Rally legends tested: Alpine A110 vs Abarth 124 Spider vs Ford Focus RS

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From just a moderate blat around this spectacularly fast and twisty course, on top of all our other time with them, it’s clear that rallying has bred three genuinely excellent, characterful and yet disparate cars.

The Abarth 124 GT manages to be simple and aggressive yet oddly whimsical. It does, in fact, have a rally version in the FIA’s R-GT class, but driving it to all these spectacular places doesn’t bring to mind a rally car so much as the old British roadsters and coupés. The Lotus Elan, the MG B. That whole culture of lovable sports roadsters that you could relish life with. The Focus, meanwhile, still feels like a huge milestone in the performance hatchback landscape. Brutal yet playful, rampant yet usable. Sure, it departed entirely from the mechanical recipe of its Escort ancestor, but in doing so it’s channelling a 21st-century WRC car in a way that the other two simply aren’t. And the Alpine. Oh, the Alpine. Is it worth so much more than the others? Hell, yes. The Ford and the Abarth are exceptional but this journey in the Alpine, along motorway, coast, town, dust bowl, B-road epic and mountain rally stage, has only proven how bone-deep remarkable this car is.

The fact that on the right road it drives like a stripped-out club racer is all the more remarkable given that it’s closer to a Porsche 718 Cayman in finish, refinement and usability. I would only change the tiny,shallow cupholder, and I’d drop the seat a fraction. That’s it.  

Stupid cupholder or not, something about the A110 feels cosmically aligned. I can’t shake the feeling that a series of extremely unlikely events – the right people, the right ideas, the right engineering, the right money, the right market, the right brand – came together to create it. My fear is that the planets might not align again any time soon. Here’s hoping that I’m wrong, and here’s to rallying. To all the heroes – human, vehicular and geographic – that it has given us, and will continue to give us. Not least, the Alpine A110.

Meanwhile, back in 1973…

Alpine-Renault had already made a name for itself in the 1970 and 1971 International Championship for Manufacturers (the forerunner to the WRC) but it was the 1973 WRC where it really dominated, with Jean-Claude Andruet, Ove Andersson and Jean- Pierre Nicolas taking the podium places, all in A110s, at the opening round in Monte Carlo.

The rally was structured so that the cars started in a variety of cities with the objective of reaching Monaco before proceeding to special stages set in the mountains of Monte Carlo and southern France. Only the Ford Escort of Hannu Mikkola, which posted fourth place, managed to split up what would otherwise have been a top five made up entirely of A110s. A Fiat Abarth 124 Rallye took seventh. We grouped these modern cars together because their ancestors took the podium places in the overall championship of the 1973 WRC – first, second and third for Alpine, Fiat and Ford respectively. Had we thrown in some of the other modern ancestors derived from cars that showed a good turn in the 1973 WRC, we could have been looking at a Porsche 911, a BMW M2, a Nissan 370Z – even a Toyota Auris, a Peugeot 508 and a DS 5. How about that for variety?

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