Beautiful Nightmare - 1968 Alpine A220

During the 1960’s, the world of motorsport experienced some drastic changes. In addition to the aerodynamic breakthroughs engineered by Chaparral’s Jim Hall, the mid-engine revolution had taken a hold of top level endurance racing with the arrival of stronger transaxle gearboxes from firms like Colotti.

These transmissions finally made it possible to utilize large powerful engines in mid-engine arrangements. Cooper had used the layout since 1959 in Formula One, but the much smaller engines prevalent in that series didn’t require as much strength.

Moreover, manufacturers competing in the top level categories gained more freedom in 1962, when the FISA started the International Championship for Makes, and included a much more liberal set of homologation rules.

The dominance of the seven liter Ford GT40 spelled the end for large-engined prototypes in 1968.

The dominance of the seven liter Ford GT40 spelled the end for large-engined prototypes in 1968.

As with any major rule changes, things gradually got out of hand. An agitated Ford hellbent on getting back at Enzo Ferrari for sabotaging the sale of his company would stretch the rules to their very limit.

After failing in 1964 and 1965 editions of Le Mans with the 4.7L 289-engined MkI, the American auto giant went all out with MkII. It carried a 7.0L 427 V8 churning out 485 horsepower. The car duly won Le Mans in 1966, with its radically different successor, the American-built MkIV, repeating the trick in 1967.

All this big-block bravado had the FISA worried, as no other manufacturer could rise up to Ford’s brutish level. In an effort to level the playing field, the governing body imposed a 3.0L engine capacity limit on Group 6 prototypes, the category the GT40 had been active in. T

he change favored European manufacturers with their smaller high-revving engines, but didn’t ban the GT40 outright. Smaller capacity versions with 4.7L and 5.0L V8’s found refuge in Group 4, which required a minimum of 50 cars built.

Alpine's first ever car, the 1955 Renault 4CV-based A106.

Alpine's first ever car, the 1955 Renault 4CV-based A106.

With the big-power factory Fords out of the way, endurance racing once again centered on European brands. Porsche started work on the 908, Ford turned to British expertise and Cosworth DFV power for its new P68 F3L, while French outfit Matra continued with the M640 and Alfa Romeo deployed yet another development of their Tipo 33. Ferrari left the championship altogether, as Enzo was less than pleased with the outlawing of his big V12-cars.

Another firm looking to join the fray was Jean Rédélé’s Société des Automobiles Alpine SAS. Started in 1955 by the French garagiste from Dieppe, Alpine had quickly risen to prominence with its successful Renault-based sportscars. Numerous wins in high profile events like the Mille Miglia and Coupe des Alpes saw Alpine forge a close partnership with supplier Renault in the early 1960’s, which culminated in the launch of the gorgeous A110 Berlinette in 1963.

The original A110.

The original A110.

By the end of 1967, just as the FISA changed the engine regulations for Group 6, Renault announced it would allocate its entire motorsport budget solely to Alpine. This move came in very handy, as Alpine had quite a hurdle to overcome to join the head of the field. Prior to 1967, the company had been exclusively running small displacement 4-cylinder prototypes in the lower ranks of the prototype field.

Small four cylinders was all Alpine knew prior to 1968.

Small four cylinders was all Alpine knew prior to 1968.

Although the cars were very competitive in their own right, this meant Alpine had to make a massive jump into 3.0L territory. Luckily, French engine wizard Amédée Gordini had a perfect solution to this problem. The last prototype Alpine had raced, the A210, featured a 140 horsepower 1.5L twin-cam four cylinder developed by Gordini himself.

Because this engine already possessed half the displacement they needed, Gordini proposed fusing two of the blocks together to create a neat 3.0L V8. Since this plan was a no-brainer, it was quickly approved. The end result was the Type 62V8, measuring 2,996 cc, weighing just 140 kg (309 lbs), breathing through a quarter of Weber carburetors and producing more than twice the power of the old four with 310 horsepower on tap at 8000 rpm.

Without further ado, the amazingly compact powerplant was fitted to an A210 chassis and presented to the public at the 1967 Paris Motor Show by Jean Rédélé and Renault president Pierre Dreyfus. During testing though packaging issues necessitated numerous changes to its rear end, giving rise to the modified A211.

The sub-standard A211 became a racing testbed for the 1968 car.

The sub-standard A211 became a racing testbed for the 1968 car.

This botch-job of a car featured new wheels, larger brake ducts and a new ZF 5DS25 5-speed manual transmission. On its race debut at the 1000 KM of Paris Monthléry, the car exhibited handling problems, exacerbated by unreliable performance from the Gordini V8.

To Jean Rédélé and his team, it was clear what had to be done. Grafting the new engine to an existing chassis simply wouldn’t cut it, so they started work on a new car built around the V8. This machine would be wider, longer and used larger wheels than its predecessor.

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The car was made up from a tubular steel spaceframe, which was suspended on double wishbones and coil springs on all four corners. Fiberglass bodywork covered the steel frame, which took on a very exotic shape. Thanks to its larger dimensions, the new A220 looked sexier than ever. The large rear fins used on the smaller cars were retained, as was the ZF-transmission.

Despite the larger frame, the car weighed just 10 kg more than its four-cylinder forefather, with a total of 680 kg (1499 lbs) to shift. The combination of low weight impressive power and an exceptionally slippery body gave very inspired performance, as the A220 was capable of speeds up to 330 kph (205 mph).

In another departure from tradition, the seating position was moved to the right-hand side of the car, as it would shift more weight to the inside of the corners at the predominantly right-turning Circuit de La Sarthe at Le Mans.

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A single A220 made its debut at the fourth round of the season, held at the Temple of Speed: Monza. Mauro Bianchi (BEL) and Henri Grandsire (FRA) were given the honor, backed by the A211 of Patrick Depailler (FRA) and André de Cortanze (FRA).During this 1000 kilometer event the team would have to face opposition from the brand new Porsche 908LH, the older 907LH, and various privately-run five liter Fords GT40.

During qualifying the A220 thankfully out-qualified its older sister, but only by 1.1 seconds to 8th place. It seemed the car’s lack of reliability was compounded by a lack of power, as main competitor Porsche offered 350 horsepower.

Race day brought even more hardship, as the car ran into trouble early on. Succeeding to complete only 40 laps thanks to various engine issues, Bianchi and Grandsire weren’t classified as finishers. Depailler and Cortanze in the older A211 meanwhile took a surprise 3rd place owing to a high rate of attrition.

At Monza both the road and the oval course were used during the 1000 KM event.

At Monza both the road and the oval course were used during the 1000 KM event.

Alpine skipped the grueling Targa Florio in favor of the 1000 KM of the Nürburgring, which presented a much easier task with its dainty 24 kilometer laps. By comparison, the Targa Florio featured a 76 kilometer long course with an innumerable amount of corners. Once again disaster struck though, as the A220 was unable to make the grid due to technical difficulties. The A211 started 21st and finished 9th with Gérard Larrousse and Patrick Depailler.

Ironically, ongoing problems with the A220 meant it was sidelined for the Spa 1000 KM, while the far less developed test mule kept on running. The overseas round at Watkins Glen and the 500 kilometer sprint at Zeltweg in Austria were also ignored by Alpine, as preparations started for the main event: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

1968 Le Mans start, Bianchi/ Depailler A220 waiting between a Porsche 908 and a Gulf Ford GT40.

1968 Le Mans start, Bianchi/ Depailler A220 waiting between a Porsche 908 and a Gulf Ford GT40.

Four A220’s were entered into the 1968 race, backed by three A210’s. In qualifying Mauro Bianchi and Patrick Depailler were the fastest of the Alpine squad, placing 8th with a time of 3:43.400 behind Porsche’s 908, Matra’s M630 and John Wyer’s Ford GT40.

André de Cortanze/Jean Vinatier chased by the Chevron B12 of John Woolfe/Dibgy Martland, Le Mans 1968.

André de Cortanze/Jean Vinatier chased by the Chevron B12 of John Woolfe/Dibgy Martland, Le Mans 1968.

Henri Grandsire and Gérard Larrousse were close behind in 11th place, seven seconds down. Andre de Cortanze and Jean Vinatier (FRA) followed in 15th and 10.3 seconds down, with Jean Guichet (FRA) and Jean-Pierre Jabouille (FRA) 18th and 11.5 seconds down. Even though the A220’s performance was reasonably competitive, the fastest car was still a whopping eight seconds behind the Porsche 908 of Jo Siffert (CH) and Hans Hermann (GER).

The 1968 race ended in tears for Alpine

The 1968 race ended in tears for Alpine

Unfortunately, the race quickly unraveled for the Alpine team. As always, Le Mans was proving to be a cruel mistress, as one car after another retired. Just 59 laps in the #28 Grandsire/Larrousse car encountered failing brakes, which lead to a race-ending accident.

Debris from Mauro Bianchi's A220.

Debris from Mauro Bianchi's A220.

For a while the rest seemed safe, but then the #29 Guichet/Jabouille machine slowed with a busted alternator on lap 185. The disaster was completed when Mauro Bianchi also suffered brake failure in #27 on lap 257, again leading to a devastating crash. Fortunately, none of the drivers were seriously harmed.

With only the #30 car left, the team felt downhearted, but took some solace in the surviving A220 taking 8th place, 34 laps behind the winning Ford GT40 of Pedro Rodriguez (MEX) and Luchien Bianchi (BEL).

Mauro Bianchi's ruined car after his horrendous accident.

Mauro Bianchi's ruined car after his horrendous accident.

After Le Mans, two A220’s were transported to Paris to compete for six hours on the 7.8 kilometer Linas-Monthléry circuit. Patrick Depailler and Gérard Larrousse proved faster than their team mates in qualifying by 1.4 seconds, as Jean Guichet and Henri Grandsire had to settle for 6th place on the grid.

This situation would be turned around on race day though. Guichet/Grandsire finisher 4th behind two Porsche’s and a Ford GT40, while Depailler/Larrousse had to make do with 6th place behind an older Porsche 910.

Monthléry, 1968.

Monthléry, 1968.

With the 1968 season revealing itself to be a total failure, Alpine set its sights towards 1969. Various refinements and improvements were brought to the A220, including a prototype fuel injection system, which bumped power to a more competitive 350 horsepower. The system was extensively tested, but reliability concerns lead to it being abandoned for race use.

Three A220’s were used for the first outing in 1969, with the A211 finally receiving a well-deserved retirement from competitive testing duties. Again the cars didn’t show their face until the fourth round at Monza, with Alpine electing to skip Daytona, Sebring and Brands Hatch.

Only the De Cortanze/Vinatier car carried the ‘69 updates, which showed when the car took 11th place, half a second quicker than the older car of Depailler/Jabouiller in 12th. The third car placed 17th in the hands of Jean-Claude Andruet (FRA) and Henri Grandsire.

Patrick Depailler on the high banking, Monza 1969.

Patrick Depailler on the high banking, Monza 1969.

Again the results were dramatic. Andruet/Grandsire were even denied a race start due to a ruined engine, while de Cortanze/Vinatier lasted just ten laps until they suffered the same. The third Depailler/Jabouille car was classified 6th due to completing more than 90% of the race distance, but actually crashed out on lap 91.

To make matters worse, competition was increasing for 1969. Former Ford GT40 customer John Wyer Automotive launched the Mirage brand, while the fierce Lola T70 Mk3B was homologated as a Group 4 entry and Ferrari returned with the 3.0L 312P. The increased competition saw the Alpines relegated to the lower half of the top 20 in qualifying.

André de Cortanze/Jean Vinatier sliping through La Source hairpin, Spa Francorchamps 1969.

André de Cortanze/Jean Vinatier sliping through La Source hairpin, Spa Francorchamps 1969.

An updated 1969-spec machine for De Cortanze/Vinatier did little to help them at Spa, as the only barely cracked the top 10. Teammates Jabouille/Grandsire managed 14th place with the older car, while Jean-Claude Andruet and Gijs van Lennep (NED) were stuck in 17th.

The cars were again hopelessly unreliable however, as Jabouille/Grandsire succumbed to gearbox failure early on. Andruet/Van Lennep did little better, finishing 21st, 17 laps behind the winning Porsche of Jo Siffert and Brian Redman (GB). Top honors in the Alpine camp went to De Cortanze/Vinatier, who finished 17th, 14 laps down.

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Against titanic opposition, the four A220’s entered by Alpine were unable to even crack the top 10. Following the procession of Lola’s, Porsche’s Matra’s and Ferrari’s, the Alpines were relegated to places 18 to 21. De Cortanze/Vinatier lead the way, with Jean-Luc Thérier/Jean-Pierre Nicolas second of the Alpines, tailed by Jabouille/Depailler and Grandsire/Andruet.

De Cortanze/Vinatier, Le Mans 1969.

De Cortanze/Vinatier, Le Mans 1969.

Sadly, the never ending story continued, as Alpine was again marred by technical woes. Grandsire/Andruet lasted 48 laps before a broken headgasket and a hefty oil leak forced them to retire. On lap 133, De Cortanze/Vinatier parked in the garage with another incurable oil leak, followed by Thérier/Nicolas with a head gasket failure on lap 160.

Like so many times before, just one A220 was left to fend for Alpine’s honor. But even Jabouille/Depailler would not be able to complete the race. On lap 209 the A220 let out a loud bang and a cloud of smoke. One of the conrods had snapped, leading to catastrophic engine failure. Once again the team left Le Mans empty-handed.

Despite their best efforts, none of Alpine's car finished the 1969 race.

Despite their best efforts, none of Alpine's car finished the 1969 race.

Following the drama at Le Mans, Alpine suspended all sportscar activities, despite having developed an innovative pushrod rear suspension system for the A220. Instead the company would turn all its resources towards developing a rallying program, for which the A110 model appeared to be wonderfully equipped. The switch would finally turn Alpine’s fortunes, as the A110 would win the first ever World Rally Championship in 1973.

The Alpine A220 represented tiny manufacturer’s dream to compete with the big boys on the highest level. Energized by a rule change favoring smaller engines in 1968, Alpine’s Jean Rédélé and engine guru Amédée Gordini devised a new 3.0L V8 prototype built from the smaller machines they had grown accustomed to.

The final product looked promising on paper, but turner out to be underpowered and woefully unreliable. Embarrassed by rampant engine failures and regularly beaten by its own development mule, the A220 went down in history as nothing more than a overly ambitious, but achingly beautiful V8 nightmare.