Vintage R&T Review: 1969 Sunbeam Alpine GT – The British Espada?

There was a third review in the same issue of Road & Track along with the Grand Prix and Espada, the new Sunbeam Alpine GT. I’m obviously being a bit cheeky to call it what I did, but hey, its braking performance was better than either the Lambo or the GP, so it had them beat in at least one category. And it cost about one-tenth the price of the Espada. So for those looking for a low cost GT that was actually a bit faster than the Datsun 510, and could get past the Barracuda-retro fastback, this might have been worth a serious look. Unfortunately, not many did, and the Alpine GT, which followed in the footsteps of its more sporting namesake, ended up being a rather rare bird in the US. So in terms of exclusivity, it really was almost in the Espada’s league.

The Alpine GT, also known as the Sunbeam Rapier in Europe, got its name because Rootes could no longer import the Alpine sports car due to safety regulations taking effect in the US at that time. It was obviously something quite different, based on the Hillman Hunter sedan. And before we get any further along, let’s get its rear roof styling out of the way.

Some have contested that Rootes designer Roy Axe was somehow able to eliminate the existence of the 1964-1966 Barracuda from his mind when he set to styling the Rapier.

And curiously enough, that process started in May, 1964, exactly a few weeks after the Barracuda’s arrival. Yes, the previous Rapier’s rear pillar shows similarities with its predecessor, but the very large one-piece rear fastback glass obviously has no similarities with that on the Barracuda, right? Pure coincidence.

Moving on:

“Use of a sedan chassis has meant unusually good passenger and luggage accommodations for the Alpine GT.” Just like the Barracuda had much better passenger and luggage accommodations than the Mustang, thanks to being a Valiant fastback. But in both cases, it did nothing for their proportions as well as their sales.

The painful reality is that Chrysler-Rootes made the same mistake twice: just like the Mustang ate the Barracuda for lunch, so did the European Mustang, otherwise known as the Capri, which just happened to pop on the scene at the same time.

The Capri, with its long hood and set-back passenger compartment, was sexy; the Alpine wasn’t.  And I’m sorry about the mediocre Alpine photos, but that’s the best that can be found on the web. There’s not many left in the world.

The general feeling was that the Alpine was quite well put together, and felt solid. The 1724 cc pushrod four had twin carbs to push its power to 94 (gross) hp, despite the early primitive smog controls that affected certain aspects of its driveability. An oddly large fuel tank with an 18 gallon capacity meant long range, given the 22.7 mpg average. Performance was quite decent for its class, with a 0-60 time of 12.3 seconds, and a 1/4 mile time of 19.1 @72 mph.

The brakes were the bright spot, pulling down a .84 G in the test from 80 mph. And control was “very good”. Better than the Espada, and even the GP. And undoubtedly much better than a drum-brake equipped Barracuda.

“Steering is reasonably light, though a bit heavy for parking, and quite precise”. The little (165 SR-13) radial tires protested loudly during brisk cornering. At fast enough speeds, the tail could be made to hang out a bit. But over rough roads, things got a bit ugly, as was so commonly the case with live rear axles, especially on lighter cars. “On decent roads, the handling is pleasant and predictable, if not particularly entertaining”. FWIW, the Capri was lauded for its handling and the smiles it brought to its driver. And the Opel Manta too.

The Alpine GT never really had a chance in the US. It cost very little less than the domestic pony cars, and there were better imports, if that’s what one wanted. It’s an almost forgotten relic from a distant era, unlike some more memorable cars, and not just the Espada.

I managed to actually find one of these, outside a museum in Idaho, and wrote it up here. I called it “The British Barracuda”. A bit more apt.