When Frank Met Regie. Clio Williams capers 156 Renault’s F1-inspired pocket rocket. Williams-Renault was the dominant force in 1990s F1. Ross Alkureishi asks whether the hot Clio is more than just badge engineering. Photography Tony Baker.
When manufacturers of mass-produced cars dare to venture into the world of performance motoring, they are up against it from the outset. The sheer sales volume of their ‘bread and butter’ models may result in them becoming industrial giants, with annual turnovers that a small country would be jealous of, but the flipside is the way in which those marques are perceived. Few will have enthusiasts foaming at the mouth in wild anticipation, purely because of the badge on the front.
And yet, with that familiarity comes a level of accessibility that more specialised car-makers can only dream of. With hundreds of thousands of customers, millions in some cases, driving their output, a high-performance version of a relatively standard model immediately presents itself as an attainable dream. All they need to do is to offer it at a modest premium, send it racing – Touring Cars, World Rally Championship or similar – achieve a modicum of success, and allow the resultant cachet to rub off.
Clockwise, from far left: styling is relatively subtle; every Clio Williams was blue with gold alloys; chassis 0001 was given to Sir Frank Williams; insert in superb seats; little Renault excels in corners.
Or in the case of the Renault Clio Williams, simply name it after a recent success. It appeared in 1993, bathing in the reflective glow of the previous year, when Nigel Mansell captured the F1 Drivers’ Championship and Williams the Constructors’ title using a Renault-powered car. To be fair, it wasn’t the first company to pull this trick. For decades, success in F1, on rallies and at Le Mans had been a seam ruthlessly mined for commercial advantage.
That the Williams team’s engineers had no input into the car could have backfired. In fact, in its July 1993 road test Motor Sport questioned whether ‘we could simply dismiss the whole thing as a cynical marketing ploy’, before concluding that wasn’t possible because it was ‘such an enjoyable drive’. But then, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Renault had previous, and this was the latest in a line of fiery road rascals going back to the Dauphine Gordini.
Responsibility for its development fell to Patrick Landon’s talented in-house Renault Sport department, formed in 1976 by the amalgamation of Alpine and Gordini. Within its back catalogue was the brutal mid-engined 5 Turbo, but the Clio Williams would be the spiritual successor to the outgoing, and less extreme, 5 GT turbo. It was also bred with Group N homologation in mind.
That meant the new F7R engine – a development of the Clio 16v’s twin-overhead-camshaft 1.8-litre F7P – would be bored out to two litres, the maximum allowed under the existing regulations. As well as this slight increase in capacity, a new crankshaft, pistons, reprofiled camshafts and conrods were fitted. The alloy cylinder head also received a resin coating – ironically, an F1-developed technique – for optimised sealing, and a four-to-one exhaust manifold replaced the standard item. Inlet valve diameter increased, while a wet sump with revised baffles to combat oil surge plus tri-electrode spark-plugs completed the comprehensively revised package. The upshot was a 13bhp increase to 150bhp but it was the resultant torque that impressed, with 85% of its 129lb ft available at just 2500rpm. To cope with this, Renault Sport fitted the stronger, close-ratio JC5 gearbox.
The suspension components received similar work, with a reinforced crossmember – as used on the Clio Cup racing cars – plus replacement lower front wishbones, larger-capacity dampers and thicker torsion bars. The driveshafts were lengthened and the track subsequently widened by 34mm, but perhaps the biggest impact on steering precision came from working with Michelin to match its 185/55R Pilot HX tyres to the 15in Speedline alloy wheels.
Interiors were a relatively standard affair, save for the sports bucket seats and some minor detailing; cars also received a numbered plaque on the dashboard. Overall kerb weight was kept just under the 1000kg mark by leaving out options such as a sunroof, radio and ABS brakes – although the latter could be specified.
Despite a pretty modest power increase over its 16v sibling, the Clio Williams met with immediate praise. In that same road test, Motor Sport paid tribute to ‘the world-class ride and handling… The sheer grip is immense, yet the on-the-limit safety is preserved’.
It was clear that here was a hot-hatch with impeccable manners, a strong power output and class-leading dynamics. No longer were cars simply being warmed over by way of engine and aesthetic bolt-ons; instead, manufacturers were now fully re-engineering them purely for performance. Renault’s message was loud and clear: move over, a new king has arrived.
Clockwise: blue details help to lift interior; performance is keen in lightweight package; Williams badging; 15in Speedline alloys; 2-litre engine was development of the Clio 16v’s unit.
Our featured car comes from the company’s UK heritage fleet and the plaque on the dashboard reads ‘001’. It’s covered just over 2500 miles and only comes out to play for motoring features and special events. Delivered new to Sir Frank Williams himself for display in his museum, it returned to the company in 2006 when he decided to sell some of his collection. There’s something awe-inspiring about driving the very first example of any production model, be it a Clio or a Dino – as well as an added responsibility not to ding it.
In the metal, it presents like a new car, which in essence it is. The metallic blue coachwork – as they all were – is pristine and the colour works beautifully with the contrasting Fulvia-esque gold alloy wheels and minimalist badging. Both front and rear wings flare delicately away from the doors, lending it a subtle muscularity, while the air intake scoop – shaped a little like a vacuum cleaner attachment – on the bonnet only adds to the effect. If Renault was celebrating success, it was doing so discreetly.
This is continued inside, where the blue theme runs to colour-coordinated seatbelts, instruments, gearknob, carpets and an embroidered ‘W’ on the seats. Glance at the latter and you could be forgiven for initially thinking they have a snakeskin finish. The plastic instrument binnacle resembles that of a smoothed-off 5 GT turbo, while feeling and looking to be better quality. Completing the package is a relatively uninspiring three-spoke steering wheel from the Renault 19 16v. It’s a pleasing environment but one that’s not screaming out anything special.
‘THE ENGINE FIZZES THROUGH ITS REV RANGE, HELPED BY THE QUICK-SHIFTING ’BOX’
That first inkling starts the moment you park your derrière in the driver’s seat. My word, Renault knows how to make them supremely supportive. It’s easy to underestimate the effect that this has, not just during the driving experience but also in instantly connecting you to the car. The steering wheel and pedals are in line yet the seat seems slightly offset to the left, but that’s only momentarily disconcerting. There’s a minor disappointment in that you can’t see the bonnet scoop for the windscreen wipers, removing a nice visual element for the driver – until you activate the wipers, obviously.
Take off at low speeds and you could be driving a standard Clio; the suspension is firm but not to the point where it’ll cannon your brain off the inside of your skull, and the exhaust note doesn’t encroach into the cabin. That steering, though, has a real immediacy – even when manoeuvring. Plant the throttle and the engine’s effervescent nature becomes apparent: the response is instant and it fizzes through the rev range, helped by the quick-shifting gearbox.
It’s on twisty country B-roads that the reason this car was instantly elevated to its lofty status becomes clear. The chassis engineering and suspension set-up is absolutely spot-on, endowing the little Renault with the same chuckability that the Peugeot 205GTi exhibited during the previous decade – only sharpened to the nth degree. Approach a corner, aim that pert nose at the apex and power through, with the levels of grip ensuring that it feels fully planted at all times. Do it again, only this time faster, as it flatters your ability to devour them. And again…
In the 1990s hot-hatch performance stats league, the Clio Williams is not the most fiery brute but it’s such a precise little machine that it easily overcomes this. Uneven or heavily cambered surfaces fail to unsettle it, although if you’re too heavy on the power it will exhibit torque-steer; you soon learn the art of progressively applying throttle pressure. It’d be great to get it on a track and investigate its limits more thoroughly: it’s stunning.
That word sums up the thoughts of a motoring public that quickly snapped up the initial 3500 examples, and that was that. Or it should have been, but the Williams-Renault F1 team was just getting into its stride. Championship victories for Alain Prost in 1993 and later Damon Hill in 1996, as well as further Constructors’ titles in 1993, 1994 and 1996 ensured that the partnership remained the brand of the moment. Off road, the rally versions of the Clio Williams put up a decent fight but ultimately couldn’t compete with their 4wd turbo rivals.
Williams Touring Car Engineering also took over the Renault works team for the 1995 BTCC, winning the Manufacturers’ Championship at the first attempt. The Laguna racer was powered by a highly tuned Sodemo version of the Clio Williams’ F7R engine, giving the road car a further coating of gold dust. The company upped output to 5400 examples, before returning first with the Clio Williams 2 and then the Clio Williams 3 – selling a further 6700 examples. Disappointing for those who believed they were buying a limited-production homologation special, but better news for us today.
“Yes, it was a badging exercise,” says Tony Hart, proprietor of Nottingham-based specialist Prima Racing, “but they’re such a nice car to drive and handle beautifully for what was in essence an evolution of the earlier Renault 5. Many were modified in period and at the time that made them more interesting, but now, as collectors’ cars, it’s the standard examples that are sought after. Finding a good one is hard.” Expect to pay £5-£6000 for a Clio Williams 1 in good nick – although drivable cars can be had for less – but if condition is tip-top and mileage low, expect to pay a fair bit more.
“Series 2 and 3 cars didn’t have the dashboard plaque and are slightly less collectable than the earlier one,” says Hart. “Prices for a good example of either would be around £4500.”
They’re hardy cars and the bodyshell is good, but they all suffer from corrosion in the rear wheelarches and at the bottom of the sills: “Water gets in through the opening rear window quarter panels, so check these areas carefully. They do rust honestly, though, so any issues will be apparent visually.” You can still source most major components, but some genuine Renault parts, including hoses and right-hand-drive power steering racks, are no longer available.
Renault finally stopped production in 1996. Jacques Villeneuve’s 1997 F1 Drivers’ Championship and Alain Menu’s BTCC title the same year were the partnership’s last major victories before the companies went their separate ways. Its racing legacy elevated the French company above fellow makers of utilitarian wares, and the results can be found both in the history books and the impact that the name still has.
The Clio Williams remains a roadgoing reminder of those glory days, and has ensured an elevated response to every performance model from the firm since then. Renault Sport took the humble Clio and re-engineered it to become a fizz-bomb of a car. Its magical blend of potency and handling is still firmly in evidence today. Its discreet exterior ensures that it remains under the radar of most, but it never fails to elicit a smile from those in the know. Hatchback perfection has that effect.
|Car||Renault Clio Williams|
|Number built||12,100 (including 6700 Clio Williams 2 and 3)|
|Engine||iron-block, alloy-head, dohc, 16v 1998cc ‘four’, multipoint electronic fuel injection|
|Max power (DIN)||150bhp @ 6100rpm|
|Max torque (DIN)||129lb ft @ 4500rpm|
|Transmission||five-speed manual, FWD|
|Suspension||independent at front by MacPherson struts rear trailing arms, four transverse torsion bars; anti-roll bar f/r|
|Steering||power-assisted rack and pinion|
|Brakes||vented discs, with servo|
|Length||12ft 2in (3712mm)|
|Width||5ft 5in (1641mm)|
|Height||4ft 5in (1366mm)|
|Wheelbase||8ft 1in (2472mm)|
|Power to weight||155bhp/1000kg|
|Price now||from £3000|
Thanks to Renault UK: www.renault.co.uk; Prima Racing: 0115 978 4148, primaracing-com
Hot hatches: the second coming
Following the 1980s boom in ‘pocket rockets’, some manufacturers embraced innovation during the ’90s while others remained strictly old-school.
FORD FIESTA RS TURBO
The Fiesta finally attained full ‘hot’ status in RS Turbo form. Styling was not as subtle as previous warmed-up models but performance was scorching. The 132bhp ‘four’ was mated to the Escort RS Turbo’s gearbox, as well as a limitedslip differential.
NISSAN SUNNY GTI-R
In 1991, the pensioner’s favourite went ballistic. A turbocharged 16v two-litre powerplant put 220bhp through a fourwheel-drive system. The hardest of the hardcore hatches, its 0-60mph time of only 5.4 secs was not far off supercar territory – a truly bonkers machine.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF VR6
Bloated third-generation Golf GTI arrived to a muted response, but the 2.8-litre VR6 set matters right. Good for 174bhp and a top speed of 137mph. Spec was high – ABS, traction control, power steering – but damping slightly soft, making it more luxo-hatch than hot.
PEUGEOT 306 GTI-6
The name refers to the six-speed gearbox – a first in the class and hailed in period as a triumph. The rest followed the 205 formula of humble styling combined with a free-revving four-pot and a chassis/suspension set-up that provided sparkling levels of feedback.
HONDA CIVIC TYPE R
The hot version of the sixth-generation EK Civic never officially made it to these shores, but many grey imports did. Honda squeezed 182bhp from the naturally aspirated ‘four’, which, in tandem with a low kerb weight of 1090kg, was enough for 0-60mph in 6.6 secs.