Last modified October 5, 1999

STYLING NOTES on the SUNBEAM-TALBOT ALPINE ROADSTER

or

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!)

 

Spear Home Page | Spear Pin Catalog | About Bill Spear | American Bantam/Austin | Sunbeam-Talbot Alpine

Let's hear it from you....bill@wmspear.com