There so were many British sports cars in the 1950s and 1960s that recalling all the names can be a challenge. Names like MG, Triumph and Jaguar come to most minds immediately, followed by Austin-Healey, Aston Martin, and maybe Lotus. And then someone will hopefully say “Sunbeam Alpine”.
CC has previously looked at the original Sunbeam Alpine – a roadster version of the postwar Sunbeam –Talbot 90 saloon developed by the major dealer Hartwell. Production was limited to around 1500 between 1953 and 1955, but Rootes’ appetite was clearly whetted for more .
In 1953, the heart of the sports car market took a step change, with the arrival of Standard’s all-new Triumph TR2, which offered an unrivaled performance/cost equation. It was low-slung, and its 90 hp 2 litre four let it sprint from 0-60 in 12 seconds, approaching Jaguar territory, but it was priced only a bit above the antiquated but popular MG-TF. It established the TR lineage and legacy.
BMC had to scramble to try to keep up and protect its MG franchise, which was a cash cow in the US, and rushed into production the new MGA. Although it was a bit sleeker than the TR2, it wasn’t as fast, but it still sold well, especially in America where the MG name had become golden. These two sports cars were the first truly low-slung affordable modern British sports cars. Cars like the MG TF and the 1953 Alpine quickly looked old hat.
The MGA was a key stage in the changing appearance of the British roadster, to a much lower, sleeker style, but like the Triumph TR2 of 1953 and Austin-Healey 100, they still had a traditional body-on-frame construction, rather than a unitized body.
The new Alpine, which arrived in 1959, was the first British roadster to have unitized body construction, based on that of the Hillman Husky derivative of the Audax Minx saloon. It was also the first to sport very American-style fins, almost straight off a 1957 Chrysler. Those were a bit controversial, and eventually were clipped with the Series IV in 1964.
The Husky was a short wheelbase, semi-estate car foreshadowing the popular hatchback style that would eventually become the most common in Europe. It was essentially a version of the Hillman Minx saloon, which was Rootes’ main product line at the time. The engine was a 1390cc OHV 4 cylinder. In some respects, it also foreshadowed what AMC did in cutting down the Hornet to create the Gremlin.
A modified Husky floorpan and suspension was the starting point in 1956 for Roote’s ambitious undertaking to create an MG competitor, especially for the lucrative American market. The design of the Sunbeam has a more than passing resemblance to the 1955 Ford Thunderbird, which may be attributed at least in part due to its primary designer, Ken Howe, having worked at Ford previously. The similarity was not quite accidental.
The unfortunate fins on the Series I – III Alpines, rather similar to the ones on the Daimler SP 250, which also arrived in 1959, clearly dated it, all too quickly, and perhaps somewhat tarnished the rear of an otherwise very attractive sports car.
But once they were toned down in 1964, or looking at it from the right angles, I feel it could pass as a contemporary of the 1962 MGB roadster or Triumph Spitfire, also new in 1962.
Power came from a 1494cc version of the long-running Rootes 4 cylinder engine, also used in the Sunbeam Rapier sports hardtop and convertible. The gear box was four-speed, with overdrive was optional, and braking used front discs. It very nearly made 100 mph, with 0-60 in 13 seconds or so – performance directly comparable with the MGA (but not the quicker MGB) but linked to a driving experience that is generally considered to be a bit more comfortable but less absolutely sporty than the MG; more like a tourer than full-on sports car. The recirculating ball steering was not as crisp as an MG’s rack and pinion, and the Husky’s underpinnings couldn’t be fully masked, even with the handsome body. The market segment’s first roll up windows enhanced the feeling of being in a more modern car than most of its competition, at least in its first few years.
Initial assembly of the car was contracted out by Rootes to Armstrong Siddeley, one of Coventry’s old luxury car builders, whose (aero engine building) parent company had merged with Bristol Aero Engines in 1960 and then withdrawn from the car industry. In 1962, Rootes took assembly back in house and Armstrong Siddeley became purely an aero-engine business, and is now part of Rolls-Royce aero-engines.
The transfer of production to Rootes coincided with the series II cars, with 1592 cc, 80bhp engine and some suspension changes. The interior of the car was a pleasant combination of typical sports car and typical Rootes, and is as at least as good as its contemporaries.
A series III with minor changes and the option of a removable hardtop and small rear seats came in 1963. In 1964 the series IV arrived with revised rear styling, and in 1965 the series V, fitted with the 1725cc version of Rootes OHV engine, offering 93bhp. The featured green car is a series IV.
Bu now, the Alpine was, of course, in direct competition with the much better known MGB, which was linked to arguably the strongest affordable sports car brand of them all, and with a much larger distribution network in Britain, Europe and, crucially, North America. The MGB handily outsold the Alpine by a healthy margin during its production run. Over half a million MGBs were built in its long lifespan compared to some 69,000 Alpines.
The Alpine went to America in 1959, but the 80 hp four cylinder engine didn’t exactly make a lasting impression, given American’s love for lots of power. In 1962, Formula 1 World Champion Jack Brabham suggested to Norman Gerrad, Rootes’ competitions manager, the idea of putting a V8 in the Alpine, as Brabham believed the car could take the weight and the power. Carroll Shelby was asked to fit the 4260cc/260 cu. in. V8 from a Ford Fairlane, along with a Borg-Warner four-speed transmission, into an Alpine.
This was done and assessed by Rootes’ West Coast team, well under Coventry’s radar. The V8 was just a few inches longer and deeper than the Rootes four cylinder engine, so with some careful modifications to the bulkhead and wheel arches, the V8 was in.
The initial car was promising enough for another prototype to be commissioned, this time by Ken Miles. The Tiger was shipped to England to be shown to Lord Rootes. Apart from the addition of a Panhard rod to the rear axle, and stiffer front springs to cope with the weight of the V8 engine, the Tiger’s suspension and braking systems were essentially identical to that of the standard Alpine.
As the car weighed around 400lb more than the Alpine it inevitably had stiffer front suspension to handle the weight of the V8. There were other revisions too, within the boot to reflect the Panhard rod mounting and a re-positioned battery, moved rearwards from under the nominal back seat, and a relocated spare wheel, and a change from recirculating ball to rack and pinion steering.
After assessment in Coventry, including Billy Rootes trying it, allegedly, with the hand brake on, a deal was signed with Ford for 3,000 engines. Thus the Tiger, named after a 1925 Land Speed Record Sunbeam, was born, although Rootes had originally picked the name Thunderbolt for the car. The car were assembled for Rootes by Jensen, and was based on the series IV Alpine body which was pressed, assembled and painted by Pressed Steel in Cowley, Oxford. Assembly of the Alpine continued in-house at Coventry.
There were compromises involved in having a V8 engine in a compact British roadster. The spark plugs on one bank had to be accessed through an aperture in the bulkhead and the revised steering led to severe tyre scrub on full lock. Allegedly a sledgehammer was used to “adjust” the painted bulkhead. It was a very tight fit.
The car was offered initially only in North America, where a 164bhp V8 roadster was a more familiar sight than in Britain. This was a car that could reach 125 mph and get to 60 in around 9 seconds, so although it was not Jaguar fast, but was considerably faster, more modern, and better to drive than an Austin-Healey 3000 or Triumph TR5, which were probably its closest competitors. The initial retail price was $3499, and in the UK for £1446 from March 1965 – say around £20000 now. That’s a lot of performance for MX-5 money!
The car came onto the home market in 1965, and whilst always a low volume car, it achieved a certain public awareness because of its unusual, for Britain and Europe, American V8 engine. It was one of the first V8s in Britain – essentially only Rolls-Royce were then building one in the UK, although Ford had had the V8 Pilot in the 1940s. Rover would follow in 1968 with an American V8, in that case much adapted for, and built, for Britain, and had also planned to use it in a sports car – the still-born Rover P6BS and P9 projects.
After 6,450 cars, the series II Tiger came in 1967, offering a 4735cc/289 cu. in. version of the Ford V8, with an increase to around 195bhp and cutting the 0-60 to 7.5 seconds and offering well over 120 mph, and matching the Alpine series V style wise. The series II was not officially offered in the UK, except for a small order for London’s Metropolitan Police, and some Rootes distributors’ top brass also qualified.
There was another well known use of the Ford V8, though – the AC Cobra, which of course also had links to Carroll Shelby. If you like, you could view the Tiger as more accessible Cobra, although the Cobra ultimately also used the 7.0 litre/427 cu. in. Ford V8, creating a car another step up the performance ladder from the Tiger – one was measured at a then legal 186 mph on a British motorway in 1965.
This is a story about the British motor industry in the 1960s, so industrial strife and business crises are therefore not unusual. From 1964, Chrysler had been building a growing stake in Rootes, as the company struggled under the under the losses attributed to the Hillman Imp, and to a long strike at its pressings division in London. Chrysler agreed not to take control without Government approval, but in 1967 when nether Leyland or BMC would or could takeover Rootes, approval for Chrysler to do so was inevitable.
After a short period of referring to the Tiger as powered by “an American V8” and having determined that their own 273 cu.in. V8 would not fit, Chrysler terminated the Tiger in 1967, along with the Alpine in 1968. The Alpine and Tiger simply had no future in Chrysler’s plans for its European operations.
The red featured Tiger is 1965 series I as is the yellow car, although this has now been fitted with the series II 289cuin engine. The red car may have been re-imported from South Africa, as the badge records Alpine 260, which is how the car was marketed in South Africa.
If you’ve followed my posts on CC over the last year or so, you may have deduced that I am a bit of Rootes fan, for family reasons. For that reason, plus the aesthetics of the car and the less populous, slightly left field nature of the choice, I’d take an Alpine over an MGB or an MGA, or any 1960s Triumph TR3/4/5/6. Hard call against an Alfa Romeo Spider, though!