The Sunbeam Alpine was 007's first big-screen set of wheels, and is infinitely more affordable than an Aston. Here's why now is a great time to buy one
James Bond and Sir Cliff Richard have more in common than you might think. In 1962 Sean Connery drove a Sunbeam Alpine in Dr No, and in 1959 the proceeds of Living Doll enabled an 18-year-old Cliff to become the first member of his family ever to own a car, a new pearl grey Sunbeam Alpine in which he passed his driving test.
Sunbeam Alpine I don’t quite know what to make of that or how it affects values, but one thing’s for certain: the pretty 1959-on is not only the cheapest Bond car you can buy, it’s also available for MGB money. That’s a bargain. It’s about time that this car – unfairly maligned as a ‘woman’s sports car’ – received the attention it deserves.
When launched in Cannes in July 1959, the new arrival with its crisp transatlantic styling made the rival MGA and Triumph TR3 look dated. That it looked a little like a scaled-down Ford Thunderbird was no coincidence, for Rootes designer Ken Howes had not only worked at Ford America, but at Studebaker as a protégé of Raymond Loewy. The influence is clear in the sweep of the large tailfins of the early models.
But there was more to the Alpine than mere style. Its monocoque shell set new standards in rigidity for an open sports car and, although the 1500cc, 78bhp four-pot didn’t endow the car with tarmac-ripping pace, performance was respectable. The Alpine was quicker to 60mph than the MGA 1500 and matched the MG’s top speed of 98mph. The handling and ride were tidy and predictable, too, if lacking the hang-on-for-your-life qualities that drivers of ‘proper’ sports cars like to inflict upon themselves.
Perhaps that whole ‘woman’s car’ thing came from the fact that many early adverts featured women at the wheel, and also that its cabin was not only well appointed but comfortable, too. In the olden days, die-hard cravatists used to think that wind-up windows, carpet and comfort made you soft. They were no doubt aghast at the Alpine’s neat ragtop that folded away behind three steel panels (sadly deleted on Series IV cars), instead of the assemble-it-yourself-and-swear-at-it tops of the MGA and TR3A. Neither did they appreciate the optional automatic transmission offered from 1964. In truth, neither would you; go for manual plus overdrive.
When the MGB appeared in 1962 it was apparent that the Sunbeam’s build quality was simply superior. Nevertheless, the Alpine was vastly overshadowed and outsold by its domestic rival, despite a series of model revisions. The engine grew eventually to 1725cc, which made less of a difference to ultimate performance than people assume, although the Alpine became a genuine 100mph car. A hardtop GT model appeared in 1963 (the aftermarket Sunbeam Harrington Alpine coupé had preceded it in 1961). Among other upgrades, the front disc brakes were enlarged, and adjustable pedals and steering and multi-adjusting reclining seats further improved driving comfort.
Along the way, in 1961, a Harrington coupé came 15th overall and second in class at Le Mans, averaging 94mph; that engine is eminently tuneable. If you want to damn the Alpine with faint praise, the word ‘pleasant’ will do it. But that’s what this lovely little car was and is. And it was good enough for James Bond.
1959: At launch the 1500cc Sunbeam Alpine cost £971, pitching it in with the 1600cc MGA Roadster, which was £30 cheaper, and the 2.0-litre Triumph TR3, which cost £20 more. A Morgan 4/4 was £706, the Renault Floride convertible cost £1191 and the Austin-Healey 3000 was £1168.
1962: When the MGB Roadster appeared priced at £834, the Sunbeam Alpine’s sticker price was shaved by more than £100 in response, to £840. A Triumph TR4 was £906 and the Jaguar E-type roadster cost £1828.
Classic afterlife: The Alpine was always overshadowed on the road and in the market by the MGB Roadster, which sold over 500,000 to 1980 compared with 69,291 for the Sunbeam, which was axed in 1968. In the late 1980s, price guides valued first-rate chrome-bumper MGB Roadsters at £7000-plus, with Alpines at a little over half the money.
Today: The car’s relative rarity, difference and intrinsic merit are yet to be fully appreciated in the market. Values of average examples are broadly on a par with those of chrome-bumper MGBs, with useable driver-improver Alpines buyable at auction from around £5000. The top UK auction price for a standard road car is £11,660, paid in 2014 for a freshly restored Alpine V. However, better-quality examples have a margin on MGBs. In the trade, really decent cars are priced at £10,000-15,000, and a 1960 dealer car described as ‘possibly the best fin-tail on the market’ is currently available at £19,995.
Words: Dave Selby/Octane Magazine