Monday February 25, 2019
In 1981 John Simpson read an advertisement in Exchange and Mart for a 1966 Alpine Series V GT. The price was just £150, and the Sunbeam was located ‘only eight miles from my house’ but to suggest that it had enjoyed better days was a mild understatement.
As John recalls ‘it had been stood in someone’s front garden for seven years. We had to take all the wheels and the brake linings off to get it moving’. As for the interior, ‘the wooden steering wheel literally crumbled when I touched it’ while inside the sills there was ‘a rolled-up pair of football socks!’.
John was, of course, the ‘chief mechanic and tea-maker’ for Practical Classics magazine – ‘and I am still the only one who can make a decent cup of tea!’ The restoration of EJE 829 D took him eight years and during that time ‘I moved house and my son, and my daughter was born’. The Alpine's engine needed to be totally rebuilt although ‘fortunately the interior was not too bad. It needed new carpets, but the seats were in a good state of repair’.
Meanwhile, the body required replacement front wings (‘those were hand made by the Radford Panels of Leamington Spa at £90 each’ http://www.radfordpanel.com/), a new front valance, rear arches, sills devoid of used hosiery plus a hardtop. ‘The one that came with the Alpine was total scrap metal, and I was sold a roof from a chap who owned a Sunbeam Tiger. He later offered me his entire car for £500!’. By 1989 the Sunbeam was ready to cut a dash on the nation’s A-roads and more than live up to the brochure’s promise of ‘sporting performance with touring luxury’.
Of course, this year sees the Alpine celebrate its 60th birthday, and its origins date back to 1956 when the Rootes Group commenced work on a new sports car. The 1,494cc engine was shared with the Sunbeam Rapier, and the stunning coachwork was by Ken Howes. When the Alpine debuted in 1959, few guessed that a car that looked primed for the “Motorway Age” shared a floorpan with the not very performance oriented Hillman Husky
From the outset, Rootes intended the Alpine to appeal as much to a US corporate professional to a young sporting chap in Henley-On-Thames and so, unlike a contemporary Austin-Healey, MG or Triumph, it boasted exterior door handles and winding windows.
Such luxuries caused many a “traditional” motorist to grumble about the decadence of modern life and how all concerned with the Sunbeam’s development needed to serve at least ten years more National Service.
The 1.6-litre Series II was launched in late 1960, and it was succeeded in March 1963 by the Series III, Rootes also introduced a new GT flagship model; the marketing types preferred the term “Gran Turismo”. The specification included a heater, a carpeted floor, twin sun visors and a walnut veneered fascia to complement an ‘interior that says “taste” and “luxury”’.
Most notably, there was a detachable hard-top, an item that was an optional extra on the cheaper “Sports Tourer” and John remarks this feature ‘is a good idea although it does make the Alpine feel noisy’. He also advises that it is ‘essential to check the weather forecast if you want to go out for the day and leave the roof at home’; the GT was not equipped with a fabric hood.
The Series IV, with its distinctive cropped fins, debuted at the beginning of 1965 and in October of that year, it was replaced by the Series V, with Alpine sales ceasing in early 1968. The fifth generation models were powered by a 1,725cc five-bearing engine carburettors and John remarks that ‘the 1.6-litre Rapier I used to own was slightly more free revving’.
To enhance his Sunbeam’s performance, ‘I fitted a gearbox with the optional overdrive and an electronic ignition which really helps with cold weather motoring. I also replaced the two Stromberg carburettors with a twin-choke Weber, which makes the car a lot more responsive and economical’.
Fifty-three years ago, a new Alpine Series V GT cost £938 1s 3d, and an AA report of 1966 concluded it ‘combines most of the performance and handling of a sports car with the luxuries of a well-equipped saloon’. The cabin was indeed a major selling point, and John praises the Rootes Group’s attention to detail – the Sunbeam has wider doors than your typical sports car of that time, and the steering column and the pedals are adjustable. There is also a fresh air vent in the driver’s footwell, a device that will be familiar to anyone who owned a Minx, Gazelle, Rapier, Super Minx, Vogue or Sceptre.
In 2005 the Alpine was hit by another car, which caused £4,000 worth of damage – readers may wish to avert their gaze from the photograph. Fortunately, the Sunbeam was repaired, and the GT went on to make appearances at the Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show at the NEC.
Naturally, EJE 829 D attracts a vast amount of attention and comment, be it at events or ‘simply at a filling station’. These range from the ever-popular ‘my dad had one of those’ to the admiration of its looks – ‘the Alpine is different from the popular image of a 1960s British sports car’.
John also finds that some younger enthusiasts are slightly confused as to the Alpine’s identity. When it was new, the Sunbeam benefitted from a well-planned PR campaign, with endorsements from Jack Brabham and appearances in high-profile films and television shows from BUtterfield 8 to Get Smart.
In 1962 a Series II became the first screen “Bond Car”, taking part in the hilarious chase scene in Dr. No. But today John often finds that ‘as the Series V does not display a name at the front, some people look at the “Alpine” script on the wings and then think my car is a Renault! It is only when they look at the wording on the boot they realise it is a Sunbeam’.
Today, the Alpine is a familiar sight at meetings and events organised by the Boston Classic Car Club, which John founded in 1990 - http://www.bostonclassiccarclub.org.uk/ . He is now its Honorary President and ‘we have 260 members and cater for all types of the car’. The Simpson Sunbeam has recently been joined by another class in the form of a ‘maroon 1955 MG Magnette ZA – I’ve wanted one of those for a long time’. As for the Alpine, John has absolutely zero plans to part with it – ‘my son says he is “first in line”!’.