Renault 5 Turbo

Cars Culture

Roy Goulding on his teenage dream: a Renault 5 Turbo

It might not be the first motor you think of when you think of the mentalist modding culture of the mid-late nineties.

But I owned a Renault 5 Turbo in the height on the madness. And know this: this car typified the spirit of modified car culture in every way imaginable. And the kicker is that it was dreamed up before the Max Power Generation had ridden their first Raleigh Tomahawk.

In the mid-late 1970s Renault’s Sporting lab came up with a plan. The mission was to kick the ass of the Lancia Stratos, which had been cutting its wedge-like dash on the rally stages of the world and generally getting every other European manufacturer all eggy with envy. So Renault Sport tugged the sleeve of the guys at Bertone – the same firm who had sketched out the Stratos’s mind-addling lines. Renault’s sports division had always wanted to retain its hard-won savoire faire, those powerful racing chops that had been fought through the Alpine brand. Renault wanted and needed to infuse its main-line motors with some of that slick, fit and nasty DNA.

Bertone’s answer to the problem was the Renault 5 Turbo.

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The workaday 5’s body was of course already at that stage the archetypical little French car – FWD, front engined, affordable, accessible and easy to modify (aspects that of course proved massively important and echoed through the UK modified seen nearly two decades after it was penned). The GT Turbo came later – and was the cheaper pretender to the hot little French throne – the one that had the real impact in the modding scene in the UK.

But it was the fat, original Turbo itself that was the real daddy.

With the original 5 Turbo Bertone and Renault Sport made the audacious move of shifting the power unit behind the driver’s seat, making the weight distribution dead-on, pushing the drive to the rear wheels and making this a slice of French mentalism that foreshadowed the excess of the famous Group B era of rallying – which took hold and inspired many kids to modify their hot hatches. Even the most tech-savvy modder kid could never, of course, hope to achieve the power put out by cars like the Metro GR5 and the Audi Quattro. But with the 5 Turbo – you could at least look like you could take on the biggest beasts on the block. I wasn’t a rich kid. I’d just had a grandad that left me a little bit of dough.

But at the wheel of the Turbo I felt like the worst sort of 19-year-old brat.

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Funny thing about Renault – that although the French never nailed reliability, build quality or ‘cool’ factor, they really knew how to build fun into a small car. It was that sense of fun that attracted me to the very idea of owning one – and when a friend of my old man, who was in the motor trade, was selling his – I jumped at the chance.

This was sometime in 1989 – and my mates, with whom I was negotiating the weirder environs of the M25 at the time, let me know that they thought I had been spiked some funny pills. I sunk all my hard-earned into this eight-year-old French monster and soon, after my old man had lent me the money for the insurance, I was on the road and enjoying the attentions of people who wondered what the hell this car was all about. I paid £4000. My entire savings combined with grandad’s legacy. Have a look at how much they go for now. In good nick you’ll pay £75K. If only.

Seemed to me at the time – and still does these days – that the 5 Turbo pre-figured many of the things that kids of the eighties and nineties would aspire to for their slice of automotive fun. The flared arches. The low-slung stance. The colour-keyed mouldings. The louvres and the intakes. But apart from the bits and pieces that made the 5 Turbo so appealing, there was this general insensible attitude a sort of screw-you-brattishness that came almost fully formed. This was the modder’s car that you could get straight out of the Renault Sport box.

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It was a nightmare to own. Most truly interesting cars are, in my experience. At the time I just thought all cars were nightmares. The insurance was ridiculous, even in the pre-digital era before underwriters could track our movements so ruthlessly. The transmission had multiple weird noises, knocks and vibrations. Ditto the engine. There was a sketchy moment on some Essex A-Road where, going head-to-head with some sort of XR3, somehow I engaged reverse and nearly blew the whole thing up.

I ended up trading it in to my dad’s mate who sold it to me for the much more sensible BMW 320 E21 in silver. It came with Martini-like stripes. It worked. It lasted me years. It barely every went wrong.

But it’s the Renault 5 Turbo that still tugs at my heart strings and reminds me of what could have been.

All images: Renault

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