It’s sometimes suggested that, while the Germans invented the car, it was the French who invented motorsport.
You could spend a lifetime arguing for or against that proposition, but it’s true that the French were very quick to see the potential for cars to provide excitement and adventure rather than mere transport from one place to another.
The first Grand Prix was held in France in 1906, partly because of a rule which stated that only three cars entered in the previous Gordon Bennett Cup events could have been built in a single country.
The French, who were producing competition cars in far larger numbers than anyone else, thought this was unfair, and reasonably enough came up with a new race with rules which suited them better.
But it’s not all about motorsport. Some French cars have been designed specifically for that, but a great many others have been created not so much to compete as to provide high-speed driving enjoyment. You’ll find several examples of both types here.
Alpine A110 (20th century)
The A110 was perhaps the prettiest and certainly the most famous road car produced by Dieppe Renault dealer Jean Rédélé.
It had a fibreglass coupe body, and most of its mechanical components came from the Renault 8, though later versions used the engine from the more powerful Renault 16 TS.
It was manufactured between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, but its glory year was 1973, when Alpine entered the World Rally Championship, which at the time was contested only by manufacturers – drivers were simply employees, though they became famous for their performances.
Alpine absolutely smashed it. There were 13 rounds of the Championship that year, and A110s won six of them. Nothing else won more than two. Alpine finished the season on 147 points to Fiat’s 84 and Ford’s 76.
Alpine A110 (21st century)
Alpine was bought by Renault at around the time of the World Rally Championship success, and the name was used (as Gordini had been in the past) to indicate high-performance versions of normally unsporty cars.
The A110 name was brought back for a new Renault coupe whose shape was very similar to that of the original car, though it was mechanically quite different.
The immediate press response was excellent. James May memorably described the new A110 as being “the greatest thing to come out of France since the Mouli cheese grater”.
The outstandingly powerful Chiron is only the second production model, after the Veyron, to have come from Bugatti since its revival in 1999.
Although Bugatti is wholly owned by Volkswagen these days, it is based in the small town of Molsheim in north-east France, where Ettore Bugatti founded the original company in 1909.
Bugatti was Italian, Molsheim was part of Germany when he set up shop there, and Volkswagen is of course German.
However, there is no doubt that the Bugatti company is French, nor that the Chiron is a French car, and undoubtedly the fastest, most dramatic and most expensive ever built.
The AX was an apparently humble little hatchback which was surprisingly quick even in its most basic form thanks to its good aerodynamics and low weight.
The hottest version was the GTi (pictured), which had a 1360cc engine producing 100bhp. In a car weighing well under a tonne, this was enough to provide excellent performance.
The earlier and rarer AX Sport, built with competition in mind, had a higher-revving 1294cc engine with nearly as much power as the GTi.
It was never sold in the UK, so when a Scottish Citroen dealer decided to convert one into a race car, he had to go to Belgium to find it. (Actually, France would have done just as well, but the prices were lower in Belgium.)
The C2 never achieved the popularity of the Saxo which it replaced, but it was still fun to drive in most of its forms.
As with several other Citroens, there were two sports versions called the VTR and the VTS.
The VTS was the really hot one, with a 1.6-litre 16-valve petrol engine producing 125bhp.
If that was too much for you, or you couldn’t afford the insurance, the 110bhp 8-valve VTR was a reasonable – and cheaper – alternative.
The futuristic DS was launched in 1955 as a large executive saloon car, and might not at first be thought of as at all sporting.
It did, however, have a very successful competition career from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s, winning the Monte Carlo Rally (twice), the 1000 Lakes (now known as Rally Finland) and the 1974 London-Sahara-Munich endurance event.
The Saxo achieved something like cult car status among boy racers in the UK, thanks partly to Citroen’s policy of offering free insurance for the first year and partly to the enormous coverage devoted to modified versions by Max Power magazine.
Like the later C2, it was offered in VTR and VTS forms, with the same engine producing slightly different power outputs.
The 750 Motor Club Stock Hatch race series started out as a way to let people compete in any obsolete supermini with minor modifications, but as it evolved it became essentially a one-make championship for the Saxo as drivers realised this was by far the best car to have.
One of the least well-remembered of the big Citroens, the SM was a fascinating car produced in the first half of the 1970s.
Its outstanding feature was its Maserati engine, an odd state of affairs explained by the fact that Citroen had bought Maserati in 1968.
The 2.7-litre V6 produced 170bhp, which was less than most of the SM’s competitors could manage, but it did give the car a reputation as a high-speed long-distance cruiser.
It was also a high point for Citroen. The company did not create a more powerful road car until it put a 24-valve three-litre V6 engine in the XM in 1993.
Facel Vega was the car-building division of the Facel steel company. Most of its products were top-end luxury cars such as the HK500 pictured above, owned in many cases by the rich and famous, but since they were all fitted with large Chrysler V8 engines they were also very fast by the standards of the late 50s and early 60s.
Sadly, Facel Vega’s attempt to build something which could more easily be described as a sports car led to disaster.
Although the Facellia, as it was called, had a lot going for it, it suffered badly from engine failures in the first few years. A switch to a more reliable Volvo engine came too late to save its reputation, and the cost of the project brought the company to its knees in 1964.
The 106 was Peugeot’s version of the Citroen Saxo, or perhaps the other way round depending on where your loyalties lie.
The first of two Rallye versions used the same high-revving 1294cc engine as the Citroen AX Sport, though unlike the AX it was sold in the UK. The second had a 1.6-litre engine which produced only 3bhp more.
Both were outpowered by the 16-valve 1.6 GTi, which however was better-equipped and therefore heavier.
Still regarded as one of Peugeot’s finest cars, the 205 supermini was most famously sold as a GTi.
To begin with, the GTi had a 1.6-litre engine, but this was quickly replaced by a 1.9 which had only a little more outright power but significantly better mid-range performance.
The 205 CTi was the same thing as the GTi except that it had a convertible body style.
Another hot 205 was the Rallye, which used the 1294cc engine already mentioned twice here, along with GTi suspension. It had very little equipment and was therefore not particularly comfortable, though crucially it was very light.
The 1360cc XS was much humbler than any of the above, but there are people who still think it was the nicest 205 of all to drive.
Peugeot 205 T16
The T16 deserves a section of its own because it was only loosely based on the regular 205.
The central body section was the same, but there were spaceframes at either end. The turbocharged 16-valve engine was mounted in the rear, and the car had four-wheel drive.
There was only one reason for creating the T16, and that was to provide the basis for a car Peugeot could use in international rallying.
The competition version was outstandingly successful, winning 16 World Rally Championship rounds in three seasons. Timo Salonen and Juha Kankkunen won the Drivers title in 1985 and 1986 respectively, and Peugeot was top manufacturer in each year.
Despite fierce opposition from Lancia, whose Delta S4 was a phenomenal piece of work itself, Peugeot could well have continued at the top level in following seasons, but for 1987 the regulations were radically changed and the T16 immediately became obsolete.
After the 205, there were GTi versions of the 206 and 207, though neither captured the public imagination in quite the way the 205 did.
The equivalent current model is the 208 GTi, which has a turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine and is one of the fastest of the current ‘junior’ hot hatches on the market.
Neatly, and perhaps not coincidentally, this engine’s power output is 208 if measured in metric PS, or 205 in bhp.
The first hot hatch version of the 306 was the S16 (‘S’ standing for soupape, the French word for valve). This was replaced by the more powerful GTi-6, which had the incredible feature, for the mid 1990s, of a six-speed manual gearbox.
There was also a short-lived model called the 306 Rallye, which was mechanically identical to the GTi-6 but had much less equipment, and was therefore lighter and faster.
Peugeot’s fastest hot hatch of the current era is the 308 GTi.
Despite having only a 1.6-litre engine (admittedly with a turbocharger) it produces a maximum of 266bhp, more than double the output of any 205 other than the T16.
Although it was larger and less cute, the 309 was a close relative of the 205. Its handling was similarly good, helped by the fact that, since the front and rear wheels were further apart, it was more stable and less likely to break away in mid-corner the way the 205 sometimes could.
The 309 GTi had the same 1.9-litre engine as the 205 GTi. Unlike the smaller car, the 309 was also available in 16-valve form, though since this wasn’t possible with right-hand drive due to underbonnet space issues the car was never sold in the UK.
It was the most powerful of the Peugeot hot hatches in those days, producing a maximum of 158bhp only a few years after people were insisting that 150bhp was the absolute limit for any front-wheel drive car.
In contrast to its policy with smaller cars, Peugeot didn’t see much need to create high-performance versions of the 405.
It did, however, produce the 405 Mi16, which had the same 1.9-litre 16-valve engine fitted to non-UK versions of the 309 GTi mentioned previously. Front- and four-wheel drive models were available.
Like the Citroen DS, the Peugeot 504 is not something that could be mistaken for a sporting car. It’s included here because of its extraordinary record in rallying.
Although it wasn’t quick, the 504 was very strong and could be driven flat-out over terrible roads for days at a time.
As a result, it won five World Rally Championship rounds in the 1970s, all of them held in Africa.
Even outside motorsport, the 504 was held in such high esteem by the Africans that production there continued well into the 21st century, long after it was withdrawn from European markets in 1983.
As we’ve already seen, Peugeot has produced a lot of high-performance models over the years, but it has almost never created what might be described as a sports car.
The exception is the RCZ. Sold between 2010 and 2015, this very attractive little coupe was based heavily on the 308 hatchback. Despite its compact looks, it was actually quite large, and had an astonishing amount of luggage space.
All versions had at least 150bhp. The most extreme example, called the RCZ R, had the 266bhp 1.6-litre turbo engine also used in today’s 308 GTi.
Renault 5 Turbo
Renault made several hot hatch versions of the 5, often using the famous Alpine and Gordini names to distinguish these cars from the more ordinary ones.
Some of these were turbocharged, but the one marketed as the 5 Turbo was a different beast altogether, since it had the engine (incredibly a derivative of the one developed for the Renault 8 back in 1962) mounted in the rear instead of the front.
It was Renault’s slightly earlier equivalent of the Peugeot 205 T16, and created for the same reason – to allow the company to build much more powerful examples for international rallying.
Unfortunately, while the Peugeot won 16 rounds of the World Rally Championship in three years, the Renault won only a quarter as many between 1981 and 1986. Crucially, it did not have four-wheel drive, which was proving to be essential just as the 5 Turbo began its competition career.
The rear-engined Renault 8 started out as a straightforward small family car, but hotter versions soon came on to the market.
These included the 8S, but the most famous (and most powerful) was the Gordini, named after expatriate Italian Amédée Gordini who did engine tuning work for several manufacturers including Renault.
The 8 Gordini was very popular in rallying, and for a while there was a French one-make race series devoted to it.
The 40CV was a large, elegant car launched in 1911 and produced until 1928.
Although it was intended to be a luxury model, it was also very quick for its day, and won the 1925 Monte Carlo Rally in the hands of coachbuilder and car accessory designer François Repusseau.
A heavily modified single-seater 40CV set a new 24-hour speed record of 107.9mph at the Montlhéry circuit in 1926. The car no longer exists, but a replica (pictured above) was built in the 1970s.
The first hot Clio was the Williams, launched in 1993 and named after the F1 team which had an engine contract with Renault at the time.
Subsequent high-performance Clios have worn the Renaultsport badge and have had increasing power outputs from around 170bhp to more like 200bhp.
To some annoyance, the current model broke with tradition by having a turbocharged engine, a semi-automatic gearbox and handling which, though still very good, was considerably less sharp than that of the earlier cars.
Renault Clio V6
Although it wasn’t created with motorsport in mind, the Clio V6 was similar in concept to the Peugeot 205 T16 and the Renault 5 Turbo.
The engine – a three-litre unit also used in the Renault Laguna and many other large French cars – was mounted in the back and drove through the rear wheels. In second-generation form the car had a maximum power output of over 250bhp.
The reception was mixed. Some people loved the V6, but others pointed out that putting a tall, heavy engine in the back of a short-wheelbase was a recipe for instability, and there were indeed many stories of V6s spinning wildly.
Renault seemed to be well aware of this. At the UK press launch of the Phase 2 car, journalists were allowed to accelerate and brake as hard as they liked in a straight line, but were instructed to pootle gently round the corners on the test track. Fast cornering was permitted only when a professional racing driver was behind the wheel.
A replacement for the Beetle-like 4CV, Renault’s first model introduced after the Second World War, the more modern Dauphine was one of the prettiest little cars ever devised.
It certainly wasn’t the quickest, but in its highest form it did get the Gordini treatment. The uprated equipment level included a gearbox with four forward speeds rather than just three, all-round disc brakes and a modified version of the 845cc engine producing around 40bhp.
The performance was pitiful in today’s terms but quite useful for the 1960s.
Renault also produced a much faster version, intended for competition use, called the 1093, but it wasn’t sold in the UK and is now very rare.
There have been several high-performance versions of the Megane sold under the Renaultsport banner. As well as being quick in a straight line, they are generally entertaining to drive, with handling that could reasonably be described as ‘lively’.
The current one is the most powerful yet, with 276bhp from its 1.8-litre turbo petrol engine.
Like the Peugeot RCZ, the Spider was a rare case of an actual sports car built by a manufacturer which more often produced high-performance versions of existing models.
Absolutely nothing about the Spider’s construction had anything to with any other Renault. The chassis was made of aluminium and was clothed in composite bodywork.
The two-litre petrol engine and manual gearbox were more familiar, except that they were mounted in the back rather than the front.
The Spider was quite an exciting road car and was also intended right from the start to form the basis of a one-make race series.
In 1999, Guernseyman Andy Priaulx won all 13 rounds of the Renault Spider Cup GB, beating Jason Plato’s run of eight consecutive wins three years before. Priaulx would later win the World Touring Car Championship three times in a row.
Venturi was established in the mid 1980s to build prestige sports cars, and did so until around the turn of the century.
The engines, sometimes turbocharged, were bought in, having been designed for and fitted to Citroens, Peugeots, Renaults and Volvos.
After a few hundred cars had been manufactured, the company was bought over, and now specialises in electric cars.