1990s / French / Renault

20 years ago: Renault Sport introduces the Spider

The Renault Sport Spider started life as a futuristic concept car dubbed Laguna Roadster (pictured below) that made its international debut at the 1990 edition of the Paris Motor Show. At the time, the press wrote off the concept as an exercise in automotive design that would never see the light that awaits at the end of a production line. It was a reasonable assumption because the outlandish-looking concept had a removable glass tonneau cover, no windshield and it required both occupants to wear science fiction-esque goggles.

Public response to the Laguna Roadster was surprisingly positive, so Renault’s top executives attempted to make a reasonable business case for it. The project was a tough sell at first — few automakers can justify investing in a low-volume niche model — but it was finally given the green light for production in September of 1993.

Renault brought in Claude Fior from Nogaro Technology, a renowned race car designer and builder, to help work on what had become known as project W94. Story has it that Fior was given a blank slate and was only instructed to leave enough room to mount a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine behind the passenger compartment. The engineer designed an all-aluminum chassis from scratch and fitted it with brakes pulled from the Alpine A610, as well as with a fairly advanced independent suspension system. The car received a standard roll cage and an innovative half windshield called “saute-vent” that was later patented by Fior’s company.

The first road-going prototype was built in 1994, and a nearly-finished product was presented to the public at the 1995 Geneva Motor Show. Show-goers were surprised to see the convertible for several reasons. As mentioned above, not many people expected the Laguna Roadster to spawn a production car and the few that did guessed that it would wear an Alpine emblem. That was not the case; instead, the Spider became the first Renault Sport-badged car.

Save for a set of scissor doors, the Laguna Roadster and the Spider shared almost no styling cues. The Spider was very similar to the first W94 prototype, however, and it was much wilder-looking than the other members of the Renault lineup in the middle of the 1990s.

The cabin was equipped with two bucket seats, a three-spoke steering wheel, three gauges, three pedals and not a whole lot more. A heater and ABS brakes were deemed unnecessary and left out, creating a bare-bones feel that drivers were more accustomed to find in a Caterham Seven than a Renault.  The list of options included a radio, a luggage rack and a tailor-made car cover.

The heart of the Spider was a mid-mounted 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine which was borrowed from the iconic Clio Williams and later used in the Mégane Coupé. Tuned to generate 147 horsepower and 129 lb-ft. of torque, the 16-valve unit was linked to a five-speed manual transmission that sent power to the rear wheels. The 2,050-pound (930-kilo) two-seater sprinted from zero to 62 miles (100 km/h) per hour in 6.9 seconds and went on to a top speed of 133 mph (about 215 km/h).

At its launch, the Spider was only available in yellow, red and blue, though silver was added later in the production run. The second major update was the availability of a full windshield that added almost 80 pounds (about 36 kilos) to the car’s weight. Cars equipped with a windshield could be ordered with an airbag for the driver and with a soft top.

Approximately 1,726 examples of the Spider were assembled in Alpine’s Dieppe, France, factory from 1996 to 1999. Each car was hand-built from start to finish and took about 90 hours to complete, which partially justified its relatively high price at the time. Renault did not design a successor to the Spider, but the Renault Sport name that it inaugurated stuck around and morphed into a full-fledged performance-oriented sub-brand that’s still around today.

On the track

The Spider was designed to race, and 80 track-only Trophy models rolled out of the Dieppe factory during the production run.  Trophy cars were tuned to 180 horsepower and fitted with a six-speed manual transmission as well as an upgraded braking system that included two master cylinders. The cars competed in the Spider Trophy, a model-specific racing series which was similar to the R8 Gordini Cup of the 1960s.

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