Chrysler Sunbeam and the Sunbeam brand

The Chrysler Sunbeam was created after the death of England's venerable Sunbeam brand, so some history is in order.

Sunbeam cars: the marque

The first Sunbeam cars were created by John Marston and Maxwell Maberly-Smith; they sold for £130 starting in 1901, with seats on each side, facing different directions, and 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.

1966 Sunbeam

Engineer Louis Coatalen started Sunbeam's racing involvement in the late teens, increasing popularity; Sunbeam added a new touring car based on racing vehicles. Later, 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 that produced 130 hp when supercharged, with dry sump lubrication and a top speed of over 90 mph. It finished second in the 1925 LeMans.

Racing was expensive, and Sunbeam remained unpaid for World War I work; the company went bankrupt in 1934. Rootes bought Sunbeam and assigned the brand to the top of the Rootes line, shutting the factory and dropping all existing Sunbeam cars.

Sunbeam - 1966

rearPostwar Sunbeams were put into road rallys rather than speed races, and the 90 model proved to be exceptionally successful. The Sunbeam Alpine was a two-seat roadster version; it spawned the Sunbeam Tiger, essentially an Alpine with an American V8, was brought out in 1964, assembled by Jensen. Carroll Shelby-prepared Alpines were entered in Le Mans from 1961 to 1963.

In 1964, Chrysler bought about a third of Rootes, just a year after buying Simca; they took full control in 1967 and renamed the group to Chrsler UK in 1970. Chrysler now owned Sunbeam, Talbot, Darracq, Hillman, Humber, and Singer. The first results of this union were unhappy - the cancellation of a proposed Alpine update and of the Tiger; and all Sunbeam production was moved to Linwood, Scotland. It did not stop the company from coming out with the planned Sunbeam Rapier.

Despite Chrysler's generally superior quality in the United States, the corporation started to embark on a short-sighted cost-cutting campaign which did not sit well with customers. Nor did eliminating the multifold Rootes brands, which perhaps was inevitable. In 1976, the last domestic Sunbeams and Humbers were produced, and in 1978, Hillmans were called Chryslers. Sunbeam was still used on export vehicles made by just about all Rootes brands, however.

The Chrysler Sunbeam

chrysler sunbeamThe Chrysler Sunbeam was rushed from conception to production in less than two and half years - something of a record in modern times. The idea was to replace the Imp and to fight in the fast-growing supermini sector, and because there was no time to develop an entirely new platform, the car was based upon a shortened version of the Avenger platform. Ironically, Chrysler's Sunbeam hit the market some time before British Leyland’s entry, the Metro, which is ironic seeing as that company created the Mini.

Chrysler had yet to implement a Europewide model policy (even though it had controlled Rootes and SIMCA since before 1967). SIMCA was already a minor player in the UK, and its first Pan-European car, the Alpine/SIMCA 1308, was still some months away. Chrysler UK needed a new car to take up capacity at the loss-making Linwood factory.

Following the bailout of British Leyland, Chrysler's management approached the British government and offered them a stark choice: ‘give us state aid, or we close the UK operation.’ There was a "joint declaration of faith" from the government and Chrysler Corporation over the future of the UK operation. It received a state grant, with which it could fund the development of a new small car, to be engineered at Ryton, styled at Whitley, and built at Linwood.

Project R424: desperate measures

Chrysler Sunbeam photosIn January 1976, work commenced. Given the limited budget to work with, the new car - codenamed "R424" - needed to be as simple as possible, and use as many existing components as possible. The quickest and simplest way would be to base it on the platform of the Avenger, and take three-inches of length out of the wheelbase. In theory, all that would be required would be a to engineer a new body, and ensure that a modified version of the Hillman Imp engine could be installed simply. The new car was based on the rear wheel drive Avenger, and not any of the front wheel drive SIMCA-based models, to make it easier to use existing ex-Rootes engines, which would need to remain in production for the forseeable future. That way, more British jobs would be maintained.

The R424 made a compelling financial argument for Chrysler, but did mean that the company would be left behind by its rivals? Also, given that the front wheel drive Alpine/SIMCA 1308 was looming on the horizon, and beyond that, the C2 SIMCA 1100 replacement was two years away, was the UK operation being isolated by producing such a dated car? Whatever the arguments, the R424 would be the final Rootes car to be designed and engineered exclusively in the UK.

With the details settled, development of the R424 commenced at a lightning pace: given the technical simplicity of the package and the fact that R424 comprised of almost entirely tried and tested components, there was little to slow down the design process. In fact, all of the development resources at Whitley were focused behind the new car, and everyone there was extremely keen to make the new car a success. Many, 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... and this allowed for an encouraging and extremely niggle-free development phase to follow.

Conventionally handsome, the R424 evolved rapidly. From paper to production in eighteen months was a seriously impressive achievement, in these pre-CAD/CAM times.

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 range. In fact, it could almost be mistaken for a three-door version of the upcoming car; interesting, given that the C2 was front wheel drive, and based on the SIMCA 1100.

For a good indicator of the cost pressures that Chrysler were operating under at the time, one only has to look at the headlamp/grille treatment of the finished car. 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's launch. So, rather than buying in new items, the Avenger's sealed-beam units were used, mounted in recessed bezels. The R424 would eventually receive the Horizon's headlamps, but later in its life, and well after the larger car was launched...

Naming the R424 was interesting: Chrysler's UK management wanted to market the car as a Sunbeam, given that the Avenger was still sold as the Sunbeam Avenger in many European markets. However, Chrysler wanted a pan-European range of cars, all to be sold as Chryslers, and that meant that the new car would be sold under the Chrysler umbrella — hence the "Chrysler Sunbeam."

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.

sunbeam carsMotor magazine rated the 1.6S as a sold four-star car. After testing the base model 1.0LS, the magazine's findings were largely the same, although the gearchange came in for much praise. The Imp-derived engine was always going to struggle with the task of motivating this Avenger-based car, and a 0-60mph time of 22 seconds demonstrated that it lost the fight.

Chrysler knew that in order for the UK operation to retain its autonomy, the Sunbeam would need to sell in reasonable numbers. The company 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, going some way to restoring a market share approaching that of the ex-Rootes Group, at the time of the death of Hillman in 1976. Toyota retained rear wheel drive with the Starlet, General Motors similarly so with the Chevette/Kadett T-Car, and so, the Sunbeam really did not look that far out of place in 1977.

Chrysler Sunbeam rally success and decline

The most potent racing version of the Sunbeam was likely the Sunbeam-Lotus, sold between 1979 and 1981. Under 3,000 were made, but they were a remarkable success, combining the nimble Sunbeam body with a revised Lotus 2.2 liter engine pushing out 160 hp or 250 hp (depending on whether it was for rallying or all-out racing.) See Kevin Johnson’s LotusEspritWorld for full details on the engine and project.

1979 saw the launch of the Chrysler Sunbeam Ti; essentially an Avenger Tiger re-clothed. It went well, but not as well as the next fast Sunbeam to see the light of day.

sunbeam ti carsThe Sunbeam sold in reasonable numbers, but it failed to set the world on fire. However, in 1979, performance Sunbeams arrived on the scene, and 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.

The first hot Sunbeam arrived early in 1979; called the Sunbeam ti, the new car was powered by the 1600cc Avenger Tiger engine, including twin Weber carurettors, and developed a healthy 100bhp. However, 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.

On handling, WhatCar? wrote: "We consider ordinary shopping Sunbeams to be safe if a trifle dull handlers, and were looking forwards to the ti in the hope that Talbot (car tested in November 1979, after the marque change over) have given the car a little more agility. They haven't. It still feels stodgy and unexciting." Performance was acceptable - 0-60mph in 9.9 seconds, maximum speed 111 mph - but the magazine allowed the ti's lack of driveability to overshadow its verdict of the car:

"...we suffered near accidents at traffic lights with both cars (the Chevette HS being the other) thanks to fouling of the plugs - the cars will pull away from the lights only to stutter and near die, causing heavy braking from behind. The only answer is to rev the engine high and drop the clutch as if doing a standing start at the test track, no wonder fuel consumption was high (18-19.7mpg on test) and looks from other drivers disdainful..."

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.

The next sporting Sunbeam was something much more special. In 1977, the Competitions Manager at Chrysler UK, Des O'Dell, began to look around for a replacement for the Avenger Tiger and BRM, and could not fail to notice the shape of the Vauxhall Chevette HS. That car's recipe for success was clear for all to see: a 2.3-litre 16V engine, mated to a short, stiff three door body and rear wheel drive. The Avenger Tiger's replacement was the Sunbeam ti, whilst the BRM would be more difficult to replace, but in the end, he hit upon the idea of approaching Lotus for its slant-four 16V engine...

Lotus were happy to supply engines and assist in the development of Chrysler's new rally weapon, and in 1978, the first 2-litre prototype appeared. No great shakes in terms of reliability, it was nevertheless fast and agile. Lotus supplied an enlarged version of its engine for use in the Sunbeam (which later appeared in its own models), and the reliability followed. The agreement was made to put the Sunbeam-Lotus into limited production (in order to satisfy FIA homologation regulations). Resplendent in its black-with-silver-stripe coloyr scheme and Lotus alloy wheels, it looked fabulous - and understated compared with the ti.

Each car started life at Linwood as a 1.6GLS, but received stiffer springing and damping, along with a 10 per cent larger anti-roll bar, stiffer suspension mounts and tougher gearbox casings at the factory. The cars were then shipped to Lotus at Hethel in Norfolk for the installation of its engine and ZF gearbox, before being shipped to the Stoke works in Coventry for final pre-delivery inspections. It may have been a convoluted production process, but the end result was a stunning road car. Performance was rapid; AUTOCAR magazine tested the Talbot Sunbeam-Lotus (which ironically carried Chrysler and Talbot badges) in the autumn of 1979 and could not stop themselves from raving about it:

"Of course, for its size, the Sunbeam isn't a space-efficient miniature car, but one doesn't associate the magnificent amount and spread of sheer brute urge with anything smaller than the now dying tweaky American V8s. Once it's warm - that doesn't take too long after the unusually easy start using the usual Weber acelerator pump technique (three sharp prods of the throttle pedal) - the way the engine delivers from comparatively low speeds is pure, rude satisfaction."

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. Gas mileage was high compared with V8 muscle but not brilliant, with Motor getting 21.9 mpg and Autocar getting 17.4 mpg.

Autorcar loved the Sunbeam Lotus, concluding that, "for pure performance, it is hard to deny the Talbot its crown; it does go extraordinarily well, but is let down by its curious handling behaviour. You pay for that performance in an arguably high price in petrol, and it is also not a refined car."

But 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, ending Ford's string of successes. 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). 1982 was the 'wind-down' year, with the cars only taking part in UK events, finishing with another class win on the RAC Rally (Blomqvist and Frequelin driving). [Thanks, Graeme Lawton, chair, Sunbeam Lotus Owners’ Club.]

chrysler sunbeam cars - drawings

The 1981 Sunbeams looked a lot better for their flush headlamps.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. So, in the middle in 1981, Talbot announced the Sunbeam's impending death, a mere four years after its introduction. Given the hasty nature of its conception, perhaps four years was long enough in production, but the closure of Linwood had a terrible effect on the Scottish economy.

A production run of 200,000 cars in its life was an acceptable performance, and the Sunbeam did manage to maintain Chrysler's presence in the all-important supermini sector.

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