I’d always been a car nut, and I worked at Renault UK for 20 years,’ says Garry Austin. ‘In 1986 I was 10 years into my career, working at Renault Manchester and facing the dilemma of either trying to buy a friend’s Porsche 911 or importing a 5 Turbo 2 from Renault in France as a present to myself for my 40th birthday, when we were made a Renault Performance Centre, and I became the Performance Specialist. This meant I’d be the only one in the dealership allowed to sell the new Alpine GTA.
‘I was sent to an event at a hotel in Dover, where a fleet of C-registered GTA Turbos were waiting. They weren’t for sale – solely for demonstrations. I took a test-drive and thought the handling was brilliant, but it suffered from turbo lag. Then we were sent to the Alpine factory in Dieppe to see them being built. I took some snaps of the first few UK “atmos” [normally aspirated versions] and as soon as I got back to the UK, I placed an order for one of them.’
It’s how Austin knows he had the first GTA of its kind in right-hand-drive, UK-market form. ‘Renault hadn’t even started marketing it when I placed my order,’ he recalls. ‘The early buzz was all about the Turbo, but I always felt the normally aspirated car was better to drive – there’s less weight, a better balance to the chassis and the throttle response is immediate, although I did order mine with Turbo-model wheels and tyres for better grip. I’d had a Renault-engined Lotus Europa S1 and a Mini-Marcos before the GTA, so I was used to plastic cars – the bodywork of the GTA contains a lot of polyester, so it’s not straightforward glassfibre.’
It took a while before Austin could get the GTA on the road. ‘When it arrived at the dealership, I wanted to put my private plate from my Renault Fuego on it, and that took four weeks. Back then, you actually had to take the donor car to the DVLA, and you couldn’t use the car you were registering in the meantime.
‘While I was waiting, I put the new GTA up on the ramps in Renault Manchester’s bodyshop one weekend and pumped the chassis full of Tectyl – Renault’s version of Ziebart. I’ve still got bottles of the stuff in my garage. It was dripping Tectyl all over the floor for days, but it was a good idea – the chassis weren’t galvanised.
‘When I did finally get to drive it, everyone was stunned. No one had seen a GTA before – not even the Turbo – so my mates couldn’t quite believe it. One of them even ended up buying one two years later. But I never bought it to show off with, nor was it “because I could”. In fact, I had to fight to place that order so early.
I bought it because I love motor sport, and remember seeing Jean Ragnotti in his Renault 5 Turbo in the RAC Rally. During my time as a Performance Specialist I used to have to collect A610s from the Williams factory – it was used as a sort-of staging post during deliveries – and I got to meet people like Alain Menu, Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella.’
Austin wasn’t first to use the car regularly. ‘My wife, Jennifer, used it to commute in for the first two years, as she’d done before in the Europa. Then Renault’s staffloan scheme came along in 1988, and she got a new 5.
‘After this, the GTA became a third car – a holiday car, mainly. We took it to Italy, Switzerland, France and Holland, as well as Club Alpine Renault events at places like Donington Park. I never took it out in the rain and I’d never fire it up without the intention of driving it somewhere.
As a result it’s still on its original exhaust, because no condensation has been allowed to build up in it. Just before I sold it, a Porsche specialist inspected it because a manifold was blowing, and he couldn’t quite believe its condition.
‘Funnily enough, this car is the reason why we have a place in France. We’d driven down to Lake Geneva, and although the weather was bad the scenery was so beautiful that we vowed to go back. The next year – 1989 – I drove the Alpine to the British Grand Prix, and in the Renault paddock I met a guy who had a house near the Swiss border that he rented out. We started renting it too, and liked it so much we bought it from him.’
‘Some years later Club Alpine Renault staged an event at the opening of the Swindon Park Renault Centre, and encouraged members to bring their cars along. Roger Clark – the rally driver – was the honorary chairman of CAR at the time, and when he addressed us all, he told me he’d looked round all the concours entrants, and that my car had won. I had no idea there actually was a concours and certainly hadn’t entered it! I got to meet Clark, and won a special umbrella.’
Selling GTAs wasn’t quite so much fun, though. ‘Although it used aerospace pressing and bonding techniques, and was way ahead of its time from a technical perspective, it suffered as a result of badge snobbery, because Chrysler owned the rights to the Alpine name in the UK so it had to be sold as a Renault. And then the price meant that you got customers coming in looking to replace Jaguars, wondering where their luggage and kids were going to go.
‘However, I remember one customer who’d bought a white “atmo”, and we got chatting when he brought it in for servicing. He turned out to be Richard Jones, a racing driver with the Chamberlain Engineering Le Mans team. Given that, you’d think he would have gone for the Turbo but he said he preferred the normally aspirated car – again, it was the better chassis balance. It’s not just the turbo lag – the weight of all that extra pipework in the rear really does upset things.
The car spent the following ten years as a grand tourer, taking Garry and Jennifer to their French retreat, but it saw increasingly little use. ‘It was a third car – we had a Modus and a Mégane Cabriolet – and postretirement, feeling a little financially restricted, I couldn’t really afford to keep running it,’ says Austin. ‘Also, I was a bit anal about using it – I was always careful where I parked it, for example, the alloys were never kerbed once and when I sold it the original brake pads were still in situ.
‘It ended up off the road for two years. I was chuffed as mintballs when Geoff Hill bought it – he still calls it our car. I didn’t really want to sell it – frankly, if Geoff hadn’t offered to buy it, it would still be in my garage. I’d looked after it, so I didn’t want it going to someone who’d neglect it or drive it badly and roll it.
When we fired it up, it was chugging a little with stale petrol, and sounded as though the right-hand exhaust manifold would need replacing. It turned out to be a gasket – nothing wrong with the exhaust itself.
Geoff Hill had been one of Garry Austin’s awestruck mates back in 1986, and was one of the first passengers to ride in the GTA. ‘He’s a pal, so we’ve always kept in touch with each other,’ says Hill. ‘In the spring of 2006 I called him up to say I was selling my AC Cobra replica project car, did he still have the GTA, and would he consider selling it. He said he’d certainly consider it as he didn’t drive it any more – it had sat unused for two years.
‘I sold the Cobra, rang Garry again, went round to his house almost immediately and the deal was done, although I had to come back with a trailer to tow it away because it had been left standing.
‘Further investigation revealed that it needed new brakes, a full service and the fuel tank draining, but otherwise everything was fine, so I threw it in at the deep end – a big trip to the Laon Classic in France, a lovely event that sees 300 cars in the town square, a real mix of vehicles. With the change in ownership came a new numberplate too. ‘The original GJA plate referenced Garry and Jennifer Austin,’ explains Hill. ‘The new plate still references Garry and Jennifer, to reflect the care they gave to the car, as well as my wife and I, whose name is Janice, but it also includes my daughter’s initials.
‘I knew it’d never be a daily car, so I’ve compensated with big trips. I first took it to Le Mans in 2008, and to Wales a lot where we go sailing, and we take it to France every year. It doesn’t get any winter use – the chassis isn’t galvanised, and it’s bonded to the bodywork, which makes fixing any corrosion an absolute nightmare.’ But the Alpine doesn’t live a particularly quiet life.
‘I’ve competed in hillclimbs for more than 50 years,’ Hill notes. ‘It began with an Austin-Healey Sprite in 1962, and I’ve been a British Automobile Racing Club member ever since. I thought I’d get back into it four years ago, so took the GTA to Harewood then Prescott.
‘The normally aspirated GTA is an ideal hillclimber. Rather than turbo-lag, it has low-down torque and manages to get off the line quickly – so quickly, in fact, that people at Prescott started to ask me if it had been tuned. It hasn’t – it’s just that the rear-engined chassis puts the power down so well.
‘It’s been very reliable, but in 2014 the radiator started leaking, causing the engine to run hot, so I knew it needed replacing. I took the front end off and saw how well-preserved it all was underneath. I get the chassis rustproofed every two years, but it’s normal to find heavy corrosion on the front subframes and mounting brackets of GTAs. I touch wood every time I talk about this car, because I can’t believe what good condition it’s in sometimes. And this is the 63rd GTA built, so it’s one of the oldest in the world.’
Geoff is considering getting a stablemate for the GTA. ‘We went to Alpine’s 50th anniversary celebrations in Dieppe last year,’ he explains. ‘There were 300-400 cars, ex-works drivers, amazing food – anyone driving an Alpine was treated like royalty. One of the guys working on a new Alpine told me that it’s going to be spectacular.
‘Next year there will be events surrounding the launch of the new car, that the club and my car will no doubt get involved with, and hopefully I’ll get a test-drive in the new Alpine. If I like it, I may well sell my old WSM Austin- Healey Sprite and buy one. It’ll be a much sportier car than the grand touring GTA with its adult-sized back seats and fitted luggage.
‘Then I’ll have an Alpine for every occasion.’
‘At the celebrations in Dieppe, anyone who was driving an Alpine was treated like royalty’
Familiar Renault switchgear but an unusually good stereo. Geoff points out the new, period-correct stickers in pristine engine bay. No longer a daily driver but still enjoyed regularly. Seaside trip with fellow Renaultphiles, 1988 No turbo so no lag = razor-sharp getaways Proving its hillclimbing prowess at Prescott, 2013.
‘Any colour you like…’ red dominates the line-up at Nineties club meet.
‘Roger Clark told me my car had won the concours. I had no idea there was a concours’
Jennifer Austin was GJA’s main driver for the first two years of its life. A Nineties concours winner – unwittingly. Renault staffer Garry Austin liked the GTA so much, he bought one. Garry’s first photo of his new car – on the production line in 1986.