Curbside Classic: 1984 Renault 5 Turbo 2 – They Grow Out So Fast

French Coupé Week takes a handbrake turn for the exceptional, so hold on tight! The standard-issue Renault 5 would not be called a coupé. It’s a 3-door hatchback saloon, strictly speaking. But if you take the rear seats out and put a turbocharged engine in their stead, it’s not too much of a stretch to call it a two-seater coupé. On steroids.

It was a pretty drastic intervention. Nobody at Renault ever thought of turning the cute little FWD city car into a mid-engined fire-breathing WRC contender until that odd idea came in 1976 to Jean Terramosi, a former racing driver and Gordini protégé then in charge of limited-series products for Renault and his deputy, Henry Lherm. They were admiring the Lancia Stratos and figured that the charismatic R5 could be used as a vessel for a real Renault rally car – something Alpine were in no position to develop at the time.

They called it Projet 822 and work proceeded pretty swiftly. An initial styling blueprint was done in-house by Robert Opron, fresh out of Citroën, while the engineering team identified the motor they wanted to use – the front-drive R5 Alpine’s 1397cc, but fuel-injected and fed by a Garrett T3 turbocharger, placed just ahead of the rear wheels and mated to a 5-speed gearbox. Terramosi never saw the first prototype though: he passed away suddenly in August 1976. But his vision had caught on.

In 1977, a second-hand Renault 5 Alpine was driven to the Bertone works in Turin, loaded with blueprints. Marcello Gandini was tasked with realising the first mock-up of the heavily revised R5, along with the interior styling. Renault wanted something that would wow the world, both inside and out.

The 5’s basic monocoque was essentially kept as was, though certain modifications (e.g. the roof and the hatch, now made of aluminium) were implemented even there. The famous all-torsion-bar suspension was kept at the front, though all the components of the suspension were beefed up pretty substantially. The rear suspension, however, was based on the Alpine A310 V6, with double wishbones and coils. Ventilated disc brakes were naturally adopted on all corners.

A twin fuel tank setup, totalling 93 litres, also gave the car a huge amount of autonomy – those huge cheeks were not merely used for cooling the engine. The R5 Turbo premiered at the 1978 Paris Motor Show, though it was still a non-functional show car (built by Heuliez) at that point.

Development carried on until a pre-series model was seen at Frankfurt in 1979, and the car saw its baptism of fire at the Giro d’Italia in October of that year. But the real launch took place in January 1980 at the Brussels show. France’s first turbocharged production car was now officially on the market.

The main goal was to enter the R5 Turbo in the World Rally Championship’s Groups 3 and 4, so Renault’s rally drivers got dibs on the first cars. Those were in race tune, with a 210-250hp engine initially, though some were later boosted to over 350hp to keep up with the competition.

But there was also a street version, with a respectable 160hp (DIN). Only available in blue or red, it was the proverbial pocket rocket. Said pocket had to be quite deep, though, as at FF 125k a pop in the summer of 1980, the R5 Turbo was – by some margin – the most expensive car in the range, Alpine A310 included.

Our feature car, though, is the Turbo 2 (1983-85), the cheaper second series of the beast. The first iteration’s whacky Bertone interior was replaced by something a lot more sensible (and fashionably black), straight out of the R5 Alpine. The Turbo 1’s aluminium panels reverted to steel, as well. This resulted in a 25% reduction in price, without changing the car’s blistering performance.

The Turbo 2’s unchanged 160hp engine, despite the (negligible) weight gain, still delivered a 0 to 100kph time under seven seconds, as well as a top speed in excess of 205kph (120mph). I’m not sure how safe one would feel going that fast in a glorified ‘70s city car. That steering wheel sure looks tempting.

The front end is filled to the brim with a fat spare wheel, the battery and the radiator, so there’s virtually no cargo space to speak of. Just a tiny void between the hatch and the engine cover – enough for a couple of shopping bags, if that. It’s a near-pure, loud and hot rally car, not a comfy GT designed to whisk you to the Riviera. Yet despite this and their astronomical retail value, Renault sold these as quickly as they could build them.

They even exported a few – including all the way to Japan, as we can see. There’s a fair chance that the one I caught was sold here new 40 years ago. The Turbo 1 (1980-82) garnered 1690 sales, whereas the slightly cheaper and saner Turbo 2 sold 3167 copies. An untold number of additional Turbo 1s were made in WRC spec and eagerly raced, with evermore powerful engines, throughout the ‘80s.

This may explain why Renault did not feel an immediate need to propose a successor to the beastly R5. There was a Super5 Turbo GT, but it was a tamer front-driver – more akin to the R5 Alpine. Nevertheless, the R5 Turbo left an indelible impression on enthusiasts. Even young ones such as yours truly, who gazed in wonder at the rare sight of those huge rear air scoops flanking the familiar R5 taillights, were well aware that this was not the same car as the neighbour’s grocery-getter.

Renault eventually tapped into this heritage by creating the 1999 Clio Trophy rally car, soon followed by the related street-legal 2001-05 Clio V6 Sport, featuring a 2.9 litre 227hp 6-cyl. engine. Just under 3000 of those were made – close, but not quite as good as its illustrious ancestor.

As one of the few RWD cars based on a FWD model, the R5 Turbo is intrinsically strange. But add the scarcity, the wide hips and the racing pedigree, and you’ve got something of a legend. On steroids.


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Curbside Classic: 1983-86 Renault R5 Turbo II – Le Monster Car, by Dave Skinner