Line up your cheese footballs and don your party hats, because the Renault 5 Gordini – or more specifically, the Renault 5 Alpine – is turning 40 this year. And PetrolBlog couldn’t allow this anniversary to pass without a mention and a trip down memory lane.
Or, more specifically, a trip down Dorset’s Avon Causeway.
The year was 1992, or possibly 1993 (your memory starts to fade when you reach my age). I was studying* at Brockenhurst College and, along with many of my friends, had only recently passed my driving test. We were assembling an eclectic mix of first cars, including a mint condition and very brown Austin Metro, a cherry red Vauxhall Chevette saloon, an Austin Allegro Vanden Plas and my very own Daihatsu Charade XTE.
My beloved Charade – bought for the princely sum of £30 – was almost certainly the quickest car in the college car park. For sure, its wheezy 3-cylinder 1.0-litre engine didn’t offer much on paper, but by losing bits of unwanted metal through rust, the little Charade weighed less than a beer mat. Colin Chapman would have been proud. Probably.
For years (it was actually a few days), nothing could top this Japanese lightweight. Like a scene straight out of Grease, it vanquished all comers in the race to exit the college car park. That was, until rumours circulated that somebody had bought a Renault 5 Gordini.
As history will recall, the Renault 5 Gordini was a pioneering hot hatch, actually beating the Golf GTI to market. Sure, the UK launch was delayed until 1979, but on the continent, the Renault 5 Alpine was blazing a trail of red, white and blue for the hot hatch obsession. Renault wasn’t allowed to call it the Alpine in the UK, because that name had already been taken by Chrysler. No bother, the Gordini name is just as evocative.
Nobody was quite sure how a penniless student could afford to insure a Renault 5 Gordini. A few weeks earlier I had looked into buying a £300 Mk1 Volkswagen Scirocco Storm, only to see my hopes and dreams come crashing down when the kind lady at the end of phone quoted me £3,000 to insure it THIRD PARTY ONLY. Quote me unhappy. Or something.
If I’m honest, nobody truly believed ‘Billy’ – I won’t use the chap’s real name – had bought a genuine Gordini. Most of us, no doubt through jealously and envy, reckoned it was little more than a Renault 5 dressed up in a Gordini suit. And an ill-fitting suit at that. The bumpers looked like they had been attached to the car by a blindfolded chimp with its hands tied behind its back, while the decals looked suspiciously fresh compared to the rest of the car which – how can I put this – looked altogether more lived in.
At best it was a very tired Renault 5 Gordini breathing its last Gauloises-enriched breaths before heading to the great French scrapyard in the sky. At worst it was a reasonable copy based on a stock Renault 5.
Not that any of this really mattered. The Renault 5 Gordini was a cool car and ‘Billy’ could forever claim it as his first car. Sure beats a Vauxhall Corsa or Ford Fiesta. But Billy’s 5 Gordini wasn’t long for this earth. The French Mini Cooper was destined to head in the same direction as so many hot hatches of the era – sideways into a hedge, before ending up in a field.
‘Billy’ – like the rest of us – was a novice who ran out of talent. Combine this with an unforgiving French hatchback offering 93bhp – more than double that of a normal Renault 5 – and you have a recipe for disaster. What’s more, the Avon Causeway was – and probably still is – a difficult road to tame. Blind corners, camber changes, a pitted surface and sections no wider than the width of one car meant it wasn’t a road to be taken lightly. Even more so if – as was a regular occurrence – the road was submerged by the River Avon.
Word spread around college that ‘Billy’ had ‘binned’ his Gordini, bringing an abrupt end to a brief French love affair. We never did get to the bottom of whether or not it was a genuine Renault 5 Gordini. But the Renault 5 Gordini did find the bottom of the Avon Causeway.
*By studying, I mean driving, reading Autocar & Motor, playing Championship Manager and watching the BTCC on Grandstand.