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Sunbeam cars and the Chrysler Sunbeam

The Chrysler Sunbeam starts with John Marston and Maxwell Maberly-Smith, who created a £130 car dubbed the Sunbeam in 1901. It had 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-driven to the car's 18 mph top speed. The odd car was a success in the days before Ransom Olds' assembly line touched England, and 420 were sold through 1904.

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Engineer Louis Coatalen got Sunbeam involved in racing involvement in the late teens, and the company added a new touring car based on racing cars; they invested in engineers hired away from Peugeot and Fiat, increasing racing successes. The advanced Sunbeam 3-Liter Super Sports had a supercharged 130-hp twin overhead cam engine, with a top speed of over 90 mph. It finished second in the 1925 LeMans.

Sunbeam ran out of money quickly, since the English government reneged on World War I debts and racing was costly; after a 1934 bankruptcy, Rootes Group bought Sunbeam, shutting the factory, dropping all existing Sunbeam cars, but keeping the name.

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Now, Sunbeams ran road rallys, and the 90 model proved to be every bit as successful as their past cars. The Sunbeam Alpine, a two-seat roadster, spawned the Sunbeam Tiger (essentially an Alpine with an American V8) in 1964, assembled by Jensen. Carroll Shelby-prepared Alpines were entered in Le Mans from 1961 to 1963.

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Chrysler bought about a third of Rootes in 1964, a year after buying Simca; they took full control in 1967, and renamed Rootes Group to Chrysler UK in 1970. The company dropped proposed Alpine and Tiger updates to conserve cash, and moved Sunbeam production to Linwood, Scotland to take advantage of government incentives. The planned Sunbeam Rapier came out as scheduled.

To stop high losses, the corporation started on a cost-cutting campaign which, like dropping the many Rootes brands, did not sit well with customers. In 1976, the last domestic Sunbeams and Humbers were produced; but the Sunbeam name stayed on export cars, including those that had never been Sunbeams in Britain.

The Chrysler Sunbeam

The Chrysler Sunbeam was rushed from conception to production in less than two and half years, a feat in itself. The idea was to replace the failed Hillman Imp and to fight in the fast-growing supermini sector. Work began in January 1976.

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Given the limited budget, the new "R424" needed to be simple in design, use existing components, and come to market quickly. The fastest way would be to essentially update the Hillman Avenger, with three inches taken out of the wheelbase, creating a new body, and using a modified version of the Hillman Imp engine. It was rear wheel drive to use existing Rootes engines and parts, to maximize use of existing plants and British jobs.

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Given that the front wheel drive Alpine/SIMCA 1308 was looming on the horizon, and beyond that, the C2 SIMCA 1100 replacement (Horizon) was two years away, was the UK operation being isolated by producing such a dated car? Regardless, the R424 was the final Rootes car to be designed and engineered exclusively in the UK.

Given the simplicity of the package and the tried and tested components, development was fast; and all of Whitley's engineering resources were focused behind the new car. From paper to production in
eighteen months was a seriously impressive achievement.

Styling rested with the Ryton team, initially headed by Roy Axe; the team took no risks with the styling, keeping it conventional while fitting it in with the rest of the upcoming Chrysler range. It looks remarkably like the two-year-off, front-drive, SIMCA-derived Horizon (shown below).

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Late in the design process, it was found that the R424's large, flush-mounted headlamps would not be available until at least 1977; rather than buying new ones, the Avenger's sealed beams were put into in recessed bezels. The R424 would eventually get the Horizon's headlamps, but later in its life.

The UK management wanted to market the car as a Sunbeam, given that the Sunbeam (rather than Hillman or Chrysler) Avenger was still being sold in many European markets. However, Chrysler wanted a pan-European range of cars, all to be sold as Chryslers; 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.

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Motor 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, 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 Horizon would be a four-door hatch only; the two-door basic Avengers were dropped; and the Sunbeam saw television ads which had Petula Clark inviting us to "...put a Chrysler Sunbeam in your life." Early sales were strong. Toyota and GM stayed with rear wheel drive with the Starlet and Chevette/Kadett T-Car, so the Sunbeam really did not look that far out of place in 1977.

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Chrysler sold Rootes Group and SIMCA to Peugeot in 1978, trying to raise money to survive after US losses. Few changes ensued; planned sporty Sunbeams were put into production in 1979, and midyear the name was change from Chrysler to Talbot. The range received a minor facelift in 1981, gaining flush Horizon headlamps and better-integrated bumpers, in a move likely planned in 1976 or 1977.

PSA, to cut costs, closed the Linwood plant, ending both the Avenger and the Sunbeam in 1981. The closure of Linwood had a terrible effect on the Scottish economy. As for the Sunbeam, its run of 200,000 was acceptable, and it did its job of keeping Chrysler UK in the key supermini sector.

Chrysler Sunbeam rally success and decline

The most potent racing 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 more. Starting in late 1979, they were dubbed Talbot Sunbeams instead of Chrysler Sunbeams in Europe, since Chrysler had sold out to Peugeot.

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Performance Sunbeams 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, as a stripped-out special, , with high noise and a harsh and tempermental nature, especially in town driving, it made little sense as a road car. The rally crowd took it to their hearts, 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 [Sunbeam] 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:

"...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..."
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 development, 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); the Sunbeam-Lotus was put into limited production 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.

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Each car started life as a 1.6GLS, but got stiffer springing and damping, along with a 10% larger anti-roll bar, stiffer suspension mounts, and tougher gearbox casings at the factory. The cars were then shipped to Lotus to get a new powertrain, then shipped to the Stoke works for final 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 1979 and wrote:

"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 1904-2018

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