Thursday
Dec012011

Grace's Graceful Sunbeam

I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief on TV last night for the umpteenth time. Not because it was one of Hitchcock’s best (it wasn’t) but because it featured one of the most beautiful cars of the period, a 1954 Mark I Sunbeam Alpine roadster, driven by one of the most beautiful women, Grace Kelly. It made me want to show you pictures of the 1955 Mark III Alpine I bought in 1989 and restored to match the car in the movie as closely as possible.

Lacking original paint chips for reference, I luckily found an excellent match for the original Sapphire Blue in the metallic blue for the 1989 Merkur Scorpio. Matching the fawn leather upholstery was no problem because Jaguar still used the same color.

Believe it or not, Sears still sold top kits.Ironically, Princess Grace would later die on the same road above Monaco she sped over in the movie, with Cary Grant riding white-knuckled beside her. She missed a curve and plunged down a steep hillside.

Only 3,000 of these special-bodied Sunbeams were built between 1953 and 1955 (an estimated 800 remain). Based on the Sunbeam sedan, it had an unusually roomy cockpit compared with other sports cars of the era. It also had the same comfortable seats as the sedan. More properly called a “gentleman’s” or “boulevard” roadster, it was very comfortable on long trips.

This is not to say it was a slouch, however. It was named for the famed rallies held in the Swiss Alps over icy roads. As a member of the Rootes factory team, Stirling Moss won two Alpine championships driving them.

Mine, especially, was no slouch. It had a 260 cu. in. Ford V8 and 4-speed transmission (also from Ford) extracted from a Sunbeam Tiger made during the 1960s. The engine even had Sunbeam labels. An Austin Healey 3000 rear axle was installed to handle the extra torque.

It placed first in class at the 1994 British Car Meet at Palo Alto, California.

If you’re still curious, Michael Lamm wrote an article about it and a stock Alpine (with a 2.5-liter four) in the September 2001 issue of Special Interest Autos, pages 48-52.

 

 

Friday
Nov252011

2012 Honda Si Coupe

I have enjoyed driving each version of Honda Civic Si coupe, especially the latest, for 2012. It is the most docile of all and offers the best combination of ride and handling.

Both the Si coupe and sedan have suspension mods to improve handling with respect to standard Civics, including stiffer springs and more robust dampers. Sis also benefit from electronic steering and a limited-slip differential. I liked the confident sense of road grip I got and the feel of the steering. It went crisply where I aimed it, even on washboards. I liked the well-controlled but comfortably compliant ride as well.

And, as unsporting as you might think I am, I like its larger, slower-revving engine. Yes, I appreciate the engineering prowess that produces an engine that can withstand 8000 rpm to reach peak power. But those high-pitched screams unnerve me. I feel like I am punishing the engine and pushing the laws of physics to the limits—and tempting fate. In the back of my mind I wonder if, just maybe, somebody on the engine line the day my engine was made didn’t torque some bolt to spec and the whole thing is going to go Ka-blooey! at any moment.

So call me a Nervous Nellie if you will, but I appreciate the new Si’s larger engine (2.4 liters vs 2.0), which produces only a bit more power (201 hp vs 197) but at a less nerve wracking 7000 rpm. Like the previous engine, it is made of aluminum and employs Honda’s i-VTEC double overhead cam system. Torque maxes out at170 lb-ft at 4400 (vs 139 lb-ft at 6100 rpm for the previous model) and stays essentially flat thereafter to lessen the need for constantly working the shifter. It was quite forgiving of which gear I chose over my hilly, twisting test route.

The only thing I didn’t like was the long time the engine took to slow after I removed my foot from the gas while shifting. I assume requirements for meeting emission standards made the lags necessary but they detracted from the silky six-speed gearbox. Thankfully, I adapted well enough to them after a short while.

EPA estimated fuel-economy is 22 mpg city and 31 highway. Unfortunately, it requires premium fuel.

Design

Honda’s designers have faithfully perpetuated the Si’s signature form. While still conservative, the coupe manages to look new and more refreshing than the even more conservative sedan. Creases have been added to keep it in step with today’s fashions. But they aren’t overdone. So they don’t look superficially gratuitous as they do on some cars. The mesh of the grille looks a bit crude, however; I prefer the grille and related details of the previous Si. The longer fastback roofline improves the shape as a whole (too bad it isn’t a hatchback).

The new taillights and other rear end details lend the car a more robust look without adding clutter.

Inside, the seats are handsomely-tailored. Instruments and controls are well-placed and come comfortably to hand or foot. The wheel telescopes and tilts.

The instrument panel is much more attractive than before, with a more serious business-like look rather than toy-like. Unfortunately it looks too much like the unyielding and unfriendly plastic it is made of; it needs a softer, friendlier look.

Front seats are especially comfortable. Rear seats are also attractive but subject to the usual constraints imposed by coupe architectures. Wheelbase of the Si coupe is 1.1 inches shorter than the sedan’s, which adversely affects the already scarce rear legroom. Front seats that automatically slide forward generously when their seatbacks are released ease entry and exit in back. Once in, however, adult passengers back there are forced to assume something close to a fetal posture. Headroom for a six-footer is also marginal. Small kids do better in back. Criticisms like this fall on deaf ears, of course, for anyone considering such a car. They would regard an Si coupe as primarily a 2-passenger car or, only in an occasional pinch, a 2 plus 2.