Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Sunbeam Sports Cars

Sunbeam Alpine and Harrington Le Mans
The Subeam Alpine was the epitome of 50s style with its bulbous headlamps and wraparound windshield.
The Subeam Alpine was the epitome of 50s style with its bulbous headlamps and wraparound windshield.

When Rootes discontinued the original Sunbeam Alpine in 1955 (see entry), it didn’t even attempt a replacement, mainly because it was going to start overhauling its entire passenger-car fleet that year. But the task was completed by 1958, and Rootes could again take up a sports car. The result appeared the following year as a new, very different Alpine.

Like its predecessor, this Sunbeam Alpine borrowed liberally from Rootes’ ordinary family sedans. But instead of a middle-class medium-size platform, its basis was the smaller and cheaper unit-steel structure that mostly made up the new corporate line. Variations comprised of a basic four-door sedan, the Hillman Minx; an upmarket version, the Singer Gazelle; and a derivative hardtop coupe, the Sunbeam Rapier.

Convertible and station wagon were also offered, along with a two-door short-chassis wagon/panel van, the Hillman Husky. (All these were seen in the U.S., some more often than others.) So though it had the same name, the new Sunbeam Alpine had no technical or styling links with the earlier one.

In an interesting joint venture, Alpine engineering and initial assembly was handed to Armstrong-Siddeley of Coventry in exchange for a new six to power Rootes’ next generation of big Humber cars. Styling was an in-house job, still an open two-seater but much more contemporary, right down to a curved, but not wrapped, windshield and trendy tailfins.

“Modern” features abounded, including roll-up door windows, an easily erected soft top, proper heater, and fully outfitted dash. Options ran to a detachable steel hardtop and electric overdrive. With all this, plus Americanized styling, the Sunbeam Alpine was widely regarded as more sports tourer than traditional sports car.

Adding to the 50's-chic, the Sunbeam Alpine featured prominent rear tail fins.

About the same size as an MGA or Triumph TR3 (see entries), the Sunbeam Alpine used the short-wheelbase Husky underframe combined with slightly improved Rapier running gear. Power initially came from the 1.5-liter version of the corporate overhead-valve four, rated at 78 horsepower and good for nearly 100 mph in magazine road tests (of cars that were probably tweaked a bit). Needless to say, the new Alpine was lighter and more nimble than the original, and thus keen competition for the MG and TR. It was slightly heavier and less powerful than they were, but offered superior structural stiffness.

Not that Rootes, its dealers or customers complained, especially as the Alpine was progressively improved. Like America’s Corvette, in fact, it seemed to get worthwhile changes almost every year, thus gaining a distinct sales advantage over most rivals.

The progression was simple and fairly rapid. Autumn 1960 brought a Series II model with an 80-bhp 1.6-liter engine. The Series III followed at the beginning of 1963 with a second model called GT. This featured a slightly detuned engine, walnut-covered dash and the removable hardtop but, curiously, no folding top. The fins were cut back for the Series IV, which bowed in early ’64 with a new extra-cost automatic transmission.

An all-synchromesh manual arrived later that year. Last came the late-1965 Series V, sans automatic option but boasting 1725 cc and 92 bhp. It was predictably the fastest accelerating Alpine, but maximum speed was somehow stuck at 98-100 mph. Even so, this winsome little car carried on successfully into early 1968, by which time Chrysler Corporation had taken over Rootes and was directing new products, some good, some dreadful.

The Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans swapped out the Alpine's tail fins for a swooping fastback rear.

The rarest of these Sunbeam Alpines was the 1962-63 Le Mans, a unique fastback coupe conversion by the Harrington coachworks. It began with a Series II roadster shorn of fins and fitted with a smooth fiberglass roof terminating in a reverse “ducktail.” Discreet coachlines (pinstripes) hid the seams where plastic met metal toward the rear, making the finished product look almost as if it had been the original design.

Seats were trimmed in leather or vinyl (it varied from car to car), the dash in traditional walnut. The 1.6-liter engine was tuned to “Stage 2” specs, as on the factory fastbacks that had won the Index of Thermal Efficiency at the 1961 Le Mans 24 Hours. This improved acceleration but didn’t much affect top speed. Even hotter “Stage 3” tuning couldn’t lift the maximum beyond 110 mph.

As custom-built jobs, the “Harringtons” (Rootes didn’t use this name in the U.S.) weren’t cheap. The Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans cost $3995, which was close to Corvette territory, versus $2800 or less for a contemporary Sunbeam Alpine. Harrington did other Alpine conversions, including a lower-powered GT fastback, but the Le Mans was the best-selling one, though it only saw 250 copies.

There would be one more Alpine, a product of the Chrysler regime and not to be confused with these two-seaters. This was little more than a pillarless fastback version of the mundane late-Sixties Hillman Hunter sedan (Sunbeam Arrow in the U.S.) and just as dull, barring a hot Holbay-tuned British-market model called H120 (for its alleged 120-mph maximum). Chrysler made a half-hearted U.S. sales effort in 1969-70, then cast its captive-import lot with Mitsubishi of Japan -- which is a story for another time.

To learn more about Sunbeam and other sports cars, see: