New Alpine Legend (left) and Pure flank a classic predecessor alongside the Dieppe factory test track on which every completed A110 is test driven

New Alpine Legend (left) and Pure flank a classic predecessor alongside the Dieppe factory test track on which every completed A110 is test driven

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The question comes to mind - why is Societe des Automobiles Alpine SAS in Dieppe, northern France, a straight shot across La Manche (the English Channel) and a popular ferry ride from Newhaven for thousands of holidaymakers? Turns out the town, where memorials to an unsuccessful 1942 Allied raid on Hitler's Fortress Europe abound, was home to one Jean Redele, a Dieppe garage proprietor who enjoyed motorsport success with the Renault 4CV and founded Alpine in 1955.

The assembly plant was opened in 1969 and Renault bought out Alpine in 1973. Since then it has produced various sporty models for Renault and, until 1995, its own brand sports cars. In 2012 the revival of the Alpine brand and the A110 model was announced and today the Dieppe plant is well into building the sold-out 1,955 Premier Edition models offered initially and starting on the Pure and Legend versions that will ultimately make up volume of around 3,000 a year.

As well as making Alpines, the plant has a history of contract assembling specialist and sporty Renaults and its CV includes the Megane coupe cabriolet, Clio Renault Sport, Clio V6, Clio III RS, Clio III Gordini RS, Clio 3 Cup and the current Clio 4 RS.

Plant manager Pierre Emmanuel Andrieu stresses the plant's ability to produce low volume, high quality cars and, right now, his team's producing 15 A110s a day and 25 of the Clio RS. Volumes are similar to a small market KD kit build operation and way down on the likes of big contract manufacturers such as Austria's Magna Steyr or Finland's Valmet. The plant does not press steel or aluminium (the A110 is almost 100% alloy with plastic nose and tail cones and a small amount of steel; no carbon fibre); nor does it weld - the Clio shells come complete from Flins, 160km away - and the A110 bodies are riveted and glued together on a dedicated body line and then both go through a very specialised, high quality paint shop visitors are not allowed near - though we did see the post-paint inspection process.

Alpine announced its plans to revive the A110 - a GBP46,995 to GBP50,505 (in the UK), two-seat, rear engine, 1.8 turbo (a Renault unit brought in from Busan, Korea), six speed dual clutch automatic, double-wishbone-suspension-all-round sportscar in 2012 and produced the first prototypes in 2016. Contracted to build it, Andrieu hired 151 skilled workers to take his workforce to 392 (15% are women; average age is 43) and gave each 140 hours of training before production started on 1 December 2017. By then, EUR36m had been spent readying the plant with EUR5.2m going on logistics and finishing, EUR11m on the aluminium body shop, EUR12.7m on the paint shop and EUR7.7m on the assembly line.

"We've achieved a premium level of quality," said Andrieu, adding that the plant represented all the best practices of plants in the Alliance group companies.

Previously, there was no automation but Dieppe now uses a mix of 20 robots across the plant - they install 800 rivets in the body in white, apply glue, stick parts together, sand off primed shells and apply final paint coats.

The A110 requires 1,400 parts which come from 140 suppliers. Most of the alloy body panels come from Italian specialist Cecomp (brakes and exterior lighting are also Italian) and there are other specialised suppliers in both France and near Dieppe. Extruded underbodies are anodised and for that they pop out to a Renault plant before coming back for more parts to be glued on and finishing. The floorpan itself is made up of three sub-assembled sections and there are two very busy robots working on the line alongside the human workers doing the more mundane stuff like riveting and gluing. The degree of robot (and human) multitasking is impressive and somewhat similar to the automation seen in BMW's Leipzig carbon fibre body plant.

The coating plant uses low temperature paint techniques so it can also paint the plastic panels and the sanding robot, which skims the primer coat to remove imperfections and orange peel and achieve uniform thickness, is unique among Alliance plants. A second, wiping robot cleans the whole body after coating.

Final assembly is done on one line mixing both A110s and Clios and is very labour-intensive. Cockpits are built up and installed line-side, pre-assembled powertrains are installed front (Clio) or rear (A110) and logistics teams pre-prepare baskets of parts for a specific car which then travel along the line with the specific unit. Workers are highly skilled, flexible and adaptable and perform far more individual tasks per station than in higher volume plants.

Dieppe built just over 4,000 Clio RS units last year (roughly 25 a day at the moment) and Alpines are coming off line at the rate of 15 though Andrieu wants to boost that to 20 when he's confident quality will be maintained at the higher rate. Alpine is sitting on an order book of A110 5,000 'reservations' from just a few launch markets and has built 1,200 since the start of 2018 with 600 already delivered. It hopes to have 2,000 out the door by the end of the year and build maybe 3,000 next year - apparently its loyal enthusiast buyers will wait a year without complaint.

So far, there are 57 dealers across Europe, 50 specialists are planned for the UK, Japan - where 14 outlets are being readied - should see its first cars in buyer hands in September and Australia, where Alpine has never been sold officially but there is nonetheless a strong following with privately imported cars, might be up and running before the end of this year.

The Pure (sporty, intended for owners who might take to the track) and the Legend (more of a grand tourer with a little more equipment) are both intended to conquest buyers from the likes of, say, a Porsche Cayman, and attract other new customers with disposable income that might instead go on a fine watch or a luxury cruise. Cars have already been in specialist media hands and feedback is very favourable with England's respected Autocar giving the revived Alpine five stars.

As word spreads, plant manager Andrieu might well crack the whip to get to that desired 20 a week before the year is out.

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