AN EXEMPLARY CAREER
Among the long list of French drivers of great reputation, Bernard Darniche stands out. He has played an important role in making Alpine a formidable and feared brand in the world of rallying.
A sportsman at heart, Bernard Darniche had his first taste of motor racing in 1965, as co-driver to Michel Loiseau driving his Mini Cooper. At the same time, however, he continued his racing career, initially as a cyclist, before turning definitively to motor racing. At the age of 26 (he was born on 28 March 1942 in Cenon, on the outskirts of Bordeaux), he signed up to compete in the third edition of the Gordini Cup, which was run with the famous R8 cars of the same name.
Like here at the Acropolis Rally, he's looking for the right instructions on the dirt roads. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Renault Communication / D.R.
He won the Le Touquet rally in 1965 (Mini Cooper) and 1966 (NSU) and finished second in the 1966 NSU Challenge. In 1968, during the final on the Albi circuit, he won the second round but was still beaten by Roland Trollé, winner of the first. At the end of the season, he finished third on the podium. The following year, in his first season as a racing driver, Bernard Darniche competed at the wheel of an official NSU. After the Critérium des Cévennes at the end of November, Jean Rédélé and Jacques Cheinisse "grabbed him by the arm and told him: you're going to race for us". His victories on the Rallye du Forez and the Rallye du Var were not to be overlooked, especially as he finished the season ranked fifth in the French Rally Championship, behind two Porsches and two Alpines!
Darniche at the wheel of the Lancia Stratos. The A110s crushed the competition, but the Stratos is about to take over. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Renault Communication / D.R.
A dream come true
He admitted that, throughout the season, he " had drooled over these marvellous little racing cars". He was referring, of course, to the Berlinettes and secretly dreamed of joining that team. For a young driver, joining a team with the best drivers of the moment was like winning the Holy Grail. To find himself alongside Nicolas, Andruet, Thérier, Larrousse, Vinatier and Piot, among promising youngsters like Jabouille and Depailler, must have been a dream come true! The following season, Darniche drove for NSU and joined Alpine for the 1970 season. He would stay there for four years.
Alain Mahé, Darniche's co-driver, clocking in at a checkpoint during the Austrian Rally of the Alps in 1973. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Renault Communication / D.R.
A coveted position
Bernard Darniche was a multiple European and French rally champion at the wheel of the Lancia Stratos, a car that definitively established his fame, yet during his Alpine period he became known to the general public. Between Jean Rédélé, who never criticised his drivers, Jacques Cheinisse, the excellent team leader, and his three companions Andruet, Nicolas and Thérier, with whom he formed the famous Mousquetaires team, Darniche carved out a place for himself that many coveted. A good atmosphere prevailed.
The Tour of Corsica is where Bernard Darniche remained untouchable for a long time. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Renault Communication / D.R.
Darniche learned everything he needed to know about driving on gravel from Jean-Pierre Nicolas and Jean-Luc Thérier, who previously trained him to drive on asphalt, on the roads of Corsica and the Cévennes. Clearly gifted, Darniche, during his first season with Alpine, won the Tour of Corsica with Bernard Demange, who had been his co-driver for the German firm. But the competition was fierce and, although Andruet won the title, no other Alpine finished in the top six. But Darniche started to understand how to use the Berlinette, particularly in Corsica, his favourite rally, where he claimed six victories in all. In 1970, he even set the fastest time on all the stages! Initially, as we have seen, he felt most comfortable on asphalt. During his first season at Alpine, he won in Bayonne as well as Corsica. But by 1971, he had won no less than five events, including the Coupe des Alpes and the Critérium des Cévennes. After learning to drive on slippery roads, Darniche won the Rallye du Mont-Blanc and the Rallye Neige et Glace in 1972. That same year, at the wheel of his Alpine A110 1800, he was crowned French Rally Champion. During his career with Lancia, he achieved a total of 87 rally wins, three French Championship titles, two European Championship titles and seven World Rally Championship victories.
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Chappe & Gasselin, Alpine period
Before adopting the polyester that would ensure the success of Alpine cars, C & G had used timber and steel, followed by aluminium alloy in the late 1940s. They were the ones who primarily created the Alpine A106. But Jean Rédélé found it impractical: Alpine was in Normandy, Chappe and Gessalin were near Paris, and they were to move even further away, soon settling in Seine-et-Marne, at Brie-Comte-Robert. Production began at C & G, while final assembly had to be carried out in Dieppe: a cumbersome and costly organisation, which prompted Rédélé to simplify the process... and eliminate subcontracting. A major source of work dried up for C & G, which nonetheless proposed, in desperation, a version of the Alpine that the Dieppe factory had not considered: that would be the GT4 presented in 1963, and once again manufactured in Brie-Comte-Robert.
The pretty little Alpine A1000 Spider, pictured in an atmosphere very different from the A110's racing image. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Renault Communication / D.R.
Chappe & Gasselin and Simca
Regrettably, the GT4 was only a modest success, minimised by the new A110, which was very well received. As a result, an amicable divorce was inevitable between Alpine and C & G. So what was to be done? Return to commercial bodywork? No way! Become involved with other brands, as it had done with CD and then DB? This was an interesting option because, even with the most advanced tools, it was not possible to build a car from scratch; you had to start from an existing base. Which base? A French manufacturer would be the easiest to approach... Simca listened carefully to the proposals of these talented coachbuilders, partly because building a small sports car would rejuvenate the brand's image, and partly because the low volume forecasts were not compatible with Simca's expertise in mass production. Although the Poissy-based manufacturer had produced the Simca 1000 Coupé, an elegant design by Giugiaro in 1962, it was lacking a sporty touch. Théodore Pigozzi, Simca's boss, was prepared to provide the base for future CGs, which would also bear the Simca name, and in particular the racing versions. The decision was made: Chappe and Gessalin were to found their own sports car brand.
Albert Chappe and his two brothers transformed their workshop from coachbuilding to the preparation of sports cars. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Renault Communication / D.R.
CGs, clones of the Alpine?
In fact, the first Simca-powered CG, presented in 1966, was inspired by the Alpine. You only have to look at their front end to see this: the same sloping bonnet, the same Plexiglas bonnet lights, the same bonnet hinges. The bodywork made of polyester, as you would expect, and covers a chassis made of a tubular central beam, leading to a cradle at the rear to support the engine. A true Alpine clone? Not quite, though: this steel beam was not embedded in a polyester platform, as with the Alpine, but in steel. The engine was not a Renault, but a Simca, the little 950cc engine from the Simca 1000. Its name? THE A1000. You might say it's the name of an Alpine! The problem, though, is that this engine had its limitations: even in the slightly sharper S version, it doesn't enable the CG to raise its sporting ambitions very high.
The CGs have housed some formidable competitors for the Alpines, like Bernard Fiorentino at the Touraine rally in 1971. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo ©Renault Communication / D.R.
Chappe & Gasselin, the end of the story
CG never reached the size of Alpine: where Alpine sold thousands of cars, CG sold hundreds... But, like the Dieppe cars, CGs were produced in commercial and factory versions, and even in customer competition, with the B1200 '548'. Named after its weight of 548 kg, it was sold with a roll bar and bucket seats, and fitted with an 85 bhp engine available in a compressor version, increasing its power to 120 bhp and its top speed to 200 km/h. But after the 1972 Motor Show, the CG adventure came to an end: Simca preferred to team up with Matra to present the Bagheera, which was less sporty but easier to handle. From then on, the CG brand disappeared, leaving today's collectors to snatch up cars that are less legendary than the Alpine, but still very rare.
Driver Bernard Fiorentino at the wheel of the Simca 1000 Rallye II, giving a tough challenge to the R8 Gordini. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo ©Renault Communication / D.R.
Darniche continued enjoying driving the Berlinette. Like all the drivers who once worked for the Dieppe factory, he commented that the A110 was easy to drive once you've got the right instructions, even if it was very complicated to get the last few tenths. The car tolerates a lot of mistakes and can still be driven very fast, but it needs to be driven very carefully. In an interview conducted by Bruno Luffroy, Darniche was emphatic: " In terms of the absolute, selfish pleasure of driving, you can't do better than driving a Berlinette". Perhaps one of his most vivid memories is the Monte Carlo Rally, where he had a 4'30" lead over Sweden's Blomqvist after all stages. During the final stretch, the gearbox of his Alpine A110 jammed and he and co-driver Alain Mahé were unable to reach the finish line. They had to withdraw. It was a bitter disappointment for a passion that had its high moments, both in victory and in failure.
THE 24 HOURS OF LE MANS
After a first experience in 1972, when he teamed up with American John Greenwood and Alain Cudini at the wheel of a Chevrolet Corvette ( dropped out), he returned in 1976, again alongside Greenwood, but this time their Corvette failed to cross the finish line. In 1978 and 1979, he was back at the wheel of a Rondeau, first with Jean Rondeau and Jacky Haran (9th and winner of Group VI), then with Jean Ragnotti (5th overall). The Lancia Beta he shared with Teo Fabi and Hans Heyer in 1980 broke down in the first hour of the race, and it was in a BMW M1 supported by the factory, with Philippe Alliot and former motorcycling champion Johnny Cecotto, that Bernard Darniche drove one last time in the Sarthe (16th overall).