The idea for the Renault Spider was formulated in the early 1990s: in the midst of a revival after a difficult second half of the 1980s, Renault wanted a car to promote it as a sporting brand (similar to the Renault 5 Turbo from a decade earlier). The Spider was intended to both serve as a racing car, in a one-make series organized by Renault, and as a road car. The first prototypes for Project W94, as it was known at the time, were completed in mid-1994 and a concept version was presented to the public at the Geneva Motor Show a year later. The concept featured several differences to the version that ultimately became the road car, most notably butterfly doors and the absence of a windshield. The car went on sale in early 1996, assembled at the Alpine factory in Dieppe.
Approximately 1800 cars were produced through 1999.
Designed from the outset as a driver's car, the chassis was made of aluminium for its combination of low weight and substantial strength, while the actual bodywork is a plastic composite. Unusually, the Spider did not have a roof, either folding or hard-top. The gearbox and the engine were one unit transversally fixed in an oscillating hinge (an arrangement inspired by aeronautical design), which all but eradicated the interference of engine vibration with the chassis, and the pedals of the Spider were adjustable as well as the seat so the driver could achieve a better driving position. Power for the Spider came from a version of the 2-litre F7R engine from the Renault Megane Coupe, producing 150 PS (110 kW; 148 hp). Either a windscreen or a small wind deflector was fitted, with the driver wearing a helmet in vehicles without a windscreen.
From the outset the Spider was intended to be the basis for a new one-car racing series. Renault had been running these championships since the early 80s with the 5 Turbo, 21 Turbo, and Clio models. A special Spider Trophy edition was designed and built for the purpose, with the engine tuned to produce 180 bhp (134 kW). The Spider championships ran for several years as support series to larger championships such as the British Touring Car Championship (in which it is remembered for having produced one of that series' top drivers of recent years, Jason Plato, who won 11 out of 14 races in the inaugural year of the UK Spider Cup). In 1999 Andy Priaulx beat Plato's record of eight successive race wins in the Spiders by taking a clean sweep of 13 wins in all 13 races. He also qualified for each one on pole position and took fastest laps in all but two of the events.