1976 Alpine A310
I got the call at work:
“You’d better come and get it.”
My 1976 Alpine A310 was the star of a Wheeler Dealers TV show. The production company failed to find a buyer on the show, and I’d been to see it just after. I needed another car like a hole in the head/wallet. I’d made a very low offer on the car, they’d snorted and said no way. There the deal sat, but about once a month someone would ring from the production company wondering if I wanted to pay more. The calls had died down, and then, out of the blue, three months after the last call, we had the conversation above and I owned an A310.
Our history together has been full of ups and downs. I had to hide it in a barn for three months before I could find an opportune moment to confess to my wife and family that I’d bought another car (there are a few). We now have two cats as a result of the ‘exchange of views’ that followed.
On our first visit to Castle Combe, I’d thought it strange that the car briefly put up an oil-warning light as it turned hard right at Quarry Corner. It seemed to be running fine, so I checked the oil level in the pits and went out again, but it did this on every lap. Well, I reasoned, a sports car should be able to turn right, and this was probably oil surge in the sump.
Five laps later the light came up, this time with sad and expensive noises from behind. As they’d clearly fried the head gaskets during the filming of the show, we had anticipated the existing engine letting go at some point. Just not so soon. I dined out on the quirkiness of a sports car that can’t turn right.
A great pleasure of developing the car has been working with some amazing craftsmen and artisans. Due to its glassfibre body with a central spine chassis, I didn’t much fancy crashing in the car. So a bespoke roll cage was built by Peter at Fabricage; having test driven one of his cages with a Saab and a tree, I wouldn’t have chosen anyone else.
1976 was about the high point of irresponsible or naïve auto construction. In the original car the front seats were bolted through the floor (glassfibre) on four 10mm bolts. Peter couldn’t actually find a solid part of the car to mount the cage on. It’s a credit to his creativity that it is effectively mounted on itself while also providing proper protection underneath, a frame for a sump guard and supplying proper seat mountings.
It has taken a lot of development work to get the car to where it is now, in large part thanks to the efforts of Alpine specialist John Law. I treasure a photo he sent me of the engine nearing completion on a stand – it arrived with the caption: “Engine Porn.”
The car is a wonderful antidote to more anodyne modern efficiency. Windscreen wipers are clap hand, overlapped and staggered, headlamps are yellow, in a frontal accident the radiator will be pushed straight into the fuel tank, which itself has a breather that drops fuel onto the front right brake caliper. The Alpine, like a Porsche, had a rear engine with a roughly 40/60 weight distribution. In a Porsche a lot of that weight is between the axles. In the Alpine it feels like that 60 percent is nearly all behind the back axle – and most of it is. I found out early on that if it lets go you can often catch the first swing, but then catching the correction is very hard indeed. On the plus side, such is the pendulum effect, if it does spin it tends to do so in its own length and doesn’t travel while it’s doing so.
The Alpine never had a lot of badging, so it’s astonishing how many people approach me asking what it is. In the flesh it is tiny by today’s standards. The roofline of the A310 raised on a trailer is the same height as the tow car. That low height makes it impossible to enter or exit with any grace or style, so I’ve developed a low roll that at least gets me in and out. The slight humiliation is good for keeping ego in check. Once in, it fits like a glove. I hesitate to say it’s now going very well, but we’re looking forward to next year’s Historic Tarmac Rally Championship.