Sydney Retro Racefest Profile: Ernst Luthi’s Alpine A110

Ernst's Alpine A110 in the Targa New Zealand

Image courtesy of Ernst Luthi, by Proshotz Photography

Sydney Retro Racefest will see this stunning Alpine A110 join the many rare and wonderful motor racing machines to hit the track at Sydney Motorsport Park over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.

“When Jean Redele founded La Societe des Automobiles Alpine in 1955, in Dieppe, France, he had only one thing in mind – to build a car that was simple, based on existing Renault technology and ready for competition.”

“It is this design, with a tubular chassis (beams and backbone) and streamlined fiberglass body, that makes the A110 such a great car to drive.” – Ernst Luthi

The Alpine A110 was first produced in 1961, and it borrowed many parts from the Renault 8, which had a successful rally history of its own. It was light, barely tipping the scales beyond 600kg in race form, and could ring plenty of go out of smaller capacity rear-mounted engines.

The cars started to make their presence felt in the late ‘60s, winning rallies in France, but it would be the early ‘70s when they truly left their mark on motorsport history.

The International Championship for Manufacturers was a rally series that ran from 1970 to 1972 as the precursor to the World Rally Championship. During its first year of competition Alpine-Renault and Porsche were fiercely competitive. Jean-Luc Thérier won the Rallye Sanremo and Acropolis Rally in an Alpine-Renault A110 1600 and by the end of the season was able to put Alpine-Renault within just two points of Porsche.

1971 would see Alpine-Renault dominate the series, with Sweden’s Ove Andersson winning four out of the series’ nine rallies, and Bernard Darniche winning the Coupe des Alpes.

The World Rally Championship staged its inaugural season in 1973, and Alpine-Renault was dominant once again, now with the further-developed A110 1800. The cars locked out the podium in the opening round of the season – the 1973 Monte Carlo Rally – and claimed fifth and six as well for good measure. And they barely slowed down from there, eventually sealing the deal by completing another podium lockout in the final round of the season – the Tour de Corse. With this, the Alpine A110 became the world’s first World Rally Champion.

Ernst Luthi’s car began its life in 1971 in Mexico, where it was number 467 of the 525 A110s built under license by DINA. DINA bought a mold from Alpine and made their own fiberglass bodies, bringing the rest of the parts in from France. So, while the cars were built on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, they were functionally identical to their French counterparts.

“When we completed our first Targa Tasmania tour we decided that we wanted to return to competition, and got to thinking about a special car suitable for Targa. The Alpine A110 was THE rally car when I grew up, so my thoughts quickly turned to that.”

“We spent some time searching, eventually finding a promising car in late 2007. It was in Auckland, so we flew over for a weekend and drove to Tauranga to view it. We bought it, and began our love affair with Mademoiselle, as we call her, with her Spanish temperament in French clothing. We spent the next three years rebuilding her in time for our first Targa event in 2010.”

“The car started out with standard trim powered by a non-cross-flow R12 1289cc four-cylinder push rod engine with a radiator at the back and a single downdraught Weber carburetor. The Mexican factory never changed their mold to introduce Alpine’s updated A110 body, so we have maintained our car’s pre-1969 body.”

“We completely rebuilt the car as a tarmac rally car, boring out the engine to 1397cc with new forged pistons, but retaining the original R12 engine block. We replaced the cylinder head so that the single downdraught Weber carburetor could be replaced by two 40DOCE side draught Webers and during the rebuild we moved the radiator from the back to the front.”

“It puts out 90 horsepower at the wheels at 5,700 RPM and 130Nm of torque consistently between 3500 and 5000 RPM.”

“Suspension is standard, with front independent wishbone and rear independent swinging semi-axles with trailing radius arms. The A110 already had discs all ‘round as standard. It also featured two shock absorbers on each side at the rear, giving it six fully adjustable shocks. Steering is by rack and pinion with a quick steering rack fitted, so all up the handling package is very nice.”

“With a full roll cage, FIA race seats, 6-point harness and FIA-approved fuel tank for tarmac rallying, the car weighs in at just under 800 kilograms wet.”

“Nothing is known about the car’s history in Mexico, but it’s unlikely that it was raced. We began its racing career in Australia in 2010, and have since completed the Targa Tasmania five times (earning four class wins), the Targa Adelaide twice and the Targa High Country three times. In 2014 we ran the Targa New Zealand where we came second in class and second in the classic index of performance.” – Ernst Luthi

One of the great joys of historic motorsport is being able to appreciate wonderful old machines in so many ways. They have fascinating stories, from their inception and development with the manufacturer to each car’s individual development and racing histories, and the tales we continue to spin by racing them today. Their unique aesthetics are a joy to explore, and then there’s the visceral experience of them at speed – the sights, the sounds and the smells of high octane fuel producing propulsion from explosions.

Only a few of us, however, are lucky enough to experience them with hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals.

“The first step of driving the Alpine is actually getting into the driver’s seat! The roof height is just 1.13 meters and the car is only 1.45m wide and 3.9m long. Inside, your feet are slightly off-set to the centre, but the pedals are in the right spot.”

“It’s like a TARDIS – it gets a lot bigger once you’re inside!”

“Despite its rear-engined layout the A110 is very predictable and steering is precise. It has a low centre of gravity, so it’s very stable on the road and loves to eat up narrow and twisty sections. It’s a great feeling to move from one corner to the other with ease, pointing the nose in the right direction and then feeling the engine in the rear push the car through the corner.”

“The A110 was built for rallying and with its small engine size and limited top speed, track racing is not its strength. It helps when there are plenty of corners, like Sydney Motorsport Park’s South Circuit.”

“We’ve had some wonderful experiences because of this little car – like getting a call at 7.30AM on a Sunday morning from a Southern Cross TV crew who wanted us to appear in the Targa Tasmania event summary, and racing on the South Island of New Zealand with another Alpine and being able to run Cardrona and Queenstown to Glenorchy.”

“Some less-than-wonderful experiences as well – like breaking the accelerator cable in the Targa Tasmania. Twice!”

“We’ve also made a lot of friends through motorsport, and it’s been great to be a part of the global Alpine community.”

“Targa and historic race events represent a great opportunity to share some of the history and achievements that made Alpine so well-known even today. The atmosphere and camaraderie, especially in the classic categories, make the events special.” – Ernst Luthi

We’d like to send a huge ‘THANK YOU!’ to Ernst for helping to put this story together. You’ll be able to find him, Sonja and the A110 at Sydney Retro Racefest over the 11th and 12th of June, so head to Sydney Motorsport Park and enjoy historic racing at its best!

“I’d like to send a big thank you to my navigator and wife Sonja, who keeps me on the black stuff and shares my passion for cars, whether that be next to me in the navigator seat, or racing with me in her Suzuki Cappuccino.”

“And also to those who go through the efforts and pains of maintaining a classic car and racing or rallying. Classic cars need to be driven and enjoyed, not kept locked up in a garage or museum, and life without them would be boring!” – Ernst Luthi

Spectator passes will be available at the track on both Saturday and Sunday. Entry for kids under 12 is free.

Sydney Retro Racefest is proudly presented by Mercedes-Benz Parramatta and powered by

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