THE ROOT ES GROUP SPORTS CAR THAT TURNED HEADS WITH ITS LOVELY STYLING. BUT, AS DONNA ND ER SON RELATES, TODAY THEY ARE FEW AND FAR BETWEEN…
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.
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.
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.
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