The Development and Extinction of the Sunbeam Tiger

The Sunbeam Tiger is another car in a rather long list of cars that were a mixture of English and American automobile design, engineering and production facilities.  In this case it was the blend of the Sunbeam Alpine body/chassis with the small block Ford V8 engine.  The maker of the Sunbeam Alpine, Rootes, wanted to upgrade the power of the Sunbeam Alpine, but did not want to spend the time or money developing their own engine.  Initially they were contemplating using the Buick/Oldsmobile/Pontiac 3.5 liter aluminum V8 engine, but this engine was bought by Rover from General Motors which took that option away.

Rootes’ USA West Coast  Manager Ian Garrad was familiar with the success of the Cobra car and thought that Rootes could have the same success.  He arranged a meeting with Carroll Shelby, who thought that he could shoehorn a Ford V8 into the Sunbeam Alpine.  To do this the firewall had to be moved back to create additional space, along with new rack-and-pinion steering, an upgraded heating system, an upgraded rear end, and exhaust system were required.  These modifications allowed Shelby to fit a 260 cubic inch 164 horsepower V8 into the Sunbeam Alpine body with the result being the Sunbeam Tiger.  The Sunbeam Tiger debuted at the New York Auto Show in the spring of 1964.

Sunbeam Tiger

It is interesting to note that Rootes did not have facilities large enough to build the Sunbeam Tiger without upsetting the production of the Sunbeam Alpine.  As a result, the Sunbeam Tigers were actually built by Jensen Motors at West Bromwich, Birmingham.

Many of The Sunbeam Tigers Were Fitted With Hardtops

The 260 cubic inch Ford V8 engine that was installed in the Sunbeam Tiger was taken directly from Ford’s first North American economy car – the Ford Falcon.  This engine was in a rather low state of tune, not modified at all from its Falcon origins.  The engine only had a two-barrel carburetor and a rather lowish compression ratio of 8.8:1.  While the standard engines were rated at 164 horsepower at 4,400 rpm, there was considerable potential to increase the power output by changing to a four-barrel carburetor with improved intake manifolding.  I believe that one limiting factors in the overall performance of the Sunbeam Tigers was the size of the wheels and tires.  The standard tires were not much different from the Alpine despite having considerable more power.

Note the “260” Emblem on the Back of the Sunbeam

Another issue with the Sunbeam Tiger was the heat that was developed and contained under the hood by stuffing a large V8 engine into a space that had initially been designed for a much smaller in-line 4 cylinder engine.  Not only was this a challenge for engine performance, but this heat did make its way into the passenger area.  Recently a Sunbeam Tiger hardtop owner told me that he really liked the car, but he wished that he could have got air conditioning with it to mitigate the heat.

With The Sunbeam Tiger, It’s All About the Engine

The 260 cubic inch Sunbeam Tiger had a 0 – 60 mph time of about 8.4 seconds with a top speed of 124 mph.  This is not blinding speed, but much faster than the 11.5 seconds that the Sunbeam Alpine took to reach 60 mph.

The first run of the Sunbeam Tiger cars, now known as the Tiger Mk. 1, extended to 3,756 cars.  Then the car got some slight modifications (strengthened cowl and new steering bracket) which led to this new car being called the Sunbeam Tiger Mk. 1A.  Eventually a total of 2,694 Sunbean Tiger Mk. 1A cars were made.  The Sunbeam Tiger Mk. 1A was produced until December 1966.

In January 1967 the Sunbeam Tiger Mk. II model was introduced with the engine size increased to the 200 horsepower 289 cubic inch Ford V8 engine.  This horsepower was still reached at the same 4,400 rpms as the 260 cubic inch V8.  The 289 cubic inch engine was not physically larger than the 260 cubic inch engine, as it was merely a bored out version of the 260 cubic inch engine.

The new 289 V8 engine reduced the 0 – 60 mph time to 7.5 seconds with the top speed still remaining in the early 120 – 125 mph range due to the similar engine speed as the 260 V8.

The Wood Dash Is A Nice Touch

The image below was taken from an interesting book: “Anglo-American Cars From the 1930s To The 1970s” written by Norm Mort.  This car shows the “egg crate” front grille that is indicative of the Sunbeam Tiger Mk. II.  There are considerably fewer Sunbeam Tiger Mk. II cars as compared to the Mk. 1 cars.  I have seen some conflicting numbers, but the total Mk. II cars made appears to be in the range of 572 to 633 units.

Sunbeam Mk. II Models Can Be Identified By Their “Egg-crate” Grille

The Sunbeam Tiger had a brief, but rather successful rally career.  A good record of this part of the Sunbeam Tiger rally history can be found in the publication “Works Wonders” written by Marcus Chambers.  The rally images below came from that publication.  Marcus Chambers was the Competition Manager at Rootes during the period of time when the Sunbeam Tiger was rallied on the world stage.

Rosemary Smith/Margaret MacKenzie in a factory Sunbeam Tiger at the Start of The 1964 Geneva Rally

The first rally for the works Sunbeam Tiger was the Geneva Rally at the end of October in 1964.  Rootes entered three Sunbeam Tigers:

AHP 294B        Ian Lewis/Barry Hughes

AHP 295B        Peter Riley/Robin Turvey

ADU 312B        Rosemary Smith/Margaret MacKenzie

Due to attrition of other cars in their class, the Tigers were able to finish 1-2-3 in the Grand Touring (GT) class at the Geneva Rally.  This gave the Tiger advertising people something to brag about in their first event.

Smith/MacKenzie’s Tiger During the 1964 Geneva Rally

The next event for the works Sunbeam Tigers was the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally.  The cars and crews entered were as follows:

ADU 312B       Peter Harper/Ian Hall

AHP 295B       Andrew Cowan/Robin Turvey

Rootes also entered some Hillman Imps as well, so other Rootes drivers were assigned to the Imps.  The Harper/Hall Tiger finished in 4th place overall and first in the GT Class.  The Cowan/Turvey Tiger finished second in the GT Class and 11th Overall.  This was a particularly rough year at the Monte Carlo Rally with 237 starters, but with only 22 cars classified as finishers.

Peter Harper/Ian Hall Finished 4th Overall in the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally in a Tiger

John Gott/D. E. Nicholson borrowed a works Sunbeam Tiger (AHP 295B) to compete in the May 1965 International Police Rally in Belgium.  They won this event over 92 other entrants.

Gott/Nicholson Winning in Belgium in 1965

The Sunbeam Tiger team also entered the Alpine Rally, but two cars crashed and the third car driven by Peter Harper had initially been thought to have won the Grand Touring (GT) Class, but Harper was subsequently disqualified for using exhaust valves smaller than the size given in the homologation form!  The organizers argued that the smaller valves made the car more reliable.

A Sunbeam Tiger Testing For the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally

The last time that the works Sunbeams were rallied was in the 1966 Acropolis Rally in Greece.  The crew for that event was Peter Harper doing the driving with Ian Hall doing the navigating.  They had a good rally, finishing first in class.

The Harper/Hall Sunbeam Tiger in the 1966 Acropolis Rally

Chrysler bought Rootes just when the Sunbeam Tiger was doing quite well both commercially and in competition.  Chrysler’s original plan was to install their own 273 cubic inch V8 engine in the Sunbeam Tiger, which they used in the Dart and in the Barracuda cars, but they soon realized that it would cost too much to re-engineer the Tiger to accept the 273 cubic inch V8.  A a result, Chrysler decided to continue on using the Ford V8 engines.  It must have been odd and stressful for the Chrysler people to advertise how good the Sunbeam Tiger was without acknowledging that it had a Ford engine.  Eventually Chrysler decided that they did not want to continue the embarrassment and dropped the Sunbeam Tiger.

It was unfortunate that the Sunbeam Tiger became extinct, but they are very good performing cars.  These cars are getting a little more expensive these days as they are becoming more sought after.

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9 Responses to The Development and Extinction of the Sunbeam Tiger

  1. Paul Sears says:

    The last and final legal owner of AHP 295B was Malcolm Sears. The car was destroyed whilst racing @ Oulton Park 18th September 1971. The car was subsequently scrapped in early 1972. Leonard Lloyd of Dalston N1 London foolish tried to attempt to resurrect the car in the 1990’s based on the illegally obtained original registration document. Thankfully due to diligence on the part of various parties around the globe thankfully HE failed. :)w

  2. Steve,
    Any chance you’d have the VIN number for the MK II out of Ontario? Not many running around with MK I/IA side moldings. The one I do know about (B382100606 LRXFE) used to belong to a guy name Fumi Kobayashi. He passed away and his widow sold the car. The moldings were removed and it was returned to proper “factory” trim. FYI the total MK II production was 536.

    • Hi Norman,
      No, I do not have the VIN number for the Ontario Tiger. Maybe somebody might see this and be able to find this out.

      I just posted a story about the Sunbeam Harrington and used the Richard Langworth book “Tiger, Alpine, Rapier” as a reference. Because you noted the Sunbeam MK II production total of 536, I looked up the production figures noted in the Langworth book and was surprised to see a stated MK II production number of 571. Sometimes these production numbers get off a little because some cars become factory rally/rally cars or special corporate vehicles, but the difference was surprising. I don’t particularly worry about the numbers as the total MK II number is still small.

      Thanks for your interest and I hope that more information about the Ontario Tiger comes to light.

      Steve MxKelvie

      • Rande Bell says:

        I would use Norm Millers production figures as bankable. Your earlier production range number of 633 Mark IIs doesn’t take into account that the first production Mark II was numbered at 100 on what we call now the VIN plate, and the last recorded VIN is numbered 633. As owners of Sunbeam Tigers, we do ‘worry’ about correcting misinformation given out about Tigers, but we’re glad to correct it when it appears in places like wikipedia and several classic car auction catalogs and advertisements, as it has, recently.

  3. Ant says:

    I deliver for Boots and we deliver to care homes, I’ve been delivering to one for over a year now and there’s this very nice gentleman with glasses and moustache that’s always polite and takes time to say hello! Tonight I had a lengthy chat with him and guess what, his name was Malcolm Sears!!!!

  4. Christopher Heald says:

    Until about 18 months ago my late mother in law was a resident in the same care home as Malcolm Sears. My wife visited her mother daily (she was unable to recover from her condition) and I often sat over a coffee with Malcolm and chatted with him about his Le Mans film experiences and racing, including, sadly, his accident and the consequences.
    As others have said Malcolm is a fine gentleman. He was always concerned for my wife and her mother. One of life’s good lads in spite of everything.

  5. Dwight says:

    I came to this site looking for information about the Chrysler 273 v8 installed in a Sunbeam Tiger. I remember in the late 1960’s going to the state fair in Oklahoma City and seeing a Chrysler display with a Sunbeam Tiger with a 273 installed. That memory was particularly etched because we had a friend that had a Chrysler Dodge Plymouth dealership and the Chrysler muscle cars were on my radar. Did they actually do more than make prototypes? Whether it was a 273 or a 289 I am not sure that I would know, but the signs attached associated it with the 273.


    • Hi Dwight. This is somewhat a murky issue. When Chrysler acquired Rootes, the Chrysler engineers thought that they could easily replace the Ford 289 cubic inch V8 with their own 273 cubic inch V8 engine. Apparently this idea turned out to be a failure. Chrysler did not want to go through the expense of re-engineering and modifying the Sunbeam Tiger to accept the Chrysler 273 V8. I do think, but I have no supporting documentation, that there were one or two prototypes built from which the Chrysler engineers concluded that it would not be simple to install the 273 V8. As you saw a Chrysler display at a state fair, the car that you saw might have been a Tiger prototype with a 273 V8 engine that Chrysler was showing off at that time but was never developed beyond the prototype that you saw. I wonder if that car still exists?
      Steve McKelvie

  6. P. Bruce Bertram says:

    Very fine article Steve. I’ve been unable to find any info on the two 273 Chrysler powered Tiger prototypes that were done by Chrysler. I’ve ridden in both and recall that one was red. I grew up across the street from Richard Brown who was for years, head of Import/Export for Chrysler. He was always bringing home interesting European cars. Often, when he had a right hand drive car, he would go for a ride in it with the family’s pet monkey sitting on the top of the left side seat. I saw Austin Americas before they were sold here, lots of Cortinas and many other cars Chrysler saw as either future competition of thought they might learn from. I would have to guess that the Mopar 273 Tigers eventually were scrapped (zero info that I could find) but they were interesting in that the recess that had to be made in the firewall to accommodate the 273 and its rear mounted distributor was so deep and complex as to make it unsuitable for production. It wasn’t too long later that Chrysler decided to no longer sell a Ford Motor Company powered car in their showrooms. I have a vague recollection that at least one of the prototypes had the Penstar on the right front wing (or fender). Thanks for listening. Would love to see if any more information has survived the 50 plus years since these interesting cars were made.

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