Stumbling upon an SCCA Champion

Alpine as found

Steve Silverstein is a Sunbeam collector. Unlike most Sunbeam collectors, who seek out only the very desirable Ford V-8-powered Tigers, Silverstein truly appreciates the Tiger’s less-powerful sibling, the Alpine. Alpine Series IVs were powered by 1600-cc four-cylinder engines that produced eighty-seven horsepower, and they were capable sports cars in their day. So capable, in fact, that the manufacturer, Rootes Group, decided to field some factory-backed entries in amateur sports car races during the 1960s against some very formidable competition from both MG and Triumph. As it turned out, the entries were surprisingly successful.

Scanning the Sunbeam Alpine Owner’s Club website in early 2000, Silverstein zeroed in on a particular ad: “Alpine Race Car For Sale—Freshly Machined Engine.” The machined engine caught his attention because the oil pressure in his own street Alpine’s engine was on the decline. When he arrived at the owner’s home, he saw that the car was in worse condition than he was led to believe. He suspected that the engine block was cracked and very little of the car’s history was known. But there were a number of new old stock (NOS) parts included in the deal, and most of the chrome and trim pieces were in good condition, so he struck a deal for what was to be an Alpine parts car.

When the newly acquired Alpine Series IV arrived at Silverstein’s Marlboro, Massachusetts, home, his wife Ellen wasn’t too impressed. They began to unload boxes of spare parts onto shelves in the basement when Ellen discovered at least 100 receipts. She caught her husband’s attention when she began to read some of the notes out loud: “New Koni shocks for Daytona, ’67.” She also found some postcards from one of the car’s former owners, Dan Carmichael. An Internet search revealed that Carmichael was an accomplished road racer who raced Sunbeams for the Sports Car Forum in Columbus, Ohio.

Don Sessler and Dan Carmichael

Silverstein’s interest was piqued, and he ran to his bookshelves to discover that the Sunbeam he had just purchased may have been more than simply a club racer back in the 1960s. In the book Tiger, Alpine, Rapier by Richard Langworth, Silverstein came across the name Don Sessler, who won the SCCA F-Production National Championship in 1964. He called Sessler and confirmed that the car he had just purchased was not your everyday racing Alpine, but the actual championship car that both he and Carmichael had raced as half of a two-car, Alpine/Tiger team. Suddenly, Ellen felt better about the purchase.

F-Production Alpine

As discovered, the Alpine’s body was sound, probably due to the fact that it had been stored indoors from 1968 to 1998. The only previous damage had been on the car’s right front fender, which had been hit by another Alpine when Carmichael was competing in the 1965 American Road Race of Champions. Silverstein decided to refurbish the old race car rather than restore it, so instead of a new paint job, he used compound to bring luster back to the car’s fortyyear- old paint finish. The interior hasn’t been changed: Armor-All was used on the original seats and tonneau cover and a thorough washing of the interior and floorpans cleansed thirty years of grime and achieved a certain patina that restored cars can never match.

The engine was a bit more of a challenge. Oilzum lubricant had gummed up the internals, requiring a thorough soaking to free up the pistons. In the process, Silverstein found that the engine block had been changed at some point from a standard 1600-cc engine to a replacement 1725-cc block. Interestingly, the cylinder head had once been modified by Joe Mondello, a renowned West Coast tuner usually associated with Oldsmobile V-8 drag racing engines.

Ready to race

Sunbeam Alpine No. 74 is now back on the track, as Silverstein often races the car in eastern vintage sports car events. I featured Silverstein in a March 2004 Road & Track magazine story about the Lime Rock Vintage Fall Festival. At Lime Rock, Silverstein is roughly 1.5 seconds slower than when original racer Sessler lapped the track at 1 minute, 13 seconds. But he told me he was having the best time of his life, and hoped that his lap times would get faster. Both car and driver epitomize what vintage racing is all about: racing famous and not-so-famous sports cars, but mostly about having fun.

Don Sessler victory lap

Since his acquisition in 2000, Silverstein has accumulated a huge amount of documentation on his once semi-famous car, including race results, practice times, and preparation notes. The Sunbeam won both the 1964 National F-Production Championship with Sessler as driver, and the 1964 Divisional Championship with Carmichael driving. In the process, the car chalked up an impressive number of first- and second-place finishes by both Sessler (1964) and Carmichael (1964 to 1967).

Silverstein has also corresponded with both drivers, who are in their 70s. In fact, Sessler attended the Alpine Owners Club convention in 2001, where he was thrilled to once again be reunited with his car.

 

cobra-in-the-barn-cover

This story originally appeared in Tom Cotter’s The Cobra in the Barn.

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Comments

  1. Jeff

    Nice story, neat car. Just curious here, on the tv show “Get Smart” in the 60’s was Maxwell’s car a Tiger or Alpine? Sorry Tom.

    • Catfish Phil

      Jeff, Maxwell and 99’s car is a Tiger. Here’s a link: http://www.getsmartcarsite.com/

      Great story about this SCCA racer! Elbow grease instead of a paint job…

    • rancho bella

      It is both………….they were originally called Alpine v8

  2. Bryan Cohn

    Check out this recent piece about 94 yr old Carmichael, recently honored in Columbus OH. He’s a WWII Ace with 13 “victories” to his credit plus 3 SCCA Runoff victories, the last in 1995 at age 77 in Formula Atlantic!

    http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2013/05/03/military-hall-of-fame.html

  3. scot

    ~ another interesting story of the good fortune that befalls the alert purchaser.

  4. Curtis Wood

    I watched Carmichael win his Formula Atlantic National Championship at Road America at age 77 and met him very briefly. The German or Jap fighter pilots having to face him 50 years earlier wouldn’t have stood a chance I don’t think. He was amazing! I new from reading, and talk at the time he was an Ace but had not idea of the Sunbeam race history. Really, really interesting story.

  5. Dolphin Member

    It’s good to see an interesting story with a great outcome that’s about a Sunbeam Alpine. Nowadays the Tigers get lots of attention and trade for big money, but the Alpine was there first and provided the basis for the Tiger.

    What I like about this story is that someone who liked the 4-cylinder Alpines turned one into a national championship-winning car, and then someone else came along much later, bought the car without knowing what it was, and has preserved it because he also likes Alpines and almost by chance became the owner of one of the most significant examples in the country. It looks like the car couldn’t have ended up in better hands.

    And that great vintage racing shot of the Alpine leading a 356 Speedster on a track with no Armco in sight is priceless.

  6. Justin in indy

    The car pictured is #79 with blue numbers, the car that ‘only got buffed out’ is #74 with red numbers.Did I miss something here?

    • steve

      The numbers were from the period Bill Swegler raced it. He apparently used the number “79”. They were just adhesive shelf liner best I could tell. They were barely hanging after 32 years of storage. Then the car was buffed. It still looks pretty bad but I like the way it looks. Don Sesslar’s numbers were put back on.

      I left the tape over the lenses and all alone. I took the disassembled engine to the machine shop for measurement and as it turned out it just needed a light honing and polishing of the journals. In fact, over the first few years of vintage racing I left the original Konis, which were put on the car for the 67′ ARRC, in place.

      Few people realize Alpines were succesful in it’s SCCA class from 1960-68 with multiple National championships and a number of Division championships.

  7. George Holt

    Great story, and great to see an old historic racer back giving pleasure, my barn find Devin C type will make the track at Monterey in Aug after sympathetic resto.

  8. Kurt Spengler

    Ageed! Great story on an often forgotten car! If not for the Tv show Get Smart, I think even the Tiger would not have had the attention it deserved being in the shadows of the Ace Cobra and Carroll Shelby’s success. I’ve always thought the Alpine’s and Tigers stylish body more “aggressive” looking than either MG’s or Triumphs..Not knowing much about the frames or suspensions under these, I’ve wondered how an Alpine would hold up to some serious modern updates like a newer GM 4cyl and 5 speed to compete with the current crop of Mazda Miatas racing today…

  9. turretman1st

    from 1979 to 1994 I had numerous alpines . allways going thru wrecking yards for parts, one time in southern ca upull yard some one had liquidated there alpine collection 14 alpines to go thru. one had a brass plate from esky cams saying a special cam was installed in the engine. I took it and installed in my 62 series 2 when finally tuned. what I found was under 3000rpm it was like normal rootes 1600 engine BUT over 3000rpm it was like having a v8 under the hood,it was fun.
    at that time I was a little crazy and allways took the engine rpms up to 7500 rpm all the time.
    around 1994 I aged and realized I was going to kill myself with them, so traded them off.
    BUT STILL THE MOST FUN I EVER HAD DRIVING THOSE ALPINES>

  10. jim

    a great find and story. this is what keeps me looking.

  11. rancho bella

    Well, the Sunbeam/s used on the first years of Get Smart were, if I remember correctly an Alpine dressed as a Tiger. The show later used different manufactures.

    I prefer an Alpine. The X frame is very strong though not light in weight. A little homework will prove that, in the beginning of the Tiger it was called an Alpine Tiger. Not only did it have it stamped on the I.D tag but in the catalog of the N.Y Auto Show it was titled Alpine Tiger.
    As for this Alpine………..I’m smitten.

    • rancho bella

      Allow me to rephrase. Alpine V8

  12. Harit Trivedi

    Love such stories, specially when something you bought for whatever reason turns out to be of greater significance. And the car is also lucky to be alive, being bought for parts and then restored and proudly flaunted. I love such stories. They make for exciting reading.

    Cheers Harit

  13. junkman Member

    On June 23 British Car Day.at Larz Anderson Auto Museum Brookline Mass you will most likely be able to meet Steve as he cheerfully greets fellow Sunbeam owners. I’ll be there,you should be too if you can. Another great story from Tom, I’m gonna have to buy that book one of these days.

  14. turretman1st

    the 61 up alpines had a unibody construction with an x frame incorporated.
    I preferred the series 2 over all the rest. but very hard to find good bodys even back then. most what I had were other peoples problems (lucas electrical most of the time)
    aluminum but connecters corrosion. clean every connecter ussauly worked fine.

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