1964 Renault 8 Gordini: How to say ‘Shelby’ in French

But it’s all worthwhile when the light turns green. Rev the little engine up and dump the clutch. No muss, no fuss, no chirping of the tires. It just squats a bit—more of a curtsy, really—and scoots. It’s quick. Rare will be the car that can beat it across the intersection. Of course, over the longer haul, bigger motors overtake it. There’s only so much one can expect from 1108cc.

1964 Renault 8 Gordini

The 1964 Renault 8 Gordini’s white stripes over French racing blue go over the hood, roof and trunklid. (click to enlarge)

Still, it turns in a creditable performance. Quarter miles are ticked off in the low 18s at almost 80 mph, and zero-to-sixty is done in just over 11 seconds flat. Top speed is almost 100 mph if you have the time and place.

And oh, l’esprit, la joie de vivre. The Gordini just seem to enjoy full throttle. Part throttle makes the car impatient with the driver, so the natural tendency is to give the car its head: It’s Jacques le mini bruin, a Jacobin at heart. It buzzes like a tin can with a hornet inside, a hornet seriously juiced on steroids. It is simply impossible to drive this car any way but fast, or as close to fast as it will go.

And handling. Handling will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever owned a rear-engined automobile. We were spooked for a while by dire warnings of cornering contretemps, but while slowly edging up to cornering speeds, all the while expecting the worst, we found there was little to dread. The Gordini has the straight-line stability of a well-fired spit wad and caroms through corners like a spit wad off the back of a crew cut head. It is the ultimate boy racer. If this one doesn’t make you feel like a kid again, it’s time to sign in at the Home for the Hopelessly Old.

It is simply a delight to drive. Not that it doesn’t have its drawbacks, such as the pedals offset to the right to clear the front wheel well that intrudes into the passenger compartment, or the spongey shifter—though still quick and accurate despite the feel, too close to the driver’s right knee in first and second. But that’s character.

1964 Renault 8 Gordini

The 1964 Renault 8 Gordini has bolt-on hub caps over three-lug wheels. (click to enlarge)

The only real complaint is a shortage of instrumentation. The gauges there are nice: “0-80 tr/min x 100” tachometer, optimistic 125-mph speedometer with trip odometer, temperature and essence (fuel) all by Jaeger. But a 1.5-horsepower-per-cubic-inch deserves more monitoring than that.

Delight on the road or not, it was obvious that giving away displacement to the 1.3-liter Mini-cooper was not the fast track to the victory circle. So Amedee Gordini cooked up another solution: The Renault 8 Gordini 1300. The size increase was accompanied by fitting liners of greater bore than that of the 1100 and brought actual displacement up to 1255, closer to the 1.3-liter class limit. Power went to 103 horses with more tractability, but rally-tuned versions were cranking out between 120 and 130 horsepower.

Other changes included a five-speed transmission, an auxiliary fuel tank in the front luggage compartment, and an additional pair of headlamps.

The 1100 was produced from 1964 until superseded by in mid-1966 by the 1300, which Gordini built until 1970. In all some 12,500 were made. On July 19, 1970, 10,000 Renault Gordini owners (Dauphine included) gathered at the Castelet circuit in Franc to mark the end of the marque’s manufacture. It was the end of the “true” Gordinis. Subsequent Renaults bearing the Gordini badge would be products of the factory at Brillancourt, not Gordini shops. Shades of Ford Motor Company and “Cobra.”

The Renault 8 Gordini never was seriously imported into the U.S., and Renault, with spotty dealer network Stateside and booming sales in Europe, seemed content to let the America market simmer on the back burner. As a result, a Gordini-ized Renault 8 has always been a rare on this side of the Atlantic.

And Daddy’s SUV full of teenage boys laughed at Amedee Gordini’s little blue racer and the white stripes in a way that they never would have one of Shelby’s products. At least until the light turned green…