Europe in the post-war period was a paradise for motor sport enthusiasts – regardless of your vehicle, chances were that you could race it, be it on a disused airfield, the public roads or a circuit. Of course it took a while for things to get organised, but it wasn’t long before manufacturers were exploiting this wealth of sporting opportunity to garner publicity for some fairly unlikely vehicles.
Renault’s little Dauphine saloon would become a prime example of the ‘race on Sunday, drive on Monday’ mentality, scoring several high profile victories straight out of the box. The Dauphine was developed as a successor to the then ubiquitous 4CV, and set new standards for interior comfort and durability, not to mention modernity of design, the result of rigorous testing and a painstaking attention to detail. Spurred on by the immense success of Renault’s compact and affordable family saloon, not to mention post-Suez concerns over petrol supplies, rival firm Simca were busy developing something distinctly more angular in response. The 1000 appeared at the 1961 Paris Salon, importantly beating the rumoured ‘Super Dauphine’ to the marketplace, it was available only in red, white or bleu [sic], and rapidly became highly successful, thanks not only to its modern appearance, but to useful touches such as fold-down rear seats and doors that opened at right-angles. Performance too was a factor, as even after former Simca employee and race-tuning specialist Amédée Gordini had worked his magic on the Dauphine’s little 845 cc engine, it struggled to outperform its 944 cc rival.
The ‘sporty’ Simca 1000 Special looking spiffy thanks to its ’69 facelift.
Renault were extremely quick to react and, less than a year later, in June 1962 the ‘Super Dauphine’, now called the R8 appeared, a challenge to the Simca in every respect, from its en vogue boxiness to the 956 cc engine. Constructed on the Dauphine chassis, the R8 retained the rear-engined, rear-wheel drive layout, eschewing the trendsetting hatchback of their R4, but whilst this was regarded as something of a backward step, the R4’s pioneering engine cooling system was carried over, and it became the first economy car to feature disc brakes all-round which, along with the Dauphine’s extant rack and pinion steering proved to be performance enhancing refinements. Indeed, the Simca with its drum brakes (discs would finally be fitted to the front wheels in ’69) and unresponsive worm and roller steering, a source of much criticism, suddenly looked rather old-fashioned in comparison.
Nevertheless the Simca continued to sell strongly, especially in the export market and, thanks to an association via Fiat, with famed tuning specialist Carlo Abarth, 100 examples were customised to racing spec, and proved highly competitive during the ’62 season. Given their success, four variants of the Abarth enhanced 1150 were set to enter full production the following year, with upwards of 55 hp (compared to 40 hp in the standard model), disc brakes and, on the top of the range 1150 SS, a six-speed ‘box, along with a tacho and oil pressure gauge. Sadly this formidable little car was to be short-lived, for that same year Fiat sold their controlling interest in the company to Chrysler, who swiftly cancelled the project.
Ironically, that same year “Le Sorcier” (The Sorcerer) Gordini was working his magic on the R8, and in doing so was creating one of the most significant cars in French motorsport history, but more of that next week.
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