March 23, 2010

From the Dauphine to the Twingo: Amédé Gordini's work with Renaults.

Despite being a native of Italy, Amédé Gordini (born Amedeo) became well-known for his work with French manufacturer Renault. He was born in northern Italy in 1899 and at 27 years old he moved to France to work for Fiat’s racing team. He had great success as a racer but this article will focus on his work with Renault.

Gordini made the decision to quit racing in the mid 1950s due to financial problems. He pulled out almost completely when Pierre Dreyfus, Renault’s CEO at the time, approached him in 1956 to ask if he would take the reins of their motorsports division. Gordini accepted the offer and got to work on his first project, the Dauphine Gordini.

(Above: Jean Rédélé on the left, the man who created the first Alpine based on a Renault 4CV, and Amédé Gordini on the right.)

The Dauphine Gordini was not as heavily modified as subsequent Gordini models would turn out to be. In fact, the true sport version of the Dauphine wasn’t the Gordini but the 1093, a model that put out 55hp and that Renault built in very small numbers for homologation purposes. Interestingly enough the 1093 borrowed a fair amount of parts (12 volt electrics, larger headlights, etc) from the Dauphines built for export to the US market. Back to the Dauphine Gordini: one of the most important modifications was the use of a 4-speed transmission instead of the standard 3-speed. Gordini also raised the compression ratio and modified the head which raised the rear-mounted Ventoux engine’s output to 37hp, a small gain over a standard Dauphine. In 1960 minor modifications gave the engine 40hp and to make it a more appealing car Renault transferred the Ondine’s extra equipment (chrome side strips, cloth on the door panels, etc) to the Gordini. From 1964 until it was phased out in 1967 the Dauphine Gordini offered better braking thanks to four disc brakes transferred over from the Renault 8.

The next model Gordini modified was the Renault 8. A boxy four dour sedan introduced in 1962, the Renault 8 was the last rear-engined car made by Renault. The engine was a brand new four-cylinder 956cc unit that had already been installed in the Caravelle and the Estafette.

The 1964 press release introducing the Renault 8 Gordini began with the phrase “the Renault 8 will allow everyone who enjoys or has ever dreamed of driving a sports car to satisfy their passion without paying more than they would for a mass-produced car.” This was the first model to sport the French blue and white stripes paint combination that later made Gordini models instantly recognizable. Amédé Gordini (who by this time had become known as “le sorcier”, or “the sorcerer”) redesigned the head and bored the engine out to 1108cc. While that may not seem like much, it allowed the Renault 8 Gordini to achieve a top speed of about 110mph. And while that may not seem like much either, keep in mind that at the time a Citroen DS19, the goddess of the road, had a top speed of roughly 100mph. Case in point: very few sedans could keep up with the Renault 8 Gordini; the ones that could cost double the price.

The Renault 8 Gordini had a tremendously successful career in racing. It won the Tour de Corse in 1964, 1965 and 1966. In all three of the races it competed against much more expensive cars: in the 1964 race second place was an Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ; in 1965 an Alpine A110 came in second and sixth place was awarded to none other than an Alfa Romeo GTA; lastly, in 1966, second and sixth place were GTAs but perhaps more eye-opening is that the recently-launched Porsche 911 driven by Vic Elford placed third. A Lancia Fulvia HF won the race the next year and the best Renault 8 Gordini placed seventh.

In 1966 a race series exclusively reserved for Renault 8 Gordinis, called the Coupe R8 Gordini, was launched. It became a type of racing school for would-be race car drivers who could take their R8s out and flog it around a racecourse, often door to door or bumper to bumper, while learning how to master their tail-heavy car. This was also meant to prove to the public that Gordini versions were much more than mere blue paint, these were actual race cars you could take to the track.

Also in 1966 came the ultimate evolution of the Renault 8 Gordini, the Gordini 1300. As its name implies the engine had a displacement of 1300cc (110hp) and the car was easily distinguishable from its 1100cc counterpart thanks to its four headlights. With the 1300 Gordini also remedied what critics complained about the most with 1100: the car now had a 5-speed gearbox.

1970 marked the end of the Renault 8 Gordini and the Coupe R8 Gordini. The standard Renault 8 lingered on showroom floor until 1973.

(Above: Renault 8 Gordini 1300s competing in the Coupe R8 Gordini)

Renault purchased the rights to the Gordini name in 1969, the same year it launched the all-new Renault 12. The launch of the Gordini version was pushed back several times but it was finally launched in July of 1970. This car faced the near-impossible task of replacing the R8 Gordini in competition, on the sports car market but also in the hearts and minds of young enthusiasts. For the engine a 1565cc was borrowed from the Renault 16’s parts bin and sent to the Gordini workshop for modifications that included a pair of two barrel Weber carburetors. In sharp contrast with the Renault 8 the engine (like on all Renault 12s) was front-mounted and turned the front wheels. When all was said and done the Renault 12 Gordini pushed out 113hp and was good for about 115 miles per hour in 5th gear. The car was finished in French blue with white stripes but some versions were orange with white stripes. Over the years numerous Renault 12s have been painted to look like Gordinis but the quickest way to tell from a distance if it’s a real Gordini or not is to look at the fuel filler: on standard R12s the fuel filler was located to the right of the license plate; on a 12 Gordini it comes out of the left quarter panel.

Renault launched the Coupe Nationale Renault Elf in 1971 to replace the Coupe R8 Gordini. The concept was the same as the old series except the cars were now Renault 12 Gordinis. The Coupe Nationale proved much less popular than the series for Renault 8s which marked the tip of the iceberg of the 12’s shortcomings. The Renault 12 Gordini was not very well received by professional race car drivers and enthusiasts alike and failed to replace the Renault 8 Gordini. The car was noticeably bigger and heavier than the nimble Renault 8 and the handling of the front-wheel drive Renault 12 was criticized endlessly by the masses which yearned for the tail happy Renault 8. Another important aspect of the Renault 8 Gordini that lacked on the 12 was that despite the blue paint and the four headlights the 8 was still an economy car. By contrast the Renault 12 was a midsize car and had a particularly large thirst for fuel, a trait that did not help its sales in the early 1970s. 2225 Renault 12 Gordinis were sold in 1971 but after that sales began a free fall. Renault stopped production in 1974 after 5188 had been sold (compared to 11,607 Renault 8 Gordinis)

The last Renault model to sport the Gordini name was the 17. The 17 itself was launched in 1971 as a coupe version of the Renault 12. The launch of the 17 merits another sway from the Gordini story: Renault launched the 17 with a sister model, the 15. The 15 was a standard hardtop coupe while the 17 could be ordered either as a hardtop coupe or with a large cloth sunroof. The 15 had large rear side windows while the 17 had smaller ones to accommodate metallic louvers. The front was also different, with the 17 having four round headlights (vaguely reminiscent of an Alfetta) and the 15 two square lights like the Renault 12.

When the Renault 12 Gordini was phased out in 1974 Renault took a Renault 17 TS, offered more standard equipment like tinted windows and called it the Renault 17 Gordini, the last Gordini model of the 20th century. The engine was a 1600cc four-cylinder unit that used Bosch fuel injection and put out 108hp. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Renault 17 Gordini was its ability to make the arguably-failed Renault 12 Gordini look like a commercial success. No race series was developed for this car and truth be told it had precious little in common with its Gordini roots. Unlike previous Gordinis the most common color was not blue with white stripes but yellow. It was phased out in 1977. Renault did race it with some success in various rallies around the world but competition from the Renault-Alpines, as well as the plans for the upcoming Renault 5 Turbo, put its racing career to an end. The Renault 15s and 17s left showroom floors in 1979 and were replaced by the Fuego, a coupe version of the Renault 18 that replaced the 12. Amédé Gordini died in 1979 and was buried in Paris.

In an attempt to surf the retro wave while realizing that it doesn’t have any models to bring back, Renault revived the Gordini name for the 2010 model year. The first car to have a Gordini badge is the Twingo Gordini. At first glance some might see it as a worthy descendant of the Renault 8 Gordini since the Twingo is a small economy car. Those who see that will be greatly disappointed: theTwingo Gordini costs 1,850 Euros more than the RS (Renault Sport) version but isn’t any quicker or any lighter. The car is loaded with equipment like leather, automatic A/C and cruise control. This new Gordini is more at home in the posh neighborhoods of Paris than on a racetrack. Jean-Marc Pinel, a spokesman for the Gordini nameplate at Renault, defends this new model by saying that “times have changed and the aspirations of young people as well. Plus, Renault did not want to propose a version quicker than the Renault Sport models.”

So why bring back the Gordini name? Patrice Duclos, director of Abarth in France, explained that “it’s always easier to relaunch a nameplate, even if it’s not very well known, than to create a new one.” The next Renault Gordini to hit showroom floors is the Clio Gordini which will be closer in spirit to the Twingo Gordini than the 8 Gordini.

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James said...

I have to admit being deeply disappointed by the new Gordini models as well, they are just fluff and vinyl - not the real deal.

Didn't they make a Renault 5 Gordini in some markets? Or was it a 5 Alpine? Being a US citizen my knowledge of Renaults is a bit lacking.

Ronan said...

James, you're absolutely right, they did make the Renault 5 Gordini (and the Renault 5 Gordini Turbo) but it was only in the UK market. In France they were called the 5 Alpine and the 5 Alpine Turbo. Since they were just rebadged Alpines they were arguably not true Gordini models. Here is a photo:

Identical to the 5 Alpine:

Thanks for reading.

Mael Glon said...

Off topic, but the original Twingo is what it's all about.