Continuing this week’s French theme on ViaRETRO, let me elaborate a bit on how, when and why I visited the Le Mans Classic in my Alpine A310 – and of course, on how great it was.
To answer the last question first: It was truly terrific. Almost perfect. Well, almost epic, even. And the answer is deeply connected to why I took the Alpine. Which was built in 1978. Which is a great year for Alpine. And, which is 40 years ago.
All these numbers weren’t really part of any grand scheme or plan as I bought the Alpine last summer (read the full story here: 1250 Kilometers and Happy: My New Alpine A310), but formed in my head during autumn and winter after the purchase. One of the things which impressed me most with my A310 was its level of comfort, and it dawned upon me that this was one sports car which would be equally well suited for long roadtrips as it would be attacking winding roads. But where to go? Well, Le Mans Classic seemed perfect for that 2018 roadtrip.
Especially considering the statistics: It would be 40 years since the Renault Alpine A443 won the race, and I was naturally expecting Renault to celebrate. They certainly delivered, as they turned up with the real thing as well as several sister cars, and not only on display but in the race as well. Add to that, a huge display of all things Alpine from oldest to newest and I could not have chosen a better event to attend. Yes, of course I bought the cup, the shirt and the decals and learnt a lot about the marque at Le Mans to boot. It was in short a great weekend for Alpines of all sorts, and I’ll get back to the Le Mans Classic itself at a later stage.
For the thing is – it was not only being there which was great, it was also getting there. Because I was in an Alpine. MY Alpine. Accompanied by my wife and two friends in suitably different classic cars, which just added to the spectacle.
And a spectacle it was: We weren’t going the direct route, as a 1,400 kilometer straight-line drive somehow seemed too easy. Instead we planned a detour over the Mosel region (race fans might know this as the “Nürburging region”) where we were to exploit great roads, food and more great roads (importantly in that order!), as well as visit a few automobile hot spots along the way. After the Le Mans weekend, we’d split up and explore our own ways home where fittingly the youngest car would continue south as the older ones returned north.
Which cars? Well, the three could barely be more different: Besides my very French 1978 A310, there was an extremely capable 1986 Porsche 944 Turbo and a most distinguished gentleman of an 1968 Iso Rivolte IR300. Three very different ways of arriving at something which can cruise at 130 km/h all day, aren’t they?
Truth be told, at least two of us were probably not all that sure that they actually could: Ronald in the Iso had new head gaskets fitted to the Corvette drivetrain the week before departure following overheating on a trip to the old Iso factory in May – yes, that was his rather comprehensive test drive leading up to Le Mans Classic. I had settled with driving several 300 kilometer round trips to test the wellbeing of the Alpine – only to discover the Wednesday before our Sunday departure, that my cooling fans had some intermittent failures, cutting out the fans and causing the car to become rather hot at standstill.
Peter in the Porsche not only has the newest car of the bunch (as well as the best, I think one could say) but is also by far the most competent mechanic, so he kindly invited me to drop by for a fix: Sure enough, he identified the offending part to be a loose connection at the fuses and once tweaked the Alpine kept its cool again.
The car, at least: We also investigated the passenger electrical window which would suddenly not return to a completely closed position. However, this seemed to be caused by some mechanical failure within the window drive mechanism, so we decided merely to close it permanently. Meaning that only the driver window would open – which could become quite a nuisance in the French Summer. This reminded me a lot of our last trip to France in 2015: That was in the Scimitar, but bizarrely also with just one opening window. And we survived. I guess we would this time as well.
Packing the A310 was an issue though. In the Scimitar we were away for two weeks and had lots and lots of space for stuff we would pick up along the way – champagne, for example. In the Alpine – well, not so much. Of course it shares its basic mechanical layout with the Porsche 911, but somehow the French managed to make it all much less practical: There’s a front boot like in the 911 – but it is very low and almost circular in shape. As most suitcases aren’t circular this isn’t very space efficient, and the same goes for the next available space – the back seats. In fact, I had bought two new soft canvas holdalls for this specific reason, and coupled with a certain restraint in packing (I don’t think we carried more than 8-10 pairs of shoes between us!) it all worked out perfectly. Amazingly, actually: The Alpine wasn’t that impractical after all.
So last Sunday morning we set off, heading for Münster, a day trip of around 600 kilometers. Our meeting point was after an hours drive and already there the Alpine had shone: If anything it was even more quiet than on my usual solo drives – and in fact more stable as well. A full tank (up front, of course) as well as a full boot helped with it’s notorious sensitivity to crosswinds, and as such making the car even more relaxing to drive. The two other cars were at first sight equally loaded – until I realized that the Porsche had not yet taken the rear seats into use, but managed to pack everything in the boot. Surely, this was the best car of the bunch?
The most powerful was probably the Iso, though: The Italian exotic uses the engine from the Corvette and as such boasts 300 horsepower – double that of the Alpine and even bettering the Turbo’s 220. Those 300 horses are coupled to an automatic transmission though – and somehow I think some of those horses may have run off to greener fields elsewhere? It sounded wonderful though and was also by far the loudest of our group. In the real world I had no doubt that the Porsche was the fastest: During overtaking I watched, heard and even smelled its turbo engine catapult the car in tremendous bursts of acceleration. Quite impressive really – and I couldn’t help think what a stonkingly capable machine the 944 Turbo actually is, especially considering the still very sensible prices for the model.
As mentioned: It was probably the best car of the bunch by most measures – although hard pressed, Peter did admit that his temperature needle also rose when queuing. With a needles width! I suspect this could even be something he made up simply to make Ronald and I feel better: Our needles only just managed to stay below the really critical area. Most of the time. As we queued north of Hamburg, my needle travelled worryingly high up the scale and as we entered the Elb tunnel it just continued on its merry way – the old trick of turning on the interior heating stopped it short of red (actually orange in an Alpine), but it naturally worried me considerably. Ronald had the same concerns in the Iso, but Peter tried to console us: The cars did not actually overheat and boil, did they? No, in fact they kept their water in the radiators – and as such, he tried to convince us, our problems were partly pshycological: We were simply addicted to our thermometers!
This great analysis was a recurring theme in our conversations, but unfortunately the Alpine set out to prove there was more to it: At one or two occasions during low speeds, I thought I saw the temperature reach unusually high values – but initially dismissed this as a pschycological problem. However, it turned out that the fans had again cut out: When driving really slowly or at a stand still, the fans can normally be heard ever so slightly – and suddenly I couldn’t. Luckily it turned out to be a loose fuse again and as such it was an easy fix – even on the Autobahn hard shoulder. But it happened several times, and quite why it kept reoccurring was beyond all of us, as there really shouldn’t be much physical influence there – a lot of current yes, but not much movement. Anyway, finally it seemed I got the fuse so well fixated that it did not occur during the last 1,000 kilometers.
Thankfully, this was prior to the most entertaining part of our roadtrip: So far I had mostly driven motorways in the A310 – which it is in fact surpringly good at. Considering it looks much like a junior exotic sports car of only 115 centimeters in height, it really manages an impressive attempt at being a pure grand tourer as well. Considering the curbweight of less than a ton, this is even more impressive: Surely it should be loud and hard? Not at all, and I believe this is indeed the most underrated virtue of the A310 V6.
However there was more to come as we hit the Mosel area on day 2 and the roads turned twisty: The steering of the Alpine is simply up there with the very best, and it was pure, undiluted pleasure feeding the nimble GT through the long and winding corners. We took turns at the lead along the way, and it was rather interesting to witness the Grand Old Man Iso handling those bends as well – Ronald had to work at the wheel, where as the Alpine and the 944 were in their right element.
On Day three and Four we had further excursions in the rich Mosel region, and Peter had found several routes throwing one curve after the next at the cars and even including som quite demanding hairpins. This was were the Alpine really came into its own, and I had a fabulous time at the wheel during our drives. Turn-in is nothing short of tremendous, and both the brakes and gearbox are perfectly weighed for spirited driving under these circumstances. The pedals are perfectly placed too, and suddenly I realized that the Alpine was indeed a proper sports car as well.
Though, what surprised me the most was the engine: Frankly, 150 horsepower isn’t much – but neither is 1,000 kilos. Most importantly, the engine delivers its power and not least its torque completely linear and from very low revs – which turned out to be perfect in the hilly hairpins. The engine is the of course the infameous Peugeot-Renault-Volvo-cooperation known from the top models of all three manufactures. Typically limousines though, and as such it makes sense that the PRV majors on torque. But it turns out, this works just as well in a lightweight sports car hurling up inclined hairpins.
It sounds good too. Or so I’m told: As in most rear engined cars you don’t hear that much from inside the car, but my travel mates told me – and so have others. Due to the uneven firing intervals the melody is somewhat off-beat, but this is mostly audible at low revs. Let it stretch its legs a bit and it does indeed take on a suitably raw tone – although it never gets obtrusive. Which I personally like – especially on a 4,000 kilometer trip.
Second gear goes on forever on roads like these. But even on those rare occasions where first gear was a necessity, it slots in without fuss: I think I’ve said it before, but a 911 can only dream of a gearshift like this.
Another thing the 911 can only dream of, is the attention the Alpine creates: This surprised me a bit as well, but the number of people photographing the car speaks volumes. I am not quite sure whether this was because they know the model or the opposite? Though a fair few Germans came up and talked about how rarely you see the Alpine – and then acknowledged that this was also the case back when they were new. Not surprising considering only 9,000 were made.
I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me, but the French enthusiasm for the A310 was even more profound: As we crossed the border into France on day five, a surprising amount of people seemed to recognize the car and greeted us on the autoroute, using both horns, lights and waving arms. All very French – as is indeed the car. I had however anticipated less recognition of the car and was genuinely positively surprised by the attention. Were they perhaps helped by the recent lauch of the new Alpine sports car, a halo project by Renault? By coincidence, one of the very few new cars that I would actually like to own.
In fact, upon arrival at the Le Mans Classic, several of those were on display as well. As were every other road car built by Alpine or even with Alpine involvement. Unfortunately I had press parking, so I couldn’t mingle with the others, but that might be worth considering next time. I’ll guess that there must have been more than 100 Alpines present – and I was pleasantly surprised that I spotted none in the same colour as my A310.
More importantly though: The vast Alpine turnout and not least the trip down there, made me realise just how much I love my Alpine. Sure, the trip (and the foreplay…) was not without its hiccups, yet more than 2,000 kilometers later the car was running perfectly smooth and taking everything we could throw at it in its stride. The emotional sensation from driving it continued to grow, and the return trip didn’t seem a chore at all: I’d be driving an Alpine, after all. My Alpine!
As I mentioned previously, I’ll get back to all the track action in a later article, but rest assured that this was no chore either: Le Mans Classic is amazing. It’s also a huge event and even as a mere spectator, it takes its toll. So in some ways it seemed the right decision to split up our little group and head our separate ways. My wife and I took the Alpine up north to Deauville, which was not only lovely but also utterly relaxing after three days of intense racing. This classic resort for the affluent and beautiful features amazing beaches and lovely food.
It was so soothing that it inspired us to plan the next stopover at Knokke-Heist: I guess this could be seen as the Belgian equivalent to Deauville? Only the name is much clumsier – so no wonder De Tomaso choose the French name for his lovely four-door saloon of the seventies.
It was also in Deauville that I picked up the headline: It’s a quote from an older gentleman telling his grandson about the little, low and orange sports car with the strange number plates. “C’est une Alpine“. Yes it is. It turned out he had owned a much loved model of the A310 when he was younger and hadn’t seen one for a long time. Well, here it was.
I think the morale is clear: If you own a classic car, you should really drive it far and wide. It’s good for the car: The Alpine flew on the last return leg of 1,027 kilometers. You will also be promoting our whole classic car movement in the best of ways: Even at our refuelling stops on the German Autobahn, we constantly had people asking, photographing and talking of the good old days. And not least: After more than 4,000 kilometers in the Alpine, I can guarantee you that it has also been really good for me. I love the car even more, and now feel compelled to fix the small issues and then do some more driving in it. More people should experience this great little French sports car, shouldn’t they?
On our return home, work will resume of course. Yet we were only home a single day primarily to swap cars, as we’re now driving the Mazda RX-7 Elford Turbo over to Anders in the UK. Using the ferry from Holland it will be a comparative sprint of a mere 1,000 kilometers. Just doing my duty for the case of using our classic cars as they were intended. Carry on!