Above is a photo of the 1963 Sunbeam Alpine that once lived with me. The Alpine taught me (or reiterated) a lesson: not all misfits of the vehicular world have just two wheels. I’ve detailed some of my experiences with a Lambretta scooter, an Ariel Leader, a Honda CBX, several Hardly-Ableson Sportsters…all posts composed with significant tongue in cheek…but all dealing with the foibles of two-wheeled weirdos. It’s time to write about an oddity with four wheels.
I bought the Sunbeam in 1988. It had less than 60,000 miles on the odo; that should have been a warning flag. The car hadn’t been maintained in showroom condition, it wasn’t pristine, in fact it was parked out on a carport with a couple of desert tortoises living underneath it. The owner, a middle-aged school teacher, had made no attempt to preserve the car and her asking price was low enough to make apparent her desire to make the little monster go away. After doing a walk-around, I considered a possibility that the low mileage might have been the result of a replacement speedometer or a broken cable but, no, closer inspection of the vehicle convinced me that the numbers were correct. The owner stood silently, watching me as if she were proctoring a student she knew would cheat on a test. Like the old man and the prostitute, I made her an offer, she honored my offer: all night long it was on her and off her. I bought the Sunbeam.
The car had two tops, one a replacement soft top that didn’t fit quite right and the other a black, angular, rough-textured, plastic device that was so ugly it would have been appropriate bolted onto a Borgward or a Goliath (those are, for the uninitiated, both makes of automobiles though they were neither auto nor usually mobile). I hid the hard top in my hangar after trailering my new acquisition home. The Sunbeam had benefited from Arizona’s lack of humidity in that it no patches of oxidation; it suffered from Arizona’s sunbeams in that its original paint had given up the ghost. A replacement paint job was apparently chosen to compliment the hard top. It was a truly ugly shade of yellowish beige that only someone with color vision problems could have selected. Several runs were apparent around the lower portions of the fenders. Hopefully the teacher hadn’t paid too much for the work. I planned on having the car repainted but wanted to drive it first.
That’s always a mistake when dealing with a 1960’s British car. By the time it’s been driven for a few miles, there are so many areas that need attention the paint never reaches priority stage. In the case of the Sunbeam and its roaring 1600cc four-banger, we’ll begin with the electrical system. System is a charitable term when applied to forty year old wiring created by Joseph Lucas and his elvish demons. (I plan on doing a future post on the foibles of electrics by the Prince of Darkness.) Several hours were dedicated to pulling each rubber connector block apart and replacing the oxidized connectors with more modern (and moisture proof) fittings. The generator was replaced with an alternator and sundry other little black parts that would hopefully maintain a charged battery. I put the vehicle back on the road feeling somewhat secure that tiny electrons would find an acceptable path through their labryinthine routes without going to ground and melting their overcoats. An explanation at this point: I paid $2,500 for the car. Regardless of the low mileage, it was intended to be a driver. If I had wanted to restore and show a vehicle, I would have chosen something other than a Sunbeam Alpine.
Trip to Phoenix during winter’s cooler temperatures brought to my attention a few additional areas in need of maintenance. The clutch slave chose to leak fluid and lose pressure. I returned home syncing my shifts with the throttle and avoiding full stops unless absolutely necessary. Brakes were also indicating they were picking up air in the lines. OK, I replaced all the hydraulic lines and installed kits for both brake and clutch slaves and masters. While working with the brakes, I realized the wheels–13″ spoke types–had accumulated moisture inside and welded some of the spoke nipples to the rims, thus contributing to broken spokes. Sending five rims to a shop in Los Angeles that had done wheel maintenance on an E-Type Jag I once owned was going to set me back more than half of what I paid for the entire Alpine. I chose to use penetrating oil–Mouse Milk to be specific–on the rims then replace broken spokes with new. From this point forward, I knew I was renovating the Sunbeam for resale, not to bond with and let it become a family member.
Why did the British automobile industry curl up and die like a centipede after eating poison? The Sunbeam is a paradigm of their problem. The car itself was rather cute, if one is into cute. It was pathetically underpowered. (A variant of the little ‘beam, the Tiger, cured the performance problem by shoehorning a 260ci V8 Ford into the engine compartment, providing way too much grunt for way too little suspension, braking, and so on. Maybe a twin OHC modern four-valve with fuel injection and alloy construction would have been a worthy addition along with a better suspension system, brakes, etc. Just changing spark plugs on the Tiger involved removing both front wheels and taking panels off the inside fender wells.) Mechanical problems plagued the Sunbeam, not in one specific area but a never-ending line of niggling squawks. This condition was endemic to Brit cars of the time. A pantheon of sports cars rolled from Britain’s factories in the ’60’s, providing drivers with everything from the Alpine to the Triumph TR-3, 3A, and 4 (owned one of each); the wonderful Austin-Healy 100 through 3000 series (yep, had those, too); and the memorable Jaguars from the 120’s in the 1950’s through the XKE’s with 3.8 and 4.2 liter big six cylinder engines to list just a few. (I don’t include the Jag 12–I hated them.) All these vehicles had characteristics that endeared them to the owner/enthusiast. Every single one of them had foibles that created gray hair, tears of frustration and oaths signed-in-blood to never own another English car.
The Sunbeam was a perfect example of that creed.