Peak performance: Automobiles Alpine unveils the SportX
Three years after Automobiles Alpine’s revival, we catch up with the brand’s chief design officer, Antony Villain, to learn about its future plans
Automobiles Alpine is one of the quiet success stories of the modern motor industry, a name revived by Renault in 2017 after many years of dormancy. The car that brought the brand back is the Alpine A110, a lightweight two-seater sports car that received huge acclaim from the outset for its elegant design, mechanical simplicity and beautiful balance. Alpine has since built on this promising start with special edition versions of the A110, as well as tease other ideas for future products. We spoke to Alpine Chief Design Officer Antony Villain about how the brand is growing up.
‘I started working on Alpine back in 2012, so I’m one of the oldest members of the team,’ says Villain, ‘when we started, we dived deeply into the story to understand the mindset of the brand. I knew about the original Alpines, of course, but not about the people that made them.’ The French designer certainly did his homework. ‘I took the time to re-draw and sketch all the cars that Alpine made so I could understand their DNA. I also met some old hands from Alpine, including engineers and rally drivers. I wanted to understand their philosophy. They were quite modest people, but they definitely knew their work was important.’
Villain describes the early days of Alpine as very ‘hands-on’. Together with his design team, he initiated a workshop around the extensive collection of original Alpine road and race cars held by the son of the marque’s founder, the late Jean Rédélé. ‘We had to divine the shape of the car,’ he says, recalling how the designers took giant pieces of paper and used China ink and brushes – ‘we were sketching the form of the car in just a minute.’ ‘This was one of the core moments for the brand,’ he continues, ‘we drew, took pictures, sat in the cars, started them up.’
Part of that early work was to push the boundaries. ‘Right back at the beginning, when we started designing the 110, there was a suggestion of doing a lifted version. We’re very close to our engineering team and one of the test drivers had suggested a lifted Alpine with bigger wheels and higher ground clearance. First we modelled it digitally and then we built a prototype version, which was essentially a mule test car. It was very rough and basic.’
The legacy original Alpine was a great competition car, having particular success in early 70s rallying, including victories at Monte Carlo. Villain and his team worked alongside Alpine’s engineers to create a fully functional crossover special, with jacked up suspension, new bumpers, wider wheel arches and interior roll bars. Describing it as a ‘custom car’, Villain says that the one-off special proceeded to sit in the workshop for a couple of years, before it eventually caught the eye of a new manager, who insisted it go on display.
Renamed the Alpine SportX, the custom job was tidied up, repainted in a white and matt black colour scheme, and accessorised with graphics and a set of skis. The SportX made its public debut in January this year, making that nod to Alpine’s rallying heritage more explicit while also bringing the brand to the attention of new customers. ‘It’s a generational thing,’ says Villain, noting that customers have shown an interest and that other manufacturers are also dipping a toe into this esoteric niche of car design. Two specialist Porsche tuners, RUF and Gemballa, recently showed the Rodeo Concept and the Avalanche 4x4 respectively, jacked-up custom-built 911 variants.
Ultimately, however, it was all about maintaining the Alpine ethos. ‘Our mindset was to extend the agility and driving feel of the A110 into new places, not just on a track, but on muddy roads, or snow, or even rallying. You get the same A110 experience but in other playgrounds,’ the designer says, admitting that Alpine is on a mission to grow its reach. ‘When we launched, we quickly reached our core customers, the people who had been waiting for this car. Many of these people were in France, but now we must extend our footprint. We’ve won awards and have received a lot of fantastic press. But some car enthusiasts still don’t know the brand at all. Although there are no limits to what we can do, it’s important to stay very simple and easy to read.’
Alpine will always be a niche brand for the discerning driver but catering exclusively to track-focused aficionados can’t sustain the brand. Hence the need to emphasise their individual approach. ‘It’s not just about performance,’ Villain says. It’s clear that catering to many and varied niche interests is how a small company stays relevant in a difficult age. §