Sunbeam Saga

Octagon Newsletter … May 1997

By Rob Richter

It all started so innocently, a fall drive with my good buddy James Benson in his white 61 MGA. We had just left Christies Carriage House and I was feeling quite good after beating him in darts. But there was one thing I couldn't beat about James, who incidentally likes to be called Red, by his friends, because of his flaming beard and hair. Red's pride and joy was his classic automobile. We enjoyed cruising around Dallas Road and through Oak Bay (supposedly great looking territory)as I listened to Red carry on about the virtues of owning an MG. I had to admit I had always wanted to own a convertible but they always seemed a little too impractical when you could only drive them in Winnipeg, where I grew up, for four months. But I lived in Victoria now and the idea seemed to be getting better all the time. With my arm hanging out of the car, I enjoyed the fact that I could almost touch the ground. This was living!! The feeling of freedom was even greater than when I rode motorcycles. Suddenly Red slammed on the brakes and brought me back to reality and there it was. Tucked neatly in the driveway was a unique car that had a vague familiarity about it. “It's a Sunbeam Alpine”, Red told me. Nice name I thought. The car was badly in need of a paint job but it ran.

I slept on the asking price of $2300 and kept thinking to myself how little I knew about automobile mechanics. The next day I took the car to Mike Owen (a qualified British Car Mechanic at Searles) for a full inspection. Mike told me all the things that were wrong with the car, which was virtually everything and told me not to buy the car. I took the car back to it's owner, who by the way, was very nice and also very British. The next night was one of the worst sleeps in my life. What should I do? I loved the clean lines of the Alpine, the roar of the engine, the smell of oil, the wind blowing in my hair, yet I knew nothing about cars and had just been told, by a qualified mechanic, not to buy the Alpine. Then it came to me where I remembered the car from. My favourite show as a kid was 'Get Smart' and, of course, Max drove a classic Sunbeam . It was later that I found out that Max drove a Tiger, but, at the time, the Alpine looked the same to me. Even later, I found out that real spies drove Alpines (James Bond … 1961, Dr. No). The next morning I had made my decision!! I was going to buy the car anyway, and after some haggling it was mine for $2100.

I learned that parts come off quickly, it's putting them back on that takes the time and money. Red suddenly had two kids and was no where to be seen. So much for all the help! Winter came,< so I did the logical thing and covered up the Alpine and started ordering loads of parts. I spent a lot of time reading about my car and automobiles in general since I didn't even know how to change oil. The more I read, the more I realized what a strange beast a British car really was. Positive Ground?? Intake and exhaust on the same side?? All the new terminology was confusing. A boot was something my old man gave me for goofing off! Carburetion was another matter. Even though the rebuild kit proclaimed the process of rebuilding would not be like brain surgery, I can assure you, my brain needed attention after trying to figure the whole thing out. And why two? As if one carburettor wasn't good enough. Two years went by quickly, doing virtually nothing to my car except dream about it. Then spring came and I was very eager to get my car going.

Reality set in again when I tried to put the front suspension back together. No one told me you needed special tools like spring compressors and such for the job. After a few sunny days passed by, I phoned up Mike who didn't seem too surprised to hear from me. Within two days, Mike put the front suspension back together as well as put in a timing chain and new brakes all around. The Alpine was mobile. After bombing around for a few weeks feeling very cool about being the proud owner of such a neat looking car, reality again set in and the reason I was feeling so cool became apparent. My heater core was leaking down onto my legs. This alone would not have been so bad but the fact that it was the middle of February had a great bearing on my 'coolness'. After getting the heater core and then the radiator fixed, I drove the car another week and decided what the car really needed was a new outlook on life.

I soon found out two important truths to car restorations. One was that chroming is very expensive, and the other is that painting is very time consuming. Of course it's not the painting but all the preparing that is so labour intensive. A friend of mine from the MG Club, Al Fraser took on the task of showing his new apprentice the ropes. People soon questioned my intentions … it went something like this, "Rob your going to paint a car?? You don't even know anything about cars!". I thought about the situation. All they were saying was true. Then once again my stubborn personality shone. I'm the type that if someone says it can't be done I'll do it just to prove a point. So off to work I went with Al sanding and putting and priming till my fingers bled. Al doesn't believe in using too many power tools. By the end of March, we were ready. The paint went on quickly and it was soon obvious that the colour was much brighter than I expected. Oh well another learning experience. Those little square samples in the paint shop look a lot different on a whole car!! The most challenging aspect of painting the Alpine was the wind. You see, not only were we painting in March but we were also outside!!  The car looked great, from a distance, at least. Closer inspection revealed all my finishing imperfections. The look on my face said it all and Al did not have to ask me what I thought. "Well Rob you can always sand it down and we can do it again." That's exactly what we did the next weekend and this time I was happy. I soon learned new techniques like how to get bugs out hardened paint and the virtues of Brasso and elbow grease.

I soon realized that the best part of the deal was not actually purchasing the Alpine itself, but all the spare parts that came with the car. Like the differential I needed when mine blew up going up Mt. Erie on Fidalgo Island. They tried to tell me it was my third member but I knew differently, I think. Then there was the time I had the bright idea that I was going to take the Alpine back to Winnipeg. Transmission failure going over the Coquihalla. Thank God for Greyhound!! My generator decided to give out in Parksville. Thank God for push starts. The engine fire at an MG Club Slalom was especially impressive. More impressive was the fact that after putting out the fire with my extinguisher, the car actually started up and I continued the race.

Over the seven years that I have owned the fiery little Sunbeam, I can honestly say it has brought me immensely more joy than heartache. The biggest compliment I ever received was by a fellow passing by my car one day. I immediately recognized him, but he didn't me. "Nice car", he exclaimed. "Used to have one just like it." He then asked me to start it up and I obliged him. He loved the roar of the engine. "I sure would like to know if mine is still on the road" he commented. I could hold back no more and told him that my road rocket was in fact once his. Looking in disbelief he spent another couple of minutes examining the vehicle before conceding that it was his car after all!!

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