The Sebring 12 Hour Enduro has hosted numerous exciting rivalries between car manufacturers. One of these was played out in the twilight of the MG-A and the heyday of the Sunbeam Alpine. At stake were the competition bragging rights for the affordable British sports car.
The MG-A was quite a revolutionary sportscar when introduced in 1955. Abingdon's answer to the Austin Healey 100 and TR-2; its sleek design was influenced by Le Mans prototypes and speed record cars. It's suggested list price of $2,450 for the roadster and $2,695 for the coupe made it attractive to enthusiasts. By 1959 the MG-A had piled up an impressive track record in races and rallies, thanks in part to good factory support. From an ergonomic perspective, the MG-A's interior was variously described as ranging from "snug" to "claustrophobic". The tent and side curtains rag top of the roadster was drafty and a challenge to erect. This, combined with small footwells and pedals and harsh ride, made the MG-A primarily an enthusiast's car. Despite minor upgrades, the design was getting a bit long in the tooth by 1959.
In 1959 The Rootes Group introduced some major competition to the MG-A in the form of the Sunbeam Alpine. Aimed squarely at the American sportscar market, the Alpine was a refined and sophisticated GT/sports roadster whose dart-shaped design incorporated angled fins at the rear in keeping with American cars of the period. Its suggested retail price of $2,495 made it a real value. The unibody construction, roll-up windows, aircraft style instruments, generous footwells, and reasonably comfortable ride were features that the British motoring press scoffed at, and that the Austin Healey 3000, MG-B and TR-4 were later to copy. American motoring magazines were more enthusiastic about the Alpine, accepting it as a refined cost effective GT tourer. Sports Car Graphic Magazine liked the Alpine, but wrote "This car has been designed as a personal sportscar rather than a dual-purpose sports-race machine and viewed in that context it serves very well." No one, it seems, thought the Alpine had much potential in competition.
Soon, however, club racers began preparing Alpines for SCCA and British track events and winning. Vince Tamboro of Baltimore, Maryland won the SCCA class G production National Championship in a Series I Alpine in 1960. Bernard Unett, a Rootes employee, was also winning races in England in his hot Series I Alpine, and the Alpine proved competitive in rallies as well. John Christy, Editor of Sports Car Graphic Magazine, conceded in March, 1961: "We wondered how the factory teams would do in rugged international rallying. Now we know --- they've done very well indeed. And, to eat a little crow, they've done pretty fair in racing too."
Such early successes caught the attention of Rootes, which began preparing factory Alpines for competition and marketing performance tuning kits. In 1961 the Series II Alpine was introduced with a 1600 cc engine. The MG-A 1600 debuted in 1959, followed by the bored-out 1622 cc Mk. II in 1961. Rootes' Alpine Team entered its first significant competition at the Sebring 12 Hour Enduro in March, 1961, where they would face stiff competition from the MG-A coupes which had done well in their class since 1958. The MG-As were "Deluxe Coupe" spec cars with the a pushrod engine, four-wheel disc brakes and center-lock wheels. Both the MG-A and Alpine were in Class 9, for GT cars up to 1600 cc.
The Rootes team rented the Silverstone track and hastily prepared for competition. Three factory Alpines were entered at Sebring in 1961. Car number 40 was driven by Paddy Hopkirk (later to win fame as an Austin Mini rally driver) and Jopp. Car number 41 was driven by Vince Tamburo (the SCCA G Production Champion from Maryland) and Wilson. Car number 42 was driven by factory drivers Peter Harper and Peter Proctor. The competition director was Norman Garrad.
The MG factory team fielded two cars. Car 44 was driven by Jim Parkinson and Jack Flaherty (California MG dealers and veterans of Le Mans), and car 43 was driven by Peter Riley and John Whitmore. Early in the race, the Alpines proved to be faster than the MG-As or anything else in Class 9. Peter Proctor and Paddy Hopkirk jumped off to an early lead in class, which they held until the first pit stop. The MG-A team, however, was far faster in the pits than the ill-prepared Alpine team. The Alpine team took over 6 minutes for a tire change and refueling, while the MG team performed these operations in 1 minute and 20 seconds.
Early on, the Harper/Proctor Alpine pitted for a brake adjustment, and the Hopkirk/Jopp Alpine blew a head gasket, which was replaced, allowing the car to finish. The Tamburo/Wilson Alpine dropped out with engine trouble. Harper and Proctor were to have brake trouble the whole race, and this combined with slow pit stops, landed them in 17th place behind the MG-A of Parkinson/Flaherty (14th), the Sebring Sprite of Buzzetta/Carlson (15th), and the the MG-A of Riley/Whitmore (16th). Hopkirk and Jopp's Alpine finished well down in the standings. The Alpine team had learned its lesson; never again would it be so ill-prepared.
The Alpines and MG-A's returned to Sebring in 1662. The Alpine team had distinguished itself by winning the Index of Performance and finishing 15th at Le Mans in June, 1961. This time there was competition in class from TVR and Porsche. Four cars were entered by the Rootes works: car 41 driven by Peter Harper/Peter Proctor (the Le Mans Index team), car 42 driven by Payne/Joe Sheppard, car 43 driven by Ken Miles/Lew Spencer, and car 44 driven by Theodolio/Barrette. The three factory MG-As were driven by Jack Sears/Andrew Hedges, Jim Parkinson/Jack Flaherty, and John Whitmore/Bob Olthoff/Frank Morrell.
On the first lap, Peter Harper's Alpine was sideswiped in the first turn and run off the track by the Corvette of Don Yenko (nicknamed "Sideways" Don Yenko by track writers). The Alpine sustained body damage, but was OK otherwise. The Corvette's fiberglass body was badly shredded on the left side. Yenko later apologized to Harper, said his brakes had failed, and that if Harper hadn't been there to stop him, he would have reached the town of Sebring. Harper replied that it was OK, but asked Yenko please not to do it again because "it frightened me."
Harper got back on the track and worked his way up to overtake Ken Miles, who was leading the Alpines just behind the MG-As and TVRs. Two Porsches driven by Gurney and Barth were running away with the class lead, but an exciting "battle of the Brits" developed back in the pack with the less expensive machinery. Harper passed Parkenson's MG-A and began shadowing Cuomo in the TVR. After an efficient pit stop, Proctor took over from Harper and proceeded to put so much pressure on Cuomo's TVR that the latter developed terminal engine failure. Proctor's Alpine was now 3rd in class, ahead of all British rivals but an E-type, and he was gaining on the Jag. Ken Miles sideswiped the McCluggage/Eager Osca and knocked it, and his Alpine out of the race. The Payne/Sheppard Alpine blew a hole in the crankcase, but finished 32nd anyway, just ahead of their team mates, Theodolio/Barrette. The MG-As had some overheating problems trying to stay up with the Harper/Proctor Alpine which finished 15th (third in class). Sears/Hedges MG-A was 16th (fourth in class), while the Parkinson/Flaherty MG-A was 17th, and Whitmore/Olthoff/Morrell finished 18th. None of the TVRs finished the race. 1962 was to be the MG-A's swan song at Sebring. Magazine ads later boasted that the Alpine beat every car it its price range at Sebring. In 1963 a team of factory MG-B's were entered, none of which finished the race. Two private Alpines were entered in 1963, and both finished. The Jerry Titus/Jim Adams Alpine finished 4th in class in a tough field. No TVRs finished.
McGovern, Chris. Alpine The Classic Sunbeam. 1980, Motorbooks International.
Stein, Johnathan A. "Grand Tourer on a Budget: The MGA Coupe." 1991, Automobile Quarterly, vol 29 no. 1, pp 4-14.
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