The Rare Car That’s Left a Huge Mark On the Motoring World
This year, the iconic Sunbeam Tiger turned 50. Popularised by 60s television show Get Smart, this legendary vintage drive has consistently maintained its allure amongst the rallying set for half a century – and with good reason.
Only 7,085 Sunbeam Tigers were built during their short production stint in the 60s. However, those 7,000 have undoubtedly left their mark on the motoring world.
Highly sought after, even today, by enthusiasts who enjoy putting them through their paces in vintage racing events and road rallies, the Sunbeam held the American Hot Rod Association’s national record over a quarter-mile drag strip for two years.
Sadly, owing to the ease and affordability of modifying the car, few Tigers now remain in their standard, original form.
The Sunbeam Tiger started its storied life as a high-performance V8 version of the Rootes Group’s Sunbeam Alpine Roadster, which had been introduced in 1959. Although popular, American dealers especially desired a more powerful version of the smartly styled roadster to sell in their showrooms.
The Alpine had gained a number of followers through its on-screen fame in Dr No (1962) as James Bond’s ride. Sleek and attractive, it was an adequate road car but suffered from severe under-acceleration.
A two-seat convertible equipped with a 1494cc, four-cylinder engine, its performance fell far short of contemporary racing sports cars from competitors MG and Triumph, with the motor barely able to muster 0-60 in less than 14 seconds.
Sunbeam Tiger Interior
With the Triumph TR series sports car gaining ever more speed, the turbocharged Corvair easily outpacing Rootes’ offering and Corvette in another league entirely, it was time to try a different tack. Enter the Sunbeam Tiger, produced from 1964-1967.
The Sunbeam Triumph was designed, in large part, by the legendary Caroll Shelby, the man who had carried out a V8 conversion on the AC Cobra similar to that envisioned for the Alpine. Shelby was offered $10,000 for engineering and a potential commission per car sold.
With his lucrative contract in hand, Shelby set his team to work. Ace hot rod fabricator George Boskoff and legendary Phil Remington began to work on a prototype that packaged the 260 cubic-inch Ford small-back into the engine bay of the Alpine, the same process they had used to achieve the conversion to the Cobra.
The result was a tight fit, but no-one could argue that it was anything less than a resounding success. The resulting modifications would propel the Sunbeam onto the main stage, as an attractive aesthetic imitation of the Alpine with an entirely new identity.
The Series I
Two major versions of the Sunbeam Tiger would be produced: the Series I and the Series II. Series I was manufactured from 1964-1967. Fitted with a 260 cu 4.3L Ford V8 engine, it had a 2-barrel carburettor, dual exhausts and a 164-hp rating.
Sunbeam Tiger Ford Engine
The new and improved Alpine was fast – really fast – around the range of a base engine Corvette. It could go from 0-60mph in just 8 seconds, and cover a quarter of a mile in around 16 seconds. It measured up favourably to its competitors, despite being around 500 pounds lighter and $500 cheaper, retailing at $3,500.
Admittedly, the Series I was not without its faults. Braking and handling were far from perfect, but this didn’t seem to dent the Tiger’s popularity.
In 1964, two prototype, extensively modified Series Is competed in 24 Hours of Le Mans. Although neither finished, they would still prove brilliant on the race track. Pitted against Jaguars and Corvettes rather than their previous four-cylinder counterparts, they not only performed admirably, but won.
The Series II
More power would soon be delivered, in the form of the Sunbeam Mk. II Tiger. Outfitted with a 200-hp Ford 289, rear track bars, oil cooler and a larger clutch, it was fast, a fitting successor for the original Sunbeam Tiger, which had been named world land speed holder in 1925.
The Sunbeam Tiger, especially the Series II, proved incredibly popular amongst critics, enthusiasts and drivers alike. For many owners, it was simply the least expensive way to get a Shelby-engineered, small-block, Ford-powered British roadster in the 60s – but they loved it.
Sadly, only 633 Series IIs would be built, in 1967, the final year of production for the brilliant Sunbeam Tiger. The bankrupt Rootes Group had been taken over by Chrysler, who thought it fitting to add their Chrysler Pentastar badge to the model.
The take-over would prove to be just another of Chrysler’s numerous failed international dalliances - and the death of the Tiger. The new owners had no interest in purchasing engines from Ford, and Chrysler’s fine 273-cube V-8 wouldn’t fit in its place. It was a simple case of sizing, but it was the end for the iconic motor.
Sunbeam Tiger Engine Bay
In total, fewer than 7,100 Tigers were built over the space of four years, and very few remain in standard form. However, if the 50th anniversary celebrations were anything to go by, the passion of its enthusiasts will see the Sunbeam Tiger endure for a long time yet.
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