Grace Kelly reached into her picnic basket and asked Cary Grant,
innocently enough, "Do you want a leg or a breast?"


Before the 1960s Sunbeam Alpine that we all remember as the basis for the Tiger, there was another Alpine, made from 1953 to 1955.

For my money, the stories attached to this seldom-seen model (of approximately 3,000 built, only 200 may now survive) are more interesting than those about the later model. I'd argue that had there not been a Sunbeam Alpine in the '50s, Rootes probably wouldn't have introduced a new sports car in the '60s.

But then, I was deeply influenced as a boy by Grace Kelly smiling at Cary Grant from the front seat of a sapphire blue Alpine as she reached into her picnic basket and asked him, innocently, "Do you want a leg or a breast?"

In 1953, we are way ahead of where the story starts. Sunbeams date back to 1887, when John Marston, an avid racing cyclist, started the Sunbeamland Cycle Factory. By 1909, the company was producing a line of Sunbeam automobiles, with Marston racing them to gain publicity.

Four land speed records

The company absorbed Talbot and Darracq in 1920 to form the STD Company, with racing still a big part of its identity. In 1927, a Sunbeam established world land speed records on four separate occasions.

However, this didn't help in the Depression. By 1935, the company was in receivership, and canny Billy Rootes added Sunbeam-Talbot to Hillman and Humber.

Rootes resumed automobile production after WWII, and in 1948 introduced the Sunbeam-Talbot 80 and 90 saloon and drophead. Though the smaller-engined 80 was discontinued by 1950, the 90 continued, with the engines expanded to 2,267 cc.

Rootes had little use for racing, but dealer George Hartwell of Bournemouth rebodied a drophead Sunbeam 90 for competition by shrouding the rear seat and extending the trunk lid. He added louvers in the hood, but otherwise the Alpines were identical to the drophead coupes back to the B-pillars.

Styled by Raymond Loewy

The result was quite handsome, and its styling caught the eye of Norman Garrad, Rootes's competition director. Rootes hired Raymond Loewy Studios to clean up the design and put it into production as the Sunbeam Alpine Sports roadster. The name was reportedly Garrad's idea, referring to the rallies in which the Sunbeam-Talbot saloons did well. The Alpine bodies were produced at Thrupp & Maberly, Rootes's in-house coachbuilder.

The new model weighed a portly 2,848 pounds and sold for $2,899. It was advertised as "bred in the Alps" and had a leather interior, detachable sliding side windows, no outside door handles, and a removable soft top. Tuning kits and racing windshields were available, but acceleration was leisurely from the 77-hp, 2.2-liter 4-cylinder. Production models topped out around 90 mph with the quarter-mile coming up in a soporific 21 seconds.

In a marketing drive, Garrad hired drivers Stirling Moss and Sheila Van Damm to run the car in speed trials on the Jabbeke highway in Belgium in early 1953. The specially prepared cars topped 120 mph over the measured mile, and then set another production car speed record by completing 110 miles in an hour on the Montlhéry race track.

Six Alpines were entered in the 1953 Alpine Rally, and four made unpenalized runs, including the one driven by Stirling Moss. In addition, Van Damm won the Coupe des Dames as the fastest woman driver. Moss would go on to earn two more Alpine cups runs, winning one of the few Coupe d'Ors awarded on this challenging run.

Grace Kelly gave the Alpine its moment of movie fame in 1955 when she co-starred with Cary Grant in what I consider to be her best picture-the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, "To Catch a Thief." Though Kelly herself was not a good driver, her character-a wealthy, liberated young American woman-thought she was. With string-back gloves and Grant hanging on to the grab handle, she outdistanced the police in a chase that supposedly took place on the French Riviera.

The irony of this sequence, with its back-projection filming of the two leads swaying in the seats of an obviously stationary car, is that Kelly, who became Princess Grace of Monaco in 1956, was killed in 1982 when her Rover went off the same stretch of road after she suffered a stroke.

Sunbeams get a facelift

All three Sunbeam models were upgraded in 1955, and these models were referred to by the company as Mk IIIs, with the Talbot name dropped. However, the Alpine was too heavy to be a true sports car, and even with a price reduction that made it less expensive than the Healey 100 and Triumph TR2, it couldn't compete.

After seven years of production, the Sunbeam 90 gave way to the Sunbeam Rapier, badge-engineered (by Loewy again) from the Hillman Minx. The Sunbeam Alpine left its name and competition record to a new generation of Rootes sports cars in 1960.

Two myths about the Sunbeam Alpine surface with regularity, and should be addressed here:
First, there was never a "Sunbeam-Talbot Alpine." The Alpine was simply the "Sunbeam Alpine Sports roadster." In 1953, Rootes was in the process of removing the old Talbot name from its brand identity so its cars wouldn't be confused with the Talbot-Lagos in France, and the Alpine was the first car to be renamed.

Second, there was no such thing as a Sunbeam Alpine Mk I. The first version of the Sunbeam Alpine was based on the Sunbeam-Talbot Mk II A, but it never had a model number of its own. Thus, the second model of the Alpine was called the Mk III, because when Rootes introduced the Mk III saloons and dropheads in 1955, the Alpine carried the same designation.

Today, first-generation Alpine prices vary widely, with the last two sales in SCM's database being for $15,000 and $37,000 in 2006. Values are largely determined by the existence of unique trim pieces, though mechanical and suspension items are common to the 80 and 90 sedans, and there are active clubs in the United States and Europe. The options you want to have are a floor shifter and a center-mounted tachometer.

Since the problem of the Alpine was that it had glacial acceleration in spite of its reasonable top speed, you might well find one with an engine transplant. I've seen them with Ford 289s, for example, which of course would give a new definition to the phrase "chassis flex." Either way, you should have lots of choices around $20,000.

These are not cars for everyone. Homely at best, with underwhelming performance, they might shine at an Orphan English Car Show or a "Name That Ride" Festival. For someone looking for an offbeat, slow collector car for sedentary rides through the countryside, perhaps racing with MG TCs at sub-50 mph speeds, the Alpine could be just the ticket.

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