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Sunbeam Tiger: the car of Agent 86

Sunbeam cars

The Sunbeam Tiger, the car driven by agent Maxwell Smart (TV and latest movie), came out of the Rootes Group, which was later purchased by Chrysler Corporation.

Sunbeam was created in 1887, producing bicycles held by some as the best money could buy. In 1899 the Sunbeam car company was created; 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.

Sunbeam merged with Darracq in 1920; 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.

1965 sunbeam tigerThe combined company went bankrupt in 1934, and the remains were purchased by Rootes Group, which closed the factory, dropped the existing Sunbeam designs, and called the cars Talbot-Sunbeams for a while before placing Sunbeam at the top of the Rootes luxury order, modifying existing cars to take the Sunbeam name.

The Sunbeam Alpine was a comfortable car for driving and a success on the rally circuit. The Sunbeam Tiger was essentially a Sunbeam Alpine, powered by an American V8 engine; it was introduced in 1964, and was assembled not by Rootes but by custom luxury automaker Jensen, later known for its use of Chrysler V8 engines and bodies. Coincidentally, in 1964, Chrysler bought a third of Rootes Group, taking full control in 1967; the cash infusion was very welcome at the time, as Rootes was rapidly failing.

The Sunbeam Tiger was relatively inexpensive for its performance; still, 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, it 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, sold as the “Rootes Sunbeam.”

1965 sunbeam tiger - used by Maxwell SmartIn racing, the Sunbeam Tiger started running at high speeds, running with Jaguars rather than MGs, and setting 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 commpeting 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.

SUnbeam Tiger cdar

A Sunbeam won the index of thermal efficiency, the second highest award at LeMans outside the outright winner. (Thanks, David at PR Strategy Consulting).

The first 3,763 Tigers were the Mark I, with the next 2,706 being Mark IA, the primary differences being the doors (round vs square corners), convertible top covers (metal vs vinyl), fresh air ventilation (added in the IA), and door seams (lead filled vs unfilled); finally, there were a small number of Mark II items, which had a slightly larger V8, and a revised grille, with chrome side trim removed.

Sunbeam Alpine Tiger replica

A proposed update of the Alpine and Tiger was 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 mid-1960s Sunbeam Tiger was on Hemmings’ list of the top ten collectible cars, and there are still regular Tigers United events.

The new Sunbeam Tiger

In the late 1990s, another company purchased the rights to the Sunbeam name and posted a Web site to sell their new Sunbeam Tigers and other vehicles. Mike Sealey investigated and wrote:

The SUV I cannot place, except for headlights coming from the Opel Frontera. It might be a Polish Tarpan/Daewoo or perhaps a vehicle from India.

The Tiger sports car is the Swedish JC Indigo 3000, built around 1997-98. Production totalled less than 40, a great car that deserved to have achieved more. They are even using JC’s own photos.

sunbeam tiger
Photo: Sunbeam Tiger at the Bay State Antique Automobile Club's July 10, 2005 show (by Sfoskett)

We sure could use more personal impressions and photos. Please send them along!

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