Posted on: May 23, 1978

From Rootes Review
Vol. 3, #3, May 1978

by Jan Eyerman

In July of 1959 the Rootes Group announced their first counter-attack in the rapidly escalating compact car war. Back in the late fifties the increasing competition of foreign imported cars caused the American “Big Three” to bring out their first generation of American small cars (Falcon, Corvair, and Valiant). These cars were introduced in the Fall of 1959 as 1960 models. One of the cars that the compacts were intended to displace was the Hillman Minx. Realizing the problem, Rootes made a move to avoid the full impact, they introduced the Sunbeam Alpine.

It was a very successful move. Sight unseen, the U.S. Rootes dealers put up over $4,000,000 in advance orders for the new sports car. Rootes was no longer totally dependent on the compact car segment of the market, they could now sell in the M.G., Triumph, Fiat segment of the market. The new Alpine was a prime competitor.

To trace the heritage of the Alpine we have to go back to the mid-fifties. At that time Rootes had contracted Raymond Loewy to design a series of small cars for Rootes. One of the last designs was a new sports car to replace the old Alpine. The 1955-57 two seater Ford Thunderbird was chosen as the basis of the design. The basic shape and proportions were copied in three-quarter scale, producing a miniature “Classic Bird”. Although a copy, the Alpine introduced the “Dart” or “Wedge” shape to mass produced automobile design.

For reasons of economy of production, the floor pan stamping and chassis of another Rootes car were used, the Hillman Husky. The Hillman Husky had been introduced in 1954-55 as a low cost, two door station wagon. With the lowest selling price of any Rootes car, the Husky was quite successful. The short 86 inch wheelbase and centrally located driver’s position made the Husky’s underpinnings an ideal choice for the Alpine’s floor pan and chassis. In the British tradition, the lever action rear shock absorbers of the Husky were retained in the Alpine. The lever action shocks were used in the Husky wagon to allow a flat cargo floor with no “shock towers” extending into it. Oddly enough, back in Part II, I mentioned that Hillman’s early sports car was called the Husky and here we find the later Husky providing key components for the new Alpine.

For the power plant, the Sunbeam Rapier 1,494 cc four cylinder “Rally master” engine was used as a base. The bore was now 3.11 inches (up from 3.00) but the stroke remained at 3.00, thus finally becoming over square. Other than the basic block and bottom end, the rest of the engine was extensively changed. The head was now aluminum for better heat dissipation (which allowed a higher compression ratio), the valves were larger with heavier dual valve springs, the camshaft had revised valve timing (more overlap) and new twin Zenith carbs with mesh air cleaners sat on a water, heated manifold. A header tank sat on top of the head (above the thermostat) and a then revolutionary cross flow radiator was fitted. To finish off the package in the best British tradition, the valve cover was cast aluminum and had “Sunbeam” molded into it.
Behind the engine was an eight inch hydraulically operated coil spring clutch driving the basic Rapier transmission, which now had excellently chosen ratios. First gear was still unsynchronized and noisy, but the floor shift was improved and the total package was probably one of the best transmissions made in England at that time. Another first for the Alpine was Rootes belated introduction of a hypoid read end (first seen on an American car in 1927!) with a ratio of 3.89:1.

The suspension and steering were probably the Series I’s weakest points. The front suspension was unequal length A frames, coil springs and tubular shock absorbers, the whole thing had been taken from the Hillman Minx / Sunbeam Rapier. One unique aspect of the design was the use of upper ball joints and lower trunnions. While this made for a high unsprung weight, with proper lubrication it was very long lived. The rear axle was more or less held in place by two short leaf springs, which were barely adequate for the Alpine’s 83.5 horsepower and would rapidly prove inadequate as the output of the engine was increased over the years.

The steering was by recirculating ball, which while excellent for the Hillman Minx sedan, was too slow and heavy for a sports car. A unique aspect of the entire steering gear was Rootes flat refusal to use any rubber bushings in the steering system. All connections, mounts and contacts had to be metal to metal, “no rubbery steering” in any Rootes product. This made it very hard to dampen out vibrations and “kick back” but guaranteed no deterioration of the steering due to rubber bushings aging. Interestingly, this concept is carried out to this days the latest Rootes/Chrysler U.K. product, the Hillman Avenger (Plymouth Cricket) uses an all metal universal joint in the steering column while U.S. auto makers (such as Ford) use a rubber ring.

The most outstanding contribution to low priced sports cars made by the Alpine was in the area of driver and passenger comfort. A six footer could easily fit into the car, the seat and all of the pedals were adjustable (alas, the steering column was not), of course a full set of instruments was standard. The heater and defroster really worked (unlike many foreign cars of the period). Roll up windows were unheard of in its price class, all of the other cars had “side curtains”. And all of this could be had for under $2,500. Only a few options were available – like wire wheels, white wall tires, radio, removable hard top, etc. Overdrive was not immediately available but was offered later in 1960.

While the Alpine was a smash hit and the cars were back ordered (over 11,904 sold in 1960), the rest of the Rootes line was not doing as well. After reaching a high point of 28,185 cars in 1959, Hillman sales fell to only 11,684 in 1960. Along with this was Rootes’ introduction of the ill-fated Easidrive automatic transmission on the Hillman and Singer lines.

Although this is a history of Sunbeam, the uniqueness and the eventual effect of the Easidrive transmission on Rootes warrant a little explanation. The Easidrive was invented in the U.S. in the early fifties when development of automatic transmissions was going on quite rapidly. The major problem with  the hydraulic automatic transmissions was their inefficiency. These units (such as the Hydromatic and Dynaflow) absorbed a great deal of horsepower, thus limiting their use to cars that had an excess of power (i.e. big V8’s). Therefore a great deal of effort was devoted to designing a more efficient automatic transmission that would not drain too much power and would allow good economy. The results of these efforts were a second generation of automatic transmissions which included the Borg Warner T-35 more about that later) and the Easidrive. Unlike all other automatic transmissions which are hydraulic, the Easidrive was electrical. The generator of the car was connected to magnets on the flywheel of the engine, in between the magnets were iron filings. When power was supplied to the magnets, the iron filings connected the engine to the transmission. The transmission was a basic three speed unit operated by a solenoid. Through an elaborate system of relays and switches the generator was disconnected and connected to the magnets in the flywheel and power was supplied to the solenoid to activate the shifts. As no American auto maker was interested in this electronic marvel (the marvel being that it actually worked), it was sold to Smith Instruments in England. Smiths in turn sold it to Rootes.

In 1960 the Easidrive was offered in the Hillman and Singer lines, with the Easidrive a Minx Special sedan cost $1,995 or exactly the same price as a Ford Falcon with a manual transmission. I owned one of these Hillmans and the transmission worked fine until corrosion set in on the relays and contacts. The transmission’s major short coming was its sensitivity to electrical problems. A bad battery connection or a faulty regulator could render the car immobile or cause erratic shifting. With time, the corrosion on the electrical contacts caused severe problems.

One event I remember about my Minx was a cold and rainy night I was driving home. I had the headlights on, the wipers on and the heater blower on. I came to a traffic light and hit the brakes and the engine stalled. When I attempted to start the car I found the battery was dead. The reason was that the generator could not produce enough electricity to supply the Easidrive and the accessories! That was the first time that I had to use the “starting handle”. I then drove home without the heater, the parking lights only and only used the wipers when I couldn’t see out of the windshield anymore!

In the end, the Easidrive dealt Hillman, and therefore Rootes, a blow from which their American sales never really recovered. All in all, 1960 represented the high point for Rootes in the U.S. Over 15 models of Rootes cars were offered five Hillmans, three Singers, three Sunbeams and four Humbers. Virtually every aspect of the U.S. market was covered from a $1,639 Hillman Husky to a $4,000 Humber Super Snipe and from a luxury compact (the Singer Gazelle) to a sports car (the Alpine).

The next article in this series will cover the Series II and later Alpines and the Harrington LeMans.

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