Renaul Alpine A110 1600S. Click image to enlarge
Article by Brendan McAleer, photos by manufacturers
In previous versions of Obtainable Unobtainium, we’ve covered Germanic go-fastery, rare and unusual Japanese sword-masters, and even some highly pedigreed Italian horseflesh. None of these cars were originally available in Canada, but under our grey market rules, any vehicle older than fifteen years can be imported as long as you fill out all the associated paperwork and pay the duty on it – it’s not exactly simple, but it is workable.
This time around, we thought we’d celebrate la difference, and take a look at some of the delicate French automotive pastries that we never got here. With Renault pulling out in the 1980s, and no Citroëns officially sold here since the mid-1970s, it’s been a long drought.
Granted, French cars are a little weird and wacky, and generally aren’t paragons of either speed or reliability. However, they are interesting, and the more recent stuff is much missed on these shores. Wouldn’t you like the chance to have a go in something like a Citroën DS3, or a Renault Twingo? I certainly would.
Happily, if you crave something with a little Gallic flair, there are a number of offerings that are now elderly enough to squeeze on past the borders. Allons-y!
Renault Alpine A110 1600S
This car is considerably older than fifteen years; in fact, it was built between 1961 and 1977, making it eligible for collector plates. However, it’s just so pretty and so French, I have to include it right off the bat.
Alpine was a small racing supplier that built a successful business competing in road racing using Renault engines and designs based off Renault chassis. They were eventually entirely bought out by Renault.
While little known in Canada, the car is quite famous for its rally pedigree, including multiple rally wins in the early 1970s. In 1971, the cars took victory at the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally, sweeping the podium with first, second and third place. In 1973, Renault Alpine A110s would not just sweep Monte Carlo again but also go on to win the entire World Rally Championship, besting manufacturers like Porsche and Lancia.
In road-going form, the Berlinette 1600S is probably the one to have. Powered by a sturdy 1.6L engine making a stout 140 hp, it only weighs 650 kg or so, and can boast excellent acceleration.
Would I actually recommend buying one? Probably not. It’s an important car, and a gorgeous classic, but prices are through the roof, and both restoring and maintaining one is no picnic. Most of the suspension and the engine is pure Renault 8, so parts aren’t impossible to come by, but stuff like the gearbox is proprietary Alpine technology, and repairing the fibreglass body can be a nightmare.
However, it’s just so lovely, I have to lead off the list with it. Not for the casual enthusiast, but for someone with patience and passion.
Renault Sport Spider & Peugeot 205 GTI. Click image to enlarge
Renault Sport Spider
Now here’s a French lightweight confection you can actually afford. The Sport Spider is an aluminum-chassis, plastic-bodied roadster assembled at the Alpine factory between 1996 and 1999; they made just 1800 of them, and it’s like a French MR2 convertible.
Er, well, sort of a convertible. In point of fact, there isn’t any roof. At all. Maybe just buy an extra large hat.
Intended to support a one-make racing series, the Sport Spider (and isn’t that a great name?) is a real driver’s car in terms of handling and responsiveness, and comes with adjustable pedals for getting your driving position just right. A five-speed stick shift is the only transmission option, and the engine is a 148-hp 2.0L four-cylinder out of the Renault Megane, a mid-sized hatchback analogous to a Ford Focus.
It’s actually a rocket, not unlike a Lotus Elise, except decidedly more odd. While the two-tone yellow-and-black colours are classic Renault, I’d plump for the deep blue, as it’s more fitting for a car with Alpine roots.
Peugeot 205 GTI
This isn’t the GTI you usually think of. A lightweight, nimble hatchback that initially came powered by a 104-hp engine. Not much, but the car only weighed less than 900 kg, so it was deft and sparkling, and a hoot and a half to drive.
If you ever meet anyone who’s had a chance to drive one of these cars, they won’t stop talking about how effervescent it was. It’s the automotive version of Champagne, and as we all know, real Champagne only comes from France. Later cars were available with a 1.9L engine, and the 205 GTI was built right through until the mid 1990s.
But let’s talk briefly about something even more special: the 205 GTI T16. This rally homologation special is nearly impossible to find, but as one of the last cars of the WRC’s deadly Group B era, it’s a corker. You get all-wheel drive, widened fender flares, and a turbocharged engine cranking out 197 hp. Too bad they only made 200 of them.