Alpine frolics

February 28, 2012

“I must be off to save the nation,” said The Mole, with a piece of toast in one hand, and his briefcase in the other.

“Good luck,” said Mrs Mole airily. “I’m not sure anyone is going to be very frightened of a balding middle-aged man, armed only with a piece of toast, even if the marmalade is horrid.”

“Gandhi was very successful,” said The Mole. “And he did not even have a toaster.”

The two chuckled like an old couple and The Mole climbed into his car, while Mrs Mole went back to planning a campaign to hold a jumble sale for The Red Squirrel Survival Trust. As he drove down the lane The Mole remembered, wistfully, the days before Oswald the chauffeur was posted to “The Pool”, in one of the many rounds of government cuts. In those days he could work all the way to the office, but these days he had to drive himself up the A3 or, worse still, catch a train from Horsley, which was a ghastly business. In either case, the only work possible en route was exercising the grey matter and he spent the drive mulling over the news that DreamWorks Animation is going to create a motor racing movie about a snail called Turbo, who has ambitions to win the Indianapolis 500.

It was daft idea, he concluded, yet strangely brilliant and a very smart piece of work by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who seems to have grasped that the movie industry can be a very good way to promote motor racing, and to make money for the sport.

Bernie Ecclestone is not exactly out of date, he mused, as he was on the Kingston Bypass. Well, not in a Hollywood where a silent black and white film can win five Oscars.

Movie-making these days, he concluded, is about selling cuddly toys and Turbo the Snail might have the potential to become the next Lightning McQueen. But who would buy a speedy snail? Would that appeal to the kids of tomorrow? He giggled. Well, perhaps the French ones. They would take cute little Turbo and after two weeks feeding him up would lob him live into a pot of boiling water and serve the corpse with butter, parsley and garlic.

Or in a feuilleté.

He was still chortling to himself when he arrived at Vauxhall Cross, but before he had even finished a cup of coffee and a ginger nut biscuit, the phone rang. It was Isabelle, his undercover agent inside the Renault empire in Boulogne-Billancourt. The Mole had often tried to find the right words to describe her, but “waif” did not have enough style and panache; “Gamine” did not quite capture her beauty and “Elfish” lacked any hint of her predatory nature. She was all of them, and yet none of them, at the same time.

“Darling,” she said.”Could you be a darling and come and visit me in Paris today? We should meet at the Plaza. You could jump on the Victoria Line and catch the 10.24. You would be here by two. Then we can ravish the patisseries in the Galerie des Gobelins. And they do have a very nice lunch on the train these days.”

Isabelle had used their codeword “darling” twice in the same sentence, and that meant something big.

“I’ll be there,” he said. “You figure out the time that will be.”

“Can you get me on the 10.24 Eurostar?” he said to Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys) and closed his briefcase again.

Four hours later they met in the lobby. She sashayed up to him and stuck out a pair of glossy lips. He offered her a cheek and caught a whiff of Arpège. She hooked her arm through his and they walked to the Galerie des Gobelins.

“I love expensive hotels,” she said. “They are so sexy. So romantique. Do you know that right now lots of important Frenchmen and their mistresses are making sweet music together upstairs. It is so very naughty.”

“Well, I suppose after eating all those snails they need a lie down,” The Mole said. “And with the 35-hour week they have time for that sort of thing.”

Isabelle smiled, twiddling with one of her rings.

“There is always time for that sort of thing,” he said.

“It’s a such shame that I am on the 16.13 back to London,” The Mole said, with a wink.

“You are such a flirt,” said Isabelle, with a flutter of her eyelashes.

“We must get down to business,” said The Mole.

“I take a little more romancing than that,” said Isabelle, with a flash of her eyes. The Mole blushed.

“You know what I mean,” he said. She shrugged.

“There is big news. We are getting into something quite exciting with Alpine,” she said. “You know after that dreadful business in Singapore with Flavio and that pretty Piquet boy, Monsieur Ghosn wanted nothing to do with F1. He felt that going green was the best thing. But now we have this new COO called Carlos Tavares. He is one of Ghosn’s men, but he is a real, how do you say, motorhead? He has raced a lot himself. Even in a big Dallara thing. The Renault World Series, I think. Anyway, they want a new Automobiles Alpine because it is a nice sporty brand and Renault wants more high-end products, because the cars at the moment are all mid-range and vraiment dull. Alpine fits nicely. Tavares did the Williams-Renault deal last year and now he has appointed Alain Prost as a Renault ambassador. These are the moves of a racing person.”

The Mole nodded.

“Now he is going to revive Alpine. With all these young Frenchmen in F1 and a chance for a new French GP, we have to watch out for a new Renault push into F1. I think it could come with Alpine. I don’t think they want to own a team again, but it would be the perfect way to promote a new range of sports cars.”

“You mean like a Red Bull-Alpine kind of deal?” said The Mole.

“They are with Infiniti,” she said. “I am not sure what they will do, but I think it will probably use one of our platforms. You know. You design what you need and then use it to build different cars for different markets. They use the same platform to build the Renault Clio, the Nissan Cube and the Dacia Logan as well. That way they cut down on development costs and save money on spare parts.”

“Yes, yes,” said The Mole. “Car industry stuff.”

“I think that the new Alpine story will be rather like the original,” Isabelle went on. “This guy called Jean Rédélé from Dieppe, who took a small Renault after the war and turned it into a rally car. Renault did not want to go racing at the time, but they were happy for him to do it. Well, that became a business when Alpine began building road cars, with Renault engines in them. In the end Renault took him over. The original Alpines were great cars and the company won Monte Carlo Rally and I think maybe the World Rally Championship as well. Later on, in the Renault era, they won Le Mans and built the prototype Renault F1 car. There is a good heritage.”

“So who is going to start building cars on a Renault platform?” said The Mole.

Isabelle shook her head.

“I have no idea who will be the next Jean Rédélé,” she said. “But I doubt he will come from Dieppe.”



  1. I once drove an Alpine in the docks of Southampton. A kind Mr SB then the manager of the southern Renault import centre, had one unblocked for me (they had wooden blocks in the springs during transit.) It was ok but not mind altering. I was keen in it’s hand built quality, but Mr B was a unmoved, a devotee of mass production, something it took me another 20 years to appreciate.

    You undercover chaps have to be careful over there, war with France could spring up again at any time.

  2. Interesting that Tony Fernandes was in Paris yesterday saying he was meeting with Renault, I wonder if we will see their see Renault engines in the next generation of Caterhams

    • I did not see him on the train.

      • Does one need the train when one owns an airline?

      • Man has one and a bit airlines. Doubt he would take the train, convenient it may be.

        Well if its not RB, that leaves Lotus, williams and caterham. Doubt its lotus so if its not caterham it’s probably Williams.

        Good fit too as if Renault wants to go green racing then williams has the flywheel for it. Having previously worked together on road cars (kind of) won’t hurt either.

  3. I always have to scroll down to the 5th paragraph to get the meat and bones of the story, the first few paragraphs of every post are insufferable.

    • It takes all sorts to make a world.

      • Every good story teller has to set the scene and the background before getting to the substance. Otherwise, it’s simple reporting and where would the fun be in that?

      • Nico,

        There was a story going around a few years back which hinted that at least two of the three Penelopes engage (from time to time) in “wet work” at the behest of The Mole. If there is any truth to this, then diss The Mole at your own risk.

        On the other hand, perhaps the “wet work” described in the story isn’t as nefarious as it sounds, and is more along the lines of that enjoyed by Max Mosley in dungeons across London.

        If that’s the case, then sign me up. Ah, a winter’s afternoon spent in a warm dungeon with two dangerous Penelopes….please Sir, can I have some more?

        • Nico, you’re definitely reading the wrong blog…

  4. First they came for Tinky Winky,
    and I did not cry out, for I am not Tinky Winky.

    Then they came for the Stig,
    and I did not cry out, for I am not a Stig.

    And then they came for the Mole,
    and apparently no-one noticed.


    Please, sir, can we have our mole back?

  5. Joe, if this is really still you, I apologize, but the 2012 edition mole really feels like a poor parody of the original to me. If it’s still you, then sorry, you’re off your game.

    And if it isn’t, then just bask in the compliment that I intend to your original work.

    • Joe who?

    • The Mole seems to be writing as well as he ever was, from where I’m sitting.

      • I agree.

        • >Joe who?
          > by The Mole February 29, 2012 at 8:29 pm

          For the record, my email alert for the above post reads as follows:

          “Joe Saward commented on Alpine Frolics. in response to toleman fan”


        • Me too.

  6. Thanks for keeping us updated in your own inimitable style. I’m glad you are back.

  7. Back on topic…I keep coming back to this post, because here’s one key part of it I can’t get my head round, which is the stuff about “platforms.”

    You can take an existing -car-, keep the bodyshell, & throw more power and stiffer springs at it, and make it a great drive. But it’ll either look nondescript (and q-cars are -not- the fashion du jour) or boy-racer-ish. Renault are already on top of that. You could brand those cars “Alpine” or “Gordini”. You could brand them “Williams-Renault” (again), and to stretch a point I think you could brand them “Caterham”, especially if you backed that with a deal for Caterham to standardise on Renault power. But I took your Fernandes / train comment to be an absolute (tho’ metaphorical) denial.

    The thing is, that isn’t really a “platform” play.

    A platform play IMO would be to take a platform, dress it up in pretty clothes, and build something that looks cool and trendy, but isn’t really any dynamic advance on the base car. None of the examples you give are really dynamically special. Most that I can think of don’t even pretend to be sporty (think Skoda Yeti). The sportiest I can think of are cruisers and GTs – VW [Passat] CC, Merc CLS, VW Phaeton Coupe turbo (yes, OK, I’m sorry, Bentley Continental GT).

    In case it needs to be spelled out, Alpine is -not- a GT / boulevard cruising brand. Yes, that’s where the money is (as opposed to pure sports cars). Hence the evolution of the 911 from 993 through 996/997 to 991. But IMO, to lever the Alpine brand that way without looking daft as well as cynical, you’d need some not-very-profitable sports car product to give halo and cred to the cruiser rubbish. You can sell pure GT cars as Bentleys and Mercs, even Astons, but Alpines? After this long a gap out of production?

    Of course, if you do -both- the above at once, the platform car gets somewhat unique or at least improved dynamics. But a) you’re still compromised by what you start with and b) the bean counters will push you to offer the hot engine and chassis in the boring (but cheaper) bodyshell. Reason: extra sales for zero engineering cost. Downside: loss of marketing USP for supposed halo model.

    The only recent example I can think of offhand where the company differentiated the engineering of halo model and held that line is the Conti GT again, where AFAIK the Phaeton V12 never got the twin turbos. But the likely sales of a turbo V12 Phaeton were never going to trouble the sales statistics much anyway. Before that there was…well, what? The V6 504 coupe / cabrio? I’m sure there are some others, but how many?


    So what? Well, -if- I ran Renault, I’d do the platform thing anyway – try to build some cooler cars, like the Avantime was, and some GT coupes and such – but the only current Renault platforms I’d want the Alpine brand anywhere near are those of the Nissan 370Z and GT-R. As far as anything else goes, I wouldn’t put the Alpine brand on a cruising GT (or SUV or anything else), at least until / unless I’d spent several years re-establishing Alpine as a credible sports car maker, which could lever the history.

    And, if you’re going to build an Alpine with unique bodywork on say 370Z underpinnings, you’re still going to want to do that in a great big (by F1 standards) traditional road car plant. Actually, the big savings are to run them down the -exact same production line- as the existing cars, and soak up some of the excess capacity. But even if that isn’t possible, I can’t see why you’d look out of house. Bertone, Matra – all the small scale, low-volume road car shops are going out of business. Williams has the brand and the ambition to get into this area, but I don’t see it has the cost base. Even with a GT-R as the base, you’d be looking for much bigger volumes and lower production costs than the Jaguar C-X75, and they couldn’t make the numbers on that work.


    What just -might- look attractive as a low volume halo product with minimal profit potential, but big brand positioning rewards (for much less cost than a full in-house F1 project), would be a low volume sports car on a bespoke platform, with some off the shelf components and subsystems. And any one of Caterham, Lotus (Group, not Enstone) and Williams could have something to contribute there. The Alpine-built, all-aluminium SportSpyder is a relatively recent precedent, and it was a pretty direct competitor to the Elise. Since early Lotus road cars were a big influence on Alpines like the iconic A110, the brand value fit would be spot on.

    What price a Renault buyout of Lotus Cars, bankrolling the completion of the development of the shared platform for the new generation cars, and offering a mix of Alpine- and Lotus- branded cars on the same chassis? Audi have shown that they can buy Lamborghini, build that brand, and still sell a Lambo-influenced but Audi-branded product in parallel. But if I read you correctly, that’s absolutely -not- what you’re predicting, which is something with F1 team involvement and a Renault platform.

    Alpine-Williams-Renault branded, reshelled GT-Rs? Yes, OK, but only if Williams’ input is restricted to the badging. OK, if you were desperate you could ship out CKD kits from Japan, and set up a screwdriver plant under Williams’ management, because the numbers would be so low (for a 370Z play, I don’t believe you could even do that much – the unit cost penalty would be higher, and you’d have a much lower sales price to bury it in). But would that really be that big a deal?

    Casting around here. Great work, I’m absolutely fascinated and have no earthly idea what the real story is here.

  8. As usual, the Mole leads and others follow:


    Beatrice Foucher, Renault product manager, apparently wants to do a new Alpine – but only if the right “technical solution” can be found with “a dedicated platform and engine and so on…But it would be a real Alpine … very sporty and low weight.”

    Spot on again. Still sounds to me like they should buy Lotus Cars 😉

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