Curbside Classic: 1968 Sunbeam Alpine GT – The British Barracuda

(first posted 10/8/2011)   In the US, the Plymouth Barracuda beat the Ford Mustang to the market in 1964 by all of fourteen days. Not that it did much good, given that it was all-too obviously a glassy fastback grafted onto a Valiant sedan (CC here). In Europe, Chrysler’s rather similar Sunbeam Alpine/Rapier had a full two year head start on the very Mustang-esque Capri (CC here), but that didn’t do much good either. Sometimes, history does sort of repeat itself. Or more accurately, sometimes designers make the same mistake twice.

Well, the Alpine’s designer, Roy Axe, claims the Barracuda had no influence on his design. Designers are an egotistical bunch, by nature. I can almost guarantee you that the only reason the Alpine had a three-piece rear window is because the cost of making what was then the largest single piece of automotive glass was probably prohibitive, if not impossible, in England at the time. And any other similarities are purely…in your imagination.

The point is that Chrysler’s British ops, Rootes, missed the opportunity to build a real European Mustang, which Ford so successfully exploited with their Capri. The Capri shared plenty under the skin with Ford’s European sedans, like the Mustang did with the Falcon, but its body design was something new altogether. Beauty is only skin deep.

The Alpine coupe, like the Barracuda, had to share its basic body shell with a sedan, in this case the new-for-1967 Hillman Hunter (CC here). But for what it’s worth, it was a handsomely done remake of that boxy sedan. The Alpine/Rapier was a nice looking car, for Europe in 1967. It’s just that the Capri ate its lunch after it appeared. And in the two brief years before that happened, the Alpine didn’t exactly set the world on fire either.

All the wild bell-bottoms in the world weren’t enough to get folks running to their Sunbeam/Hillman/Singer dealers. Actually, I really don’t know, or have available the sales stats of this car in Europe.

But in the US, given the scarcity of these “Sporty Runabouts” on the ground back in the day, never mind now, sales stats are not needed. But don’t take me the wrong way: I regret not seeing cars like this gracing our streets. The diversity of obscure cars available back in the day made the streetscape so much more colorful.

And in no way am I impugning the intrinsic qualities of this venerable Alpine. Despite the shaky reputation Rootes products had in the US, probably the biggest liability was the not-so benign neglect Chrysler dealers showered on these captive import cars and its owners. Now I’m not in a position to defend their hale and hearty solidity from personal experience, but lets just say if I was sent back in a time capsule to 1969 or so, I’d sure take an Arrow or Alpine over a Morris Marina.

That steering wheel sure looks like it was sourced from Ford, eh? The Alpine had a nice, clean traditional dash covered in wood veneer. And under the hood thrummed the 1725 cc pushrod four that had a rep of being a fairly stout little mill. Sort of the British slant six? The upscale Rapier had an even tastier interior, and a higher output twin-carb version of the four. The US ad above calls it a 94 (gross) hp engine, which makes me suspect that the US-bound Alpines got the Rapier’s engine too. Americans love lots of power, so don’t stint on that, if you’re trying to woo them with your sporty coupe.

The Alpine coupe soldiered on (in Europe) until 1976, and never did get a replacement. The horse had left the barn by then, so why bother? Chrysler had other priorities on its plate, especially in the declining fortunes of its Rootes ops. We all know how that turned out. And today, this Sunbeam Alpine GT sits here forlorn with two other dead “brands”. Fiddlers: strike up a sad tune!