Last modified October 5, 1999
STYLING NOTES on the SUNBEAM-TALBOT ALPINE ROADSTER
Real Roadsters Don't Have Door Handles!
Raymond Lowey of Coke bottle and '53 Studebaker
fame is the name most often associated with the "design"
of the Sunbeam-Talbot Alpine but I think in fairness his efforts
should be characterized as more of a "treatment" because
his firm did not design the car from the ground up. Indeed the
good looks of the Alpine can be largely attributed to the solid
design work of the more utilitarian Sunbeam-Talbots. From straight
on, except for the wind screen, they are nearly identical. However,
this should not in anyway diminish the Lowey firm's importance
to the overall look of the car. As Mies van der Rohe said...""God
is in the details".
The idea of an open two seat version of the
open four seat Sunbeam originated in England with a Sunbeam-Talbot
dealer and rallier named George Hartwell who apparently had made
some of these conversions calling them Hartwell coupes. (YOu will
read in the Bantam pages that the Bantam Hollywood had a very
similar chopshop history in that it was derived from a standard
coupe converted to an open car by California designer Alex Tremulis).
Lowey's assignment was to prepare the car visually
and emotionally for the American market which Rootes saw being
successfully exploited by other British and German marques with
their two seaters. Despite the car's rallye success, and the fact
that both Stirling Moss and Sheila van Damm had both somehow coaxed
a specially prepared version of the car to a speed of 120 mph,
there is no way the Sunbeam-Talbot Alpine was going to be competitive
at a race track (or cafe racing) with the then current 356 Porsches,
MG's, Jaguar 120's/140's and so on. Short of dropping it out of
an airplane I can't see how anyone could get one of these cars
going 120mph! :~)
Because of it's rallye record, the Sunbeam-Talbot
Alpine clearly meets the traditional definition of a "sports
car"(...a street-legal, open two seater that can be used
in competition on the week-end.) But no one ever considered it
a serious racing car as far as I know, and perhaps it is more
useful to think of the car, at least in America as a sort of "personal
car" along the lines of the '53 Corvette with it's "Blue
Flame Six", the 55 Thunderbird, or some of the mid range
open Mercedes' of the period, like the 220A. It was certainly
sporty, but it emphasized luxury rather than performance. Something
to drive perhaps to the Country Club or Polo match. The car was
still clearly a metal, virtually hand made old school motorcar
and did not employ any 'cutting edge' design or fiberglass. The
car was perfectly cast for the Grace
Kelly character in "To Catch a Thief"; a rich American
debutante on tour with her mother in Europe. Try to think of another
car that would have fit the part better...a Jaguar XK120 would
have looked nice, but would have been far too spartan and too
much trouble by far for our Grace.
A 1954 Mercedes 220A Cabriolet makes
a good comparison with the 1954 Sunbeam-Talbot Alpine.
The Mercedes is still decidedly pre-war,
with it's "applied" rear fenders and semi-pontoon front
fenders. The STA has "through" fenders (they follow
through the door panel) which was a fairly "modern"
concept, and the beginnings of a horizontal grille which very
soon in styling history will replace these fine upright grilles.
Had Lowey gotten his hands on the Mercedes, those parking lights
on the top of the fenders would have gone no doubt, along with
the two chrome hood side stripes, door handles, heavy wind shield
frame and vestigal running board. Had the factory gone for it
he might have faired a pair of driving lights right into those
handsome catwalks between the fender and hood (bonnet). Maybe
a little more shape to the bumpers. I am a real fan of the so-called
"japanned" wheels you see on the Sunbeam. Neither car
would look particularly good with wire wheels, but the holes allow
sufficient brake cooling, are inexpensive to manufacture, easy
to care for and provide just the right visual interest, enhancing,
but not distracting from the sweeping lines of either of these
cars. Some Sunbeams will have these painted a contrasting color,
say red like some of the rally cars.
You cannot appreciate how wonderful
the long beltline of the Sunbeam is until you see it in person.
It goes uninterupted all the way from the grille to the taillight.
The proportions of this car are not what one would necessarilly
choose automatically, but they somehow work beautifully. The cockpit
is directly in the middle of the car with hood (bonnet) and trunk
(boot) of pretty much equal length. Ordinarilly we would think
of this type of car as having to have a long hood (implying great
power) and a bob-tailed rear section (suggesting sportiness).
From other pictures (go back to Sunbeam home for instance) you
can see how wonderful a shape the long turtleback trunk works:
reminicent almost of an Auburn boat-tailed Speedster. The canvas
top and side screens for the car are rolled up cleverly behind
the seats so there is no trace of canvas to break up it's sinuous
curves and surfaces. (If you are painting one of these cars, especially
in a dark color, you are going to sweat blood trying to get this
immense section perfectly smooth so that reflections and colors
don't wobble). The Mercedes, being a cabriolet rather than a roadster,
will have a big canvas bag appended behind the seats like an old
VW Bug Cabriolet.
A really nice touch on the Sunbeam
are the tail lights which you will note in other pictures are
very small and frosted white. Under the white lens is a second
red lens which gives one red tail,parking and brake lights. Too,
too elegant! When you put on the parking lights, the red shines
(under the white lens) and a regular white light is next to it.
This makes a beautiful graded color from red to orange which is
just plain sexy.
I suppose one could argue about a white
steering wheel and red leather seats with white piping, but hey,
it was the period. Even some fire breathing Morgans and Triumphs
of the time had this treatment. (And BTW, compared to what? The
300SL had some kind of weird plaid seat covers for God's sake!)