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The Chrysler Sunbeam

The Chrysler Sunbeam was a Cricket/Avenger-based subcompact (smaller than Horizon and a 2-door hatchback) released in 1977, which gave rise to the 1980 World Rally Champion Sunbeam-Lotus with 2.2 Lotus Esprit engine. The Sunbeam-Lotus was a very similar concept to the Omni GLH - high performance in a small package.

As is was often the way with Chrysler Europe cars, the Chrysler Sunbeam’s history begins years before its introduction, with the launch of the Hillman Avenger (which spawned the Plymouth Cricket) in 1970.

The Avenger was the last model launched by the old Rootes Group; all subsequent cars were Chrysler Europe designs (which combined Rootes and the French SIMCA). The Avenger was quite successful (unlike the Cricket), but falling sales meant there was little cash to develop new front-wheel drive cars (the Simca 1100-based Alpine and Horizon); Chrysler UK had a large cashflow problem by the mid-1970s, as did the parent company.

Britain's (at the time) largest independent car producer, British Leyland (combining Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Riley, MG, Triumph, Rover, Land Rover, Jaguar, Daimler and Leyland commercial vehicles), was also in dire financial straits by this time. The Ryder Report, published by Don Ryder, detailed ways to make the company solvent again by using the British Government's cash, effectively nationalising the company (some successful car companies, such as Renault, are also state-owned). This report was later shown to be hopelessly inadequate, which projected sales being for too optimistic.

Chrysler UK executives approached the British government in 1975 with an ultimatum - give us aid, too, or we close down our UK operations. At the time, the factories in Coventry, England and Linwood, Scotland employed thousands of workers, and election time was just around the corner, so the government's hands were tied - Chrysler got the cash. In the end, Chrysler UK was sold to Peugeot in 1978, but in the short term this cash injection meant that Chrysler could work on a small car project for the hotly-contested subcompact segment; cars from this class and the compact class make up the sales Top Ten here in Europe.

In the end, it was decided that rear-wheel drive would be retained, though the larger Horizon and Alpine used front-wheel drive. They could have simply shortened the Horizon chassis, but they shortened the Avenger instead. Possibly because it was cheaper; they could use up stocks of Avenger components, the car would be simpler, the parts were tried and trusted and hence more reliable, and the new car could be made into a good rally machine.

Unveiling the Chrysler Sunbeam

This project was one of the fastest ever seen for a new car at the time, taking only two years from green light to production. The Chrysler Sunbeam was released for sale in late 1977, a couple of months before the unveiling of the Horizon. But the two cars did not clash - the Horizon was always built with four doors and the Sunbeam with two.

It was not long after the Sunbeam was launched that the Avenger two-door sedans were dropped, presumably because Sunbeams stole their sales. It did not matter by this stage as most cars in the Avenger's size and price class were four doors anyhow. The new car had crisp, angular styling, with the corporate front end, but with recessed headlights as opposed to the flush ones on Avenger, Horizon and Alpine. They may have been the old Hillman Avenger or Chrysler 180/2-litre ones. At the rear the car featured tail-lights similar to the Alpine, and an unusual hatchback arrangement, as effectively just the rear window glass hinged. This left a high sill to hurl shopping bags over which can't have been popular.

The cars were advertised heavily in the press, with singer Petula Clark inviting people to "put a Sunbeam into their life." Specification levels were high, with front disc brakes and electronic ignition across the range. Competing cars were the sophisticated front-wheel drive cars like the Ford Fiesta (imported into the U.S. from 1978 to 1980), Colt 1200/1400 (known as the Dodge Colt and Plymouth Scamp) and Fiat 127, as well as more direct rivals like the Opel Kadett and Vauxhall Chevette (European versions of GM's T-car seen in the U.S. as the Chevy Chevette), original rear-wheel drive Mazda 323 and Toyota Starlet, a smaller hatchback version of the Corolla of the time. It was with these cars that the Sunbeam best competed, being a bit bigger (and cruder) than the Fiesta, Colt and Fiat.

Engine choices were the Avenger 1300 and 1600cc units (in 81hp GLS form, the Sunbeam was pretty quick by the standards of the day), the old iron ohv jobs, and one other - the Hillman Imp's 928cc all-aluminum ohc. This had just 45hp, and competed at the bottom end of the market against the   Mini and Fiesta 957cc with similar power. 4-speed manual transmission was standard, with a 4-speed Borg-Warner Type 45 automatic on the 1300 and 1600 optional. While not an instant sensation the car nevertheless got off to a good start, with many early buyers, my stepgrandfather (taking delivery of a 1.0LS in dark blue in late 1978) being one of them. One setback was a recall on the very first models; an industrial dispute meant poor supply of the electronic ignition, so standard ignition was fitted on the first few cars and corrected with the recall.

Mick Radcliffe wrote: “The automatic transmission available on the 1.3 and 1.6 liter Chrysler Sunbeam was not the 3-speed Torqueflite, but the 4-speed Borg-Warner Type 45 (built in Letchworth, Hertfordshire) which Chrysler UK adopted from the early 1970s onwards in all of its RWD cars, replacing the ubiquitous 3-speed Type 35. The only European models to use the Torqueflite were the larger Chrysler 160/180/2 Litre range.”

Sporty Sunbeams and other rally cars

The next stage in the Sunbeam's career was the release of a pair of sporty models. The first, the Ti, was nothing more than 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 second car, the Sunbeam-Lotus, was rather special, and a little history on the British rally scene of the time is in order...

During the 1970s the rally car was the Ford Escort RS1600/1800/2000. Despite attempts from Saab (96 and 99 Turbo), Lancia (Stratos, the most successful), Fiat (131 Abarth), Opel (Kadett GT/E and Ascona) and the Japanese, the car won rallies the world over (briefly used by the most famous U.S. rally driver of the time, John Buffum). In the days before 4wd and the Audi Quattro (which still failed to beat the number of championship wins attained by the Escort), the powerful and reliable Cosworth 16-valve engine, solid rear-wheel drive handling, and utter simplicity and reliability meant that it was unbeatable. However, on the national circuit at least, the Vauxhall Chevette HS (with 2.3 16-valve engine, and shorter, more nimble body) of 1977 began to challenge the Escort seriously.

Des O'Dell, the Competitions Manager at Chrysler UK, was looking for suitable replacements for the cheap, simple Avenger Tiger and sophisticated Avenger BRM. The Sunbeam Ti fitted the first bill. He approached Lotus with a view of using their new 2.0-liter slant four engine (fitted to the "new wave" Elite, Eclat, and Esprit) to the Sunbeam. The resultant prototype was fast but lacked reliability, leading to an engine failure. Lotus fitted a 2.2-liter version and both companies never looked back.

The road-going Sunbeam Lotus was released in April 1979, featuring a 160hp version of the 2.2-liter Lotus engine, alloy wheels, 5-speed ZF gearbox, and a distinctive black-with-silver-stripe colour scheme. Apart from the colour scheme the car's exterior and interior were very low-key, the opposite of the much less powerful Ti. The rally car, with up to 240hp on tap, began notching up minor British victories. Then Talbot (as the takeover had by then occurred) recruited the gifted young Finland-born Henri Toivenen to drive the car in the 1980 World Rally Championship. Henri gained enough points, including winning the final round, Britain's RAC, to win the championship for Talbot.

In 1981, after Saab had decided to quit rallying, Talbot hired Stig Blomquist as their main driver, but had no real success. By this stage the Audi Quattro had arrived on the scene, and the place in the spotlight for rear-wheel drive cars was almost over.

End of the Sunbeam

After this peak, the Sunbeam range went into decline. The cars were getting a reputation for rust, and other manufacturers had released more spohisticated front-wheel drive models in competition. In 1981 the last major update was made - new bumpers and (finally) flush headlights. Later that same year the Linwood, Scotland plant closed, taking the Sunbeam to the grave. A couple of hundred thousand cars over 4 years was pretty good, all told, and the Sunbeam had done its job. 2308 Sunbeam Lotus models had also been built - the last 150 were held until 1983, when they were consecutively customised and sold by a company called Avon. By the time of the restyle, other colours were available for the Sunbeam Lotus, silver and metallic blue with black stripe.

Visit a page dedicated to Des O'Dell, ex-Director of the Peugeot Talbot competitions department - click here.

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