Renault and Caterham to build affordable racecars

PARIS Mon Nov 5, 2012 3:32pm GMT

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PARIS (Reuters) - French automaker Renault (RENA.PA) and British specialist sports-car maker Caterham unveiled plans on Monday to develop affordable racers for introduction by 2016.

Renault, which has struggled to lift the image of its namesake brand after a series of flops by pricier models such as its Laguna and Vel Satis cars, also confirmed plans to revive its defunct Alpine badge.

The new vehicles will be built at a Renault plant in Dieppe, northern France in a partnership with Caterham Cars and its Formula One team, the companies said.

The vehicles will put racecar engineering within reach of more customers than current Formula One-derived offerings from rivals, Caterham Chairman Tony Fernandes and Renault Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said at a joint news conference.

"If you look at Formula One, there's only Ferrari and McLaren, which are extremely expensive," Fernandes said. "We'll produce a car that many more people can afford with F1 technology."

Renault sold its Formula One team in 2009-10 but continues to supply engines to four stables including Caterham F1, which raced under the Team Lotus name until last year.

The companies declined to give details of pricing, sales targets or their financial transaction - which sees Caterham acquire a 50 percent stake in Automobiles Alpine Renault, a subsidiary of the French automaker.

"We're talking about several thousand vehicles a year," Ghosn said.

Renault employs just over 300 people at the Dieppe facility to assemble sportier versions of the brand's car models.

The announcement was seized on by a French government anxious to highlight good news in a sector that has mostly seen manufacturers and suppliers shedding domestic jobs.

"This is an act of productive recovery for France," Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg said. "And it's aimed at export, which is good for our trade balance."

BRAND REVIVALS

Ghosn's No.2 executive at Renault, Carlos Tavares, had previously indicated that the carmaker was planning an Alpine vehicle as well as more mainstream near-premium models under a new sub-brand, Initial Paris.

The last decade has seen several mass carmakers dust off older names to roll out retro-styled compact cars commanding higher prices.

Fiat FIA.MI introduced a modern version of its iconic 500 in 2007, six years after BMW (BMWG.DE) revived Mini. PSA Peugeot Citroen (PEUP.PA) followed suit in 2009 with a range of upscale cars named after the iconic Citroen DS limousine.

"Sometimes people hold really warm feelings towards brands even if they haven't been around for a while," said Manfred Abraham, head of strategy at branding consultancy Interbrand.

Even if sales remain limited, performance car offerings can have a "halo effect" on mainstream models, Abraham said, citing a shift up-market by Volkswagen's (VOWG_p.DE) Audi brand helped by its TT and R8 models.

Alpine, which remains a legendary marque among French motor racing aficionados, was created in the 1950s by garage mechanic Jean Redele, whose souped-up Renault 4CV cars scored a number of racing victories.

The success continued throughout the next two decades with the addition of the more powerful A110, but Renault killed off the brand in 1994 amid dwindling sales.

(Editing by Christian Plumb and James Regan)

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