughts and pictures woven together into a world-class tapestry of automotive delight. Go read that while I try and write this.

The one thing that Don’s superb post kind of lacked was the car “in CC form,” i.e. as found on the street. There were a few, but the example found was not in the best of shapes. And this is one shape that deserves to be seen more.

This is perhaps the only reason why I will attempt to write this post: I happen to have two outstanding A310s in my files. Which means this post will be a tad photo-heavy. Hope you won’t mind too much.

This white ’75 example is a fixture at a garage in downtown Tokyo and is perhaps the less beautiful of the two. This is not just because the other one is blue – a most fitting colour for an Alpine – but also because it clearly has a few defects here and there. But then, that’s par for the course with these cars.

The blue 1973 car is a very recent addition to my photo folder, as I found it over the past weekend at the annual Nihonbashi classic car display – an exceptionally fruitful Sunday, CC-wise.

On the off chance that you haven’t read Don’s magnum opus, a couple of pointers about the A310 might be worthwhile. The car was Alpine’s first complete redesign, owing nothing esthetically speaking to the A110 or older models, though the founding principles of a backbone chassis and a rear Renault engine were kept. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t have been an Alpine.

The Renault connection went all the way back to the very start of Jean Rédélé’s (the man behind Alpine) career, back when the 4CV was the Régie’s hot new car. The engine used for the A310 used the R16 TS’s capable 1.6 litre hemi-head engine, but with quite a few modifications, including a slightly larger bore resulting in about 50cc in additional displacement (1605cc), much higher compression ratio and twin carburetors, providing 127hp (DIN) and mated to a 5-speed manual.

For MY 1974, the engine traded its cars for a Bosch EFI system, but output remained unchanged. That year also saw the NACA air scoops moved from the base of the windshield to the front end of the car. The big change for the A310 was the advent of the V6 variant in 1976, which supplanted the 4-cyl. and turned the Alpine into something of a French 911, ungainly spoilers and fender flares unfortunately included. But that’s not really the object of this post. These are French 912s, as yet unspoiled by the excesses of the ‘80s.

There has been much discussion about who penned this unique shape, much of it can be found in Dottore Andreina’s post. Suffice it to say that success has many fathers, and some of them might be Italian. The prototype car, unveiled in early 1971, had a rather different back end, with taillights above the bumper (if one can call it that). This was deemed unacceptable by French authorities, so Alpine had to adopt the late-model E-Type solution of sticking whatever they could find (Renault 12 clusters, I believe?) under the beltline.

The body is entirely made of glass-fibre polyester laminate, another Alpine tradition. As we can see on this particular shot of the ’75 car, some warping may occur with time. Some cars were straighter than others… This was a bit less noticeable on the A110’s curvier body, but the A310’s razor-sharp lines required better fit and finish than Alpine were able to provide.

Earlier cars were especially poor in this regard, including a lot of squeaks, rattles and leaky roofs – all quite unbecoming what was supposed to be a rather sophisticated GT.

The ’75 car’s switchgear between the seats looks a lot more ‘70s Space-Age and a bit more substantial than in previous years. Good thing too, for the A310 did not come cheap. Domestic prices in 1975 were north of FF 57,000 – quite a sum for a 4-cyl. car. You could buy a V6-powered 504 Coupé for FF 41,000 or, if plastic-clad 4-cyl. two-doors were really your thing, a Matra Bagheera was available for a mere FF 31,000.

This came at a time when, in the wake of the First Oil Shock, motorway speed restrictions were enacted in France. The Citroën SM (FF 74,000!) never recovered; the Alpine was barely hanging on.

I didn’t just mention the Citroën gratuitously, as aside from a hefty price tag, the SM and the A310 shared another key feature: a dramatic six-headlamp nose. I can tell you that these two cars, though pretty uncommon in 1980s France, were certainly very noticeable to a young and impressionable T87. Both the Alpine and the Citroën are etched in my brain for life, and it’s all due to their amazing front ends.

Later A310s pared the headlamp count back to four, thus losing a lot of appeal (for some of us…). But the profile didn’t change much. And it is quite striking too. Just compare the Alpine to the Lotus Europa, another plastic sports car that used the R16’s engine (albeit placed amidships) and the British car looks even stranger and ill-proportioned.

The Alpine A310 was a major investment for its maker, so much so that Rédélé had to ask Renault for a financial lifeline. In the first half of 1973, Alpine officially changed its name to Alpine-Renault as the State-owned conglomerate took a majority stake in the little sports car firm. But unlike, say, Citroën’s takeover of Panhard, Renault understood that Alpine had intrinsic value as a (semi-)independent concern, so production continued unabated for many years.

Indeed, when the marque was mothballed in the mid-‘90s, the factory was not closed, switching to producing Renault-branded specialty cars. And in 2016, Renault announced the return of Alpine, which has been quite a success.

Alpine only managed to sell 2340 units of the 4-cyl. A310 from 1971 to 1976, but the V6 version that followed it fared much better. On reflection, the “French Porsche” nickname is not very apt. This is more like a French Lotus with better styling and more headlamps, but just as iffy quality control.

And Don, it’s really, really good to have you back at CC. Looking forward to reading your new stuff with impatience!


Related post:

Curbside Classic: 1971-76 Alpine A310 – Bittersweet Edge, by Don Andreina