Curbside Classic: 1953-1955 Sunbeam Alpine – First Dibs

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The CC Effect can strike most obliquely. Just as I was putting the finishing touches to my Alpine A310 piece, I came across my first ever Sunbeam Alpine of the first ever variety. This is the model that would create an ongoing headache for the French Alpine marque. That story now dispensed with, it is time for a (much shorter) CC on the name’s original owner.

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Since time immemorial, the name Sunbeam had been associated with the fleet of foot. Sunbeam of Wolverhampton was established in 1888 as a brand of the Sunbeamland Cycle Factory. Bicycles would make way for motorcycles and motor cars and in 1909, a French designer named Louis Coatelen joined the business. Through his efforts, Sunbeam established a reputation for fine passenger automobiles built for those who considered the Rolls-Royce a tad ostentatious. Coatelen was also interested in high speed machines. In 1910, he created the Sunbeam Nautilus for an attempt at the world speed record, but it would not succeed.

By 1919, the Sunbeam concern was sold and became a part of the English Darracq stable, renamed as Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq.

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Coatelen stayed on and subsequent land speed efforts would prove more successful.

His Sunbeam 350hp was powered by an 18.3 litre V12 aero engine. In 1922 it set land speed records over a mile (129.17 mph, 207.88 km/h) and over a kilometre (133.75 mph, 215.25 km/h) at Brooklands.

It was then purchased by Malcolm Campbell and the Sunbeam 350hp became the fourth Blue Bird. Campbell used this car to set a succession of records, and on 21 July 1925, this Blue Bird became the first car to exceed 150 mph (240 kmh) at Pendine Sands in South Wales.

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1927 saw the Sunbeam 1000hp powered by two 450hp engines capture the land speed record of 203.792 mph (327.971 km/h), the first to surpass the magic 200 but the record would soon fall to others.

And so the Sunbeam Silver Bullet was born (above). It featured two 24 litre V12 engines supercharged with a centrifugal blower geared to 17,000 rpm. This engine produced a claimed 4,000 horsepower. It made an attempt at the record at Daytona Beach in 1930 but only reached 186 mph (299 km/h).

The effects of Coatelen’s competition budget collided with the lingering effects of the Great War and the immediate effects of the Depression, and Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq went into receivership in 1935.

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By 1938, the Sunbeam and Talbot business had been purchased by the Rootes Group. At first, the cars bearing the Sunbeam-Talbot name were badge-engineered Hillmans and Humbers, but after the war a new range of cars was presented to the public.

The 1948 Sunbeam-Talbot 80 and 90 saloons wore Hillman underpinnings under unique streamstyled bodies. They established a distinctive look with the absence of trailing edge window frame on the rear doors making this six-light body look like a speedblurred four-light.

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Rootes Competitions Manager Norman Garrad convinced the Rootes board to take the cars into competition, and the fleet of foot reputation re-emerged. In 1952, Sunbeam-Talbots captured the team prize and three Alpine Cups, one of which went to a young driver named Stirling Moss who also managed second place in that year’s Monte Carlo Rally.

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1952 also saw Rootes dealer and works driver George Hartwell take a Sunbeam-Talbot Sports Convertible four-seater and do some converting of his own. He removed the rear seats and fabricated body-panelling to shroud the cavity, punched sporty-looking louvres into the bonnet and sold these two-seaters through his dealership as the ‘Hartwell Special’. Somehow (and to be honest the story is not quite clear) his creation caught the eye of Rootes management who decided to produce a factory version.

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The chassis of the factory prototype received deeper side members and additional cross members, and the 2,267cc four-cylinder engine copped larger inlet valves and ports, stronger valve springs and a higher compression of 8.0:1 to give 97.5 bhp at 4500 rpm and 142 lb/ft of torque at 2500 rpm. A straight-through exhaust and close ratio gearbox with Laycock de Normanville overdrive helped the go and improved ‘fade-proof’ brake linings did the stopping. Raymond Loewy, who had been involved with the 1948 saloon bodies, was brought in to refine the shape. The prototype was registered MWK 969.

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Legend has it that Norman Garrad came up with the Alpine name in honour of his team’s continued successes there. To draw a direct link to their illustrious ‘tween war predecessors, (and – ironically – to not conflict with the sporting French Talbot-Lagos still in production) the Talbot name was dropped from the marque title of the Alpine, a decision that would be applied to the rest of the Sunbeam-Talbot range after 1955.

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Initial production of the Sunbeam Alpine was exclusively left hand drive. As was the case for most of Britain’s car producers, the government were quite insistent on exports to bring much needed capital into the country. The US with its emerging interest in cars capable of both amateur racing and comfortable daily duties was considered the ideal market for this model.

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The body, built by Rootes subsidiary Thrupp and Maberly, could be fitted with the full-height three piece windscreen arrangement, a small plastic racing screen or even smaller twin units. It’s not clear whether these last two were offered concurrently, or if one replaced the other. It also had the rather raffish feature of no external door handles. Of the 1,582 Alpines built, 961 would make their way to the US and Canada.

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In March 1953 MWK 969 was taken to the Jabbeke-Aeltre highway in Belgium for some high-speed publicity runs. The car was stripped of its bumpers and had been further modified with flush shroud over the passenger seat, windscreen removed and replaced by a slight wind-deflecting hump, and a flat alloy panel under the car to improve its streamlining. The engine was fitted with a special crankshaft and the carburettor replaced with a set of Solexes. The drivers were Stirling Moss and Sheila van Damm, who both managed to attain a top speed exceeding 120 mph.

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Norman Garrad had six right hand drive cars built specially for the 1953 Alpine Rally. These were prepared in the prototype’s original ‘Sunbeam Alpine Special’ specification but with further tweaking from ERA to give the cars 106 bhp (I’m not sure if this state of tune was also used at Jabbeke). Four of the drivers earned Alpine Cups including Stirling Moss, and in 1954 Moss clinched another Alpine Cup.

Three Alpine Cups in a row meant the Gold Cup for Moss, a prize won only three times in the Alpine Rally history. The other winners have been Ian Appleyard in a Jaguar XK120 and Jean Vinatier in an Alpine A110.

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When the British public beheld the Sunbeam Alpine’s rallying success, the clamour for home market sales was too great and Rootes relented. There were two series of the model; MkI and overdrive-introduced MkIII (no MkII, probably out of confusion with the recently upgraded MkII specification across all S-T vehicles). It also appears that early bodies had semaphore turning signals just aft of the door. One could purchase the Sunbeam Alpine with 80 bhp or the Sunbeam Alpine Special with 97 bhp.

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I came across our feature CC on my way to an afternoon party. After taking some photos I was moving on when the owner of the car appeared. We had a brief conversation about the Sunbeam, before I noticed an auction catalogue in his hands. It turns out he had just successfully bid on a first series Lotus Elite, and that he also had an S2 Europa and a UK-assembled (and genuine) Super Seven. I couldn’t keep my host waiting, so the conversation had to end there.

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With my knowledge sorely lacking on these cars, I never knew to ask whether this was a Special or a standard model. I do know it’s a MkIII, recently and immaculately restored with a few small modifications. Those reflectors and amber turning signals are not original nor is that brake light above the boot lid, and the gearbox is now a five-speed Toyota affair.

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As Roger Carr pointed out a few years ago in a capsule on this model, it’s difficult to discern the Sunbeam Alpine as a sporting car. Apart from those louvres in the bonnet, its understated lines give no real hint as to its performance pedigree. It’s far more likely to be associated with a leisurely cruise to the hills above Monte Carlo, with a driver looking a lot like Grace Kelly and a passenger resembling Cary Grant.

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But for those in the know, this car is redolent of an era long passed, of a brief window in time when a Sunbeam was the match for any other on the rally course, and that it beat the French to the title by two years.

Further Reading

Roger Carr on another Sunbeam Alpine the First

Roger Carr on a Sunbeam Alpine the Second

Paul Niedermeyer on a Sunbeam Alpine the Third

Roger Carr’s epic story of the Rootes Group

Mike Tippett on an A106 – French Alpine the First