Based on tables by David Petrikas and existing Allpar articles • Sunbeam Tiger • Chrysler Sunbeam
Sunbeam was created in 1887, producing bicycles held by some as the best money could buy. The car company was created in 1889, with prototypes built by tin-plate maker John Marston, but the first Sunbeam cars to be sold (for £130) were built in 1901, the result of a partnership with Maxwell Maberly-Smith. The first vehicle had seats on each side, facing different directions, with a single cylinder engine that didn't quite reach 3 horsepower; the wheels were unsprung and belt-drive, with an 18 mph top speed. It was a success by standards of the time, with 420 sold through 1904.
Around 1904, Marston started to import large portions of Berliet cars and add bodies to them; over time, Sunbeam built more components and made the car more their own, though the engine, gearbox, and subframe were always imported. This sold better, with sales of 18 per month, and Sunbeam Motor Car Company, Ltd, was created to increase production. The cars were made at a central factory in Wolverhampton, with a number of related works to make components.
The first new car (loosely based on a Peugeot the designer had purchase to study) to be produced by Sunbeam Motor Car Company, started in 1906 and were fairly popular, with ten produced each week. Ironically, a chief engineer who had worked at Humber was appointed, resulting in more local production and less outsourcing. This new engineer, Louis Coatalen, started Sunbeam's racing involvement, which helped to increase popularity and added a new touring car based on racing vehicles.
The airship R34, which made an Atlantic crossing in 1919, was powered by five Sunbeam Maori DOHC V12 engines. It was the first aerial crossing from the UK to the USA and back, done in 183 hours. In 1911, Louis Coatalen (an ex-Humber designer) was the first to put the oil pump into the sump.
From 1914-1918, Sunbeam was a major supplier to the war effort, with many Sunbeam engines fitted to seaplanes and Bristol fighters. The Sunbeam cars (12/16 and 16/20) were used as staff cars and ambulances, by both Britain and Australia.
On Friday, the 13th of August 1920, Sunbeam merged with the French company Darracq (Alexandre Darracq had built his first car in 1896), forming Sunbeam Talbolt Darracq, or STD Group (also including a spring maker, commercial vehicle maker, and dynanometer maker, and named after Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq). One Darracq, known as Genevieve, was the star of the film of the same name. The French company had recently purchased Clement-Talbot (a company set up to import French Clements), which became part of STD.
The original Sunbeam Tiger was built by this merged company in 1925. It was originally named Ladybird, perhaps an odd name for a V12 four-liter racing car. The Sunbeam Tiger, a one-off vehicle, was the first car to exceed 150 mph and had the smallest engine of any car ever to hold the World Land Speed Record.
Sunbeam continued to innovate; the 1925 Sunbeam 3-Liter Super Sport boasted Britain’s first production twin overhead camshaft and world-first dry sump lubrication, and was hailed as one of the most advanced cars of the day. Racing successes in these years included 1922 and 1925 speed records (134 and 151 mph, respectively).
Engineers were hired away from Peugeot and Fiat, increasing racing successes and improving the standard Sunbeam cars; the Sunbeam 3-Liter Super Sports is said to have been very advanced, with a twin overhead cam engine; the vehicle actually produced 130 hp when supercharged, with dry sump lubrication and a top speed of over 90 mph. It finished second in the 1925 LeMans. At the same time, Sunbeam started to make trolleybuses in 1931; and it started to sell Darracqs as Talbots. The racing, however, was expensive, and Sunbeam remained unpaid for World War I work.
By 1931, Sunbeam Talbot Darracq was in receivership; William Lyons of SS Cars tried to buy Sunbeam Talbot but failed, moving on to form Jaguar.
Rootes went about the purchase almost in a roundabout fashion: he purchased the trolleybus business first, then Clement-Talbot, replacing the firm's original cars with Hillman and Humber variants in a familiar story. Talbot of France was purchased by former employee Anthony Lago, and became independent, while Simca would buy Darracq years later, only to end up re-united when Chrysler bought both Simca and Rootes.
The final step for Rootes was buying Sunbeam Motor Cars and assigned it to be the group's luxury car maker, shutting down the Wolverhampton factory and dropping its existing cars, perhaps making one wonder why they purchased it in the first place. However, with Lago selling cars branded as Talbots, Rootes decided to counter the customer confusion (and resurrect the Sunbeam reputation) by modifying its Talbot name to Sunbeam-Talbot for Britain. New Sunbeams were essentially renamed Talbots. This started in 1938, and included the Ten, 2 Litre, 3 Litre, and 4 Litre. The 3 and 4 Litre were based on the Humber Snipe.
In 1938, Sunbeam Talbot was launched; the Sunbeam name survived to differentiate UK Talbots from French car. The French Talbot, formerly Darracq, was now owned by France’s Anthony Lago.
For World War II (1939-1945), Sunbeam built military transports and bombers — they built almost two thirds of the British army’s armoured personnel carriers, 35% of their scout cars, and 15% of Britain’s bombers, as well as bombs, earning Sir William Rootes a knighthood in the process.
After the war, production was moved from London to Ryton, where Peugeots are still made; the London plant became the Thames Television studios, of all things.
Postwar Sunbeams were raced in road rallys; one model in particular, the 90, was exceptionally successful. A new two-seat roadster called the Sunbeam Alpine, based on the 90 (and named after the Alpine Rally which Sunbeams had won so often), was made from just 1953 to 1955, but it too was very successful in racing, as was the new-for-1955 Sunbeam Rapier (whose four door version was the Hillman Minx and Singer Gazelle).
The next Alpine was a two-door convertible based on the 1959 Hillman Husky, using Rapier running gear. Carroll Shelby-prepared Alpines were entered in Le Mans in from 1961 to 1963, though in two of the three years neither Alpine made it to the finish line. The Sunbeam Alpine was powered by 1.5 liter four-cylinder engines connected to four-speed manual transmissions with an optional electric overdrive, using front disc brakes with rear drums.
The Alpine was, as befitted a Sunbeam, a comfortable car for driving and a success on the rally circuit. However, as time went on, the MG and Triumph entries began to dominate, with their bigger engines; and Rootes Group was on a tight budget, with capital short (the Chrysler infusions were still in the future).
Alpines were featured in To Catch a Thief, Alfred Hitchcock’s famed 1955 movie staring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, and in Dr. No, the 1962 thriller, with Sean Connery’s James Bond driving one.
A small American V8 turned out to fit into the Alpine with little modification; a revised transmission and rear end were needed, along with rack and pinion steering, new exhaust, and additional cooling. The result was the 1964 Sunbeam Tiger, Maxwell Smart’s car (used in the 1965-68 TV series and 1995 and 2008 movies). An Alpine was sometimes used as a stand-in, including one with a machine gun under the hood.
The Sunbeam Tiger was essentially an Alpine, powered by an American V8 engine; it was introduced in 1964, and was done by custom automaker Jensen, which later used Chrysler V8 engines and bodies for its own products.
The Sunbeam Tiger was relatively inexpensive for its performance, but fewer than 7,000 were made over its four model years. It was billed as the world’s fastest production car for under $3,500 (steep but not excessive for 1965). The Sunbeam Alpine, in contrast, was just $2,400.
By 1967, the Tiger was billed as the world’s fastest car under $3,700 (the price having moved up) and was sold in the United States by Chrysler dealers, as the “Rootes Sunbeam.” The mid-1960s Sunbeam Tiger was on Hemmings’ list of the top ten collectible cars, and there are still regular Tigers United events.
In racing, the Sunbeam Tiger ran with Jaguars rather than MGs, and set an AHRA national record with a quarter mile of 12.95 seconds in 1965; and winning the 1964 Geneva Rally, the 1965 Scottish Rally, the 1965 International Police Rally, and (within its class) the 1965 Monte Carlo rally, where it placed around fourth or fifth outright. The Shelby-prepped V8s failed the cars when competing in LeMans, just as the Shelby Alpines failed; but a Shelby prepared car in the U.S. won an SCCA Class B race in the U.S.
The Tiger’s racing success was limited in 1967 by rules which eliminated the ability to use nonproduction performance items in SCCA racing; and in 1966, the Tiger was largely replaced in racing by the Imp Sport, a version of the Hilllman Imp.
In 1964, the failing Rootes Group, with its inconsistent brand strategies, numerous low production car lines, and incessant union troubles, took a cash infusion from Chrysler Corporation, which bought 30% of the voting and 50% of the nonvoting shares. In 1967, Chrysler bought the rest of the company, along with Talbot in France. The Alpine and Tiger were both dropped in 1968 under the new owner; Chrysler had no engine that would fit in the Tiger, and it seemed inappropriate to use a competitor’s engine. (The sales figures may also have had an impact). On the lighter side, the Sunbeam Rapier, launched on October 10, 1967, carried forward.
A proposed update of the Alpine was also cancelled, though new Alpine and Tiger models would later appear — the Tiger name being applied to the Hillman Avenger. The closest Sunbeam would come to replacing the Tiger would be the later Ti, a stripped-out base model with alloy wheels, big spoilers and a 1600c version of the Avenger Tiger engine (with twin 2bbl Weber carbs) giving 100hp, 0-60 in 9 seconds, and 106mph for those who could stand the noise, harsh suspension and poor fuel economy.
The Chrysler Sunbeam was a significant model; though technically not a Sunbeam (one could argue that line ended in 1934, regardless), the car proved to be significant. It started engineering in 1976, and was produced around 18 months later, an impressive achievement especially in the days before computer design. The Sunbeam was also the final Rootes car to be designed and engineered exclusively in the UK.
Many components were lifted straight from the Avenger; even its new Alpine-like dashboard moulding would be shared with a facelifted version of the older car. Styling rested with the Ryton team, initially headed by Roy Axe (before he left for Chrysler in the USA); and the team took no risks with the styling. The R424's look was set very early, and the cleverest thing about it was the way in which it fit in with the rest of the upcoming Chrysler front wheel drive cars.
Late on in the design process, it was found that the R424's large, flush mounted headlamps would not be available to Chrysler until at least 1977, the year of the C2 Horizon’s launch. So, rather than buying in new items, the Avenger's sealed-beam units were used, in recessed bezels. The R424 would eventually receive the Horizon's headlamps, but well after the larger car was launched.
The new car made its appearance on 23 July 1977, and had a clear shot at being proclaimed the car to have the quickest development programme ever; having taken just nineteen months from project inception to public announcement. The motoring press were largely kind to the Sunbeam, given its hasty development, and the fact that it was Chrysler UK's "last chance saloon." There was mild criticism of the Sunbeam's lack of interior space and its high loading lip (it wasn't so much a hatchback, but a liftback), but in all, it was marked well for its pleasant handling, good looks and swift performance in the larger engined versions. (The Imp-derived 1-liter base engine was always going to struggle with the task of motivating this Avenger-based car, and a 0-60mph time of 22 seconds showed that it lost the fight.)
Chrysler gave the Sunbeam a clear path to make an impression: the upcoming Horizon would be a five-door model only, and so, there would be no overlap there; the 2-door basic Avengers were dropped; and the Sunbeam benefited from a memorable television advertising campaign which had Petula Clark inviting us to "...put a Chrysler Sunbeam in your life." Early sales were strong.
1979 saw the launch of the Chrysler Sunbeam Ti; essentially an Avenger Tiger re-clothed. It showed the world that if a rear wheel drive layout did nothing for a supermini's practicality, it did an awful lot for its motor sport potential. Powered by the 1600cc Avenger Tiger engine, including twin Weber carurettors, it developed a healthy 100bhp — but liked the Plymouth Road Runner, the Sunbeam ti was a stripped-out special, and made little sense as a road car, thanks to its noise, harshness and tempermental nature, especially in town driving. The rally crowd took it to their hearts though, thanks to a plethora of off-the-shelf tuning parts. 0-60 times were measured at under ten seconds.
Lotus developed the Sunbeam-Lotus for Chrysler's entry into world rallying. Lotus managed to
shoehorn its own 2174cc 16V slant-four engine under the bonnet of the Sunbeam, and the result
was an absolutely superb road and rally car. 2308 were produced. Motor pushed the Sunbeam Lotus from 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds, and did 0-100 in a mere 19.8 seconds. Autocar did not do quite as well but still got respectable numbers, with 0-60 in 7.4 seconds and 0-100 in 20.4 seconds. Rallying was the Sunbeam Lotus's forté, and it led a glittering, if short career: it performed admirably in the hands of Henri Toivonen, to win the 1980 Lombard-RAC rally. Talbot won the manufacturers' title in the 1981 World Rally Championship, with Toivonen, Guy Frequelin and Stig Blomqvist driving, winning Group 2 on every event entered that season, with many second places overall and one outright victory (Argentina).
The Sunbeam range itself fell into decline quickly after a brisk start. Following the sporty Sunbeams of 1979, the rest of the range received a minor facelift in 1981 (gaining those flush Horizon-style headlamps and better integrated bumpers), but the end was nigh. Despite the government assistance, which saved Linwood from closure, the PSA led process of rationalization following the 1978 takeover, led to the inevitable: Linwood would close, and that would signal the end of the two ranges produced there: the Avenger and Sunbeam.
In the middle in 1981, Talbot announced the Sunbeam's impending death, a mere four years after its introduction. In 1981, all Sunbeam production ended; the Linwood plant in Scotland, home to all Sunbeams since 1970, was closed, slamming the Scottish economy and closing the book on a storied brand.
ALSO SEE: Sunbeam Tiger • Chrysler Sunbeam
Courtesy of David Traver Adolphus, Hemmings Motor News
1925 Le Mans
3 Litre Super Sports finished second, despite being damaged and forced off the road
1961 Le Mans
Sunbeam Alpine: Index of Thermal Efficiency trophy, 91 mph average
1962 Le Mans
Sunbeam Alpine: 15th outright, 93.24 mph
1964 Le Mans
Sunbeam Tigers: Ford engines all failed — Carroll Shelby had supplied them, but was also racing Shelby Cobras against Sunbeam!
Sunbeam Mk III: Many rally wins by Stirling Moss etc
Sunbeam Rapier: One of the most popular rally cars of the period
1964 Geneva Rally
Sunbeam Tiger: First in class
1965 Monte Carlo
Sunbeam Tiger: First in class, fourth outright
1965 Acropolis Rally
Winner GT Class
1965 Scottish Rally
Sunbeam Tiger: First in class
1965 Police Rally, Belgium
Sunbeam Tiger: Outright winners
1981 World Rally Championship
Sunbeam Lotus: Winner
1964 SCCA Willow Springs
Shelby Sunbeam Tiger : Class B Pacific Coast Championship Race; beat Jaguars, Corvettes, Stingrays, and Cobras
1965 Santa Barbara Road Race
Sunbeam Tiger: First win in Class B, driven by Jim Adams
1965 Mosport (Ontario)
Sunbeam Tiger – Jim Adams: Beat Shelby GT350 by 3 seconds
1965 American Road Race of Champions at Daytona
Sunbeam Tiger (DNF - crash): Taken out by a Corvette in last event of championship
Larry Reed in Sunbeam Tiger: National record: ET of 12.95 at 108 mph
Stan Peterson in Tiger: ET 12.9 and 110 mph in Class C World Championship
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