How Renault Put a Turbo in the Trunk and Made the R5 Turbo

The greatest thing about French cars is the sheer madness involved in their conception. They burst with charming idiosyncrasies and delightfully bizarre engineering solutions. Whether on a small scale, such as with the Renault R16’s asymmetrical wheelbases, or the full boulangerie GS Birotor, which featured Citroen’s trademark oleopneumatic suspension, inboard brakes, single-spoked steering wheel, and the pièce de résistance, a rotary engine—French engineers clearly come from a different galaxy.

Another wonderful example of Gallic design weirdness is the Renault 5 Turbo. Originally conceived in response to Lancia’s beautiful Stratos and its rallying successes, the R5 Turbo was nuttier than a gâteau aux noix.

Rather than design a new mid-engined platform from the ground-up, Renault simply took their existing 5 hatchback, removed the FWD drivetrain, added Gandini-penned rear fender flares, then stuffed a turbocharged four cylinder with nearly 300% more power than a standard 5’s largest engine into the space where groceries normally reside.

The resultant car exuded a friendly, cartoonish aggression, like a pissed-off koala bear. Nearly wide as it was long, with wild, heavily ventilated hips only slightly narrower than a Ferrari 512BB’s, plenty of large, prototypically 80s “TURBO” decals, and more air intakes than a Dassault Mirage, it remains to this day one of the most iconic performance car silhouettes of all-time—there’s simply no mistaking one for anything else.

R5 Turbos started life as all 5s did, at Renault’s Flins factory. French coachbuilder/niche manufacturing contractor Heuliez would then pluck a standard chassis from the production line and replace its doors and roof with light-weight aluminum panels, fit a bespoke rear subframe, and perform myriad other modifications in preparation for the cars transformation from humble hatch to what the British call a “turbo nutter bastard”. In the end prepped shells were shipped to the Dieppe-based Alpine/RenaultSport factory for final assembly, ready for delivery to privateer racers or visionary enthusiasts looking for an utterly unique driving experience.

In the capable hands of Jean Ragnotti, the R5 Turbo won its first-ever WRC outing at Monte Carlo in 1981, but soon proved outclassed by the emergence of Group B and its monstrous machines the following year. Though only moderately successful throughout its short-lived competition career, the R5’s insane shape and specification easily secured its place in the pantheon of sports car greats.

In 2001 Renault reintroduced its famous mid-mounted, big-engined hatch recipe in the form of the awesome Clio V6. With similar box-like dimensions, aggressive detailing, and equally terrifying handling characteristics, it was a real pocket super-car, just like its barmy older brother.

So here’s hoping that in what are perhaps the dying days of the internal combustion engine, and in an era of ever-encroaching automobile ‘applianceism’ that the French are able to keep their mad engineering spirits alive—the world can use a laugh now more than ever, and what better way to deliver it than a seven-foot wide economy car with a big motor in the trunk?