Saying “Gordini” in France is like saying “Shelby” in America. Not only do both names mean automotive performance, but if you don’t stretch the analogy too far, there are similarities between the careers of the men behind the names, Amedee Gordini and Carroll Shelby. Each had begun his career as a race driver, each had taken to building cars on his own and then operated in the same semi-independent relationship with a major car maker, building performance-modified versions of production models.
Shelby, of course, was a Texan transplanted to California. Gordini, on the other hand, was an Italian in France. It was in the ‘30s in a Fiat Balilla with a head and block of his own design that Gordini got his start, and in the early ‘50s sports and formula cars bearing the Gordini marque carried the French blue into international competition. But it was tuned versions of Renaults, especially the Renault 8, for which Gordini is most remembered.
The Renault 8 was Regie’s response to the Dauphine debacle, and though it was in fact Renault Dauphine based, it was a much improved car: Bigger, faster, and the first production Renault to be equipped with four-wheel disc brakes. And it looked different, very different, from the Dauphine, something you can be sure was no accident. While the Dauphine was a French-fried Beetle, the 8 was squared off, an almost perfect three-box car except for the concave hood that looks like someone took a four-by-four to it, edge on.
Did we say faster? You betcha. But the R8, though quicker than most of its subcompact classmates, would burn fed barns with its 19.5-second quarter mile. Although it was selling quite well as transportation for the family man of the European Common Market, it was doing little to uphold any of Renault’s sporting image which remained after the market—read Mini-Cooper S—left the Dauphine Gordini it its dust.
So again it was Amedee Gordini to the rescue, transforming the Renault 8 family sedan into a first-class Mini-chaser. Gordini designed a completely new aluminum head for the 1108cc engine, replacing the inline valves in the bathtub combustion chambers with a hemispherical design with valves and push rods staggered like the old Chrysler Hemi. The valves themselves were so big that the spark plugs had to be recessed into minichambers connected to the main combustion chambers by two tiny passages. The head, naturally, was crossflow with individual intake runners mated to a pair of Solex 40 PHH carburetors, with four-into-two headers on the exhaust side.
The standard wet-sleeve block was retained, but the rods, pistons and valve train were modified for higher rpm and horsepower. Behind the rear-mounted radiator was an oil cooler, and the large tubular air cleaner drew from a cool air plenum under the louvers in the rear decklid.
The engine looks impressive as its specifications sound, what with the big carbs and black crackle-painted valve covers. But the proof, as they say, is in the parfait.
And Gordini, Le Sourcier, cooked up 95 bhp at 6500 rpm, a rev range reportedly safe to 8000 rpm, and peak torque up at 4000 rpm. The compression ratio was 10.5 to one, requiring the best premium fuel around. But what the heck?
Nor did Gordini ignore the chassis. The suspension was lowered 1.5 inches all around, with higher spring rates and a decambering of the rear swing arm suspension. A larger front anti-roll bar was fitted along with stiffened shock absorbers—four at the rear, in fact, to tame the wild swing arm.
Otherwise the Renault 8 Gordini is underwhelmingly unchanged: Different instrumentation, a pair of narrow white stripes over the French racing blue paint (no option on the color), and an art nouveau “GORDINI” bade are the only external indications that it is anything but a standard truffle hauler.
Indeed, it doesn’t look that menacing with its four doors and bolt-on hubcaps over the three-lug 15-inch wheels. The interior is typical French economy class, with lots of painted metal and mushroom-shaped front bucket seats that feel a lot better than they look (speaking of truffles…). Anyway, the overall effect is more innocuous than threatening.
Actually, “presumptuous” would be a better description, as one learns from driving a Renault 8 Gordini. The little blue box with the white stripes and raucous exhaust doesn’t get much respect while stopped at a traffic light. In fact, condescending smirks and derisive giggles were more the order of the day, made worse by blipping the throttle, which is necessary to assure the plugs don’t foul from prolonged idling.