1997 Renault Sport Spider

Engine: 1998cc, 4 cylinder 16v
Power: 150hp at 6000RPM
Torque: 185Nm at 4500RPM
Performance: 134mph (215km/h) 0-60 in 6.9s
Weight: 930kg

In 1997 I was moving to another company and would need to hand back my company car, a BMW 318i. I wanted something different and test drove a lot of cars in the £20-40,000 range including a Lotus Elise, MGF, TVR Cerbera, Porsche 964 an old Ferrari Mondial Convertible.

New Spider

Spider in Calais with original temporary French number plates


I really wanted to finally build an Ultima Spyder and even went down to the factory to review some options with Ted Marlow who was running the company. Ted was also a bit of a racing driver and really terrified me on a quick test run in a Spyder he was building for a customer. However, I didn't have a spare 500 hours for the build and probably needed something more practical.

The TVR Cerbera ticked a lot of boxes and was even a four seater, but the salesguy hinted at the reality of TVR ownership when he asked "so what's your OTHER car ?". In fact for some years afterwards I was always seeing TVRs broken down, or smashed, on the M4 motorway on the drive in to work.

The sensible answer was a two car strategy, and on paper the best sports car option was a Lotus Elise. The problem was that everyone else also wanted an Elise and they had a long lead time for delivery. A friend at work, told me that the local Renault garage in Norwich had an interesting demonstrator in - the Renault Sport Spider. I was smitten when I saw it, even more so when we went for a test drive, ironically past the Lotus factory. I managed to look past the cramped pedals and lack of creature comforts, I'm probably as tall as you would want to be driving a Spider.

I would have bought it from the Norwich dealer, but he wouldn't move on price and the demonstrator already had 3,000 fast miles on the clock. Then I hit on a novel idea, for that time. I faxed the Renault dealer in Calais, France to see how much a UK specification car would be. No problem, 3 months lead time and 20% cheaper even after paying the import duty. So I booked cheap £10 ferry tickets through a deal in one of the newspapers and waited. I took delivery in December, not the best time to bring such an impractical car back to the UK. I did opt for one of the only options which is called the parapluie, or umbrella. It is a ridiculous clear plastic roof, which keeps some of the rain out but also limits you to driving at 90km/h. I used it on the trip back from Calais and then never again, it simply steams up and makes visibility too difficult.

I didn't know it at the time, but the Spider was not selling too well in the UK. 200 had been allocated to the market, but the Elise was peoples first pick. The Elise performed better, was more practical, had more brand cachet and was even significantly cheaper. Most sources say that only 60 or so Right Hand Drive Spiders were sold in the UK, the rest were taken back to the factory, converted to LHD and painted silver to be sold in Europe.

The car doesn't have a lot of gadgets. There are no carpets, heater, door locks, side windows, radio or even roof. There is no power steering, servo brakes or ABS. But you do get a great looking mid-engined car with very good road holding. It's performance was not as good as the Elise despite having a larger 2 litre engine, due to the much thicker, welded aluminium chassis compared to the Lotus lightweight glued construction.

I kept the car mainly in Maidenhead and used it on the odd dry day to go to work in Reading. When we decided to go sailing in 2003, I couldn't bear to part with it so rented a lockup garage and stored it there.

When we decided to stay in New Zealand in 2005, we arranged for our stored household goods to be shipped, but I couldnt get the car to New Zealand because of some daft crash test regulations. They wanted proof that it had passed a crash test that hadn't been invented when the car was new. If the Spider had been older, it would have been exempt from that test ! It wasn't lost on me that at the time I was legally driving around in a 1994 vehicle that hadn't passed the said crash test or emissions controls either.

I paid a specialist certifier to try to help with the import to no avail. I also had the run-around from Renault in New Zealand, France and the UK trying to track down documentation relating to the vehicle standards certification and crash tests. One person at the factory told me that it had been crash tested twice, but could offer no further help, even though frontal impact safety was alluded to in the marketing brochures for the car. Then I heard about a consultation process on proposed changes to the law to allow the importation of "Special Interest Vehicles". I made my submissions and fortunately when the changes were passed the Spider could now be imported. I got one of the first Special Interest Vehicle permits in 2008 and made arrangements for the car to be shipped.

I still needed some documentation to support the certification process. The permit only exempted the car from Frontal Impact and Emissions, although it did actually comply on emissions. Renault UK had previously been very unhelpful because I had bought the car in France, but eventually I got through to someone who was very willing to help and literally saved the day.

The car wasn't in bad shape when it arrived in New Zealand, despite having been in the lockup for 5 years. I had to replace the brake fluid, coolant, oil and battery and she started up first time. I also had to fit a high level stop light for certification in New Zealand. The car is otherwise totally original.

The Spider at the Ellerslie Concours with the Parapluie deployed

I'm getting more use of it in New Zealand because the weather is better and recently made a road trip up to the Bay of Islands. The Spider was never officially sold in New Zealand but I know of 5 other Spiders here, 3 RHD models which were imported by their owners from the UK, and 2 LHD models which were imported from Japan and Germany.  In 2016 she has clocked up a total of 14,000km.