New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents - Photos:

The age-old dilemma of how to de­fine a clas­sic car has never been re­solved, but when we all have dif­fer­ing pri­or­i­ties and de­sires, who cares? How­ever, a re­cent Bri­tish study pro­duced some fas­ci­nat­ing re­sults that few of us might never have imag­ined.

Par­tic­i­pants were asked the main rea­son for own­ing a clas­sic, and the clear win­ner was styling, with 38 per cent vot­ing it top. The sec­ond most pop­u­lar rea­son, gain­ing 21 per cent of votes, was the ac­tual age of the car — hence the fact that al­most any­thing old and well pre­served will even­tu­ally be a prized and of­ten valu­able pos­ses­sion.

Tech­ni­cal bril­liance and stand­ing out from the crowd each scored seven per cent, while the fact a ve­hi­cle en­joyed his­tor­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion suc­cess was favoured by 4.8 per cent of the par­tic­i­pants. Six per cent liked the idea a car was hand­made, and a ve­hi­cle’s pedi­gree at­tracted five per cent. And the cri­te­rion that a car was good to drive at­tracted a mis­er­able one per cent — the least favoured rea­son for buy­ing or own­ing a clas­sic.

Em­pha­sized styling

Which brings us to the Sun­beam Alpine, a car not al­ways rated that highly but one that strongly em­pha­sized styling and was later im­mor­tal­ized by the bent-eight Tiger ver­sion. It’s 50 years since the last Alpine was made, and, to­day, you will strug­gle to find one on of­fer in New Zealand. But a lot of this has to do with the num­bers built. While the Alpine was the car the Rootes Group wanted to chal­lenge the MGB, its model life was much shorter, and to­tal MGB pro­duc­tion was more than seven times greater.

In fact, with its in­tro­duc­tion in 1959, the Se­ries I Alpine pre­dated the MG by three years. In to­tal, 69,251 Alpines were made un­til 1968 plus 7066 Tigers pro­duced be­tween 1964 and 1967, so lit­tle won­der the car is rel­a­tively scarce. In ad­di­tion, most of the Tigers were left-hand drive and sold in the US. A to­tal of 6495 Tiger 260s were made, and only 571 of the later Tiger 289, which sported an even larger mo­tor and was man­u­fac­tured be­tween De­cem­ber 1966 and June 1967.

Ar­riv­ing when it did, the more mod­est Alpine clearly made a state­ment with its swoopy Amer­i­can­ized shape and high rear fins. Even if you re­gard the fins as too prom­i­nent — and they were low­ered on the facelift Se­ries IV that ar­rived in 1964 — there is no deny­ing that the Alpine is a lovely look­ing thing that is not out of place among to­day’s mod­ern metal. Fa­mous own­ers have in­cluded Art Ar­fons (the fastest man on earth at the time), Cliff Richard, Ge­orge Best, Betty Brab­ham (wife of Jack), and Paul Si­mon.

While in Eng­land in 1966, Chris Amon re­placed his rare Mini Cooper S au­to­matic and 4.2 Jaguar E-type con­vert­ible with a Tiger fit­ted with a hard­top and en­thused about the car. A lack of lug­gage space for those long-dis­tance drives to Euro­pean races left the New Zealan­der dis­en­chanted with the E-type, which he owned for a brief time be­fore swap­ping it for the Tiger, which he thought was a much bet­ter all­round propo­si­tion: “It seemed to me to com­bine a sim­ple en­gine with a lot of re­li­able horse­power, good per­for­mance and a gen­eral lack of fussi­ness in a car that was pleas­ant look­ing and com­fort­able.”

At the time, Amon was a 23-year-old ris­ing For­mula 1 star who thought the Tiger han­dled rea­son­ably well, even if a lot of peo­ple told him oth­er­wise. He praised the brakes and said the Sun­beam stopped rapidly in a straight line from high speed with­out any fade. “I think that harder dampers would prob­a­bly have im­proved the han­dling, but they would have up­set the ride,” he said.

In stan­dard trim, he reck­oned the Tiger man­aged to mix good han­dling with a com­fort­able ride. The V8 power al­lowed the New Zealan­der to cruise be­tween 145 and 160kph, and he liked the flex­i­bil­ity of the en­gine and the 12.8l/100km (22mpg) he could av­er­age in open-road cruis­ing. What seemed a triv­ial com­plaint — as a keen smoker, Amon was an­noyed that his Alpine Tiger lacked a cig­a­rette lighter, and he also ques­tioned the ab­sence of sun vi­sors. But he ap­plauded the “nice and sim­ple” Ford en­gine, and the way it pulled vir­tu­ally from a stand­still in top gear with­out any jerk­ing.

The man­ual Borg­warner four-speed man­ual gear­box was not ex­cep­tion­ally quick, Amon said, but, for a road car, was cer­tainly ad­e­quate. In his first year rac­ing in Europe, 1963, he re­called be­ing a re­serve driver for a works Sun­beam Alpine in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Speak­ing to the late Eoin Young, Chris said, “We were al­lowed a cig­a­rette, but only on the Mul­sanne Straight, which took about two min­utes in the Alpine. The Alpine was very slow, with a top speed of 200kph. We al­most had time for two each lap!” At the team driver brief­ing, the main sub­ject was whether the ash tray was big enough!

Mean­while, in 1964, en­thu­si­asts were ex­cited about the ar­rival of the Tiger, five years after the launch of the Se­ries I Alpine. Clearly, the V8-pow­ered per­for­mance model was a de­vel­op­ment of the Alpine, and yet was never re­ferred to as an ‘Alpine Tiger’. Of all the four-cylin­der Alpines, the Se­ries II was the high­est seller, with 19,956 built in 1962/’63, com­pared with 11,904 Se­ries Is (1962/’63), and a lowly 5863 Se­ries IIIS (1963/’64). The lower-fin Se­ries IV at­tracted 12,406 buy­ers (1964/’65), while the fi­nal model, the Se­ries V (1965/’68), ac­counted for 19,122.

Sport­ing her­itage

One might ques­tion if the Alpine ac­tu­ally re­flects the his­tor­i­cal sport­ing her­itage of the make, even if the name was bor­rowed from a ’60s Sun­beam rac­ing car. Ini­tially, Sun­beam made air­craft en­gines, and its mo­tor rac­ing le­gacy dates back to 1910 and the 4.2-litre Nau­tilus land-speed-record car. Sir Mal­colm Camp­bell’s 1925 land-speedrecord-break­ing Sun­beam had an 18-litre V12 en­gine pro­duc­ing 261kw (350bhp), and sped to 150.87mph (242.8kph) on the Pen­dine Sands. This car can still be seen

at the su­perb Na­tional Mo­tor Mu­seum in Eng­land.

The 1927 Sun­beam 745kw (1000hp) Mys­tery also drew at­ten­tion to the mar­que. With a pair of 22.4-litre air­craft en­gines and an ac­tual out­put of 670kw (900bhp), the Mys­tery was the first non-amer­i­can car to run at Day­tona Beach, where Henry Sea­grave drove it at 203.79mph (327.97kph). No other car in the world had pre­vi­ously ex­ceeded 200mph.

Rootes ac­quired the fi­nan­cially strapped Sun­beam com­pany in 1935, and the first pro­duc­tion model to use the Alpine name was the con­vert­ible Talbot 90 in 1953. Lo­cal own­ers of the sedan ver­sion in­cluded Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary and mo­tor sport photographer Jack In­wood. Six years later, the ar­rival of the Se­ries I Alpine, with its wind-up win­dows and re­mov­able hard­top, was quite an oc­ca­sion at a time when most sports cars of the day had nei­ther. The MGA may have been cheaper, but it was no faster and lacked the crea­ture com­forts of the Alpine. It was a dif­fer­ent story when the bet­ter han­dling and quicker MGB was in­tro­duced in 1962, but, by then, the Sun­beam had won many hearts. Yet, the gen­eral opin­ion was that ladies bought Alpines, while blokes pre­ferred the MG.

Billy and Regi­nald Rootes es­tab­lished a com­pe­ti­tions depart­ment in the late 1940s, and fan­cied a re­fined sports car with wide ap­peal. Later, in-house, Jeff Cromp­ton was given the styling brief for a mod­ern, el­e­gant, and in­ter­na­tional body de­sign, but man­age­ment didn’t like what he came up with and out-sourced Ken Howes, an English­man who had worked with Stude­baker and Ford. His de­sign won ap­proval, and the mono­coque-bod­ied Alpine was en­gi­neered on the chas­sis floor­pan of the two-door Hill­man Husky sta­tion wagon. A con­se­quence of this was a lack of struc­tural strength, ne­ces­si­tat­ing strength­en­ing of the car’s un­der­side. Rootes tended to ov­erengi­neer its cars and, as a re­sult, the Alpine was rather heavy.

Prob­lem num­ber two was where to build the car, as all the Rootes Group plants were at ca­pac­ity. Early pro­duc­tion was farmed out to Bris­tol Sid­de­ley En­gines, be­fore assem­bly went to the Rootes fac­tory at Ry­ton, near Coven­try, us­ing many com­po­nents from the Sun­beam Rapier, in­clud­ing the 1494cc four-cylin­der over­head-valve pushrod en­gine, im­proved with the ad­di­tion of an al­loy cylin­der head to give the Se­ries I a mod­est

Mo­tor Sport mag­a­zine said ‘no com­bi­na­tion of an Amer­i­can V8 and a Bri­tish chas­sis could be hap­pier’

58kw (78bhp). The Alpine was the first Rootes car to have front disc brakes, and a Lay­cock de Nor­manville over­drive was op­tional. Man­age­ment in­sisted a com­fort­able ride was prefer­able to sharp han­dling, and the sus­pen­sion was con­ven­tional with wish­bones and coil springs up front and a live rear axle and semi-el­lip­tic leaf springs.

When the wraps came off, the Alpine cost just un­der £1K in Bri­tain, and early avail­abil­ity of an au­to­matic op­tion added weight to the car’s rep­u­ta­tion as a com­fort­able tourer rather than a hard­ened sports car. New Zealand was un­der the shadow of tough im­port re­stric­tions, which meant few Alpines ar­rived on our shores. In 1963, lo­cal distrib­u­tor Todd Mo­tors listed a new Alpine at £1182 ($2364) with a hard­top an ex­tra £72 ($142). At the same time, a new MGB was just £10 ($20) cheaper, and a Tri­umph TR4 cost £1346 ($2692).

My brother Rodger man­aged to buy an early UK Se­ries II used im­port ex­am­ple, which he raced at the na­tional Pukekohe meet­ing in March 1963 and also used the car in grass track and gymkhana club events. This car fea­tured in the Septem­ber 1963 edi­tion of Motorman mag­a­zine.

Phil Orn­stein, a long-time mo­tor sport cam­paigner of Rootes cars, in­clud­ing a rapid Hum­ber 80, also drove an Alpine and was pres­i­dent of the North­ern Sports Car Club in 1951, while only 250 ex­am­ples of the Har­ring­ton Le Mans, a fi­bre­glass hard­top ver­sion of the Alpine, were built — John Bar­ley, a com­mit­tee mem­ber of the 45-year-old Sun­beam Car Club of New Zealand, owns one of them. In 1961, a Har­ring­ton fin­ished 16th over­all and sec­ond in class at Le Mans.

The Se­ries II had an in­crease in en­gine­bore di­men­sions, bring­ing the ca­pac­ity to 1592cc and lift­ing power to 64kw (85bhp), while the twin Zenith car­bu­ret­tors re­mained un­changed. An op­tional steel hard­top be­came avail­able on the Se­ries III, and an all-syn­chro­mesh gear­box, sin­gle Solex car­bu­ret­tor, and op­tional steel hard­top were Se­ries IV hall­marks. The Se­ries V saw an up­grade to a 1725cc en­gine, with a five-bear­ing crank­shaft re­plac­ing the three­bear­ing com­po­nent. No auto op­tion was of­fered on this fi­nal Alpine model.

Tight fit

The choice of a Ford V8 en­gine for the Tiger might seem odd given Rootes’ links with Chrysler, but it was a mat­ter of the power unit fit­ting the en­gine bay. Much more than an en­gine swap, the Tiger had a beefed-up chas­sis with heavy-duty rear axle and stur­dier sus­pen­sion and a slightly raised bon­net to im­prove air flow. An Mg-sourced rack-and-pin­ion steer­ing sys­tem re­placed the re­cir­cu­lat­ing-ball set-up on Alpine that sim­ply did not fit.

To ac­com­mo­date the 4.2-litre 122kw (164bhp) Ford V8, the bulk­head was chopped and the mo­tor shifted back, which also im­proved weight dis­tri­bu­tion. A new scut­tle and trans­mis­sion tun­nel had to be fab­ri­cated and welded into po­si­tion. The oil fil­ter was repo­si­tioned, while the crank­shaft pul­ley and wa­ter pump were re­placed, and one of the ex­haust man­i­folds had to be mod­i­fied to clear the steer­ing col­umn.

All early Tiger pro­duc­tion went to the US, where buy­ers loved the car and asked for even more power. Their wishes were granted when Ford ceased pro­duc­tion of the 260, re­plac­ing it with the 4.7-litre 149kw (200bhp) V8 used in the Tiger II. As with the Alpine, pro­duc­tion con­straints meant Rootes en­listed the aid of Jensen Mo­tors to build pro­to­types and even­tu­ally as­sem­ble the Tiger. Stan­dard servo-as­sisted Alpine brakes were con­sid­ered ad­e­quate so re­mained un­changed.


Above: A per­fect sportscar in­te­rior Left: Rodger An­der­son with his Se­ries II Sun­beam Alpine

Be­low: A 1964 US ad­ver­tise­ment for the Alpine em­pha­sizes the avail­abil­ity of an au­to­matic op­tion

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