Laurence Meredith examines a famous works rally car, and gets to sit where Moss once sat…
In our motoring world the measure of a man can usually be gauged not by the amount of power he has at his disposal, but by the manner in which he exercises that power — or in this case a conspicuous lack of it.
In 1948 an ex-Talbot salesman, Norman Garrad, set up Rootes’ competition department with a view to running the company’s cars in international rallying events. As the world economy was still recovering from Adolf’s antics between 1939 and 1945, funds for Garrad’s project weren’t exactly in Lottery jackpot territory. But in this respect Rootes’ efforts in surging forward for an assault on the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally were at least the equal of other understandably cautious teams.
A gaggle of Sunbeam-Talbot 80 saloons was prepared, and Peter Monkhouse rolled into the Principality a creditable but disappointing fourth in class, the equipe’s best performance on this particular event. It was only disappointing, however because Norman Garrad knew that better things lay ahead, the 80 model was a good, reliable slogger — a middle-class conveyance in the best English tradition -but. with the 1185cc Hillman Minx sidevalve engine under the bonnet, it was grossly underpowered, a little overweight and quickly ran out of breath on steep uphill sections.
Garrad trotted off back to Blighty and put his cards on the boardroom table, each one marked with a simple request more power please, sir” – and Rootes listened. Garrad knew he was right. And so did his bosses. But Garrad had to prove it Enter the 2-litre 90 version.
Still a little flabby and fitted with the old fashioned beam-axle front suspension. Norman Garrad and George Murray-Frame first used one of these new cars on the 1948 French Alpine rally. No great shakes here but all those involved kept faith, returned to the Alpine the following year and walked away with the team prize. Rootes was on the way… although. as it turned out. the 1950 season proved to be completely fruitless for the works cars. No matter…
When the MkIl version arrived in 1951 fitted with independent front suspension and the 70bhp 2267cc engine, the future began to look a little brighter once again. But the team’s trump card was in employing the services of a young driver by the name of Moss, a dentist’s boy with something of a future in motor racing.
The 1952 season began with the Monte and young Girling Foss, as Sir Peter Ustinov once humourously dubbed the British hero, pressed the Sunbeam hard and long to place second overall, pipped to the post by the victorious and considerably more powerful Allard. For the Alpine Rally later in the year three 90s won the team prize and a Coupe apiece, a quite brilliant achievement by an all-British entrant — our ‘Norm had been right all along, and his efforts were appreciated back in Coventry.
Stirling went on to score sixth overall on the 1953 Monte Carlo Rally and Rootes also scooped another team prize on this event. The pots kept coming; Irishman Ronnie Adams placed second on the 1953 RAC Rally, and the talented Sheila van Damm won the Ladies Award on the same event in a similar car.
For 1955 the 90 was replaced by the uprated Sunbeam MkIII, and the success story continued. The Norwegian enthusiast Per Malting took his privately entered car to outright victory on the Monte Carlo, Sheila van Damm taking the Ladies Award on the same occasion once again. But by the end of 1956 these venerable chariots had been pensioned off, having taken yet another team prize and fourth overall on the Monte, and a second in class for Peter Harper on the RAC. Works-entered MkIlls never appeared again after this.
However, let us return to 1953 when Rootes introduced an open two-seater sports version of the Sunbeam-Talbot 90. Dubbed the Alpine Special after the saloon version’s success on the French classic, the two-seater utilised the 90’s chassis, but with deeper side members and an additional steel cross-member to give improved front-end rigidity, and although apparently unfit and too heavy for serious speed merchants, it actually became one of the company’s most desirable and famous efforts of the 1950s.
A solidly built machine, the Alpine Special was every bit as tough as the saloon, but with truly astonishing performance that was greater than the sum of the car’s parts. By 1953 worldwide demand for fast sportscars was growing, as Ferry Porsche — who struggled to keep up with orders — Enzo Ferrari, and a good many others were discovering but the Alpine was in an altogether different mould.
Unlike the Porsche 356, for example, it wasn’t purpose-built from scratch, but few failed to be impressed with its top speed of over 100mph. As the official brochure made clear: ‘It retains all the comfort, convenience and roadworthiness so successfully combined in the standard model, but in addition embodies a programme of scientific development in keeping with the most advanced sports and competition technique.’ In reality this claim wasn’t far from the truth either.
The 2267cc four-pot slogger was retained, but was tweaked for extra power. Larger inlet valves and ports, stronger valve springs, a straight through exhaust system and a compression ratio of 8,0:1 all helped push power output up to 97.5bhp at 4500rpm and to churn out an impressive torque figure of 142Ib ft at 2500rpm. On top of this was a Laycock-de-Normanville overdrive unit on top gear, operated by a switch on the steering boss, a close-ratio gearbox, ‘fade-proof’ brake linings and 5.50 x 16in Dunlop ‘Road Speed’ tyres. In his road test for Autosport the late John Bolster commented: “It is astonishing that, in greatly increasing the power output of the engine, no extra mechanical noise has been produced. The power unit is, indeed, quite remarkably silent, and the gearbox merits similar praise. Nor have the general good manners of the standard car been lost; In order to check this point, I lent the Alpine Special to my mother, who is a Sunbeam-Talbot owner. She reported that she was just as comfortable as in her own saloon.”
Although very successful the works rally prepared Alpines only appeared in international events on two occasions. A team of six cars was entered for the 1953 Alpine Rally. Moss bringing the first of these home in 14th position. Four of the six collected Coupes, however, for their penalty free performances. The same half dozen cars were also posted off to take Part in the 1954 event, where a quickly maturing Moss collected another Coupe his third on the trot — and in doing so equalled Ian Appleyard’s earlier record.
A further team of works Alpines was entered for the 1955 French event, but it was cancelled at the eleventh hour – a knee-jerk reaction by the French authorities to the Le Mans tragedy that cost the lives of more than 80 spectators and Mercedes driver Pierre Leveqh. Shortly after this the Alpine model was dropped. Rootes concentrating its efforts on the new Sunbeam Rapier.
Apart from its rallying exploits, though, there were a couple of other high-profile Rootes events — again in 1953 — that not only captured the imagination of motoring folk loyal to the Coventry stable — and there were many by this time — but of Britain as a whole. To prove the Alpine’s real worth, the prototype Special, the car featured here was prepared for a couple of high-speed continental runs during March.
Registered MWK 969, this very special Special was first relieved of its heavy bumpers. The standard windscreen was replaced with a faired in racing style aeroscreen, a flat alloy tonneau cover was fitted across the top of the passenger compartment and there was a flat alloy panel attached to the underside of the car to help with streamlining.
The engine was also modified with a special camshaft, the standard carburettor was replaced with a brace of Solexes, and an overdrive unit was fitted just three weeks prior to the runs, because it was discovered that the goal of reaching 120mph wasn’t actually possible without it.
In this guise the prototype was taken to the Jabbeke-Aeltre highway in Belgium where Stirling Moss was officially timed at a maximum speed of 120.450mph, his co-conspirator Sheila van Damm, proving no more than a whisker slower at 120.135mph over the flying kilometre and 119.402mph over the flying mile. Interestingly, this was the first occasion that a member of the fairer sex had been officially timed at 120mph in a production sportscar.
But why the difference between Stirling and Sheila’s speeds? They were using the same car on the same day in similar weather conditions. Both drivers had their right foot firmly planted on the floorboards in a flat-out blind throughout the duration of each run. It’s unlikely that the top of Stirling’s dome offered more, or less, wind resistance, because he still had a full head of hair in those days.
However, Ms van Damm was a lass of the old school, brought up in the good ol’ days when a gal ate a hearty breakfast, and well before it became fashionable for women to take on the proportions of a competition kevlar fishing rod by starving themselves to within considerably less than an inch of their lives. We can, therefore, probably conclude that Stirling’s slimline figure — a little extra weight can sometimes be an advantage — accounted for the difference in ultimate top speed on this occasion. But does this theory really bear up?
The Sunbeam was then taken to the banked, high-speed Montlhery circuit in France, where Leslie Johnson covered a staggering 111.20 miles in one hour from a flying start, an occasion when Stirling clocked average lap times of 115mph. That boy Moss just had something a bit special, didn’t he?
Luckily, this car was one of the few prototypes that didn’t get broken up and put on the scrapheap — as prototypes are apt to be and some three years after the high-speed runs, the Sunbeam was rescued from the factory by Ted Brewer, an engineer employed by ERA. Sensibly, Ted returned the car to road specification — the standard windscreen, bumpers and hood were refitted — and ERA used it for a while as a runabout until it passed into private ownership in the late 1950s.
Today, still resplendent in its light blue metallic livery and red wheels, its spec is roughly halfway between its original prototype form and standard Alpine Special road configuration. Because its current owner, Jill Watson, intends to use it for historic rallying, MWK 969 retains its twin Solex carburettors and partial alloy undertray — it extends from the front to the gearbox these days — but, it is without its alloy tonneau cover for the rather obvious practical reason that Jill’s passenger would find it a jot inconvenient trying to read road maps crouched down in the left-hand footwell.
Because Rootes had its sights set on North America as the company’s principal export market, the Sunbeam’s styling is a healthy Anglo-American compromise. It didn’t especially appeal to Europeans but it wasn’t meant to either — Sunbeam wanted dollars, and as many as it could lay its hands on. A well proportioned car, if a little slab-sided, the Alpine differs significantly from traditional sports cars in that, being based on the saloon, it sits much higher. But this is a great advantage, especially for ladies who choose to wear short skirts, as getting in and out of the cabins so much easier than with a low-slung lob. And the other great benefit is that the boot is truly enormous — an inherent bonus of doing away with rear seats. The sloping back is extremely attractive and in the guise of a ‘proper’ sportscar, but for traditionalists the nicely chromed radiator grille is retained in the upright position at the front.
The draughty hood, which offered some sort of weather protection, was something of an afterthought, and why not? After all, ‘real’ motorists would have been too busy having fun to notice the discomfort of a Force 10 gale and driving rain. The painted metal dashboard and brassy instruments, which are more characteristic of contemporary ‘Yank-tanks’, was as far removed from the traditional walnut veneer or leather upholstery preferred by Aston Martin and many other British manufacturers as it was possible to get. But few companies ever went bust under-estimating the taste of the American car buying public.
Today, though, even stuck-in-the-mud purists have come to appreciate this style for what it represented — a worthy attempt to brighten the lives of those who were trying to forget the hardships and dreariness of a long war. Naturally, styling and appearance are highly subjective but, strangely, there is some evidence to suggest that women in particular took a liking to this car. John Bolster reckoned that he had never driven any vehicle which “excited so much feminine admiration.”
I approached the driving seat of this genuine historic car with caution based on misgivings which turned out to be largely unfounded. In his original road test of the Alpine Special production car for Autosport, John Bolster remarked: “The machine handles pleasantly at high speeds on give and take roads. It does not roll excessively, and the suspension is fairly firm. It does nothing unexpected, and gives due warning if one approaches the limit on a corner.”
If Bolster had written this having recently stepped from behind the wheel of a soggily suspended contemporary such as a Ford Zephyr/Zodiac, for example, I could understand that the Sunbeam would feel confident by comparison. But some 20 years ago I can clearly recall trying to hang on to a similar machine owned by a pal of mine and, even at quite moderate speeds, its roadholding capabilities — akin to driving a BMW 325i fitted with snow chains on a dry summer evening — were truly astonishingly awful.
There was simply too much power for the chassis to handle, and although the crossply tyres were largely responsible for the lack of adhesion that characterised the entry and exit to almost every corner, it was the sudden flick from almost uncontrollable understeer to totally incomprehensible oversteer that dug the footings of my feelings for these cars.
Perhaps the car with which I was acquainted all those years ago, though, was just a badly maintained example, though it didn’t appear to be, but the prototype is not like this at all. It feels a little nose-heavy, and with such a large four-cylinder lump in the pointed end this is only to be expected, but it really will bat on through corners. There’s minimal body lean, and very little fuss or drama in even the tightest turns.
Initially the car develops a tendency to understeer, but the trick is not to let it get out of hand: in any case, I’ve never particularly been a fan of the right-hand bend, left-hand ditch syndrome. Wind on the large steering wheel hard enough, tuck the nose in tight, bang the throttle pedal down and, with the tail slightly out of beam, you’re home and dry. It’s as simple as that. Best not to get it too wrong, though, eh? Next prejudice to overcome? Changing gear. The stick is a column-mounted H-pattern on-its-side affair — a most unsportscar-like accoutrement — but one which is absolutely terrific in use, provided you remember where each cog can be found. Knock the shift lever up and down as fast as your left hand will move — it’s impossible to beat the excellent synchromesh — and each ratio slots in positively with a nice, crisp accomplished feel. Without doubt this is one of the nicest gearboxes I’ve ever used and, for the simple reason that it’s a sound piece of engineering.
The weight of the car is around 26cwt or so — a fairly grievous amount for anything with sporting aspirations — but the 10in finned drum brakes with their apparently ‘fade-proof’ linings work well, although it’s difficult to believe that the brake pedal would be completely resistant to a few visits to the floor on an event like the Alpine. John Bolster wrote: “So many modern cars are inadequately braked for fast driving that it is a pleasure to be able to praise a British machine on this score.”
So far so good but, as wondrous as the gearbox and brakes undoubtedly are — we’ll ignore the slightly vague steering and 36ft turning circle — the really outstanding feature of this Sunbeam is its 2.3-litre engine, as excellent a piece of conventional engineering as could be found anywhere in pre-OHC Britain.
With bore and stroke dimensions of 81 x 110mm it’s a long-legged lurcher, barking through a sidewinder exhaust system. Pounce suddenly on the throttle pedal and naturally the exhaust barks louder in a Wagnerian kind of way — it’s marvellously deafening — but there’s never any harshness from the engine’s moving parts even with a full complement of revs, a sure sign that this unit was not only screwed together properly but that the design is also fundamentally sound.
What does increase with higher revs, of course, is fuel consumption, which can fall as low as 15mpg with hard driving, but this is a small price to pay for such delightfully rewarding performance.
Blatting on through the Sussex countryside, where there’s a plausible mixture of roads from potentially nasty narrow lanes to decent size dual carriageways, the old Sunbeam was in its element — and so was I. It’s a good cross-country cruiser, which will sit happily at almost any speed at below or above the national limit.
The gears need shifting a fair bit on account of low levels of torque low down, and the plain fact that it would be a pity not to use them. Changing up through the box in particular is never anything less than a pleasure, and, as the engine produces maximum power at such comparatively low revs, its all commendably relaxing.
To enhance that relaxation the cabin is cosy and comfortable; the large leather-covered seats have little in the way of lateral support for thighs or body, but this hardly matters as the cabin is narrow in typical fifties vogue; and in any case there are always the two doors to prevent driver and passenger experiencing an unwelcome exit right or left under really hard cornering.
This prototype was never offered for sale when it was new, but regular production versions were not exactly cheap. The basic list price at £970 appears reasonable, but on top of this was a hefty £405 in purchase tax — nearly half as much again.
Despite its history this car is no cosseted museum piece. It’s probably tidier than it was when it originally left the factory all those years ago for Belgium, but there’s plenty of evidence — a decent size scratch or two here and there — that Jill Watson drives her treasured car, which is so refreshing when you consider that so many wonderful historic cars rarely see the light of day. To have been given the opportunity to have driven this Sunbeam, and to have been afforded an insight into what Stirling Moss, Sheila van Damm and Leslie Johnson felt on their high-speed missions, was a rare privilege. Thanks to Jill and her partner John for allowing me behind the wheel.