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IN MARCH 1954, R&T MADE quite the prediction: “For comfort-loving Americans who want a certain amount of snob-appeal in their automobile… the Alpine will probably outsell all of its competitors in the $3000 class.”
A fair piece of automotive change in 1954; $3000 equates to around $34,000 in today’s dollar. Back in 1954, it could have bought you a new Austin-Healey 100 ($2985), or a used Porsche “America” Coupe (9500 miles/$2950), or if really adventurous a Bugatti Type 57T (LeTourneur convertible/$2850).
Here are tidbits on what the Sunbeam Alpine offered. And, though no one could have predicted it in 1954, the Alpine was destined for motion-picture stardom with no less than Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.
Alpine Heritage. The car, R&T wrote, “was designed to utilize as many components from the standard rally-winning Sunbeam-Talbot 90 as possible.” Stirling Moss won a Coupe d’Or (Gold Cup) for three consecutive penalty-free runs in the 1952, 1953, and 1954 Alpine Rallyes. Stirling also co-drove a Mk II 90 to second place in the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally. The Mk III of Norwegians Per Malling and Gunnar Fadum won the Monte outright in 1955.
Fans of today’s Father Brown series occasionally see a 1951 Sunbeam-Talbot 90 Drophead Coupé with Bunty Windermere at the wheel.
The Alpine a Paradox. R&T wrote of the Alpine, “From (and including) the dash forward, the car was identical to the 90 series sedans and convertibles. Handleless doors had been hung behind that and a sloping ridged tail fell sharply away from the two single seats.”
“Alone, and away from other sports cars,” R&T noted, “the Alpine gleamed low and slinky in the sun and took a Concours d’Elegance at Skytop, Pennsylvania. Parked next to the Austin-Healey or the MG, the car looked tall and ungainly, the interior looked ‘much too pretty’ for a competition sports car.”
Yet…. “In appearance,” R&T opined, “the Alpine, a combination of traditional styling with some graceful contemporary curves, is attractive. Chrome trim, except for the rear deck and spare tire cover, has been kept to a tasteful minimum.”
“The cockpit,” R&T continued, “is well laid-out with the exception of the tachometer placement—under the central dash, an obvious afterthought.”
Bandaged Knuckles. “Perhaps the Alpine’s most unacceptable feature is the ‘reverse’ H-four speed column shift which brings the lever within a fraction of an inch of the starting key. Every tester on the R&T staff had bandaged knuckles for a week after the test runs.”
There’s a tale behind this odd shift pattern: In devising its Americanized version, Sunbeam simply inverted the Alpine’s hardware from right to left. The company got contrite about this and the 1955 Mk III had a floor shift option (plus scads of after-market conversions).
Similar pence-pinching prevailed with the weather production: R&T analyzed, “The top, with a zip-out rear window, stows easily and neatly behind the seats, stretches tautly in place. Complete weather protection is offered by sliding plastic windows set in metal frames which bolt onto door cranks on each door, giving the Alpine a rollup-window appearance.” My italics; not R&T’s.
“The test Alpine was drafty however with the windows shut tight and the top pulled as taut as possible,” R&T observed.
Performance. The Alpine’s 80-hp 2.3-liter four-banger had its work cut out for it, what with the car’s curb weight of 3010 lb. “In performance, the Alpine turned a top speed of 87.5 mph,” R&T admitted, “a long cry from the 120 turned in Belgium.”
The latter, by the way, was along that country’s fabled Jabbake Highway, where a specially prepared 105-hp Alpine reached 120 mph. Stirling Moss and rally ace Sheila van Damm took turns, with her posting the slightly higher average.
Handling. “The roll,” R&T assessed, “is more in line with Detroit products than Coventry’s and the roll steer takes all the fun out of cornering this particular Sports…. However, the R&T test staff found that the addition of five pounds of air in the rear tires… eliminated most of the Alpine’s undesirable handling qualities.”
The Alpine, R&T summarized, “is designed to ride well, look good, cruise fast.”
Grace Kelly Evidently Bumped Up Those Rears. Check out Grace Kelly driving a Sunbeam Alpine along Monaco’s Grande Corniche in To Catch A Thief. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023
I was lucky enough to be in the company of Sir Stirling and Erik Carlsson when over a London dinner, they regaled our table with tales of the Monte. Moss expanded on the bit when a disqualifying loss of two gears was reported to scruitineers by a competitor. He convinced them it was fine by taking one for a ride, shifting gears, then wiggling the shifter while slyly engaging the Laycock de Normanville overdrive, disconnecting the OD while shifting to the next gear, then repeating the OD engagement in that gear, giving the appearance of all four gears!
I owned one of these Alpines, purchased from a disappointed buyer who had bought it from the British Embassy. He had thought it was one of the later sports cars, and expected a bargain. I was happy to take it over, and enjoyed many drives in the Blue Ridge hills, feeling like Cary Grant.
(It’s sad that To Catch a Thief previewed the Princesses’ final drive in a Rover.)