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Sunbeam — one of the early great car makers

1965 sunbeam tigerSunbeam 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.

jourdain horizon

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.

1965 sunbeam tiger - used by Maxwell SmartIn 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.

Chrysler Sunbeam Rapier

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.

sunbeam rapier engine

press release

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.

sunbeam ti cars1979 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.

Sunbeam-Lotus 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

Sunbeam Chronology

Courtesy of David Traver Adolphus, Hemmings Motor News

1836 Alderman John Marsten, JP, born
1859 Marsten buys 2 tinplate manufacturers and goes into business as a japanner
1887Marsten build his first Sunbeam bicycle
1899Marsten builds first prototype (Sunbeam) cars
1899Henry Dinsdale hired away from Wearwell Cycle Co
1900 Sunbeam-Mabley (sic) goes on sale, about 130 built.
1902Pullinger appointed as works manager
1903Berliet-based Sunbeam 12/16 enters production
19042-cylinder Sunbeam introduced
1904Rebodied Berliets sold as Sunbeams
1905Sunbeam Motor Company, LTD formed
1905New engine and gearbox in 12/14
1909Louis Coatalin joins Sunbeam from Humber
1911Sunbeam building 650 cars/year
1912Sunbeams finish 3-4-5 @ French Grand Prix and 1-2-3 @ Coupe De L'Auto
19134th at Indy
1914Coatalen acquires a Peugeot and reverse engineers it
1914Peugeot-derived Sunbeams appear
1914Peugeot-derived Sunbeam wins Tourist Trophy
1914World War I: 12/16, 12/20 used as staff cars and ambulances, but aero engines take precedence; 12/16 production goes to Rover works
1918John Marsten dies
1919R34 Zeppelin makes first roundtrip aerial crossing from UK to Us using five Sunbeam
Maori DOHC V12 engines.
1919Production recommences with 16hp (based on prewar 12/16) and 24hp (25/30)
1919Darracq buys Clement-Talbot, English Talbot importers
1920Sunbeam merges with Darracq
1920Company renamed STD Motors (Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq); Racing activities transferred to STD
1920Ernst Henry becomes affiliated with STD
1922OHC versions of 16 and 24 appear, 14 introduced
1922First World Land Speed Record for STD in V12 134 mph
1922Bertiarione and Henry hired away from Fiat
1923Sunbeam finishes 1-2-4 @ French GP, 1 @ Spanish GP
1924Supercharged Sunbeam wins Spanish GP
192414/40 replaces 14. 20/60, 12/30 and 16/50 introduced. First Chrysler car launched by Maxwell.
19253-Litre Super Sports on 16/50 chassis w/ DOHC dry sump. Chrylser Corporation created.
1925SS 2nd @ Le Mans
192524/70 (24) dropped
192516/50 renamend Talbot 18/55
1925Malcolm Campbell 150.87 MPH
1926Tiger 152.33 mph land speed record
1926Sunbeam makes luxury cars and STD racing moves to Talbot-Darracq in France
19265 Liter 30hp and 5.5 Liter 35hp models straight-8
192616hp and 20hp introduced. 20/60 becomes 25hp
192714/40 reduced
19271000hp twin V12 203.79mph @ Daytona w/ Sir Henry Seagrave
1927WWI and racing dept loans come due
19303-Litre SS ends
1931Rebadged Darraqs sold as Talbots
1931Sunbeam begins making trollybuses
1933Speed Twenty introduced. Competes against Talbot 105 cousin.
1934Rootes purchases trolleybus operation
1934Dawn model
1934STD goes into receivership
1935Clement-Talbot sold to Rootes group. Rootes phases out Roesch models and replaces them with Hillman and Humber-based Talbots
1935William Lyons agrees to buy Sunbeam
1935Rootes buys Sunbeam out from under Lyons
1936Rootes ends Sunbeam production
1938Talbots in Britain rebadged Sunbeam-Talbots
1938Sunbeam-Talbot Ten introduced Hillman/Humber based
19392 Litre, 3 Litre rebadged Talbots introduced
19394 Litre introduced Humber Super Snipe based
1939Sunbeam-Talbot production halted
1939-1944Rootes a major producer of war materiels; 1939, William Rootes knighted
1945Production resumes with Ten and 2 Litre
1946Production moves to war plant Ryton-on-Dunsmore
1948New postwar models with 2 Litre chassis Sunbeam-Talbot 80 and OHV 90
1949Guy buys trolleybus operation and folds it into British Leyland
1950Faclift. 80 dropped 90 becomes Mk II
1952Mk IIA
1953Sunbeam-Talbot Alpine introduced 90/MK II based
1954Sunbeam-Talbots badged Sunbeam again. MK III debuts.
1955Mk II 90 wins Monte Carlo rally. Possibly MK III
1955Alpine production ends
1955Rootes buys Singer
1955Sunbeam Rapier introduced
19564-door Rapier bows as Hillman Minx and Singer Gazelle
1957MK II production ends
1958Rapier Mk I dropped
1958Rapier Mk II
1959Rapier Mk II
1959New Alpine based on Hillman Husky/Sunbeam Rapier (Series I)
1959Talbot (Darracq) adsorbed by Simca and dismantled
1960Series II Alpine
1961Series IIIA Rapier
1963Chrysler buys Simca
1963Shelby and Ken Miles each comissioned to build V-8 Alpine prototype
1963Series IV Rapier
1963Carozzeria Touring Venezia Sunbeam
1964Shelby design Mk I Tiger AKA Alpine V8 on sale, assembled by Jensen
1964A/T optional on Alpine IV
1964Chrysler buys part of Rootes
1965Alpine and Rapier Series V
1966Sunbeam Imp Sport
1967Stiletto version of Imp Sport
1967Chysler assumes full control of Rootes
1967Tiger II
1968H120 Rapier
1968Alpine ends
1969Arrow (Rapier) Alpine, AKA Fastback Alpine
1970Rootes becomes Chrysler UK, includes Sunbeam, Talbot, Darracq, Hillman, Humber
and Singer.
1970Singer extinguised
1970All models exept Vogue dropped
1970Vogue renamed Sunbeam Vogue for 6 months
1970Linwood Sunbeam plant makes all cars
1970Imp Sport renamed Sunbeam Sport
1972Stiletto dropped
1975Chrysler Alpine
1976All Sunbeam and Humber production ends
1977Chrsler Sunbeam, Avenger based
1978Puegeot buys Chrysler Europe
1978Hillman name ends; renamed Chrysler
1979Talbot Sunbeam
1979Talbot Sunbeam Lotus 2.2 0-60 6.6 seconds
1981Talbot Sunbeam Lotus wins WRC
1981Linwood plant closes, Talbot Sunbeam ends, last use of the Sunbeam name.
1985Talbot Arizona renamed Peugeot 309
2006Ryton factory still building Peugeots (projected from December 2005)

Sunbeam Racing Victories

Le Mans

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

1950-early 1960s


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

Road racing

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

Drag racing

1965-1967 A.H.R.A.


Larry Reed in Sunbeam Tiger: National record: ET of 12.95 at 108 mph

1965 N.H.R.A.


Stan Peterson in Tiger: ET 12.9 and 110 mph in Class C World Championship

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