1953 Sunbeam Alpine
1953 Sunbeam Alpine. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Sunbeam had a long and illustrious lineage in automobile manufacturing. It began in 1899 when John Marston Ltd., a tin-plater and bicycle manufacturer of Wolverhamptom, Staffordshire, England, built two small prototype cars. The designer of the cars was Thomas Cureton, and with John Marston’s blessing, he took over the automobile part of the business. The first Sunbeam car, powered by a horizontal, one-cylinder engine, was launched in 1900.

This was followed in 1901 by the Sunbeam-Mabley, a most unusual car that had its wheels in a diamond pattern: one front and back, and one on each side. This soon gave way to a conventional layout, which was basically the French Berliet with a Sunbeam name. The Sunbeam Motor Car Co. was finally formed as a separate entity in 1905, and soon developed cars of its own design.

The company prospered, offering a wide range of models. In 1920, Sunbeam amalgamated with the French Talbot-Darracq Co. to become Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq, and Sunbeam’s already successful competition program was stepped up. Among its achievements were winning the 1923 French Grand Prix, Britain’s first Grand Prix win, and holding the world’s land speed record five times from 1922 to 1927.

The S.T.D. enterprise suffered badly during the Depression, and by the mid-1930s the company was in receivership. It was taken over by the Rootes Group in 1935, following which Sunbeams became an amalgam of Rootes’s Humber and Hillman cars.

In spite of this long and occasionally glorious past, most North Americans became familiar with the Sunbeam name through the sporty Sunbeam-Talbot and the derivative Sunbeam Alpine which began arriving on these shores in the early 1950s. The Sunbeam-Talbot made its public appearance at the 1948 London Motor Show as the series 80 and 90. The 80, an overhead valve-engined version of the Hillman Minx, was soon discontinued.

A much-improved Mark II version of the 90 was introduced in 1950, now with the Humber Hawk’s independent coil spring front suspension replacing the antiquated solid axle and leaf springs. The overhead valve engine was enlarged from 1,944 cc (118.6 cu in.) to 2,267 cc (138.2 cu in.). Being a pre-war design it had a long stroke (110 mm; 4.33 in.) and small bore (73.66 mm; 2.9 in.). The Mark II was exported to North America.

Recalling the Sunbeam’s glory days, and recognizing the sales value of competition achievements, Rootes set up a Sunbeam competition department in 1949. The effort paid off. In 1952 the Sunbeam-Talbot team took three Coupes des Alpines awards in the Alpine Rally, along with the manufacturers’ team prize. It was the first of many rallying successes for the Talbot/Alpine, culminating in an outright Alpine Rally win in 1955.

When the Sunbeam-Talbot 90 in sedan and four-passenger convertible form reached North America, its performance was found to be adequate but not outstanding for a sporty type car. Road & Track (8/51) reported zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 20.2 seconds for the 1235 kg (2723 lb) convertible, and a top speed of 87 mph (140 km/h). The described the car as “… a very good blending of “streamlined” and “traditional” design.

But while the Talbot’s performance was adequate, Rootes recognized that the Sunbeam needed a sportier image and better performance. It received a stiffer suspension and a reinforced frame. The new two-seater model called the Sunbeam Alpine (named for the Alpine Rally successes) was introduced in 1953.

Road & Track summed it up by calling the Alpine “… somewhat of a paradox. From (and including) the dash forward the car was identical to the 90 series sedans and convertibles. It was a Talbot from the cowl forward, with a sleeker tapered tail grafted on. Handle-less doors had been hung behind that and a sloping, ridged tail fell sharply away from the two single seats.”

To prove the Alpine’s sporting potential, the company modified an engine to produce 105 horsepower and took it to Belgium’s famous Jabbeke highway. With windshield removed and a bellypan fitted, it achieved a speed in excess of 193 km/h (120 mph). It then went to the Montlhery circuit in France where it averaged 179 km/h (111.2 mph) for a full hour.

The Alpine certainly was sportier than the Talbot, but in spite of a horsepower increase from 70 to 80, its performance was hardly improved. The extra power was pretty well cancelled by a 130 kg (287 lb) weight increase, bringing it to a porky 1,365 kg (3,010 lb). Road & Track (3/54) reported the Alpine’s zero to 60 (96) time at a marginally quicker 19.0 seconds. Top speed averaged 139 km/h (86.6), virtually unchanged from the Talbot.

The Alpine, then, was not really a sports car, in spite of the company’s claim. Based on the tallish Sunbeam Talbot, it was higher and less rakish than cars like the Austin-Healey, Triumph, Porsche or Jaguar. The best it could be called was a sporty tourer, but it did have an important advantage that turned sports car owners green with envy; its 14 cubic foot trunk capacity made travelling a pleasure.

Although never very fast, the Sunbeam Talbot/Alpine, particularly the Alpine, was an attractive and luxurious touring car that combined a certain exclusivity with a grand old name. Production of the Sunbeam Talbot-derived Alpine ceased in 1955, and the 90 in 1956.

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