By Stuart Grant with photography from Oliver Hirtenfelder
Collectors the world over are snapping up the mid-engined Renault Clio V6 of the early 2000s. But while these machines are seriously cool, it is the nod of acknowledgment to its forefather (arguably the ultimate homologation special hot-hatch) Renault 5 Turbo that sees these youngtimers already classed as bona fide collectables.
With the intention of winning the World Rally Championship, Renault built the Renault 5 Turbo and, luckily for those with a penchant for illogical but phenomenal road cars, homologation requirements meant that road-legal versions were a must. It appears that two of these legends made it to South Africa: a red one with blue interior and a blue one with red interior – a bit gross nowadays but so fashionable back in the era of permed hair, flop socks and Day-Glo clothing.
In an attempt to block the bad hair and music of this era out of mind, look back to the 1977 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Renault dared to be different and, instead of using a 3-litre engine like the rest of the field, entered a car powered by a 1500cc turbo-charged lump. Success wasn’t to be that day, but persistence paid off. It took engineers two years to work out the niggles and they were rewarded with victory in the 1979 French GP at Dijon. With Jean-Pierre Jabouille beating Gilles Villeneuve to the line, Renault secured its first F1 GP win, and the first ever for a turbo-charged single seater.
The other teams soon followed suit and F1 ushered in the scary turbo era. Between ’79 and ’83 Renault notched up 15 wins and firmly established the turbo-charger in Formula 1 racing. So it’s no wonder the firm started dabbling with turbo-fed World Rally Championship cars (and homologated road cars) as early as 1978.
This is when the Renault 5 Turbo took to the stage – first shown as a limited-edition model at the 1978 Paris Motor Show. As it was intended to homologate the mid-engined Group 4 rally car, it got the engine put in the right place (according to physics), was constructed from light materials and was totally different from the run-of-the-mill Renault 5 in structural terms.
With all the wizardry derived from F1 and a hand-built production line, the Renault 5 Turbo was an extremely successful display of technology and passion from the deputy director of the Product Planning Department, Jean Terramorsi. Terramorsi’s seniors went along with the idea because they felt it was important to come up with a worthy successor to the Renault 8 Gordini and Alpine Berlinette.
The 5 Turbo made its competition debut on the 1979 Tour of Italy, but only really showed its true potential during the 1980 Tour of Corsica, where the car driven by Jean Ragnotti looked set for victory until a mechanical failure sidelined it. The first victory came in its fourth event, the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally.
With the all clear, road car production began in 1980 at Alpine’s Dieppe plant. Developed by Renault’s Bureau d’Etudes et de Researches Exploratoire, it shared heaps with the 250bhp rally car – from a 1397cc push-rod four-cylinder, complete with 7:1 compression ratio, Garrett T3 turbo and intercooler. 160bhp was achieved in road trim and the zero to 100km/h sprint covered in 6.9 seconds. Handling proved twitchy but steering response made this tameable and extremely fun. Drive was put to the tarmac via a five-speed gearbox and the rear wheels. Like other European cars of the time tyre sizes were metric, so shopping for new rubber today can be a touch pricey.
In motorsport, weight is the enemy and the Renault 5 Turbo countered this with aluminium roof, doors and tailgate sections while the flared arches and bonnet were made from fibreglass. The ducts directed air to the engine for induction and brakes for cooling.
The cockpit didn’t escape the onslaught of the ʼ80s with lurid colour schemes, hard square plastic dial surrounds and Back to the Future orange backlighting. Despite the palette, the interior made competition sense with bucket seats, fuel tanks located under the seats (for optimum weight distribution) and a massive carpeted mound behind the seats. This mound was obviously put in place to house the mid-mounted engine and to make checking the oil a mission. Behind the engine, space for a lunchbox or two was provided but bigger luggage had to be strapped to the top of the engine cover – designers were considerate enough to include securing lugs here.
In the region of 400 Turbos (like the one pictured) were manufactured and the car became an instant cult hit. To satisfy demand a second-phase mid-engined Turbo (known later as the Turbo 2) was released but saw many of the lightweight components replaced with stock Renault 5 panels. In total, 1 690 units of the Turbo were produced before its life was cut short by the arrival of the all-conquering four-wheel-drive rally cars in 1984.