Renault 5 Turbo ‘I think the UK’s that way…’ Flying out to Italy and driving 1028 miles home in a little-used rally homologation was bound to be a challenge. He thought flying to Italy with a friend to buy a Renault 5 Turbo then driving it back to the UK would be a top adventure. He was right. Road trips can present the best photographic opportunities and the worst conditions. Lyndon made the best of both in the Renault 5 Turbo jaunt.
R5 settles into its new home after a 1028- mile blast from northern Italy. A city stufed with Renault 5s – but not many like this.
‘Want to help me drive my new Renault 5 Turbo back to the UK from Italy?’ The question was easy to answer, the trip itself altogether more challenging – and unforgettable Words Ross Alkureishi. Photography Lyndon Mcneil.
It’s surely every enthusiast’s dream to buy a classic car in another country, fly over to collect it and then drive it home. Except for most of us the realities of doing so would no doubt kick in and scupper the idea at the planning stage. Not so for serial classic owner Richard Head. He calls one day to fill me in on the logistics of his latest buy – a 1980 Renault 5 Turbo based in Brescia, northern Italy, which he’s planning to pick up the following week. And the co-driver’s seat is mine if I want it. I clear my diary in an instant.
When we meet a week later at a hotel close to Milan Bergamo airport he gives me the full lowdown. ‘It’s a two owner car with just over 26,000 miles on the clock,’ he says. ‘A Renault dealer owned it for 30 years but now it’s a Hyundai franchise so the car is surplus to requirements.’ I ask who has inspected it for him. ‘No one,’ he replies – rather worryingly. ‘I flew over, test-drove it, made sure it had the correct aluminium doors, roof and rear hatch and checked for rust. The dealer arranged the export plates.’ He shrugs, ‘My gut instinct tells me it’s okay, but I do keep wondering if I’ve bought a lemon.’ This should be interesting. It’s one of the first-generation Turbos built from 1980 to 1982, hence the alloy panels and Bertone-styled cabin.
Next day we arrive early at Autobase SRL in Brescia. There’s no sign of the car but Richard is getting more excited by the second. Then our tiny, brutal-looking crimson devil suddenly scoots into the car park. Dealer manager Christian Tupputi jumps out and whisks Richard into his office, leaving me to give the Renault the once-over. It had a respray a couple of years ago and is missing the original Turbo decals but the paintwork is stunning, the panel fit spot-on.
All the polyurethane bits – bumpers, sill covers, wings, gutter strips and rear spoiler – are pristine. So far, so tidy. I catch up with Richard just as Christian hands over the keys and Italian export plates. ‘He’s a happy boy now, no?’ he asks. Richard’s expression – urbane professional turned giddy schoolboy – says it all. We shoehorn our luggage into what little cabin space isn’t taken up by the engine and seats, and join the Brescian traffic. Our destination is more than 1000 miles away and we’ll be tackling the journey in a car we know very little about.
Richard has arranged everything to do with the car; my job is route-planning. Valuable intel from Geneva-based Classic Cars columnist Simon Kidston promises a spectacular route through the Alps later on, but for now we’re on a gentle motorway cruise to Monza, giving us plenty of time to take in the borderline psychedelic visual riot of the Bertone-styled cabin.
‘Interiors rarely lie,’ I say. ‘This is in excellent nick – I really think you’ve got a good ’un here.’ Richard nods. ‘You might be right,’ he replies. ‘I love how smooth and easy it is to drive, but I’m finding first and second gears a bit tricky.’
Then as the revs hit 3500rpm we experience our first real hit of the turbocharger at full chat. We’re both well used to blaring carburettor-fed engines – Lamborghini Silhouette for him, Lancia Fulvia Zagato for me – but the Renault’s first-class soundproofing means its engine isn’t overly intrusive. ‘I seriously thought about packing earplugs for this trip,’ says Richard. ‘I was expecting it to have an unruly exhaust note that’d be a real pain on a long drive but it’s actually quite cultured.’
We arrive at our first stop-off – the Autodroma di Monza – without incident but Richard isn’t looking happy as we park up. ‘Listen to that,’ he says. I look at the historic banking, half-expecting to hear ghostly echoes of Bordino, Maserati, Nuvolari et al at full crank. ‘No, down there,’ he points to the vent on the nearside wheelarch. ‘I noticed during my initial test-drive that the engine compartment extractor fan, which should run even with the engine off, wasn’t working. Nor was the oil temperature gauge. I’m a bit disappointed they’re both still on the blink.’
Back on the Autostrada it’s my turn behind the wheel. The seating position is comfortable if incredibly upright and – unusually for a mid-engined car – visibility is superb. The 1397cc engine is a punchy little thing but the gearbox’s long throw means that engaging first causes me to knock into my own leg and fifth entails brushing against my passenger’s knee.
The Alps, which up to that point have been far in the distance to the north, are now much closer. We exit at Susa and head for the Moncenisio Pass. A quick stop for fuel and another driver swap, then we’re climbing up the SS25, an incredibly steep and twisty treelined route that demands proper driving. But Richard is clearly struggling. He’s fine through open corners – the tyres (190/55 VR340 front, 220/55 VR365 rear) offering huge grip, the mid-engine balance sublime – but the turbo keeps going off the boil on the tighter hairpins, leaving us practically crawling along.
Occasional glimpses through the trees have shown we’re at a considerable altitude, and when the tree line finally breaks the view is breathtaking. We cross into France and pull in just before a series of even crazier hairpins to swap seats again. It’s cold up here and we’ve just discovered that the heater doesn’t work. Bizarrely, though, the oil temperature gauge seems to have fixed itself. I attack the first corner in second gear to keep the revs up but lose all momentum when I dab the brakes. Puzzled, I try again at the next hairpin and the same thing happens. My heel and toe skills are rusty so how am I going to keep the revs high? Third time lucky as I brake hard and change all the way down into first before burying the throttle. Yes, yes, yes – nailed it!
At the fifth hairpin I hear a shrill whistling that isn’t coming from the car and have to brake hard to avoid a heavily moustachio’d shepherd standing in the road ahead. Behind him is a flock of goats and an even bigger herd of cattle. The comedy of the situation soon vanishes when we imagine the damage the huge bells that the truculent bulls are wearing could inflict on the Renault’s alloy doors. Fortunately, we escape unscathed.
We later flash past Lac de Mont Cenis and plunge into the Maurienne valley, my earlier gearbox epiphany continuing to transform the Turbo’s performance in the bends. Heading northeast, we follow the course of the River Arc before climbing once more at Bonneval-sur-Arc. If the 2083m Moncenisio Pass was the appetiser, then the Col de l’Iseran is the main course. It’s much narrower here and there are no barriers. Pretty soon there’s a sheer 1000m drop immediately to my right. I might be attacking the roads as aggressively as Jean Ragnotti on the 1981 Monte in my mind’s eye, but the reality of putting a wheel wrong up here means our progress looks far less dramatic from the outside as we climb through the barren winter landscape.
Just shy of the summit of one of Europe’s highest paved roads we hit roadworks. The temporary traffic lights change and I edge out on to a single lane precipice above a 2700m drop. We round the corner and before us is the majestic Notre-Dame de l’Iseran church, seemingly on top of the world. It’s an incredible sight but we’re more concerned with how bitterly cold it is in the cabin. We remove the engine cover to liberate some much needed warmth and immediately hear it at the same time – the extractor fan is working again. ‘It’s healing itself,’ Richard marvels through chattering teeth. It’s dark now and it looks like the snow forecast for tomorrow might arrive early. We’ve brought a comprehensive spares bag with us but no tyre chains, so we need to get going. The descent is a wild zig-zag of seemingly endless switchback hairpins, the lights of Val d’Isère twinkling pinpricks far below. Richard is braver than me and attacks the bends with gusto; the ventilated disc brakes are taking a pasting but show no sign of fading.
Then he overcooks a corner – not enough to tip us into a skid, but sufficient to induce saucer eyes and galloping heartbeats all round. The pace slows for the remaining hairpins and we cruise into town, find a hotel and sink some well-deserved beers. At 3am my shonky mobile signal delivers a text from Simon Kidston inviting us to lunch in Turin. 14 hours ago. What a day.
The Turbo is a revelation on the autoroute the following morning. Its spectacular mid-range punch demolishes the 50-70mph sprint in less than four seconds – supercar territory in the early Eighties. In overdrive fifth gear the rev counter needle hovers just north of 3500rpm so the turbo is spooled and there’s no need to shift down a gear – all 155lb ft of torque is there for the taking, delivered with a haunting, ethereal whistle that we’ve come to adore. It seems a shame that Maserati had nabbed the Mistral name because it would suit this car perfectly.
Arriving at AG Pneus Centre Autos in Le Bourget-du-Lac, proprietor and French amateur rally champion Daniel Girardon greets us warmly. He knows the 5 Turbo inside out, so the moment of truth has arrived for Richard’s new car. We hear repeated mutterings of ‘original, original,’ as he examines the body, and with the subsequent engine inspection completed he gets it up on to a ramp. The tension is palpable. Finally, he delivers his verdict. ‘C’est bon.’ There’s a bit of play in the gearbox linkage, a weeping damper and the clutch master cylinder is leaking a bit, but that’s it. After taking it for a test-drive Daniel says, ‘It runs like a Swiss watch.’
Richard asks whether it’s up to covering the remaining 620 miles back home and Daniel’s reply is short but reassuring. ‘No problem.’ Verdict delivered, he ushers us into another workshop where we find a red Turbo that’s almost identical to Richard’s car. I point to its lack of side indicator repeaters. ‘Italian market only,’ he says with a wide grin. ‘Very rare.’
Richard climbs into the passenger seat – it looks much the same inside as his new car, but packs 240bhp rather than the standard 160bhp, a straight-through exhaust and semi-slick tyres for ultimate grip. Daniel builds the revs until the turbo starts to whistle then squirts out on to the main carriageway. As soon as the tyres bite it’s off like a rocket. Daniel handbrake-turns back into the car park five minutes later and Richard gets out wearing a Cheshire cat grin. ‘How was that?’ I ask. Daniel mimes quick, pendulous oppositelock steering. ‘Like that,’ Richard replies.
With the Renault’s fluids topped up, we join an exquisitely fast road on the eastern shore of Lac du Bourget before crossing the Rhône at Seyssel, 30 miles or so south-west of Geneva. Ex-pat and Renault Alpine Owners’ Club member Andrew Holt – who arranged our meeting with Daniel – has recommended we try the D991. He’s not wrong – it’s the perfect road for this car, with long straights and undulating, sweeping corners showcasing the Turbo’s phenomenal handling. We’re both buzzing – our first day’s driving revealed that the Turbo was a cracker but it’s always reassuring to have it confirmed by a specialist.
5 Turbo leaves the dealership it called home for 30 years. Arrowing through a winter landscape minutes after basking in 23-degree warmth R5 Turbo better known as a rally hero, but this was an unmissable photo opportunity. Despite 60:40 rear/front weight distribution, handling is nimble Later steering wheel in place of crack-prone original. First-gen Turbo with lightweight panels was built from 1980 to 1982. Tarentaise Valley ofers challenging roads against stunning scenery. Nowhere to hide – Daniel Girardon subjects Richard’s car to an expert assessment. Amidships engine means R5 Turbo is a strict two-seater. Moo-ve over! Alloy doors and polyester wings no match for French beef. Nowhere to hide – Daniel Girardon subjects Richard’s car to an expert assessment. Humble Cléon-Fonte engine an unlikely source of such vivid performance.
Back on the Autoroute we press on, but driver fatigue prompts an unscheduled stop at Bourg-en-Bresse. We quickly find a city centre hotel with secure parking and once we’ve checked in, Richard tries to fire the car up. Nothing. We haul everything out of the back, remove the engine panel and check a few connections. Still nothing. Deciding to utilise the most important tool in a classic owner’s armoury – patience – we take our bags up to our rooms. When we return to the Renault shortly after, it starts first time – panic averted. Day three of our adventure, and Richard’s been a busy boy this morning. ‘I’ve tightened the gear linkage with tie-wraps,’ he says, wiping his oily hands, ‘and it started just fine.’ Within five minutes of resuming our journey I’m already impressed. The Renault 30TX gearbox is swapping cogs much more cleanly than when we first collected it. We blast up to the Circuit Dijon-Prenois to watch a round of the Masters Historic Dijon Motors Cup, then press onwards towards Paris.
Then the earlier starting issue resurfaces following a routine fuel stop. We try to check for loose connections within the ignition barrel but it’s a sealed unit. Five minutes and a coffee later, we begin to suspect the starter motor is to blame, only for the car to burst suddenly into life. We manage another 12 miles before Richard suddenly switches the engine off and veers on to the hard shoulder. ‘The temperature’s shot up,’ he shouts. We leave it to cool for 20 minutes then make a dash for the nearest services less than half a mile away. We don’t even get halfway there before he has to shut it off again, the water temperature needle now buried deep in the red. We coast into a truck-stop area, fluid pouring out from underneath. Damn it, the story can’t end like this.
It can’t be the cylinder head gasket because there isn’t enough steam, so we remove the engine cover to check the water pump. Only, we can’t find it. Richard posts an SOS on the Renault 5 Maxi Turbo And Tour De Corse Junkies Facebook page and we get an immediate reply. It turns out there’s an access hatch behind the seats. And so begins a marathon diagnostic process, with us being controlled remotely via the internet.
We follow instructions meticulously, post pictures of our progress online and receive expert opinions aplenty in return. We remove the rear strut brace and heat shield to check the radiator pipes – it’s time-consuming but we’re in the zone now, convinced we can fix it. Three hours in we’ve finally removed the thermostat hidden in a water pipe, checked all the ancillaries and bled and topped up the system. ‘It could be worse, it could be raining,’ says an exhausted Richard. Never say that to a Scotsman – it starts belting down almost immediately.
It takes us another two hours to get everything back together, and there’s no guarantee our efforts have paid off. Our online support team is still with us, though – and to our amazement the Renault fires first time. There are no leaks and it’s still running cool 15 minutes later. There’s a collective celebration – verbally from the grease monkeys on the ground, e-roars from our new friends online – and we finally make it to our Paris stopover at 2am.
We may be in the world’s most romantic city, but our final day is all about the schlep to Dieppe. Heading north through Paris we’re both exhibiting symptoms of extreme temperature anxiety but the Turbo keeps its cool. Halfway there we’re sufficiently confident to book ourselves on to the evening ferry to Newhaven and all is well until we reach the car’s birthplace just outside Dieppe – at which point the water temperature needle dives into the red zone again.
We try letting it cool down only to find that the radiator is stone cold. With ten minutes to make our ferry we finally twig that the thermostat wasn’t to blame after all – there must be a blockage somewhere in the system. We top it up in an F1 pitstop-beating time and are just getting everything back in order when Richard drops the hot bleed valve screw into the engine bay. Ye gads. We roll the car back more in hope than expectation of finding it but spot it immediately. Luck is back on our side and we make the ferry by a whisker. Richard finally deposits me back at home in Kent at 10.30pm, leaving me to enjoy the Turbo’s now-familiar whistle one last time as he rockets away up the road.
Richard’s Turbo has surpassed all expectations. Although developed purely with rally competition in mind, Renault product manager Jean Terramorsi’s brainchild has a multi-faceted character. Minimal luggage space aside, it’s the consummate GT – comfortable and smooth enough to cover vast distances, yet still very much an enfant terrible in the way it devours even the most demanding roads. I’m still pondering all the different ways in which you could describe what we’ve just done – ambitious, daft, risky, brilliant… take your pick – in the wee small hours when I receive a photo text from the man himself. It shows the Turbo tucked safely away in his garage and him wearing the widest grin imaginable. As first drives of a new classic car go, this has been an absolute blast.
Thanks to: Christian Tupputi, Gigliola Bendotti, Daniel Girardon, Andrew Holt (sportscarparts.fr), Jane and Andy Brown, Jochem de Haas, Michael Hazen, Gavin Allison, Darren Monks, Hagerty Insurance (hagertyinsurance.co.uk), Simon Kidston (kidston.com), HVM Racing (hvmracing.fr), Renault UK (renault.co.uk), Roberto Corno
‘Jean Terramorsi’s vision is the consummate GT, yet still very much an enfant terrible on demanding roads’
TECHNICAL DATA 1980 RENAULT 5 TURBO
Engine 1397cc inline four-cylinder, ohv, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection, Garrett T3 turbocharger
Power and torque 160bhp @ 6000rpm; 155lb ft @ 3250rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: independent by double wishbones, longitudinal torsion bars, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated discs all round
Weight 941kg (2075lb)
Performance Top speed: 128mph; 0-60mph: 6.9sec
Fuel consumption 21.5mpg
Cost new 115,000 FF 1980 (around £12,360)
Value now £60,000 2015
‘We coast into a truck-stop, fluid pouring out from underneath the car. Damn it, the story can’t end like this’
DANIEL GIRARDON – THE PRIVATEER
‘Jean Claude Andruet knocked on our door one night during the 1967 Rallye Coupe des Alpes,’ says Girardon. ‘He’d crashed his Alpine A110 1100 during a recce run so my father lent him our garage’s Renault 4 van to continue his preparations while the mechanics repaired his car.’ Andruet went on to win the rally and Daniel’s desire to race fast cars was ignited.
He bought a Renault 5 Turbo 2 road car in 1983 which he worked on in the evenings, building it to 200bhp Group B specification. He won 55 rallies during his career, with victories in both the 1984 and 1988 Coupe de France finals.
‘I never managed to beat Jean Ragnotti,’ he says, ‘but I’m proud to say I was faster than 1994 WRC champion Didier Auriol and Renault works driver Philippe Bugalski.’ After coming fourth in the 1984 Rallye de Mont Blanc, Renault approached Girardon to join the works team. He says, ‘My father was even prepared to sell the garage to fund the move. In the end it wasn’t to be and so I carried on as a privateer.’
DO IT YOURSELF
Buying the car abroad
Ensure it has an MoT equivalent and road tax. Obtain the original registration documentation and a proper receipt.
Sending money abroad
Use a broker (not your bank) for the best rates, which is usually within one cent of the headline rate.
Different rules apply in different countries, so familiarise yourself with what applies to your purchase. Autobase SRL got hold of a temporary export plate for €100.
Essential, and you’ll have to insure it on the VIN. Not all companies will do this – Richard used Hagerty Insurance for his car.
How lucky do you feel? It’s diicult to get for a car being bought abroad and driven to UK, but Hagerty will oblige if you take out a policy at the same time.
Spares and tools
Take all the usual suspects and a headlight conversion pack – and learn about your particular car’s known issues. Pack a reflective jacket, triangle and breath-test kit. Internet access is a must for accessing specialist forums.
Driving it in the UK
You can’t drive a Brit-owned foreign-registered car in the UK, except to a pre-booked MoT. Either arrange a trailer from the port of arrival, or drive it straight to its test.
Get the vendor to run it daily for two weeks before collection and flush the cooling system.
‘I ask who has inspected it for him and he replies, “No one. I flew over, test-drove it and made sure it wasn’t rusty”’