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Sunbeam Cars

Sunbeam Alpine 1955
The first Alpine would be released in 1953, based on the chassis and running gear of the Sunbeam-Talbot 90 saloon...

Sunbeam Alpine
Despite the ‘new’ Alpine only having a 1494cc 4 cylinder engine, it came tantalizing close to cracking the holy grail of 100mph...

Sunbeam Tiger
This publicity shot would have been much better if it featured agents 86 and 99...

Sunbeam Tiger
You have to look closely to spot the differences between the Alpine and the Tiger, the Ford 4.2 litre V8 fitting into the engine bay without external sheet metal modification...

Sunbeam Tiger
Less noticable when the car is in profile, the Alpine and Tiger featured a prominent "tail fin" design...

“Fill up the Sunbeam”, mention this in an Australian home today and most would assume you are talking of the kettle. But there was a time when the word Sunbeam would evoke the very essence of automotive fervor.

Until the mid 1920s Sunbeam were one of the very few British companies to seriously build, develop and race a team of Grand Prix cars. And in 1923 Sunbeam would taste success with Sir Henry Segrave taking out the French Grand Prix, making for a British Driver/Manufacturer combination that would not be repeated until the 1950’s.

Sunbeams had developed an enviable reputation during the first quarter of last century, but there was a vast chasm between the passenger conveyances and grand prix cars being produced, and there was certainly no sports type car for the young at heart. With Sunbeam becoming part of the STD (Sunbeam- Talbot-Darracq) combine, the marque set its sights on Le Mans, and on the very competitive Bentleys.

In 1925 Sunbeam developed a 3 litre model, sized appropriately to compete with the 3 litre Bentley that had won the previous years Le Mans event. The Sunbeam 3 litre was fitted with an engine based on those used in the Grand Prix events, featuring twin overhead cams, driven by gears, while the camshaft and crankshaft were superimposed in seven main bearings.

The car was lubricated by dry sump, and used twin Claudel-Hobson carburettors; the engine was in turn mated to a four-speed close-ratio gearbox. A peculiarity of the four-seater open 3 litre was that it had close-fitting cycle type front wings, which turned with the wheels.

But the car did not perform to expectations, the chassis often being singled out for criticism due to its overly complex design and, it seemed, engineered frailty. Only 250 were produced before manufacture ceased in 1930 - perhaps if there had been a more rigid short-chassis type Sunbeam might have sold more!

The company finally went into liquidation in 1935 as the STD combine collapsed from the top. The Wolverhampton based Sunbeam company was eventually taken over by the Rootes Group, along with its sister company Talbot, where both would join the Hillman and Humber marques.

The marque was not resurrected in a sports car sense until 1953 when the wonderful new two-seater “Alpine” was announced. The Alpine was based on the chassis and running gear of the Sunbeam-Talbot 90 saloon, and as such was in reality an entirely Rootes affair. To address scuttle-shake the frame was stiffened up with extra side plates, and the nose of the car was exactly like that of the saloon.

The Alpine featured independent front suspension by coil springs and wishbones; at the rear a rigid axle was located by half-elliptic leaf springs. The four-cylinder 2267cc engine developed 80bhp at 4200rpm, power being delivered to the rear wheels via a four-speed gearbox with the shifter located, as was the fashion of the day, on the steering column.

Many would remember the Aussie “Three-on-the-Tree”, a three speed ‘sludge box’ setup designed to allow three people to sit in the front seat, but one must question the benefit of such a design being used in the Alpine when the front seat contours made it impossible for more than two to be seated!

Nevertheless the Alpine was soon enjoying success in competitions such as at the Coupes de Alpes Alpine Rally, where the team cars won four separate events. Then Stirling Moss would use Alpines in 1953 and 1954 to become only the second driver in history to win a Coupe d'Or for three consecutive 'clean' runs on this difficult event.

But after two short years the Alpine was discontinued in 1955, but just why the powers to be at the Rootes group came to this decision we remain unable to fathom.

One possible explanation is that Rootes had been busy developing the Sunbeam “Rapier”, and thought the marque required only one “hero car”. In what can best be described as a public relations disaster, the Rapier name would be dropped in favour of Alpine in 1959.

The new car could best be described as a “bitsa”, using the Rapier Series III running gear and suspension, fitted to a shortened version of the under-pan, all draped in a lovely two-seater body she with prominent tail fins.

Despite the ‘new’ Alpine only having a 1494cc 4 cylinder engine it came tantalizing close to cracking the holy grail of 100mph (161 kmh), on the down side was the fact that it took a leisurely 13 seconds to reach 60mph from rest. With a smaller engine capacity than its main rivals, such as the MGA/MGB and Triumph TR series, the Alpine was invariably overshadowed and often overlooked. What a shame though, for the styling was and remains worthy of earning the car a much greater place in automotive history.

The Alpine would enjoy a reasonably long life-span, built from 1959 to 1968 and growing up to Series V which was fitted with a 1725cc engine. The purchaser could option the “overdrive” transmission, and there was even a short run of Automatics built. And, to help make the Alpine more appealing to a broader motoring public, it could be ordered in either open sports or closed hardtop versions.

There were also a few fastback conversions manufactured, with Rootes approval, by Harrington of Sussex. This type of Alpine had a limited, but creditable, competitions career, which included winning the Index of Thermal Efficiency award at Le Mans on the first of three visits in 1961.

But there were those that lamented the Alpines lack of power. Ian Garrad was one such person; the son of then competitions manager Norman Garrad, Ian was the Rootes company’s Californian representative - and was well aware of the way that Carroll Shelby had transformed the AC Ace into the Cobra with a Ford V8 engine transplant.

Garrad enlisted the help of Ken Miles, and together they effected a similar transplant to that of the AC. Their choice of engine was the Ford 4.2 litre 164bhp unit, and they then shipped their “prototype” back to the UK headquarters. The Rootes management were impressed, and well should they have been – for the choice of engine meant there were absolutely no visual outer skin panel changes required to fit the lusty V8 engine!

The modified Alpine was dubbed the Sunbeam “Tiger”, and assembly moved to Jensen at West Bromwich. The engineers soon discovered just how well sorted the Alpine was, finding the body well able to handle the huge increase in torque. Naturally the Tigers performance humbled the Alpine. The 0-60mph dash was down to a very respectful 9.5 seconds, while the car was good for a top speed of 118mph (190 kmh).

The factory made one attempt race the Tiger – at the 1964 Le Mans – but both cars that were entered retired early with engine failures. Nevertheless others thought the car had rally potential. One was entered by privateer Peter Harper's in the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally, but as luck would have it his sixth placing was disqualified after scrutinizers found illegal technical modifications had been made to the car.

In 1967 the 4.7 litre series 2 Tiger would be released, but shortly afterward Chrysler would acquire the Rootes group and the new management would choose to bring production to a premature end. Most commentators of the day acknowledged the takeover of Rootes by Chrysler would always be the downfall of the Tiger, simply put it would be somewhat embarrassing for Chrysler to manufacture a car and install a Ford engine!

Also see: Sunbeam Car Reviews | The History of Sunbeam Motor Co. (USA Edition)

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