/ 12 February 2023

What drives Alpine’s design fundi?

The Alpine A110R had to recapture the essence of the original.

As director of design at Alpine, Antony Villain has the enormous responsibility of making sure that, first and foremost, the cars he pens evoke emotion, provoke enthusiasm and, ultimately, incite a desire to get behind the wheel.

You’d think someone carrying that much responsibility would have a permanent frown etched on their face as they looked into the crystal ball to try to predict what the future of design has in store. Turns out that’s not the case, as I was warmly greeted by a smiling Villain, standing next to one of his newest creations, the Alpine A110 R, at the recent Paris Motor Show. 

In this South African-exclusive interview, the man behind Alpine’s wow factor shared his creative journey with M&G Motoring while giving us a glimpse of what we can expect from the Renault Group’s sports car brand. 

Becoming a car designer didn’t just fall into Villain’s list of responsibilities. He recalls he was already sketching cars at the tender age of 10, knowing precisely what it was he wanted to achieve. He eventually sent sketches of his best work to various design studios, including Renault’s, where they caught the attention of someone at the French carmaker. 

As a result of his perseverance, at just 14, he was asked to visit the design department to see the daily goings-on. 

“With some introspection, I feel positively insecure about my priorities at age 14 — finish homework, play video games, eat, sleep and repeat,” he says. 

While continuing to sketch cars, Villain enrolled in engineering school to hone his understanding of how to employ sleek lines and the real-world applications of this all-important aspect. After that, he joined Renault’s design ranks, eventually filling the post of head of design for the small car division. 

Someone was, however, taking notice because in 2013, Laurens van den Acker, then design boss at Renault, assigned him the responsibility of spearheading the creative side of Alpine’s rebirth. 

This was a massive undertaking since the A110 had to recapture the essence of the original, a car designed by Giovanni Michelotti, a man credited with creating some of history’s most evocative cars. Think influence on the BMW 2002, Aston Martin DB2, Ferrari 330 GT, Triumph GT6, and Spitfire, to merely scratch the surface. No easy feat since instructions from the top were straightforward — stay true to Alpine’s DNA, but make it modern. 

We often see carmakers stumble here with an overly broad approach that’s not helped by an arsenal’s worth of tech at their disposal. Technology is, after all, the enemy of raw driving pleasure. Not with the A110, though, as it still embodies that original lightweight, more-power-equals-less, puristic philosophy. Villain credits the A110’s engineering success to a mindset of imagining there had been a continuation of the A110 since the original model of the 1960s. Also, instead of thinking of it as a “retro design” revival, thinking of it as a natural evolution. 

Filling in four decades’ worth of technological evolution in the fields of weight-saving and chassis-building wasn’t a walk in the park, we suppose, despite established knowledge gleaned from the RS division. 

Fast-forward a decade or so, and Renault Group chief executive Luca de Meo announced “Renaultution” — a move to secure more widespread opportunities. Still, in this context, it was communicated that Alpine and its deep-rooted racing pedigree would take over as Renault’s premier performance brand, taking the baton from RS. Rebranding the Formula One team was just the start. 

The future of Alpine extends beyond just a livery and cars that are favourable on the power-to-weight scale. The brand plans to launch three new, full-electric vehicles soon, with a replacement for the A110, a hot-hatch and crossover. According to Villain, their focus is also heavily shifted towards motorsport, with a Le Mans LMDh entry for 2024 and continuous development taking place alongside the F1 team. 

As if reading my mind, he points to the show-stopping Alpenglow concept car parked 3m away. He calls it the “mother of future Alpines”. This stunningly sleek, futuristic hypercar serves as a design blueprint of sorts from whence many styling cues and implementations will be borrowed. It’s also said to be of a hydrogen persuasion, an area Alpine will explore. 

“Electric is good for road-going cars,” he says, “but hydrogen, we believe, is a better, more sustainable alternative for racing.”

Naturally, I had to ask how much cross-involvement and cooperation there is between Alpine’s F1 team and the road car division. Turns out, quite a bit more than I thought. Where F1 shines is in the aerodynamic, lightweight construction and power-management departments —all areas where knowledge is shared. According to Villain, Alpine works closely with dedicated specialists in aerodynamics to sculpt the lines and maximise how aerodynamically competent the production cars are. 

This knowledge is evident in the A110 R. Undoubtedly, a lot was also learned on the weight-saving front, with the A110 R weighing 34kg less than the already featherweight S. 

Brainchild: (From top) Antony Villain, the head of design at Alpine, Renault Group’s sports car brand, started drawing cars at the age of 10. He describes the Alpenglow concept car  as the ‘mother of future Alpines’.

Alpine’s roots remain firmly planted in its past but it’s also looking at its history to create performance cars of the future. 

The third pillar, power management, is an equally crucial facet of making any EV sports car go the distance — especially considering the increased demands that come with performance expectations. 

This, though, will have little impact without expertise in weight management and, especially, aerodynamics. Alpine’s cars need added downforce due to their inherently lightweight nature. But they also need to cut through the air in a streamlined, efficient fashion for the sake of power management. No easy task. Add to that the stylistic wow factor to evoke emotion and Antony Villain’s job is invariably difficult. 

A good thing, then, that he continues to pursue perfection.