Paying A Visit To An Alpine Guru And His Twin-Turbo GTA
Photography by The Toms
John Law is a man who brings real craftsmanship to the art of preserving Alpine cars. After making our way into the center of London, we met up with the French car fanatic at his garage, JL Engineering, to talk Gallic turbocharged and his experience with the Alpine GTA.
The Toms: How do you become the guy that works with Alpines?
John Law: It goes back to the first car I really modified, which was a GTA like this one. We put a 3L engine in it with twin turbos—the standard factory turbo cars used a single and only made about 200 horsepower—and as that developed people would talk about the pitfalls and problems that they seem to think come along with this kind of build. They’d say, “Oh, you can’t do that!” or “That’ll be too hard!” Things like that. So, we did it, and it worked. That car had about 320 horsepower straight away, and that was enough to make it one of the quicker Alpines out there. After that project, people took some notice, a few said “Oh that’s pretty good,” and from there I started to get quite a few jobs from people who wanted the same things I did.
TT: Is your work about making them as fast as possible, or would you prefer to work on the originality and restoration of these cars, what’s the balance?
JL: What I enjoy doing is taking a car—and there are cost constraints of course—and working on it in a way that is high in quality and in keeping with the car’s original purpose. When I modify cars, I try to build things in a sympathetic way, considering not only what they were, but making them better. I mean, for instance, the original ECUs are so antiquated by now that I usually put new ECUs in cars I work on, and new wiring looms too. You get rid of a load of problems like that, and I can’t see the desire to retain those issues for the sake of something like original wiring.
TT: How easy is it to find a good example of something like an Alpine A310, GTA, or A610?
JL: In France these cars are around €50,000, but over here in England you can get one for much less, around €10,000, so they’re taking their time to catch up to other markets. I think they will all continue rising though, especially when the new model is finally released next year.
I think the problem with these cars is that, unlike Porsches for example, which people have always loved and spent a lot of money on, the Alpines sort of fell out of favor after a point and a lot of people more or less just left them to sit. It seems most went into a state of disrepair for a time, but now they’re becoming a little bit more sought after though, and people are willing to spend a bit more money to get a good one.
TT: Yours is pretty clearly not stock; can you tell us what it’s like to drive a GTA when it’s been modified like this one?
JL: There’s no power steering. You can feel everything on the road and the car’s reactions as such, and really the best way to say it is that you’re involved. So with something like this car, this amount of feedback and responsiveness, 350 brake horsepower is really a lot of fun, you know? But that said, we’re developing our systems more and more all the time. The next one I’ll build will be have around 600 brake, and we’ll go from there!
TT: That’s quite a lot of power, for any car—how will you manage that in a GTA?
JL: Because the cars were really detuned when they came out the factory, the engines have a lot of leftover potential in them, and if you know what you’re doing this means you can do so much to them to extract power. Look at the turbo Porsches back in the ‘80s, they only had about 250 horsepower or so from the factory, and now people are getting obviously quite a lot more from those motors, so it’s a similar kind of thing really; you take a well-built factory item and figure out ways to wring more out of it.
TT: Besides development, what do you use this car for?
JL: We built this one just as a road car, but we’ve also started to try it out in a little bit of motorsport to see how we get on. It hasn’t been built to be very competitive in a specific class, but we’ve done OK with it all the same—we’ve had some 2nd and 3rd-place finishes. But like I said, we mostly use it as a road car. The one we’re building at the moment will be a bit more track-orientated by the time it’s finished though.
TT: This may be a bit broad, but do you think that French turbo cars are underrated today? What is their status, their place?
JL: I think people in the UK just don’t really know what they are to be honest, not so much that they actively don’t appreciate them. I mean, everyone kind of knows the Renault 5 GT Turbos because of the base model Renault 5, which I guess is why people love them: they can relate to them. Those cars also had a one-make race series that supported F1 back in the day, around the early 90s, so there’s a load of race cars that are floating around still to keep them visible. Overall though, the French aren’t really known for their turbocharging, which is kind of funny though considering the success of Peugeot and Renault in rallying.