In the first installment of Cancelled Cars, we’ll be exploring the story of the Caterham C120, the lost British sports car with Alpine genes.
The year is 2012. French carmaker Renault is looking to revive Alpine, its sports car division that last produced a car in 1995. Founded in 1954, it is known for its classic A110 two-seater of the late-1960s and early-1970s, notable for dominating the inaugural 1973 World Rally Championship.
However, there was an issue. Dedicated, two-seater sports cars are very low-volume models, and the small profits they yield are not enough to justify the high development costs.
Across the channel, small British sports-car maker Caterham was keen to expand its model range. Its lineup at the time consisted solely of a plethora of derivatives of the Seven, an open-wheeled, open-top two-seater with roots dating back to the Lotus Seven of the 1950s. A mid-engined coupe with modern technologies and powertrains would have slotted nicely into its lineup, however the costs of developing it would not have been worthwhile for a small company like Caterham.
So, in 2012, Renault brokered a deal with Caterham to do exactly that: jointly design and build a lightweight, mid-engined, two-seater coupe that would simultanously boost Caterham’s sales and relaunch the Alpine brand.
To keep the costs down, the Caterham and Alpine twins – known as the C120 and AS1 during development, respectively – would be built in the same Renault factory in Dieppe. They would share around 85 per cent of their components, many of which would taken from the vast Renault parts bin. In total, the project would cost approximately €150 million, split evenly between the companies.
The C120’s design was to be penned by Drive Design, a UK-based design firm. According to its lead designer, Mark Przeslawski, the unfamiliar mid-engine layout made it difficult to make the new sports car instantly recognisable as a Caterham.
While it may not evoke the same retro look as the open-wheeled Seven, as evidenced by the computer-generated images released by Drive, the C120 is certainly a looker. Up front, there’s a wide central ‘mouth’, which is flanked by strake-adorned air intakes and ellipse-shaped headlights.
Around the side and rear, the overall design is incredibly clean, with sculpted body lines, thin LED tail-lights and dual exhaust tips.
The two-door was set to be powered by the same powerplant as its French twin, a turbocharged four-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels. A dual-clutch automatic gearbox with paddle shifters would have been the sole transmission offered at launch, with an enthusiast-focused manual transmission to become available down the line.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Renault announced in 2014 that it would be buying Caterham’s stake in the project, leaving the French brand to continue to develop its reborn Alpine sports car alone. No official reason for why the two companies split up was ever announced, however it’s likely that it was due to disagreements in the car’s styling, combined with Caterham’s inability to gather enough capital to fund their share of the venture.
The fruit of Alpine’s labour finally emerged in 2017, with the unveiling of the new A110 at the Geneva motor show. A 185kW 1.8-litre turbocharged four is wrapped in a gorgeous, retro-styled body, with design cues taken from the 1960s A110. Look closely and you can spot remnants of the original Caterham tie-up, such as the headlights, taillights and side profile.
It’s a shame Caterham wasn’t able to get the C120 to market. Considering how impressive the A110 is, the mind can only dream what fun-to-drive, enthusiast-focused corner-carver the British brand could have created. It has previously stated that it would be willing to resume the project if a suitable development partner could be found… anyone got 75 million Euros lying around by any chance?