By Stuart Grant with images from Stuart Williams
No collection of mid-'60s giant killing saloons is complete without a Renault. A look at old race records reveals that the French firm’s Dauphine and R8, especially in Gordini format, were successful racers and deserved of some recognition. But there was an R10, which with local Alconi treatment, could be the classic Renault to have.
Renault launched the R10 (called 1100 in a few other markets) in 1965. In essence it was a slightly more posh version of the R8 with a bit more overhang and the resultant box aesthetic had people joking as to whether or not it was coming or going. All jokes were put aside however as the twisty bits arrived and the rear-engined R8 or R10 blew away the competition with unbelievable handling and, thanks to discs all round, above-average stopping power. There is no talking R10 without refreshing the R8 story. The R8 hit the shelves in 1962 and was based on the Dauphine so you got the same rear-engine layout, but this time clothed in a more modern and very square three-box profile. Initially motion came from an all-new 44-horsepower engine of 956cc. It was cutting-edge stuff with five main bearings, alloy cylinder head, wet cylinder liners and a sealed and pressurised cooling system. The braking system too was class leading with discs at all four corners.
Renault upped the game in 1964 with a fancier R8 called the R8 Major. This boasted better standard equipment such as chrome exterior trim, upholstered boot area, vinyl seats with adjustable backrests, front door arm rests, rear ashtrays and the all-important interior mirror light. Oh yes, and the engine grew to 1108cc and produced 50bhp. Power drove the rear wheels via either a standard three-speed manual or four-speed manual option. If 50 horses on tap weren’t enough, a buyer could go the Gordini route from 1964. Fettling by tuning guru Gordini saw the capacity remain unchanged but the power jump to 90hp. Suspension was dropped a touch, Delta alloy wheels could be had and the Gordini only ever left the showroom in French racing blue.
For 1965 Renault developed the R10, a more upmarket version of the R8, which therefore meant no need for the R8 Major. They canned the R8 Major but kept the standard R8 (956cc) and R8 Gordini on the market. It doesn’t take a draughtsman to realise that the R10 front and rear differ from the R8. While the middle remained unchanged the R10 measured in 20cm longer, which increased luggage space by 30%, from 40 to 315 litres. Interior equipment levels equalled the R8 Major but got a stylistic redesign, while the 1108cc power unit remained. 1966 was a quiet year from a development viewpoint as Renault again looked at making a dent in the VW Beetle’s American market domination – they had tried with the Dauphine already. 1967 saw the R8 Gordini get a bigger 1255cc 103bhp, five-speed gearbox and twin round headlights. Single round headlights had been the norm on both R8 and R10 until 1968 when the firm swapped them out for rectangular units. At the same time the R8 finally lost its 956cc engine, replaced by the 1108cc from the R10. The R10 dashboard also made its way into the R8.
A larger 1289cc (52bhp) engine sourced from the 1969 R12 found a home in the 1970 R10 before all production of R8 and R10 models ceased in 1971. In total, 1.3 million R8 and 690 000 R10 units left the factory – 2 626 Gordinis in 1108cc format and 8 981 in 1255cc guise. While these numbers aren’t shockingly bad, they didn’t meet the goal of American market domination. Although the R8 and R10 could run circles around VW’s Beetle in performance, the Beetle’s unstressed motor, which handled the expansive roads better than the perky Renault in terms of reliability, combined with better build quality and a brilliant dealer network to make the Beetle king.
Not many Americans hold the Renaults of yesteryear in a good light. Most will tell you that they remember seeing them sold from the back end of dodgy dealerships, that once it broke you couldn’t get spares and that the fondness for corroding meant that the easiest way to dispose of a Renault was to hit it with a broom and sweep it away. South Africans, on the other hand, speak of Renault with fondness – ok, not the Ford guys! We seem to have had reputable dealers moving the product, our roads (other than perhaps the Karoo) were not flat-out stretches of engine-breaking nothingness, and the little Renaults raced with some big success.
Paging through South African motorsport archives, the names Eric ‘Puddles’ Adler and John Conchie crop up on many occasions. More often than not because, under the banner 'Alconi' and as part of the Ecurie Aquila team, they managed to make everyday cars into giant killers. Fiat, Simca and Ford Taunus list up alongside their names but the real action starts in 1966 with an Alconi R8 winning the South African Group 2 title for saloon cars. So impressive were the results and reliability that Alconi and Renault South Africa teamed up to offer clients road-going Alconi R8 and Alconi R10s fully backed by Renault head office and sold through its dealer network. ‘Alconi’ was a shortened combination of Adler and Conchie.
In ’68, Alconi set the local Group 5 racing scene alight with an R8 blown by a supercharger. With legendary Renault man Scamp Porter joining the party, the men used a 1296cc unit and added a Rootes-type Marshall Nordic cabin pressure blower from a Viscount aircraft. Yes, you read it right – the blower came from an aeroplane cabin pressure system, showing how resourceful one can be with very little budget and a good set of brains. Fuel came via an Alconi-tickled single 45 DCOE Weber. On debut at Kyalami Adler qualified the R8 in second place, just behind Peter Gough’s Escort but in front of Arnold Chatz’s Alfa GTA. On the old Kyalami straight the Group 5 Alconi R8 clocked a top speed of 228km/h, an impressive speed in any car.
For the 1970 season Jody Scheckter joins the tale. Off-track commitments meant that Adler was unable to compete in the national championship. He removed the engine and did a deal whereby Jody could slot it into his previous Class X R8 body. Rules allowed for a bigger bore so the lump was increased to 1400cc which, coupled with the locked diff on the Scheckter car, gave rise to some spectacular tail-out driving and earned Jody his ‘Sideways Scheckter’ nickname. Scheckter competed and won occasionally against the likes of the Gough Y151 Escort (turbo-charged) and Bobby Olthoff 5-litre Perana Capri. I digress, but I think the point is clear: these guys at Alconi knew how to make Renaults go fast.
In road guise Alconi got the R10 basics spot on with a lumpier-than-standard cam (ground by Piwie Buys), branch-type exhaust and a twin-choke downdraught Weber carburettor. Initially the conversion was done by removing the engine and swapping out the camshaft but when it was discovered that the camshaft lined up perfectly with the rear number plate, Alconi starting punching a hole through the bodywork to extract/install the item. Like Gordini, Alconi did offer optional alloys but for those wanting an under-the-radar performance saloon, the steel/hubcap option was the way forward. Only the subtle badge (a snake wrapped around a conrod/piston) gives a hint as to the improved performance. A period modification (although not Alconi) done to our photography car was the addition of Gordini twin headlights.
Inside the cabin the R10 is surprisingly flashy (if you’re comparing with a Mini or VW Beetle) with padded dash top, wood veneer facia and matching gear knob. Individual front seats sit so close together that you wonder why a bench seat wasn’t used, and the lack of gearbox tunnel (remember the engine is in the back) takes some getting used to. Cramming as much as you can into a small space seems to have been a theme and the result is that the front wheel arch protrudes into the cabin, giving a slight off-set pedal position. Firing it up is a simple case of some choke, a few stabs on the accelerator and a swing of the starter motor. With the car warm and choke back in, the Alconi sounds crisp and the engine responds to pedal inputs immediately. Acceleration feels brisk; you get into top quickly. Look for the next mountain pass – this is where the car comes alive. Steering response, feel and feedback are brilliantly direct with only a Mini anywhere near matching the smiles per hour it delivers. Stopping power is good and so too is the handling (even with the engine behind the back wheels).
While the R10 looks ungainly against the R8 it actually handles better, with better weight distribution. And you can fit more luggage in so it’s a win-win motor car. One drive on the right road and you’ll understand why the humble Renault R8 and R10 were such obvious motorsport entrants and victims of local tuning. And you’ll want one.