There is a long line of small sporty Renaults, going all the way back to the 4CV. Some were special-bodied and wore an Alpine badge, but others were closer to regular production models. Early sporty Renault saloons, such as the 4CV and Dauphine 1063, were relatively tame and limited-production affairs, but things really only started getting pretty hot with the Renault 8 Gordini.
Renault and Gordini tied the knot back in 1957. For Amedeo Gordini, a.k.a Le Sorcier, this meant the end of a long decade of trying to become Bugatti’s postwar successor on the track. Gordini had some initial successes, but without the road car side of the business to get a steady income stream going, the “Sorcerer” was mired in near-permanent financial woes. For their part, Renault were buying a name, like what BMC did with Cooper, but they also got access to a highly competent team of racing mechanics who could squeeze out a lot of hp from any engine, as well as make the rest of the car handle the added power, like Abarth did with Fiats.
Gordini’s first job was to give the Dauphine a bit of a boost. That was done very quickly and the end result, though very popular in sales terms, was pretty modest performance-wise. With the Dauphine’s successor though, things were going to be different. The R8 was launched in June 1962 and the Gordini team set to work turning the boxy four-door into a properly hot car. The result was exhibited at the Paris Motor Show in late 1964, painted in blue and wearing a pair of white stripes. A legend was born.
The R8 Gordini was essentially an R8 Major with the new 1100cc Cléon engine, but with a number of modifications. The suspension was lower and harder, the four disc brakes more powerful, better ventilated and servo-assisted, the rack and pinion steering made more direct. The dash was given a few extra dials, but otherwise the interior remained pretty unchanged. One big difference was the presence of a second fuel tank located in the front – the rather small standard one in the rear was deemed insufficient.
The engine was where Gordini practised the bulk of his famous sorcery. The 1100cc Cléon’s power was almost doubled. Renault entered the car in several rallies and it performed extremely well, but sales remained rather lacklustre. Then, in late 1966, the (now officially just plain “8”) Gordini got a makeover, with a pair of foglamps inset in the front end and, most interestingly, a boost in displacement up to 1.3 litres (1255cc), as seen above in a MY 1967 Renault brochure shot. Gordini switched to twin 2-bbl Weber carbs instead of the Solexes used up to then, also improving reliability. Power increased by 15hp to reach 110hp (gross) and was now mated to a brand new fully-synchronized 5-speed gearbox, so the car really took off, in both the literal and commercial sense of the term.
The extra headlights helped set the Gordini apart from the rest of the R8 crowd even more than the blue and white stripes colour scheme, which was the only one available on the car until the last couple of model years.
The dash is based on that of the R8 Major, just like the rest of the car, but the gauges, extra controls and the gear lever were all specific to the Gordini. For MY 1969, Renault put the finishing touch on the whole thing with a new nine-hole steering wheel.
The fact that 8 Gordini kept its more comfort-oriented seats as were was, interestingly enough, a key factor in its commercial success. Renault sold these as the ultimate weekday family car / weekend rally racer, and it worked a charm.
Sales were so good in fact that Renault created a special “Gordini Cup” event calendar, alternately composed of track meets and hill climbs, for amateur R8 drivers. The popularity of these events only grew with time, and it was even pretty difficult for them to stop once the Gordini magic was passed on to the Renault 12 for MY 1971.
The thing about the R8 Gordini was that it was extremely lively, both in terms of its engine and handling. Although it was lowered and somewhat beefed up, the suspension still kept a significant sting in its tail, i.e. a swing axle setup with a water-cooled iron block motor hanging behind it. Nonetheless, all folks who raced these only had high praise for them, claiming that a properly-sorted Renault 8 Gordini was the most fun one could have with clothes on, something that far fewer enthusiasts were ready to say about the front-drive R12.
They weren’t giving these away. In 1968, the price of the Renault 8 Gordini was 13 500 Francs, making it the most expensive car in Renault’s entire range. These cost more than a fuel-injected Peugeot 404 Super-Luxe or a 2-litre Citroën ID-19. Despite that, over 11,000 R8 Gordinis were made between 1965 and 1970 – of which almost 9000 had the 1.3 litre engine.
Renault 8 Gordini was extremely hot – so much so that it generated its own racing culture. At the same time, Renault helped popularize the hatchback with their groundbreaking R16, but did not merge that feature with the Gordini pedigree until a bit later, with the R17 Gordini. But the lineage that begat the Super5 GT, the Clio Williams or the Mégane RS, among a host of lozenge-badged hot hatches, can be said to start here. And boy, did it start!
COAL: 1965 Renault 8 – Beginnings, by Michael Ionno