Try to think of an affordable two-seater roadster from the Sixties and you’ll invariably end up with images of an octagon-badged drop-top in your mind. But look beyond the obvious and there’s an even more affordable mass-market convertible that for some reason has always been overlooked – the Sunbeam Alpine series I-V.
Luxury Sunbeam Alpine Exterior in Red
First on sale in July 1959, the Series I Alpine was no road-rocket with just 78bhp on offer from its 1494cc four-cylinder powerplant. Based on nothing more sexy than a Hillman Husky floorpan, the Alpine’s engine was much the same as the ones found nestling under the bonnet of a Rapier, but with a four-branch manifold and an alloy cylinder head. The car’s top speed was just 101mph, which was as fast as any production Alpine ever got, although at least it’s easy to tune them if performance is your priority. The transmission was also the same as that found in the Rapier, but with closer gear ratios and the option of a Laycock overdrive.
By October 1960, after 11,904 Series Is had been built, it was time for the next step. With a larger, 80bhp 1592cc engine, the Series II kept the fins and detachable aluminium hard-top of its predecessor but the seating was made more comfortable. By the time it gave way to the Series III in March 1963, 19,956 had rolled off the production lines.
The third-generation Alpine brought with it a new option – the GT. The special thing about the GT – which actually isn’t that special at all – was the lack of a folding hood to keep weight and costs down, although the interior was much nicer with wood trim for the dash and a wood-rim steering wheel. The GT is now the least sought after Alpine unless it’s been converted to have a folding roof – in which case it’s one of the most desirable thanks to the wooden bits inside. The optional detachable hard top on the Series III onwards was steel instead of aluminium (and was more angular) and twin fuel tanks replaced the single item fitted to earlier cars, which meant the boot space was far more usable as there was much more of it. Just 5863 Series IIIs were made, making it the rarest Alpine by quite a margin (except for the Harrington fixed-roof Alpines), and one of the most desirable too as it’s the most refined of the big-finned models.
When the Series IV was launched in January 1964 it had almost lost its tailfins and the grille had become a single chrome bar in place of the previous four-bar unit. Before production gave way to the final version of the Alpine, the Series V, in September 1965, 12,406 Series IVs had been built. With a five-bearing engine for the first time, the Series V sported a 1724cc engine and a pair of Stromberg carbs to give 92bhp – still only enough to push it to 100mph. By the time the Alpine went out of production in January 1968 a total of 19,122 Series Vs had been built.
By the time the Alpine bit the dust, the rather fruitier Tiger, which had promised great things, had gone the same way. Spurred on by the instant success of AC’s Ace (which became a Cobra), Rootes tried the same formula with the Alpine by slotting a 4261cc Ford V8 in the engine bay while the export- only Series II got a 4727cc V8. The car was assembled at Jensen’s West Bromwich plant and styling changes over the Alpine were restricted to a chrome strip along the car’s flanks, different wheel trims and a pair of exhausts instead of just the one. A tie-up with Chrysler in June 1964, just as the project was getting going, didn’t help things and by the middle of 1967 the whole episode was history after 6495 Series I cars and 571 Series IIs had been built – including just 12 righthand-drive cars.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Until a decade or so ago there was a surprisingly large number of Alpines being used every day. But despite the car’s practicality, such use will take its toll on the bodyshell, which doesn’t soldier on like the mechanicals can. That means repairs on a shoestring are commonplace so you’ve got to have your wits about you if you’re not to be done up like a kipper. It’s easy to miss the signs of a bodged restoration and sometimes even a trained eye can skip over things.
The lack of factory-applied rust protection invites rust, although the monocoque is very strong as long as the tin worm hasn’t got to it. The most important place to check, and the first place that’s likely to rot, is along the length of the sills. These are essential to the car’s strength, so make sure that all three layers of the sill are present. Without taking the car to pieces that’s not possible, so if
work has been done make sure you look at photographic evidence. Unrestored cars in good condition are pretty much extinct – if the vendor claims the car you’re looking at is original it’s wise to check that the sills are curved to match the convex profile of the door. Cheap replacement panels are straight and won’t look quite right, and once water has got into the leading edge of the sills it works its way to the back wreaking havoc along the way. The problem starts when the caulk seal that should bridge the gap between the front wing and the inner wheelarch drops out, allowing the water in. Another thing to check is that there’s a step in the splash panel at the back of the front inner wheelarch. If the panel’s smooth it’s just a cover panel that’s almost certainly masking something nasty.
Unless the car has been properly restored you can bank on having to have the sills rebuilt on pretty much any car you look at – expect to pay £800 to have each side fixed, including blending the paint in. If possible, to check the integrity of the sills jack the car up both front and rear to see if the rear door gap closes up – if you can no longer open the door you know the structure of the car has been weakened. But you can expect to see 1-2mm movement of the door in its aperture and you have to make sure that the jacking points themselves aren’t just a memory.
You’ll probably find rust around the headlamps, along the base of the windscreen and at the back of the engine bay under the master cylinders, so lift the bonnet (which rarely rots) and inspect closely. The doors aren’t especially rot-prone, but the hinges wear allowing the door to drop. The front edge and the underside are the most likely places that rot will be lurking, and if the door has been reskinned make sure the rubber seal is there and that the profile of the whole door is correct.
Check the back of the car, particularly the base of the wings which should have a drain hole visible. If it’s not there, it’s likely there have been some poor repairs made at some point and while you’re sniffing around this area analyse the inner rear wheelarches. Open the boot to inspect the rear corners of the boot floor and while you’re there make sure the trailing edge of the bootlid isn’t riddled with rot.
Floorpans can corrode badly, so make sure you lift the mats or carpets in the front footwells to see what state the leading edges are in. The area around the accelerator is especially rot-prone and try rocking the seats – they may be mounted on crumbling metal, just like the handbrake which is mounted to the right of the driver’s seat. While you’re inside the car take a look at the mountings for the rear spring hangers. Located behind the front seats on an angled panel, signs of rust may be only the start of the story. The spring hangers are a real pain to repair properly and you won’t want to buy a car on which they’re rotten, but just because the floor above them has rotted it doesn’t mean the hangers themselves need any work. But make sure you check the rear spring hangers from underneath anyway, and while you’re there also examine the jacking points closely because they may have dissolved.
The final rot-spot to check is the rear corners of the hardtop, if it’s one of the steel items fitted to Series III cars onwards. The earlier aluminium roofs don’t give problems, but the steel ones iniably rot and the perspex windows craze.
The powerplants fitted to Rootes cars are generally famed for their durability thanks to straightforward engineering, although none of them turns the Alpine into a fast car. Tweaked versions of engines found in Rootes’ contemporary saloons – and fitted to the Alpine – shouldn’t give many problems, but the most likely one is overheating due to previous neglect. The alloy cylinder heads are prone to warping if they haven’t been torqued down properly after replacement, and if the anti-freeze level has been allowed to drop in the coolant there’s probably some corrosion within the system. If you’re tempted by a Tiger, be doubly sure that all’s in order as cooling is marginal on these V8 beasts.
One of the common bodges which afflicts Alpines is that of fitting an engine from a Minx or Sceptre and passing it off as a genuine Alpine unit. Outwardly there’s little difference but put your foot down and there’s a noticeable lack of power.
Another potential problem is that of a cracked block due to a fault line that’s given way along the water jacket, although this is only really an issue if the coolant within the engine has been allowed to freeze. Spotting whether or not the block has cracked isn’t necessarily that easy (water seepage is the most likely symptom), but repairing such damage is economically feasible.
Oil leaks are also common as the engines use a scroll-type oil seal. That also means that the crank pulleys wear and eventually you’ll need a new one, at £80 plus fitting.
Although Alpine engines are inherently durable, they’re sometimes thrashed to get the most out of them. Any of the engines fitted to the Alpine should take 130,000 miles quite happily, but they don’t like neglect very much. The most likely cause of problems with the 1725 engine fitted to the Series V is using an incorrect procedure for changing the oil and filter. Whatever you do, don’t change the oil while hot or remove the oil filter when the sump is empty as this will allow the remote oil pump to drain, leading to seized big end bearings.
When you test drive the car take a look at the oil pressure when it’s up to temperature. At least 15psi should be showing at idle on a three-bearing engine (pre-Series V cars), with 50-55psi showing over 2000rpm. The 1725 engine will give 25psi at idle quite happily, with 45psi or more showing at 2000rpm.
From the outset overdrive was available on the Alpine, but it wasn’t always fitted. That’s a shame because cars without it aren’t nearly as nice to use and finding a unit to retro fit isn’t that easy as overdrive units are getting increasingly scarce. In fact they’re so hard to find that for a reconditioned overdrive gearbox you can now expect to pay up to £500, and you can’t beat the system by trying to use a Hunter unit as it won’t fit.
The four-speed manual gearbox fitted to all Alpines is nice enough to use, but it wasn’t until the Series IV that syncromesh was fitted to all gears. Earlier cars did without first-gear syncro but if you don’t like swapping gears at all you could always buy an auto Alpine – as long as you’re happy with a series IV. Not fitted to any of the other derivatives, the Borg-Warner type 35 autobox is a reliable unit that was fitted to all sorts of classics throughout the Sixties.
Autos are traditionally frowned upon by ‘those who know’ but the self-shifting ’box in the Alpine isn’t a bad unit at all. The problem is that only 87 were made and some of those have been converted to manual transmission. If you wanted to turn a manual into an auto you can do it, as long as you can track down the relevant parts from a suitable Rootes Group car (such as a Sceptre or Minx).
STEERING & SUSPENSION
All Alpines were fitted with the same basic semi-trailing wishbone suspension layout, but there were detail changes along the way. Series I-III cars were fitted with a front suspension that used a lower trunnion and kingpin set-up which needs regular greasing to stay sharp. Many cars don’t get the regular TLC they need, leading to sloppy handling through worn or seized kingpins – and finding new bits for the front suspension of a Series I-III car isn’t easy.
Series IV and V cars used Metalastik bushes instead, to reduce maintenance and give a more comfortable ride. And although you don’t have to grease kingpins frequently, the chances are that the bushes will need replacing by now, especially as they’re probably soaked in engine oil. Polyurethane items are available, at £10 each for the lower units and £7 for the upper ones.
At the rear, lever arm dampers were replaced by telescopic items from the introduction of the Series III. But apart from checking for the usual leaks there are no inherent problems with either type of suspension.
The steering boxes fitted throughout production have a habit of leaking, while the idler assembly also likes to wear or seize. But everything is available to keep the steering sharp, although replacing a steering box isn’t the easiest task to perform unless you know what you’re doing.
WHEELS & BRAKES
Wire wheels are very popular with Alpine owners, especially if the car doesn’t get used very much. As a result you have to check the wheels carefully, as broken spokes and worn splines are almost a given if the car has seen a lot of use.
There aren’t any problems associated with the braking system on the Alpine, although the self-adjusting rear brakes that were initially fitted to the Series V didn’t last long – by November 1967 they reverted to the manually adjustable system fitted to Series I-IV cars.
Just about everything is available either new or reconditioned, although much of the interior trim has been remanufactured rather than being new-old-stock. Rubber mats are no longer available, but most people want carpet sets anyway and even the exterior
trim is available (except for bumpers), having been reproduced.
From September 1965 an alternator was fitted in place of a dynamo and these fed a regulator and warning lamp relay on the inner wing. If the unit is overcharging these ancilliaries will get fried (and cost you £50 to replace) so it’s worth checking the alternator’s output to make sure it’s working correctly.
If you’re looking for a car to use regularly you’re better off with a Series V as its larger five-bearing engine makes the car more usable. But if you want an Alpine with fins your best bet is to look for a Series III car as it has a much larger boot and more comfortable seats.
Probably the nicest Alpine is one that wasn’t made officially, which is the GT (complete with wood trim) but with a soft-top and Series V engine and suspension.
None of the cars are very quick, but if you want some serious power in an Alpine shell you could always look at buying a Tiger. If there isn’t enough power there you’re probably beyond help.