Featured: This Renault 5 Turbo 2 Turns The City Of London Into A Group B Special Stage

This Renault 5 Turbo 2 Turns The City Of London Into A Group B Special Stage

Virgiliu Andone By Virgiliu Andone
August 19, 2020
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Photography by Virgiliu Andone

The Renault 5 Turbo rally cars weren’t the most successful of their era, but on special tarmac stages this evil little French hatchback held its own against champions. The wheelbase and general compactness of the car, coupled with its mid-engine, rear-wheel drive design made the Renault 5 Turbo a master of the hairpins at events like the Rallye Monte-Carlo, pirouetting between grip and opposite lock in a display of agility set to a cacophonous soundtrack of screaming fans, tortured rubber, and the pops of whistles of a high-strung angry turbo four-banger.

The impossibly quick changes of direction allowed the ever-alert terrier of a machine to be a consistent contender on tarmac stages even as the all-wheel drive Group B cars took over the WRC, while the same punchy, crazed puppy dog character won the affection of the crowds that it parted. This was a car destined for the Col de Turini if there ever was one, and while by the end of its life the R5 Turbo didn’t manage the same level of overall success as the all-wheel drive cars, this Renault is rightly regarded as a rallying icon.

To make the race car’s existence possible, Renault had to of course homologate a street version in sufficient numbers to comply with the FIA rules for Group 4 cars. While the standard Renault 5 is pretty much the definition of an econobox, the homologation special was wildly unique and barely related to the base model. The car evolved again with the introduction of Group B regulations, and today it is something of a quintessential homologation special of that era, despite its two drive wheels and the fact that it was designed before Group B came into effect.

Rather than the front-engine, front-wheel drive setup of the production car it is based on, the Turbo used a unique mid-engine, rear-wheel drive design housed in a lightweight, drastically augmented shell. It’s not pretty by any traditional definition, but its aesthetic merit comes from the sense of serious business that emanates from every vent and bulge in the bodywork. There’s a purity of purpose here that is undeniably compelling.

But what’s the proper context for such a car today? A practical and uncomplicated hatchback that’s been turned into a little rally beast is a cool concept to a lot of people, but even among high-performance cars this is a niche choice to own. It doesn’t have the instant civilian cachet a supercar (but then again, if you’re driving to show off to people who don’t know anything about cars, we have to ask: why?), it’s about as far away from a grand tourer as you can imagine, and it isn’t exactly cheap either. Where does this car fit?

The City of London. A maze of stone and steel, a blend of historic buildings and modern skyscrapers linked by narrow streets perpetually shaded by the towering structures that make up the skyline. It’s an epicenter and product of human ambition, always aiming further, always asking for more. This is where the financial world decides what constitutes value, what to buy and what to sell. I’m not trying to romanticize the cutthroat capitalism that thrives here, but it would be hard to deny its energy.

On a weekday, the tension and the buzz that power this place is palpable at the street level. The stress and the constant clamor of this informational nerve center isn’t what I want to be subjected to on a daily basis, but the logistics of organizing a photoshoot here were worth it.

Plus, on a Sunday, the mood changes drastically. There are still analysts coming off of all-nighters in the offices many stories above us, but there is a serenity on the ground level that the weekdays rarely allow. It turns into our very own asphalt, tarmac, and cobblestone rally park. It seems to be made for the R5 Turbo. We hustle the car around the stainless steel columns of commerce, diving in and out of the side streets and alleyways as the sound of the  tiny but angry turbo engine reverberates against the windowed cliffs rising on all sides. The Renault rotates with confidence, zigs and zags like it can’t bear to hold a bearing, all while being totally un-phased by the potholes and curbstones.

As I’m trying to capture this in photos, I realize that having fun is a bit like having freedom. You can never be completely free if you are not surrounded by other people who are free themselves, and who recognize your right to freedom. And having fun by yourself will pale in comparison to sharing that same joy with others—laughing with our friends and loved ones is what our lives should ultimately be “about.”

Exploring the urban canyons of the City of London in this Turbo 2 was a perfect means to reaching that bliss. The owner and I had an absolute blast during the photoshoot, but we also got to share that enthusiasm with the people we met along the way. Most were not aware of the history of the car, a few asked us what it was and promised to go research it as soon as they got home, and we also ran into a dyed in the wool enthusiast. He happened to be a policeman—not the person you want to bump into while enjoying a quick car—but he took a few moments from his day to chat with us and express his delight in seeing such a rarity.

And as one of only 200 of its kind, this 1985 “Type 8221” Turbo 2 is rare even among R5 Turbos. The Type 8221 versions of the Turbo 2 are distinguished by the 1437cc engine specific to this version (the main purpose of which was to allow the rally version to compete in a higher displacement category within Group B), along with an alloy roof, and some other tweaks. Although the original R5 Turbo featured even more alloy body panels (and a much cooler interior), the Type 8221 was the car that homologated the R5 Turbo’s Group B “Maxi” version. Better still, this particular example has been fitted with the aforementioned seats of the original Turbo.

Regardless of which version you’re looking at, though, the “rally Renault” communicates its raison d’etre while standing still. The impetus for this car was motorsport, not pageantry, but I still think it looks beautiful. While the air intakes and the wide body may have seemed excessive when you compare it to a standard R5, the lack of any gimmick in the brutally functional elements of the Turbo design have left us to look back on it as perhaps not so outrageous—relatively speaking.  The wheels are not comically large. There’s no massive wing, but rather a purposeful aero lip that lines the roof panel. All the vents have their own grilles, the proportions and radiuses are for the most part complementary to each other, and the overall look conveys to me that the designers didn’t rush. It does not, from any angle, look like a hastily thrown together car to satisfy a rulebook.

But I will concede that the pure square footage of interior carpeting and the army of allen-head fasteners to keep it together look a bit like a short cut in terms of interior design. Thankfully the rest of the interior is very nicely designed, and those original Turbo seats are arguably the coolest to be found in any car, from any period, built for whatever purpose. They look like 2001 set pieces, and they are so pretty it feels criminal to sit on them. We definitely did our best to keep those upholstered sculptures dry throughout our rainy photoshoot.

Typical London weather is rendered more menacing in the City, or at least more dramatic.  It really does feel like an analog to the mountain rally stages this car was bred for. The walls of glass are the cold and unforgiving rock faces, the steel columns line our route like massive tree trunks, and the heights of these helipad-laden towers are every bit as dizzying as the view from the top of an alpine peak. Would we rather have had a clear and sunny day on a real rally stage? It’s hard to imagine a better day spent driving, but when you’re in a car like this it suddenly becomes easier to imagine yourself there.

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