Carlos Tavares, Renault’s Chief Operating Officer, recently confirmed that the storied Gordini nameplate will go back to its roots and be used to designate the ultimate evolution of RenaultSport’s track-focused products. The announcement came as a relief to Renault fans all around the world because the name has been used as an upmarket trim level since being exhumed in 2010. In its heyday, Gordini stood for considerably more than that.
Born in Italy in 1899, Amedeo Gordini moved to France at age 27 to work for Fiat’s racing team. His time there was successful but it was with Renault that he became notorious as a tuner and consequently nicknamed “le sorcier”, which translates to “the sorcerer.”
After his stint with Fiat, Gordini decided to quit racing in the middle of the 1950s due to financial problems. He had pulled out of the sport almost entirely when Pierre Dreyfus, the head of Renault at the time, approached him in 1956 to ask if he would take the reigns of the company’s motorsports division. Gordini accepted the offer and started working on his first project, a track-focused variant of the Dauphine.
(Above: Jean Rédélé, the man who created the first Alpine, on the left and Amédé Gordini on the right)
The Dauphine Gordini was not as heavily modified as subsequent Gordini models and one of the most important changes was the simple use of a four-speed transmission instead of the standard three-speed. Gordini also increased the engine’s compression ratio and made several minor modifications to the cylinder head, raising the Ventoux’s power output to 37 horsepower.
In 1960, Gordini bumped the engine’s power output to 40 ponies and Renault fitted the car with extra equipment such as chrome trim borrowed from the upmarket Ondine. The model’s last major update came in 1964 when it gained a set of disc brakes pulled out of the Renault 8 parts bin.
In retrospect, the Dauphine Gordini was underwhelming and it often takes a back seat to the factory-developed 1093 on the collector car market.
The next model tuned by Gordini was the aforementioned 8. Launched in 1962, it was a boxy four-door sedan that went down in history as one of Renault’s last rear-engined car.
The 1964 press release that introduced the 8 Gordini began with the phrase “the Renault 8 will allow everybody 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.”
It wasn’t an exaggeration: Thanks in part to a displacement of 1,108 cubic centimeters, the tuned engine sent the 8 to a top speed of about 110 mph. While that might not seem like much today, at the time the majestic Citroën DS 19 had a top speed of roughly 100 mph.
Visually, the 8 Gordini was the first model to sport the blue and white paint combination that later made Gordini models instantly recognizable.
The 8 Gordini had a tremendously successful career in motorsports. It won the Tour de Corse in 1964, 1965 and 1966 and in all three events it competed against much more expensive cars: In the 1964 race, second place went to an Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ; in 1965, an Alpine A110 came in second while sixth place was awarded to an Alfa Romeo GTA; lastly, in 1966, second and sixth place went to Alfa GTAs and a Porsche 911 driven by Vic Elford placed third. A Lancia Fulvia HF won the race in 1967 and the best an 8 Gordini managed to do was seventh.
In 1966, Renault launched the Coupe R8 Gordini, a racing series that was exclusively open to 8 Gordinis. It quickly morphed into a racing school that allowed aspiring race car drivers to take their 8s out and flog them around a track, often door to door or bumper to bumper, while learning how to master a tail-heavy car. The series was also meant to prove to buyers that Gordini-tuned vehicles were essentially street-legal race cars.
1966 also saw the birth of the ultimate evolution of the 8 Gordini, the 110-horsepower Gordini 1300. Easily distinguishable by its quad-headlight setup, the car featured a much-appreciated five-speed manual gearbox.
1970 marked the end of the Renault 8 Gordini and the Coupe R8 Gordini died with it. The standard Renault 8 lingered on showroom floor until 1973.
In 1968, the 8 Gordini 1300 retailed for 13,990 before options were factored in. To put that figure into perspective, that same year a 1200cc Beetle cost 6,150 francs, a Porsche 912 cost 29,600 and a Porsche 911 T sold for 37,000.
Renault purchased the rights to the Gordini name in 1969, the same year that it introduced the all-new 12. The launch of the Gordini version was pushed back several times for a host of miscellaneous reasons but it finally debuted in July of 1970. The 12 Gordini faced the unenviable task of replacing the 8 Gordini in competition, on the sports car market but also in the hearts and minds of young racing enthusiasts.
Under the 12 Gordini’s hood was the 1,565cc four-cylinder engine that was borrowed from the 16. Thanks to modifications such as the use of two Weber carburetors, it sent 113 horsepower to the 12’s front wheels.
Like the 8, the 12 was offered in blue with white racing stripes but it was also available in orange. All 12 Gordinis had the fuel filler moved from next to the rear license plate to high up on the left quarter panel, a feature which makes replicas easy to tell apart from the real thing at car shows today.
Renault launched the Coupe Nationale Renault Elf in 1971 to replace the Coupe R8 Gordini. The concept was the same as before and the only thing that changed was the car. Still, the Coupe Nationale was pouted by enthusiasts as a way to protest the 12 Gordini.
The protestors had a valid point. For starters, the 12 was noticeably bigger and heavier than the nimble 8 and its handling was criticized endlessly by the masses which yearned for the tail-happy Renault 8. Another problem was that despite the blue paint and the loud exhaust pipes, the 8 Gordini traced its roots to an economy car. By contrast, the 12 was a mid-size car and had a particularly large thirst for fuel which did not help its sales in the early 1970s.
2225 Renault 12 Gordinis were sold in 1971 but after that sales embarked on a free fall. Renault stopped production in 1974 after just 5,188 units had been sold, a small amount compared to 11,607 8 Gordinis built.
In 1973, a new 12 Gordini could be purchased for 20,200 francs. That same year a Volkswagen 1200 L (better known as the Beetle) cost 11,140 francs and the Porsche 911 started at 58,700 francs.
The last Renault model to sport the Gordini name in France was the 17, which was introduced in 1971 as a two-door version of the 12. When the Renault 12 Gordini was phased out in 1974, Renault took a Renault 17 TS, offered more standard equipment such as tinted windows and called it the Renault 17 Gordini.
The engine was a 1600cc four-cylinder unit that used Bosch fuel injection and put out 108 horsepower. 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 previous Gordini-badged cars. Renault was well aware of that and it did not both offer the car in the traditional blue and white paint job.
Before phasing the 17 out in 1977, Renault raced the Gordini variant 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 17 left showroom floors in 1979 and was replaced by the Fuego, a coupe version of the boxy 18.
In 1976, the 17 Gordini started at 38,600 francs. By comparison, that same year a Volkswagen Golf carried a base price of 21,700 francs and a 2.7-liter Porsche 911 cost 86,700 francs.
The United Kingdom was allotted an additional Gordini model in 1976 when Renault launched a performance-oriented variant of the 5. Throughout most of Europe the car was called 5 Alpine but Sunbeam had already trademarked the nameplate in the U.K. so Renault opted to christen the hot hatch 5 Gordini. Save for badges and stickers, the Gordini and the Alpine were identical.
Pricing information for the U.K.-only 5 Gordini is not available but 5 Alpine cost 33,300 francs in 1977. Renault priced the car competitively: That same year the Golf GTI started at 34,230.