The man behind the A110 talks about his lifelong Renault obsession and the other cars that have been a big influence in his life
I collected small Matchbox and Dinky cars from the age of two or three. I was fond of cars and only cars. I had a Scalextric Porsche 906 Carrera in white and a Ferrari – a P2 or P3 I think. I remember playing with them a lot. Today I am buying a lot of model cars such as Alpines, Ferraris and Porsches. My wife is afraid it will never end!
The first time I actually remember seeing a sports car was growing up in Marrakesh, at the Rallye du Maroc [Rally of Morocco], which was a world championship event at that time. When it came to the city at night they had to do some servicing, and were taking over the garages that were in the city. What sticks in my mind is the big lights, mechanics, cars going around at night. Those mechanics were making it happen, making it possible. Maybe it was the engineering side that appealed. I am not a driver, I am an engineer. It’s a very good memory for me.
I drove my parents’ car at a very young age. They didn’t know that at the time, because I was driving the car when they were going out. This is something completely crazy, but when I was eight or nine my mother accepted that I would start the engine of our Renault 4 in the winter so it would be warmed up for her, so I knew where the keys were and I was authorised to start the engine. And of course, after a few weeks I wanted to go a step further. When they were out I was starting the car, selecting first gear and driving five metres. Then reversing to the same location so they couldn’t notice.
The first car I owned – and this I’m very proud of – was an Alpine A110, because since I was 15 years old I wanted one. The Alpine for me was the perfect car – small, agile – so I was telling everybody this at the age of 15, to give myself the courage to fulfil the dream, and every penny at Christmas, my birthday, whatever, went in a small box. I was checking the prices of Alpines, even if I didn’t know their condition, and they were 25,000-30,000 French francs.
When I was old enough to do summer jobs I did all I could, in a hospital, in a dry cleaners – and meter reading, so I had a company car. Little by little, when I was 20 years old, I realised A110s were starting to become classics and they may become out of reach if I didn’t buy one then. You can feel when a car is getting more interest and [magazine] articles. So, I got a loan while still a student – I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t go to nightclubs, I just had my passion for Alpine – of 10,000 French francs, 25 per cent of the cost of the car, and bought an A110. I was very proud of all my efforts: my first car was an Alpine, at 21 years old. The year was 1988.
I bought a 1300cc one, the small engine, from 1971, with all the chrome – bonnet, doors… That is what I prefer. I still have it. I couldn’t imagine selling that car. I got married in that car, I fully restored it, so even if you gave me a 1600S – if it’s an ex-works car we can discuss! – I would say ‘no’. My car has been displayed at the launch of the Alpine/Caterham presentation with Mr Ghosn [Carlos, former Renault CEO], with Mr Tavares [Carlos, PSA CEO], displayed at Renault head office; I’ve done so many events with it it’s above any other Alpine in terms of emotion for me.
It was a very long restoration; I wanted to do it myself. I did nearly everything apart from the paintwork, and once or twice I was tired and I said, ‘I will sell it,’ and my wife told me: ‘No, just have a rest. We will keep this car. We will never sell it.’ It took me nine years.
My schooling was mathematical and theoretical, so my challenge was to make this technical background link with a job in cars. I was always interested in Renault; if Peugeot had hired me I wouldn’t have gone. It was Renault, Renault or Renault. I was passionate about Renault’s history and I was sending letters to them every month. After university, I moved to Paris and started to work for Airbus – it was enjoyable, but I didn’t like planes. My office had pictures of Renault 5 Turbos and Alpines and everyone knew here was a guy to discuss cars with. Some would come to see me on Monday morning to discuss the F1, others on whether to buy a 5 GT Turbo or 205 GTI.
In 1990, after 18 months at Airbus, I moved to Renault. I started in south-east Asia, then moved to engineering in the chassis department, stayed ten years, then moved to the department in charge of sports cars [Renault Sport]. I then worked in F1 for three years, I believe because I had been going every week to see TWR [for the Clio V6] near the F1 factory, and my last car at Renault Sport was the Mégane R26.R. I was in charge of customer racing for just under ten years, and have been at Alpine since 2012, when we had the joint venture set up with Caterham.
Some said I was crazy when we proposed the R26.R, of course. There was a bit of that! We had a very dynamic one-year development to make our own GT3 RS – that is what we tried to do. For me, people have to be happy when they drive a car. But of course, with a sports car [like the new A110] you have to be at the right level of performance. It was a real stress for us before we launched the Alpine; we had less than 300bhp (225kW), we had ‘just sized’ tyres – not the narrow ones I really wanted, but… – and the main thing was: ‘Will we be understood with this car?’
With the Alpine DNA we had no choice – we paid attention to every detail of the mechanics of the car to ensure people would say first it is an Alpine, and also that it’s good. This was to make a smiley machine, to make it enthusiastic, even though the car is not 500bhp or full of electronic devices. We succeeded in making it as light as we hoped, but it was an everyday battle.
My main problem with modern performance cars is the fact we always want to do better. I know it’s [a] good [thing], and we all want to perform better, but… you don’t need 700bhp (520kW). I think there’s something wrong. As for the weight, being an Alpine enthusiast myself, with my 700kg A110, even our new car is slightly too big and heavy.
Looking back, my biggest influence has been Renault. I loved them before my parents bought a Renault. I was crazy about Renault. Professionally and personally I have two brands which are iconic for me: Ferrari and Porsche. I know it’s common [to say that], but it’s a serious thought. Ferrari because it’s hot, and Porsche because it’s cold. Porsche is for me the most influential from a professional point of view, because everything they do is perfect, and it’s a lesson for every day. When you benchmark their cars, when you look at their way of working – very classical, very serious. At the same time they’ll do a limited edition to show they can do a Spyder or whatever. For me this is a lesson.
In my garage at home I have a new A110 with the limited number of ‘1300’; the licence plate on my old A110 1300cc is ‘110’ – these things are important for me! After owning most of the Renault Sport cars, including a Spider, I needed to know what the other guys have been doing… so I have owned a Porsche 997 Carrera S and a Ferrari 328 coupe, and now I have a Porsche 912, 1968, short-wheelbase model.
In my dream garage is a Dino 246. For me the Dino is really my car above everything, because it’s like an Alpine but with the hot spirit of a Ferrari. It’s really my dream. I haven’t driven one yet, but even the waiting for that moment is something I enjoy.
However, if I must pick one car on one road, then I’d say the Col de Turini in an A110, maybe going up with the old one, and down with the new one, with a coffee or cup of tea on top of the Col!’