Curbside Classic: 1990 Renault 5 (Supercinq) GT Turbo – Plenty Of Baguette Up’n’Go

This Renault could illustrate the dictionary definition of a hot hatch. The official story, as parroted by all, is that it all started in the late ‘70s with Volkswagen and the Golf GTI. That small revolution prompted a deluge of sporty hatchbacks – some hotter than others, of course. But as Opel, Peugeot, Lancia, Toyota, Ford and many others were only too happy to follow VW’s lead, by the mid-‘80s, the hot hatch hit its stride as a global phenomenon.

France’s most popular carmaker, Renault, had always done things a little differently. The Renault 5, even before its journey across the Atlantic as the Le Car, was a tremendous success since its January 1972 debut. The 92hp Alpine version was launched in the spring of 1976, just a few months prior to the Golf GTI hitting the dealerships. But then the Golf had a catchy non-trademarked acronym rather than a name, so it got the honours of being remembered as the first hot hatch. It’s all moot anyway, as the Simca 1100Ti was in there years before either the R5 or the Golf…

Anyway, the Renault 5 was a brilliant design, a rousing success (5.5 million made) and it also had that mad mid-engined Turbo version, so it fully deserves to be in the Pantheon of Great French Things, along with the TGV, the metric system and puff pastry. But how could Renault follow up such a massive hit? By making the successor look like its illustrious ancestor, of course. Marcello Gandini (and Gaston Juchet) pretty much ironed the creases off the Renault 5, made the lights flush with the body and added safety features, but the family resemblance was quite striking.

The 3-door version of the new Renault 5, known universally (another great PR trick) as the Supercinq (“Super 5”), was launched in late 1984; the LWB 5-door arrived about six months later. Under a skin that recalled its great predecessor, the Super 5 was a completely new car, being based on the R9/R11 (a.k.a Encore/Alliance) rather than the R4. Engine options went from 950cc to 1.4 litres initially, but towards the end of MY 1985, the 1.6 litre Diesel was added to the range (something the older R5 never got). Around that time also, the R5 Alpine was finally replaced as well – by the GT Turbo.

The GT Turbo used the same engine as the old Alpine Turbo, i.e. the venerable 1397cc Cléon Fonte OHV 4-cyl. that had first seen action in the early ‘60s (albeit with a smaller displacement). Old uncle Cléon was given a Garrett T2 turbocharger and various ameliorations to coax 115hp out of it initially, mated to a 5-speed manual and nothing else.

In late 1987, the Super 5 got a facelift and a number of improvements and new versions. For its part, the GT Turbo got a few more ponies to reach 120hp. In addition to a few aerodynamic enhancements, this resulted in a pretty impressive 205kph top speed and the ability to reach 100kph from a standstill in 7.8 seconds.

So all in all, the GT Turbo was as hot as a hatch could be, for the times. Quick and nimble, body kitted to the hilt, dash full of brittle plastic and shod with a set of Alpine-like 13-inch alloys – good stuff, mostly. The dash is definitely not the Super 5’s best feature, but seeing one sure brought back memories. The original seats must have disintegrated sometime around 2010. Recaros are in the spirit of the vehicle, at least.

There were a lot of Super 5s around when I was growing up, as it was the top selling car in France from 1986 to 1989. So seeing this little beast in the heart of Tokyo was like seeing an old friend again after many years. I never knew anyone with a GT Turbo, but a good mate of mine had a Baccarat – the super-deluxe version with a great stereo, genuine leather seats and the biggest engine, a 1.7 that only offered 90hp but still made for a sweet and competent little car.

The Super 5 took a bit of a hit when Renault launched the Clio in 1990, which squeezed it from above, and the Twingo in 1992, which squeezed it from below. The GT Turbo variant was one of the first to be pensioned off in 1991, as the Clio 16V and the Williams took over hot hatch duties. Still, old number 5 had its fan base, so Renault kept it in the range for a while. The axe finally came down in 1996, by which time close to 3.5 million Super 5s had been released on the (chiefly European) roads, including 160,000 GT Turbos.

This all makes it quite strange that CC has never featured one of these fairly recent and widely popular Renaults in any depth before today. The conundrum is that CContributors, be they writers or photographers, either live in places where these are still dirt-common bangers, i.e. most of Europe, or in North America, where they plain don’t exist. (And if you are in Australia, New Zealand, Africa or Latin America, I suppose you could be attached to either category, but I don’t know where these were exported globally…)

The GT Turbo isn’t exactly rare on paper, but in the wild, I cannot recall the last time I saw one, much less one that looked this good. Leave it to Japan to surprise us with a superbly preserved example of this hottest of hatches, then. French classics are far less easy to come by than German, British, Italian or American ones here, but at least, when something is found, it’s usually worth documenting. Especially when it’s wearing the (im-)proper shade of French Racing Blue!