An Alpine Holiday

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The Coupe Des Alpes and the new Sunbeam Alpine

Even motoring journalists need a holiday, although we are often told that our job is one long holiday. So we decided to take the Sprite, now with 7,000 miles on the clock, on a Continental tour, but being enthusiasts as well as journalists we arranged the dates to coincide with one or two motoring events on the Continent.

The main one of these was the Alpine Rally, which took place from June 23rd to 30th, and the other was the French Grand Prix at Reims on July 5th. As the arrangements were being put in hand, John Bullock, the P.R.O. of the Rootes Group, informed us that if we happened to be in Cannes at the conclusion of the Alpine Rally we would be able to try the new Sunbeam Alpine sports car. This was of course something that couldn’t be missed, and it looked as if the holiday would turn into one long rush from one end of France to the other.

The Sprite luggage boot took two fairly large suitcases plus a portable typewriter, a briefcase and numerous tools, although we optimistically took no spare parts for the Sprite. Various bags and coats were wedged behind the seats and, with the Michelin Guide in one door pocket and the Nuffield Touring Atlas in the other, we set off on a Sunday afternoon drive to Dover, where we were due to catch the Townsend Ferries T.S.S. Halladale at 5.45 p.m. Unfortunately we had not bargained for an excess of traffic going through Maidstone and arrived in Dover at 5.30 p.m. The ticket ominously stated that cars should be alongside three-quarters of an hour before sailing so we were preparing to stay the night in Dover, but the port authorities rushed us through quickly and the Sprite was reversed on to practically the last space on the deck. At Calais this proved fortunate as we were the first to drive off, but we don’t recommend the practice of arriving late to secure the last place, as they sometimes drive the cars on head first and the last one on is last off!

The sun had been shining in England but a gloomy evening greeted us in Calais as we drove through the dismal-looking docks. Soon we were bowling along on deserted roads, heading in the general direction of the Cote d’Azur, but as darkness fell we decided to make a night stop at Arras, where several good hotels were listed in the Michelin Guide. Before reaching Arras we stopped at a wayside petrol pump station-cum-café where the entire population of the village descended on the Sprite to prod and examine it. The garage owner told us that his father was English, having married a French girl after the first World War. He then questioned us on the car, thinking that perhaps it was a “Treeomphe” but was pleased to find out that it was an “Owstin ‘ealey,” as apparently someone in the village had owned an Austin at some time or another. At last we took our leave as the villagers waited expectantly for a roar from the exhaust and black marks down the road, but all they got was the sound of a Sprite stuttering away on two cylinders as a carburetter played up again, and a disappointed crowd returned to the café in disgust.

The next day we pressed on from Arras to Soissons along N31 and under the Dunlop bridge on the back straight of the Reims circuit, where preparations were already beginning for the Grand Prix. At Avallon we joined N6 and a procession of French cars. The main-road driving of the average Frenchman is good as he cruises as fast as possible, which admittedly is not very fast for 2 c.v.s and 4 c.v. Renaults, but a quick toot on the horn puts them into the side of the steeply-cambered roads and one is quickly past. Peugeot 403s and Citroen DS19s proved a bit more of a problem to the Sprite as they were invariably cruised at 70 to 75 m.p.h., and the Sprite had to be wound up to 5,500 r.p.m. in top gear to get past them. We saw very few accidents whilst in France, but when they occur they happen in a big way, mainly it seems because of the reluctance of 403 and DS19 drivers to lift their throttle foot when they reach a bend.

At Lyon we decided to give the N7 a miss and head for Grenoble and the Route des Alpes, as my wife had not seen the Alps before. Just after Grenoble we stopped in a small village and booked into the only hotel which was not listed in the Michelin Guide but, as with all French hotels, it seemed to be clean and comfortable. We left early next morning as the Coupe des Alpes was due to start at lunch time. The drive through the Alps took us longer than we had anticipated although the Sprite behaved perfectly. At Chateau Arnoux we turned right for Aix-en-Provence and Marseille, which we reached just as the first competitors began to leave the Automobile Club on the first few miles of their 2,400-mile trek.

A quick glance at the programme showed that we were unlikely to catch up with them on the first stage, which took a circuitous route through France to Monza and finally to Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy. The only timed climb on this stage was the Col d’Allos, where the French-entered Porsche of Buchet/Gellie made fastest time in 15 min. 54 sec. The Renault Dauphines made some very fine climbs, two of the cars getting under 17 min., which several sports cars failed to do. There were murmurings from several British entrants, and even from French drivers of more powerful cars, that the rally regulations had been designed to give the small saloon cars a good chance of a coupe. The entry list seemed to bear this out as the Grand Touring classes were in the main poorly supported, the 1,000 to 1,300-c.c. class having only a Lotus Elite and an Alfa-Romeo, while the 1,300 to 1,600-c.c. class had two Porsches and an M.G. In the Touring classes Ford, Sunbeam and Renault had their classes practically to themselves. Indeed, if British cars and drivers didn’t enter the Alpine there would be no Rally at all as the French, Italians and Germans are very reluctant to enter. There were seven each of Ford Zephyr, Sunbeam Rapier and Renault Dauphine, while B.M.C. were represented by three Austin-Healey 100-6s, two Sprites, two A40s and one A35. Triumphs had six TR3As, two privately-entered Triumph Heralds and a Standard Ten.

At the end of the first stage three of the works Dauphines were in the lead in the Touring class and a D.B. led the Grand Touring class. The second stage circled round through the Austrian mountains, with a timed climb of the Kreusberg and Turracher hills, going through Innsbruck and over the Brenner Pass, and finishing at Merano on the Austrian border.

We were still in France with the Sprite, so an all-day drive to Merano was indicated. We left France over the Col de Tende and headed the Sprite towards Cuneo and Turin, and on to the Turin-Milan Austostrada. Since this was the writer’s first experience of driving in Italy we expected to have a hectic dice with every car we met, but it must have been the Italians’ off day when we were there because no one wanted to race — in fact, they seemed slower than the French. The Turin-Milan section of the Autostrada is well engineered although with heavier traffic the three-lane highway would be very dangerous. Petrol pumps are situated at convenient intervals and Fiat have erected signs at every kilometre giving the distance to Milan, which is very interesting when working out average speeds. The second part of the Autostrada from Milan to Brescia is very bumpy and has obviously not received the attention which the first section has, although it is gradually being turned into a dual carriageway. We did not see any petrol pumps between Milan and Brescia, and it would seem wise to start with a full tank. The tolls charged on these roads seem rather high as they are calculated on engine size. It cost 550 lire to get the Sprite from Turin to Brescia. From Brescia we turned along the shores of Lake di Garda, which is probably quite beautiful but pouring rain had made it rather dismal, while the orange sellers were trying to dispose of half-ripe oranges. The road then led up to Trento and Bolzano, and finally to Merano, where the drivers were just arriving at the end of the second stage of the Rally.

Although the non-timed itinerary was fairly easy, cars were beginning to drop out through accidents and breakages. The TR3 driven by Americans Halmi and Homan collided with a VW, and Cyril Corbishley’s Standard Ten hit a Mercedes near Cortina. On the Kreusberg climb the Mercedes 300SL of Schoek and Tak made fastest time in 6 min. 25.8 sec., while the Turracher climb went to Oreiller and Masoero in their Alfa-Romeo. Already by the end of this stage only 18 out of 61 starters had escaped penalties, and five of them were Ford Zephyrs. The third stage should have taken drivers over the Gavia Pass but torrential rains had caused a landslide and the pass was closed, but the Stelvio and Vivione passes were still in the itinerary which led drivers back into France. On the Stelvio the Porsche of Buchet and Gellie made fastest time, while on the Vivione Monte Carlo Rally winners Feret and Monraisse made an almost unbelievable climb in 12 min. 11.3 sec. against the 12 min. 20 sec. of the Oreiller/Masoero Alfa-Romeo.

The overnight stop was at St. Gervais les Bains, where the survivors gathered their strength for the last stage to Cannes, with a timed run of La Cayolle and Allos and a timed climb of Mont Ventoux. Best time on Mont Ventoux went to the TR3 of de Lageneste/Greder with a time of 15 min. 41.3 sec. The Sunbeam team had only two cars with a chance of a coupe, while Fords and Renault now had three each. The Ronnie Adams/Ken Best Sunbeam Rapier had an almighty accident when it had to swerve into a concrete post to avoid a large lorry. The post tore the off side of the body away and Ronnie Adams’ head made a dent in the windscreen. The front door was tied up with rope and the car driven back to Cannes, where it created quite a sensation. It says a lot for unitary construction that the car was driveable at all.

When the 27 survivors reached Cannes everyone was forced to wait until the next day for the results. Eventually it was discovered that only nine crews had remained unpenalised, so gaining the coveted Coupe des Alpes. The D.B. Panhard of Rey/Guilhaudin remained the only Grand Touring car unpenalised. The second placed car in this category was the Wisdom/Hay Sebring Sprite, which lost 129.4 marks. Its only damage was a flattened exhaust system whith was suitably patched up with one of the rally plates.

In the Touring category coupes were gained by three Fords, two Sunbeams, one Triumph Herald, one D.K.W. and one Renault, which gained most bonus points. Although the Fords were rather special, having three carburetters, 8.5 : 1 compression-ratio, disc brakes on the front wheels and long-range fuel tanks, with a top speed of 100 m.p.h., their competition successes in Continental events has no doubt got something to do with the large numbers of French- and Italian-registered Fords which can be seen on the roads. The success of the privately-entered Triumph Herald cannot be overlooked. It was virtually standard except for some engine modifications, which augurs well for Herald sales on the Continent.

The Rally took a terrific toll of the Grand Touring classes which were given some very difficult schedules to keep. The M.G.-A. Twin-Cam was crashed on the first day and could not be repaired, the Margulies/Campbell-Jones Lotus Elite collided with the scenery and although it continued for a while it soon retired. The Schock/Tak Mercedes Benz 300SL, which made several good climbs in the timed sections punctured its fuel tank — a common fault with 300SLs in this type of rally. Both the Aston Martin D.B.2/4 of de Salis and the Cunane/Willmott A.C. retired with mechanical troubles and accident damage respectively through trying to keep up with the almost impossible schedule, the Sprinzel yellow Austin A.35 broke a half-shaft and a Ford Zephyr pushed its doors in when it side-swiped a lorry, while other Fords broke their prop-shafts possibly because of the extra power from the three-carburetter engines. And so the list went on with hardly a car reaching the finish unscathed although the Triumph Herald and the G.T. class-winning D.B. looked to be in excellent condition.

The day after the Alpine festivities had ended the Rootes group held their party to introduce the new Sunbeam Alpine sports car. Norman Garrad had selected a mountainous route from Cannes to St. Maxime to give the assembled journalists a chance to test the cars as fully as possible. At first sight it must be said that the new Alpine is a handsome-looking car from its low wide grille to the not-too-obtrusive tail fins at the rear. Where possible use has been made of components already produced within the Rootes Group. Thus the engine is the basic Rapier unit but having the aluminium cylinder head as used in the Rapier rally cars. This has a compression-ratio of 9.2 : 1 which must be just about the highest on a mass-produced car at present. In this form with two Zenith carburetters, the engine develops 83.5 b.h.p. at 5,300 r.p.m.

Use is made of unitary construction for the body and chassis, which, as Mr. Geoffrey Rootes told us, was designed entirely without the assistance of Continental stylists. With potential speeds of over 100 m.p.h. envisaged, Rootes decided to use Girling disc brakes on the front wheels, whilst economy dictated a rigid back axle with drum brakes. The cockpit has two bucket seats with space behind for small children or extra luggage, although the Iuggage boot is reasonably large by sports-car standards. The instrumentation and general finish of the cockpit are of a very high order in typical Rootes’ fashion, although the clock, ammeter and screen-washers are optional extras. The gear lever is mounted a little too far forward for comfortable operation but the gearbox is developed from that used in the Husky and the ratios are better chosen than those in the Rapier gearbox. In the test cars the seat cushion was a little too high, allowing the steering wheel to rub the trousers of most drivers, whilst the steering wheel was a little too close to the driver for “arms-length” driving. We understand that these faults have already been corrected on the production line.

The new Alpine certainly has plenty of punch low down, although it is at its best at around 3,500 r.p.m. Starting will normally be made in first gear as the clutch protested rather strongly when second gear was tried. In the time available we had no chance to take any performance figures but the car reached a comfortable 85 m.p.h. on one short straight, and when the brakes were applied heavily at the end of this straight the car pulled up very quickly although heavy pedal pressure was not required. Steering is light although slightly spongy and has three turns from lock to lock, but no difficulty was found on the tight turns found in the mountains. A certain amount of body roll is present but not to an alarming degree, and the ride on bumpy roads is quite smooth.

This very short test showed us that the Alpine (like its predecessor) cannot be classed as an out-and-out sports car, but with a total price of £971 10s. 10d. it will undoubtedly find a ready market among those who desire a little more comfort than the average sports car offers. Optional extras include overdrive (£60), hardtop (£60), and centre-lock wire wheels (£38 5s.).

The final assembly of the car is being undertaken at the Coventry factory of Bristol Siddeley Engines Ltd., where several hundred models have already been produced. British enthusiasts will he pleased to learn that the vast majority of these have right-hand drive.

The very pleasant day with the Rootes Group ended with a dinner in Cannes which broke up fairly early as many people were heading north for the French Grand Prix. Before leaving Cannes we noticed a used car lot which contained a number of interesting cars, including a Model-T Ford, a Unic, a Rolls-Royce with body by Henry Binder of Paris, unfortunately covered with ants, and various Delahaye and Delage models. The French tax system has undoubtedly forced many of these cars into an early retirement as they seem to be in passable order. The Sprite was loaded up once and again headed up the crowded N7 towards Reims, which we reached on Friday morning, where the Sprite blotted its copybook by setting fire to its electrical wiring behind the dashboard. Fortunately the Lucas racing van was at Reims and the obliging mechanics soon put matters right for us. After the race, which was notable for the intense heat and the driving of Stirling Moss, the willing Sprite (now with 3,000 more miles on the clock than when it started 15 days before) was loaded up once more and the short drive from Reims to Calais undertaken in leisurely fashion, where the T.S.S. Halladale was waiting to transport us across the Channel again as efficiently as we had come.

Back on English soil again, we found cause to congratulate the Kent County Council, or whoever looks after the roads in the Dover/ Folkestone area, for the excellent way they have marked the roads so that strangers will not stray to the wrong side of the road. After a fortnight we were just about used to driving on the right and a reminder at dangerous points was very helpful. — M.L.T.