The Sunbeam Alpine Series 1 arrived on the British motoring scene at a time when small sports cars were in short supply, this new car gave the buying public an entry into some affordable wind in the hair motoring.
The sequence of events leading up to the birth of the Alpine are long and complicated, but it all started in 1935 with the fusion of the Hillman, Sunbeam and Talbot – into the Rootes Group. Initially, Rootes had no interest in building a sportscar to compete with the likes of MG and Jaguar, but a competition department was set up in 1948. This lead to a new need for a sporty model in the range – the original two-seater Sunbeam Alpine.
This original Sunbeam Alpine was a development of the Sunbeam Talbot 90 saloon, and was produced for two years. Just 1582 were made, but it sold well and demonstrated the need for a dedicated sportscar model.
The original’s heavy reliance on the saloon architecture meant that rigidity wasn’t what it could have been, so the next Alpine was to be significantly better engineered. After several years of development, the car was launched in 1959, which is the model we will be focussing on.
Although the new Alpine was built on a modified Hillman Husky floorpan, it was designed as a sports car from the ground up – including independent front suspension significantly stiffer bodyshell. With the final stages of testing and development undertaken by Armstrong Siddeley.
The end result was surprisingly well resolved. It looked great, was surprisingly practical, but most of all was an absolute joy to drive. Unlike most roadsters, the Alpine was actually genuinely weatherproof, with a tough hood that could stand up to rough weather, and be folded away with relative ease when the sun was shining.
Which one to buy?
The Alpine received regular updates every few years, engine size gradually increased from 1.5 to 1.7 litres and detail changes improved the handling and ride. While the updates were minor it is worth having a quick look at what each series offered to get a good overview of the range.
The Series 1 was introduced in 1959 with a 1.5-litre engine producing 78bhp, and a kerb weight of 966kg. Performance was brisk and keen pricing with sporty design endeared it to the motoring public. Strong sales followed. The Series 2 saw the introduction of a 1.6-litre engine as well as improved suspension. The Series 3 was introduced in 1963 with a slight increase in power from 80 to 82bhp and servo assistance for the braking system. This was the last model with pronounced rear wings and is the most sought after. A GT model was made available and all cars had fuel tanks relocated to the wings improving boot space.
Series 4 models, produced from 1964, had less pronounced tail fins a redesigned front grille and indicators. An unpopular automatic option became available and was discontinued the following year. The final version of the Alpine arrived in 1965. This series 5 model had an enlarged five-bearing 1.7-litre engine, however styling was very similar to the previous models. These are popular, however some experts say that the build quality of the earlier cars was better.
There was also a special edition Harrington Alpine, which was a hardtop coupe version. Approximately 110 of these cars were produced in 1961 by Thomas Harrington and Company of Hove. These cars were based on the Series 2 models and offered three different stages of engine tuning. The conversions were done in fibreglass, at the time a revolutionary material, and were to a particularly high standard. To celebrate a Harrington Alpines win of “the index of thermal efficiency” at Le Mans, a special Harrington Le Mans was introduced late in October 1961, it featured the same state of tune as the Le Mans car and did not have the Alpine name on the bodywork. Many of these cars were shipped to the US and finding one today can be tricky.
There is of course the significantly more muscular Sunbeam Tiger, which is effectively an Alpine with V8 under the bonnet. Although we’re not covering the Tiger in much detail, you should seriously consider one of these if you are looking for something with considerably more power, and a V8 soundtrack. Read the full Sunbeam Tiger buying guide here
With a total of 33 Sunbeam Alpines registered on UK roads in 2015 and a further 10 listed as SORN, clubs and specialist dealers are your best bet for finding one. Getting in touch with dealers and clubs from mainland Europe is also a good way to increase the chances of finding a car.
Performance and specs
Sunbeam Alpine Series 1
Engine 1494cc, 8 valve in-line four-cylinder
Power 78bhp @ 5300rpm
Torque 90lb ft @ 3400rpm
Top speed 99mph
0-60mph 13.6 seconds
Gearbox Four-speed manual with optional overdrive
Dimensions and weight
• Engines are generally reliable, relatively advanced for their time and with the introduction of the five main bearing 1.7 in the Series 5 models, long lasting.
• A number of performance upgrades were made available, however if done by a reputable tuning company these should not affect the reliability of the cars, while making performance considerably more lively.
• Alloy cylinder heads can suffer from corrosion if the cooling system has not been regularly replenished with antifreeze.
• Series 3 and 4 engines were fitted with Solex carbs. These can be troublesome and changing to a Weber setup is highly recommended.
• Oil leakage can be caused by incorrectly tightened cam followers. Tappety sounding engines can have worn camshaft and cam followers or may be suffering from oil starvation to the rocker gear.
• Brake servo seals are a weak point and can fail due to age, but upgraded parts can be used to alleviate the problem.
• Rubber bushes should be checked on suspension mountings, as lower ball joints can jump out of their sockets if badly worn. Some owners also recommend fitting slightly stiffer front dampers to improve handling.
• Gearboxes can jump out of third gear under hard acceleration, but are generally robust and easy to rebuild. Overdrive units are also reliable and issues can usually be traced to solenoid or electrical connection faults.
• The ever present rust issue is needs to be addressed. The Alpine had a rigidly constructed body, however the tooling for the bodies was not up to a high standard. This means that replacement body panels and general repair and restoration work can be time consuming and costly.
• Shortcuts in these areas will inevitably allow rust to start, so a thorough check over should be carried out.
• Front wings and wheel arches should be inspected, while the front valances rust badly around the sidelights. Bulkheads can rust, and blocked drainage channels can further promote corrosion in this area.
• Floorpans should also be checked for holes, and the inner and outer sills can rust especially if repairs carried out have not been to a high standard
• Rear wheel arches and wings can rust badly however repair panels are available
• Interiors and dashboards can become tatty, but thankfully new seat covers, trim items and switchgear are readily available.
1959: Series 1 production starts (11,904 produced)
1962: Series 2 with enlarged 1.6l engine is introduced (19,956 produced)
1963: Series 3 with twin fuel tanks fitted in rear wings to increase boot space (5863 produced)
1964: Series 4 with optional automatic gearbox is made available (12,406 produced)
1965: Series 5 with uprated 1.7-litre engine arrives, now only available in manual guise (19,122 produced)
1968: Final Series 5 Sunbeam Alpine rolls of the production line with 69,251 cars produced in total.
Clubs and websites
• www.saoc.demon.co.uk - Sunbeam Alpine Owners Club, with forum
• www.sunbeam-alpine.co.uk - Spares and parts for classic Sunbeam models
Summary and prices
The Sunbeam Alpine has a strong following; its sporty looks and nippy performance make it a great useable classic. Prices vary greatly and a lot of stock is put into condition and history. Cars in great condition and with a racing pedigree can be had for as much as £60,000. At the other end of the scale, project cars, or ones needing some tlc, can be picked up for around £5000, however the restoration process can be expensive. If you are just looking for a usable, clean car then they start at around the £10,000 mark. With such limited supply, values of these cars is on the rise, so get one now and enjoy some classic British convertible motoring.
Words: John Tallodi