Journal: How Renault Put A Turbo In The Trunk And Made The R5 Turbo

How Renault Put A Turbo In The Trunk And Made The R5 Turbo

By Alan Franklin
April 23, 2013

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?

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Rip Curl
Rip Curl(@nuvolari)
8 years ago

To me the R5 is still the coolest homologation special ever. The footage from the Monaco race was awesome and here is a pic of the back of the field as they used a Countach as a pace car! Only in Monte Carlo

Andy Gondorf
Andy Gondorf(@andygondorf)
8 years ago

“In what are perhaps the dying days of the internal combustion engine…”
That phrase makes me feel like someone in the future has driven over my grave in a god-awful, account designed economy box.
Please keep such wonderful retro fun machines as this 5 alive in the minds of todays drivers petrolicious.
I love this site!
Drive ( and ride ) tastefully indeed.

Josh Clason
Josh Clason(@joshclason)
8 years ago
Reply to  Andy Gondorf

We won’t give in! We shall keep vintage cars alive.

Andre C  Hulstaert
Andre C Hulstaert(@andrehul)
8 years ago

I was fortunate enoiugh to drive one of these, a Turbo5 maxi in full rally trim lately in the French Vosges, a ball on these twisting mountain roads. . . I have a whole section on my site devoted to these “beast” enjoy

Terrence Dorsey
Terrence Dorsey(@tpdorsey)
8 years ago

This is one of those rare cars that is actually larger than it looks. Which is a good thing, because they look so tiny. It’s the w i d e hips, I think.

Leucea Alexandru
Leucea Alexandru(@leuceaalexandru)
8 years ago

These are used as drag racing weapons in my country (and not only). This can be an astonishingly fast car if tuned properly. It’s small, it’s agile, it’s lightweight. As good old Colin Chapman used to say. “Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere” This was a perfectly balanced car from the beginning. One is demolishing this Mustang:

8 years ago

I saw this one in Monaco. Actually somebody else saw it, but it still nice that this man is still driving it every day..

Andrew Adamides
Andrew Adamides(@baskingshark)
8 years ago

Love these – also well worth a watch is the car chase from the non-canon 1983 James Bond movie Never Say Never Again, where villainess Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) drives one.

Chris Hill
Chris Hill(@fb_719927190)
8 years ago

The footage above of the 5’s lapping Monaco is pure poetry!

Adam Fairfax
Adam Fairfax(@acf321)
8 years ago

As a self confessed French car nut, I concur Afshin with everything you’ve written. Think of it, the 1984 R5 Maxi Turbo generated 350HP, and weighed under 2200hp (and was available as a homologation road car). In a car not much larger than an original mini, this was (and still is today) bordering on insane levels of power (to put it another way, this had 50\% improved power to weight than an ’84 3.3L 911 Turbo – a car named the world’s fastest in 1978). At the same time, note Peugeot down the road was making 600+ hp from a 1.8 4wd turbo in the form of the ~1300pd 205T16 in Group B spec. Should I also remind you, Renault invested the turbo (oh yeah, they also invested remote central locking too!).

I noted today on the EVO website that Peugeot intends to return to hi-po global domination with the 1900pd 208T-16 Pikes Peak tarmac rally monster. This, they claim has 875HP via a 3.2litre turbo, and exceeds the Bugatti Veyron’s power to weight ratio at 1075hp/tonne. If you’re looking for more inspiration at this point, have a look on-line at the prodigious feat undertaken in 1989 by Peugeot with the 405T16 Pikes Peak car, that I believe still holds the dirt course record as famously recorded on ‘Climb Dance’ (see Youtube).

Just on a personal note, if you ever wondered what was the car they used from the factory floor to make perhaps the world’s best car chase movie (Ronan – ok there are other greats too, but this one DOES get massive accolades) look no further than the terribly ‘vanilla’ Peugeot 406, an incredible handing car by any standard (also parked right in my garage as I pen this!).

Check them out, the Frogs have an incredible knack of making FAST cars that handle!

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam Fairfax

Agree totally, but credit goes to Alan Franklin for the article.

Burt Munro
Burt Munro(@m100tt)
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam Fairfax

Perhaps English is not your primary language, or perhaps your phone does not do ‘spell-check’ all that well…

Regardless, Renault did 100\% [b]*not*[/b] “invest” (sic), nor invent turbocharging. A Swiss named Buchi has the patent from 1879, and GE was turboing planes in 1919. As to remote central locking, well, Ford had keypads 2 years before the Fuego had a fob. Renault hardly “invented” it, but they were first to market.

The R5 Maxi was the top-spec race edition based on the Turbo I, most of the Turbo I racecars were spec’d in the 200-240 HP range. The road-going cars were about 190HP. And they were Turbo IIs, not Turbo Is.