- Best model: S IV/V
- Worst model: Anything ropey
- Budget buy: Anything sound
- OK for unleaded?: No, needs additive
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L13’ x 5’
- Spares situation: Pretty good
- DIY ease?: Excellent
- Club support: Strong
- Appreciating asset?: Yes, especially Tigers
- Good buy or good-bye?: Former, vastly underrated
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Sunbeam’s Alpine and Tiger sportsters may have been built upon a 1950s van platform, but they’re just as much fun as an MGB or a Triumph TR and have a dash more individuality
Pros & Cons
When it comes British sports cars, the Alpine is too often passed over for something more fashionable, yet this ‘four-seater MGB’ was actually launched way before Abingdon’s effort and is smoother, sleeker, and a more refined option, even if it always lived in the shadows of the MGB.
However, people are now starting to see the pretty and perky Alpine in a new light and interest has risen notably during the past few years. The V8-powered Tiger is a cut-price AC Cobra, yet more practical! So, if you’ve had your fill of MGs, or TRs, yet fancy a 2+2 soft top that’s just as easy to own and maintain, and fine for family outings, why not take a peak at an Alpine… or trap a Tiger, while you still can?
The Alpine was introduced three years before the iconic MGB, back in 1959, and was essentially a Hillman Husky utility vehicle (albeit with independent front suspension and leaf sprung rear) dressed in sexier clothes and powered by Sunbeam Rapier engines while also using this sporting car’s front disc brakes.
While the hardware was hardly advanced even back then, just over a year later the SII surfaced, with some useful revisions such as ditching the 1494cc, 78bhp motor for a 1592cc, 80bhp unit and fitting an uprated rear suspension. This second generation (which also boasted a tad more rear seat room) lasted for three years and was the most popular Alpine of them all, amounting to almost 20,000 sales.
The SIII of 1963 saw the Alpine move upmarket. A rather stylish hard-topped woodentrimmed GT was offered, albeit detuned over the roadster by five horse power, while an adjustable steering column made all cockpits far more comfy than a rival MGB. A beefier anti-roll bar and more modern (telescopic rather than lever arm) rear dampers sharpened the soft handling no end, while bigger discs now had the aid of servo assistance as standard.
Production was transferred from the original base at Armstrong Siddeley (a great old name that ceased car making in 1960) to the main Ryton works. Obviously Rootes was becoming edgy over the runaway success of the MGB because the SIII lasted less than a year, displaced by the Series IV; a smoother looker, thanks to cut-down rear fins, plus buyers could now opt for automatic transmission or stay with the normal four-speed (plus optional overdrive) and benefit now from synchromesh on all gears.
The Series V, introduced during the summer of 1965, was the final fling for this Fifties throwback. Now back on twin carbs after a brief flirtation with a single twin-choke affair to please US dealers, sensibly the new 92bhp Rapier 1725cc engine was used to good effect.
The Sunbeam Alpine was killed off in January 1968, after almost 70,000 sales (most going to the States where it proved extremely popular) although the name survived, first reused on a detuned Rapier back in the late 1960s before finding a new home on Chrysler’s underrated family hatchback in 1975.
If the MGB is likened to a two-seater Austin Cambridge, then the Sunbeam Alpine just has to be a huskier Hillman Minx! Comparisons with the MGB are inevitable, and justified, and the Rootes effort is the sweeter running car although more of an urbane tourer than an out-and-out sportster like the MG.
In terms of driving, the two are pretty similar in straight line pep, and around the twisty bits; hardly fast by today’s standards but very entertaining (and controllable) in their own way, although the MGB feels the much sportier. However, proven suspension tweaks can make an Alpine not only out-handle the MG, but the V8 Sunbeam Tiger as well, according to marque specialists. Where the Sunbeam shines is with its restful ride and comfy seating.
Some also reckon that the 1600 SII model is the nicest and sweetest performer, although, because Rootes mucked about with different carburettor and engine tune permutations depending upon model, you need to know precisely what you are buying and whether it’s still original.
Although technically the Alpine is a fourseater, the rears are only suitable for very small kids but at least the boot is pretty family-sized and the cabin is plusher than an MGB. And, to be honest, it‘s a more civilised alternative that‘s also miles more comfy than a TR. Overdrive is highly desirable to make cruising more relaxed and while the auto versions are plodders, it suit’s the car’s character surprisingly well.
Values are on the rise and while they aren’t up to MGB levels yet, top cars have smashed through the five figures barrier, reaching up to £17,000 (that’s average Tiger money, by the way). But that’s still the exception because quite decent, usable examples remain fairly commonplace for around £4000-6000.
Restoration projects can be had for a grand, although whether they are worth saving instead of using as a valuable spares source, considering their perceived value in the classic market, is another matter. Incidentally, the early cars, with their more flamboyant rear fins, are deemed the most desirable Alpines, although the last Series IV and V are the best developed.
Although the Alpine was never a fast car, it’s the suspension and not the engine that needs top attention. The front geometry (castor and camber) is widely adjustable for better handling. Experts such as Chris Draycott, who says he has spent decades perfecting the best set up, won’t divulge his settings, but will do it for you and do it well.
Essentially, as published in the likes of Custom Car back in the mid 70s, you could try this costs nothing mod for starters: it involves removing the two of the top thicker shims from the front wishbones and fitting one to the bottom, to achieve 1/4in negative camber. Harder springs and dampers are the next step. Sloppy steering is common and, if worn, means a recon ‘box at almost £300, which will transform the handling.
The Hillman engine in the Alpine can be coaxed to give up to 150bhp, although the Rapier H120 tune from Holbay, with its twin Weber DCOEs, is adequate enough for the road. We strongly recommend an uprated radiator and electronic ignition on all models, for peace of mind.
What To Look For
- First know your Alpines! There were many changes during its nine year lifespan and numerous cars may have been butchered about over the decades, to simply keep them mobile, as there‘s been no real worth in them until now.
- Rust is the biggest worry of course. Alpines are rather like Triumph TRs insofar that, if you jack one up (preferably from the front of the rear suspension pick up point) and the body sags in the middle then the structure is knackered; the difference being that the TR had a separate chassis frame!
- “Check the door fit, if a gap of more than 1/8 of an inch opens up (Rootes advised a tolerance of 5/32) then there’s trouble” says leading Alpine expert Chris Draycott of Sunbeam Classic Spares.
- That said, the Alpine features a stout cruciform-like design to provide strength and it’s fairly robust, too. The downside is that there are layers of sills and inner sills to contend with. It’s not as easy to restore at home as an MGB, claims Draycott.
- The sills look normal but actually they are slightly rounded at the bottom and this is usually ignored when the tub of filler is being cracked open, as it’s hard to replicate. New outer sills cost under £70.
- Chief rot areas are the inner sills, floors and around the jacking points/chassis frame, inner wings and particularly the front chassis legs. A health test is to grasp the windscreen surround; if it flexes unduly then the shell’s main structure is compromised and you should find another car.
- Other nerve-jangling areas are around the box sections, suspension pick up points and steering box mounting, although, to be fair, the official owners club says that the majority of good cars have been properly restored rather than simply bodged by now.
- The floor should be checked, including the boot, to check the rearmost corners for rot. In the passenger compartment check the toe boards and rock the seats - if they move chances are the body is dissolving. Behind the seats lies the structure where the rear axle hangers reside. Scrutinise carefully.
- More cosmetic than worrying are the wings, doors, boot and so on, although at £400 for a wing and around £800 (fitted) for sills a restoration won’t be cheap. Watch for filler and fresh paint. Repair sections and new hand-made panels are freely available - but at a cost - while certain chromework (bumpers and boot hinges) are either virtually unobtainable or very expensive.
- Bear in mind numerous Alpines may have had their engines swapped with lesser lumps from the Minx and Hunter saloons. It’s hard to determine a 1500 from a 1600 engine, but the later 1725 unit has a different dipstick location, by the oil filter.
- You can’t change an iron cylinder head with the proper alloy one without their respective manifolds and so on. So if a Minx engine has been fitted you have a bit of a job on your hands to improve the performance.
- Mechanically, Alpines are MGB simple. Check that the right engine is fitted (it may have been swapped with another Rootes unit). They all become clattery (cam followers usually) and smokey (valve guides) but if serviced right go on and on.
- Remember that alloy heads need the proper anti-freeze concentration to prevent internal corrosion. Take the car for a good quick run to encourage overheating and check the rad cap for sludge build up and oil deposits in the water works.
- Transmissions should be smooth and slick (all synchro boxes didn’t arrive until ’65 but a newer ‘box may have been fitted anyway). Can jump out of gear and whine when worn.
- Overdrive (check it kicks in speedily and smoothly – usually it’s only a switch fault) is very desirable, just like on an MGB. Diffs can whine with age and as ratios were chopped and changed during the years, the transmission well be non standard now.
- Sloppy steering is common and if worn means a recon ‘box at almost £300, although it will transform handling. Likewise as springs and shocks deteriorate (does the car sit level?), replacements sharpen up things enormously.
- Another watch point is the front suspension where ball joint wear is common. It’s a grease gun heaven, but the front geometry set up (caster and camber) is widely adjustable for better handling and steering. Experts such as Chris Draycott, has spent perfected the best set up for modern roads, and will do it for you (see our Improvements sections for further advice on this).
- Rear end switched from old style lever arm to telescopic dampers for the SIII but it’s not an easy conversion to retro-fit. On all, just check for the usual leaks and wear.
- Electrics are simple and pose few worries other than general deterioration and butchery if accessories have been added and deleted. New wiring looms are available and keenly priced. Alternators were fitted from 1965.
- Two styles of hard tops were fitted, the best looking being the later square-cut design used on the SIIIs onwards. Some hard topped cars didn’t have a hood as standard, but one can be fitted easily and they are readily available. Bear in mind that metal type frames and tops do rot out.
- Trim is available although the car isn’t MGB easy to restore in this area. The only exception availability-wise being the period rubber matting that Rootes used although most folks go for nicer fitted carpet these days anyway.
- Converting an Alpine to a Tiger is possible but it’s a very involved job (rack and pinion steering remember) and of course will never have originality on its side. Having said that, given the price what Tigers now sell for, it may be worth considering as a project rather than trying to make a pseudo Tiger as an investment. Jack Brabham played around with the Daimler V8 which worked well.
- Experts that are worth contacting include: Sunbeam Alpine Owners Club 01376 342025 www.saoc.demon.co.uk; Sunbeam Rapier Owners Club 01928 788583 www.sunbeamrapier.com; spares experts Sunbeam Supreme www.sunbeamsupreme.co.uk; Alpine West Midlands Ltd 01564 783222 www.sunbeamalpine.co.uk; Sunbeam Supreme 0116 274 2525 www.sunbeamsupreme. co.uk; Berkshire-based Sunbeam Alpine Centre 01488 686773, click on www.sunbeamalpine.org.
Three Of A Kind
MGBArch rival to the Sunbeam, the MGB scores with its lustier engine and sheer usability… you really can’t go wrong with a good B. Ditto service and spares is second to none, although the Alpine is the more comfortable tourer plus can, well sort of, seat small kids in the back. Rubber bumper cars least liked yet they offer tangible benefits plus cheaper prices. MGB GT V8 has similar feel of Tiger but doesn’t feel quite so special.
Triumph TR4/6The TR4 was the direct rival to the Alpine and it’s a more macho looking choice, although feels heavier to drive. Beefy ‘big four’ engine has Sunbeam beaten on performance, while the handling is also far more sporting and fun.
Again the Alpine is the more cosy tourer with a plusher cockpit. TR5/TR6 have the Tiger matched on performance but can’t beat the V8 for pulling pace, flexibility or reliability if the PI is playing up. Great aftermarket support.
Jensen-HealeyWhile the J-H isn’t really a direct rival, it was the first all new but traditional British sports car for decades. Utterly conventional, save for its Lotus-sourced 16-valve Twin cam, the Jensen- Healey should have brained the likes of the TR and MG but never did, due to its touring nature (and dreadful durability). Today they make dirt-cheap sportsters that have much to offer, not least an air of sophistication over the usual Brit pop alternatives.
Sunbeam’s Alpine is worth a serious look if you are tired of all the usual Britpop offerings of that era. There’s a decent club and specialist support and, as a starter sports classic for all the family to enjoy, it makes an ideal choice. As for the Tiger, well that’s a real animal and a cut price AC Cobra… So go on - dare to be different.
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