A car for the sporting bachelor
Rootes’ Latest Development of the Rapier Reaches High Speeds with Acceleration in Keeping. Girling Disc Brakes on the Front Wheels.
For many years the Rootes Group has had a sensible approach to development, introducing sporting versions of its cars as and when saloon models have reached the necessary pitch of efficiency. Thus the fast rugged Sunbeam Mk. III was introduced as the open sports Alpine some years ago, and now the Sunbeam Rapier, which has grown out of the Hillman Minx and which has been enormously improved down the years, emerges as the stylish Alpine open two-seater (or light-alloy hard-top) with wind-up glass side windows, just the sort of vehicle which appeals to those of sporting tastes and no family ties. This now 100-m.p.h. disc-braked Sunbeam Alpine is sometimes described as a 2/4-seater but, while there is a generous rear seat behind the separate main seats, leg-room is restricted, so that we prefer to regard the Alpine as a two-seater with strictly occasional accommodation for a child, or undeveloped grown-up, or space for lots of luggage without the the need to open the rather shallow boot.
This Sunbeam with the revived name of Alpine is a striking-looking car, owing nothing to Italian stylists, It has the modern “dart” appearance with pronounced tail-fins, giving a slightly nose-down attitude. The very neat shallow radiator grille is at a reverse angle, which is not always apparent in photographs. Visibility from the driving seat is excellent, enhanced by the very thin screen pillars of the wrap-round windscreen. The bonnet-panel hinges from the front, and wide doors which open fully render getting in and out of the Alpine extremely easy. This is a smart eye-catching vehicle especially when, as on the test car, wire wheels with pleasing triple-eared centre-lock hub caps are fitted. The hood stows completely out of sight and can, if necessary, be replaced by a shapely hard-top with wrap-round rear window, which neither restricts head-room nor visibility, although it introduces some rattle and makes it impossible to satisfactorily ventilate the car.
The Alpine’s beautiful lines are endorsed by very real performance derived from the 83½-b.h.p. 1,494-c.c. engine, which peaks at 5,300 r.p.m., this neat power unit with its square-cornered, polished valve cover having twin Zenith downdraught carburetters on an aluminium-alloy water-heated manifold. The separate ports, inlet and exhaust arranged alternately, and two separate Y-exhaust manifolds make for efficiency; the revised cylinder head is of light alloy. The engine is just “over-square” and has a 9.2-to-1 compression-ratio. The handsome dropped nose is possible because a small radiator is fitted, supplemented by a separate header tank.
Closer ratios than on the former Rapier model are used in the gearbox and overdrive can be provided in conjunction with a 4.22-to-1 axle ratio. The test car had no overdrive and a 3.9-to-1 final drive, equal to 17.2 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in top gear.
Arriving in the Sunbeam Alpine at Oulton Park for the Gold Cup Race, I found that Norman Garrad of Routes had produced a team of these new cars to take the racing drivers on their lap of honour, while firmer proof of the Alpine’s appeal is provided by the fact that Jack Brabham is now using one as his personal car, having sold his two-carburetter Holden.
On the long drive North I was enthusing about the good driving position, vivid acceleration and extremely effortless safe braking power of this new Sunbeam. The seats, if somewhat hard, hold the driver securely on corners, aided by a support that divides the front compartment in two and which is actually a lockable glove box. The two-spoke sprung 16½-in. steering wheel is quite well placed, as are the pedals, with room for the clutch foot to the left of the pedal, where the lamps-dipper button is located. The accelerator, however, functions very stiffly and there is lost motion on initial throttle opening caused by play in an unbushed bracket which forms an end-bearing for a control rod.
The short, central, large-knobbed gear-lever rising from the big transmission tunnel falls comfortably to hand and enables quick changes to be made, the action being pleasant but not entirely smooth. The dashboard is in the best tradition of old-style sports and racing cars, a metal panel containing separate round dials, Jaeger speedometer (slightly blanked by the steering-wheel rim) and rev.-counter before the driver, and three tumbler-switches which look after panel lighting, lamps and wipers. The speedometer incorporates trip with decimal and total mileage indicators; its needle was rather unsteady. These switches should be simplicity personified, especially as they are clearly labelled, and no doubt it was personal clotishness that caused me to become confused when operating them hurriedly, such as flicking the left-hand switch down to see the instruments but the central one half-up to go from headlamps to sidelamps at night. The lamps switch permits fairly easy flashing of the headlamps but would be even more convenient in this respect if moved an inch or so to the left, clear of the steering-wheel rim. The gauges cover fuel contents, the time of day and oil pressure (with provision for an additional dial to the right of the rev.-counter), and are calibrated in metric as well as English readings. Oil pressure is normally 50 lb./sq. in., water temperature 170 deg. C. The washers button is adjacent to the wipers switch, and the ignition key operates the starter. Horizontal quadrants above the instruments cope with heater (not fitted on the test car) and ventilation, the cold air flow being inadequate in the hard-top during this 1959 summer’s day.
Before the passenger there is a big, unlidded cubby-hole, the doors have good “keeps” and metal “pulls,” and altogether there is little to fault in the interior arrangements of the Sunbeam Alpine. Elbow room is somewhat restricted but just over 2½ turns of the window handles wind the windows into the doors, when the driver’s right arm can rest on the sill. The pull-up hand-brake is placed unconventionally on the right, there is a lidded ash-tray between the seats, and leg-room for the front-seat occupants is particularly generous. Crash padding is applied to top and bottom of the facia but two lethal metal projections exist on the top edge of the hard-top, splendidly placed to puncture the forehead of anyone thrown forward in a crash — they presumably take sun-visors but their presence in these days of safety-first could be construed as little short of criminal negligence.
How does the Sunbeam Alpine motor? Very briskly indeed, as acceleration figures in the data panel convey, these being taken after speedometer correction. The engine runs very easily past the red mark at “5,500” on the rev.-counter (it is thereafter “stroked” to 6,000) with no sign of distress. This gives a genuine 45 in second gear, 70 m.p.h. in third gear. On a long straight the Alpine winds up to something approaching 100 m.p.h. in top gear and exceeds the century in overdrive form.
The power unit has a hard purposeful sound when accelerating. It demands 100-octane fuel and has the distressing tendency of stalling unexpectedly, probably because the carburetters had a noticeably rich setting. Petrol consumption is commendably modest, nearly 25 m.p.g. being achieved in fast main-road motoring, while in more than 1,000 miles only a quart of oil was needed. The engine vibrates somewhat when idling and there is considerable exhaust and mechanical noise when the driver is pressing-on. The steering, geared 2¾ turns lock-to-lock, exhibits characteristics of mild castor return, no kick-back but the transmission of some vibration and a rather spongy feel to control pronounced understeer. It is light except towards full lock. The ride is comfortable but the back springing is definitely on the hard side, so that rear-axle throw-up is all too evident to the occupants.
The front seats tip up to give access to the dwarf’s seat. The boot is rather shallow because the suitcases etc., have to go on a metal shelf which folds up to free the spare wheel, as on the Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire, which reminds me that Alpine final assembly is done by Bristol-Siddeley Engines Ltd. I believe that, in fact, quite large cases can be satisfactorily accommodated. The tool kit is stowed about the boot and includes one of those pleasing Thor raw-hide hammers for hub-cap removal. There is provision for a tonneau cover.
Praise must be bestowed on the very light, progressive, fade-free, vice-free and powerful braking afforded by 9½-in. Girling discs on the front wheels. A 9-gallon petrol tank, filled from a horizontal slow-action filler in the off-side back wing, gives a range of over 200 miles, but the petrol gauge prompts the driver to refuel after some 175 miles.
The bonnet panel has to be propped up and the prop did its best to prevent the bonnet from shutting until firmly dealt with. There is an adequate rear-view mirror, somewhat blanking near-side visibility, and direction-flashers are worked by a stalk on the left of the steering wheel, so placed that it is apt to be moved inadvertently, while the self-cancelling factor is rather too brief. The Lucas P700 lamps give an admirable driving light. The clutch is light but rather “slow,” its pedal travel not excessive. The engine proved docile, pink-free and an easy starter. These are general impressions of this pleasant car, which combines the best of open-air and closed-car motoring and offers a splendid balance of performance, economy and modest first cost.
The following is a detailed analysis of this interesting new Rootes Group sporting car: —
As soon as one drives away in the Alpine one gains the impression that far more than usual care has been devoted to making the driver comfortable. For a sports car the seats are quite high off the floor, and the backs, although rather softly upholstered, are shaped to give some lateral support. The deep windscreen, thin pillars (without quarter-lights) and short sloping bonnet provide commanding visibility, and the steering-wheel position is good. Heel-and-toe gear-changes are not possible but the short-travel clutch is outstandingly pleasant to use. As the pedals are placed some distance from the toeboard and the wheel projects a long way from the facia, it is hard to see why the whole driving position should not be re-positioned several inches farther forward, making extra room in the rear compartment and bringing the front-seat occupants nearer to the screen, which is always an advantage in an open car.
The brakes earned the highest praise, being extremely light but with a delicacy of feel which precluded clumsy operation. Some squeal developed with light use. The gearbox has well-chosen ratios with powerful synchromesh and reasonably light short-travel operation. The indirect gears produce quite a lot of noise on the overrun and at light throttle openings.
Driving the car really hard on good main roads, speeds in the nineties can be seen occasionally in favourable circumstances, but the natural cruising speed, at which the car feels extremely happy, is in the region of 80 m.p.h. It cannot be said that the hard-top version is a quiet car at this speed, nor can it be ventilated adequately, opening the side windows causes both wind noise and draught, whilst the driver’s window whistled when closed. Both exhaust noise and carburetter-intake roar are intrusive at high speeds and when accelerating hard.
A very satisfactory compromise has been reached with the suspension, which combines a firm but comfortable ride on bad surfaces with only moderate roll on corners. Chassis structural rigidity appeared to be high as there was no apparent shake in the front-end or scuttle, and this is still a comparatively rare virtue with open cars. There were a few minor rattles from the back of the body and a trace of movement at the rear mounting of the detachable hard-top.
Straight running is very good on all surfaces and at touring speeds the car has light and accurate steering, but driven really hard the handling falls below the highest standards. On really fast corners, particularly bumpy ones, the car shows a marked tendency to run wide of the chosen line. This is not easy to correct because at high cornering loads the steering becomes quite heavy and also betrays some sponginess even with the higher pressures recommended for fast driving. On slower and smoother corners the breakaway characteristics are more nearly neutral and the car can be placed with greater precision, although the steering remains heavy and unresponsive to the small movements about the mean position with which the driver feels his approach to the limit. The Dunlop R.S.4 tyres only squeal under considerable provocation.
To conclude. the Sunbeam Alpine is the sort of fast, smart, pleasant-to-drive sporting car which many enthusiastic motorists will want to own. At under £1,000, inclusive of purchase tax, it should be within their reach. — W.B.