1966 Sunbeam Tiger

   Sunbeam was originally a name used from 1888 by John Marston for the bicycles he built and sold. Like many other bicycle companies Sunbeam diversified into automobiles and the first Sunbeam motor car was sold in 1901. The Sunbeam Motor Car Company Limited was incorporated in 1905 as a separate company which grew steadily and produced many aero engines and aircraft during the first world war. Sporting ideals soon surfaced after the Great War putting their aero engines into motor car chassis for speed records as well as building on it's designs for proper GP cars which had been so promising before the war. The company was successful in it's aims with Sir Henry Seagrave setting a land speed record of 152.3 mph in 1926 driving a 12-cylinder engined Sunbeam he had named “Tiger”. By 1934 the company was stagnating with ageing designs and falling sales fording the sale of Sunbeam motors to the Rootes brothers. This marked the end of actual Sunbeam design and manufacturing.

   William and Reginald Rootes ran a very successful car sales and servicing business which was strong enough to secure them financial backing to move into car production and spare parts sales. The Rootes Motors Limited company bought up Hillman, Humber, Singer, Talbot, Commer, Karrier, and Sunbeam. They had intended to used the Sunbeam name for a luxury car range but this idea was still born and the Sunbeam name ended up being tied to that of Talbot, as Sunbeam-Talbots, until 1954 when the Talbot name was popped into a draw for use at some later date.

   The Sunbeam Tiger of 1964 was a tribute to that old Land speed record car as it's own birth owed more to the world of motor racing than commercial road cars. It was another of those classic American ideas of shoe-horning a big engine into a tiny lightweight car. Names like Carroll Shelby and Jack Brabham add to this sporting ideology even though in essence the Tiger was a road going Sunbeam Alpine; on steroids!


   Rootes had a good car in the Sunbeam Alpine, it was pretty and had some success in competition too winning the Index of Thermal Efficiency at Le Mans in 1961. However over the next few years the Alpines competitiveness was slipping as the Triumph and MG cars had more powerful engines. The Rootes group hatched a plan to produce a really sporty version of the Sunbeam Alpine that could be properly competitive in the world markets and on the circuits. However they were reluctant to spend the necessary time and money developing their own engine. Rootes initial inquiries were with Ferrari in the hope they would rework the Sunbeam inline 4cyl' engine, the kudos of "powered by Ferrari" would certainly have been a selling point. Unfortunately negotiations weren't successful and a deal was never concluded.

   Ian Garrad, US West Coast sales manager for Rootes Group was chatting with Jack Brabham after Brabham, Bruce McLaren and Ken Miles had just driven Alpines at the Riverside ‘Times Grand Prix’ at which the 260 Cobra had debuted. Brabham suggested the idea of similarly putting a V8 into an Alpine. Garrad put this to Rootes and the search for a V8 commenced. Rootes looked to use the GM aluminium V8 engine but Rover beat them to the punch and took the engine for their P5. Garrad then arranged for a meeting with John Panks, Director of Rootes Group America, and the Cobra genius Carroll Shelby to see if it was practical to develop the Alpine along the same lines as the Cobra. Shelby was positive about the idea and put forward the small block Ford as the most promising engine. Garrad also spoke with road racing legend Ken Miles to seek his interpretation of a racing Alpine. Both men were asked to produce ideas for a prototype in March 1963 but they both took a different route. Miles stayed closer to the Alpine's mechanical components including the re-circulation-ball steering not surprisingly as he was only given $800 to come up with a prototype. Shelby was far more adventurous and an excited Ian Garrad contacted Lord Rootes son, Brian Rootes, who was then head of sales for the Rootes Group to obtain authorisation and secure funding. Brian Rootes was keen but had his own issues to contend with, his reply was :-

“Well all right, at that price when can we start? But for God's sake keep it quiet from Dad [Lord Rootes] until you hear from me. I'll work the $10,000 (£3,571) out some way, possibly from the advertising account.”

   Shelby was retained as engineering consultant and given the $10,000 for development work and in July he had a prototype ready for evaluation, Garrad and Panks (Rootes Motors North American director) took it for a spin and were immediately convinced it was a winner. They wrote to Brian Rootes to report the progress :-

"we have a tremendously exciting sports car which handles extremely well and has a performance equivalent to an XX-K Jaguar... it is quite apparent that we have a most successful experiment that can now be developed into a production car."

   The car was then delivered to Ryton for Sunbeam engineers and Lord William Rootes to evaluate. Rootes was somewhat upset that so much work had been done without his knowledge and demanded to drive the car himself. He was more than impressed with the cars performance (despite having neglected to take the handbrake off), and personally approached Henry Ford II to negotiate a deal for the Ford V8 motor. With project ‘Sunbeam Thunderbolt’ progressing at a great pace, Shelby was hoping to get the production contract to build the cars. He had certainly put in enough effort to suggest he was entitled to think that way.

   The new car was set to be unveiled at the 1964 New York Motor Show in April of that year when the subject of the ‘Thunderbolt’ name came up. Not falling off the tongue that easily but conveying the image of a rapid machine Thunderbolt was fine but missing something. When the idea of honouring the 1926 achievement of Seagrave was put forward “Tiger” became the new name for Sunbeam's new sports car. Offered for sale at less than $2300 the New York Auto Show the Sunbeam Tiger drew significant praise. It had taken just nine months to conceive, develop and produce this attractive and well handling car.


   Phil Remington oversaw the prototype development at Shelby's workshops. The exterior panels of the Alpine remained much the same but the chassis and internal frames needed modifications. The Alpines firewall was pushed back to make room for the 4.2ltr, Ford small-block engine. This was the same engine Ford was then using in it's economy model Falcon and was tuned for the road. The low compression ratio of 8.8:1 and two-barrel carburettor put out 164hp. Shelby wanted more so the team increased to capacity to 4.7ltrs, fitted a new intake manifold and installed a four-barrel carburettor. The new dual exhausts were rooted through the chassis rails. A modified transmission tunnel housed a manual T-10 transmission, with overdrive, which fed power to the rear wheels.

   The engine was still a very tight fit in the engine bay and the cooling system was redesigned and the firewall further modified to find space for the much better rack-and-pinion steering unit to be installed. With the engine being crammed into the small engine bay one of the drawbacks of the Tiger would be excessive heat in the cabin of the hard top versions, something the racing drivers didn't complain about given all the positives they had at hand. One of these was the great weight distribution which remained much the same of as the Alpine's, at 51.7/48.3 front/rear.

   The chassis frame was straightened to compensate for the bigger engine and the suspension modified to suit. At the rear end a Salisbury diff' and axle accepted the power and passed it onto the rear wheels. This brought up one of the limiting factors of the Tiger development as size of the wheels and tires had to remain road going sizes.

   The bigger engine did add weight to the car as did the additional strengthening needed to the internal panels and chassis making which made the Tiger about 20% heavier than the Alpine. But the power output of the V8 engine was twice that of the Alpine so the performance was much improved. Even the standard production Tiger could go from 0-60mph in only 7.8sec's.


   With Lord Rootes on board and his deal with Ford for 3,000 V8 engines in place (the largest single order Ford had ever received for engines) development from prototype to production car was passed not to Shelby, but to Jensen Motors in West Bromwich, England. To ease Shelby's discontent he was tempted into accepting a percentage royalty on each car Rootes sold. Rootes didn't actually have the capacity to add Tiger production to the existing Alpine production so the Sunbeam Tigers were built by Jensen. Jensen was able to take on the contract for two reasons. Jensen's chief engineer Kevin Beattie and his assistant Mike Jones had previously worked for Rootes which made them acceptable partners and Jenson had had their contract for assembling the Volvo P1800 had recently been cancelled. The first 14 Jensen-built prototypes became available from the end of 1963. Full production was started in June 1964, just a little over a year after Shelby had completed the first prototype. Soon 300 Tigers a month were being made from pressed steel panels, supplied by Pressed Steel in Oxfordshire, and V8's direct from Ford USA.

   Production Tigers could easily do 0-60mph in 8.5sec's, and reach as much as 124mph, thanks to a phenomenal power-to-weight ratio. It might not seem much in today's world of production supercars but both these figures eclipse the Alpines performance figures If you wanted more performance then both Rootes and Shelby offered aftermarket performance products that could give as much as 245hp. If it was a sporty refined road car you wanted than an optional automatic gearbox could be fitted for an additional $500.

   In total 7,085 Tigers were built across two series between 1964 until 1967.


   The Tiger was a great success in motorsports in both rallying and on the circuit. Heavily modified Lister bodied coupe Tigers were run at Le Mans in 1964 although they didn't finish they did run as fast as 160mph on the straight. Rootes were keen on getting the Tiger onto the circuit but many were equally keen to use it in rallies and they were extensively used and garnered success. A GT Class win, actually a 1-2-3 victory, in the 1964 Geneva Rally was followed by class wins in the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally and International Scottish Rally. In the Belgian International Police Rally of 1965 a Tiger took an overall win.

   It was in the United States the Tigers had their most outstanding results. A Hot Rod Tiger was American Hot Rod Association's national record holder over a quarter-mile for two years, and an ET of 12.95 and a top speed of 108mph set by Gordon Chittenden in the Larry Reed Sportscars Tiger. Stan Peterson backed up that performance with his own Tiger by winning the 1965 N.H.R.A. Class C World Championship with a time of 12.9sec's and speed of 110mph. On the American circuits Doane Spencer's Hollywood Sports Car team took over development of the racing Tigers as Shelby had no space capacity due to the Cobra production programme. Jim Adams Drove their car to a debut Class B win at the 1965 Santa Barbara Road Race and by the end of the season was on course to be take the championship until another car took him out of the race. Adams ended up third in the Pacific Coast Division Championship.

   Rootes cars were no longer being bested by MGs and Triumphs but were now competing with the much more expensive Jaguars and Corvettes. On the roads they gave by far the best value/performance for their price and although not really marketed in the UK six rh drive Tigers were bought by the Metropolitan Police for traffic patrols and high-speed pursuits.


   In the late 1960s British motor manufacturing entered a period of poor industrial relations and it was striking workers which slowed production and created a cash flow problem for the The Rootes Company. In 1967 Chrysler bought an 83% stake in Rootes for £12.3 million. Chrysler planned to put their own 273 cubic inch V8 into the Tiger. Unfortunately the re-engineering required to fit the replacement engine was to prove too expensive. Embarrassed by the thought of a Ford engine in their range Chrysler decided to cancelled the Tiger. Roy Axe, Rootes' design director at the time, was later quoted as saying :-

"The Alpine and Tiger were always oddballs in the [Rootes] range. I think they [Chrysler] didn't understand it, or have the same interest in it as the family cars– I think it was as simple as that."

   Jensen assembled the last Tiger on 27 June 1967.

   In 1960 Rootes group had manufacturing facilities in Coventry, Birmingham, Acton, Luton, Dunstable and a brand-new plant at Linwood in Scotland.. There were even more overseas assembly plants in nine other Countries outside the UK. When the losses of developing the new aluminium-engined Hillman Imp were coupled to the losses of a thirteen week strike at Pressed Steel's panel plant, which interrupted production of the Tiger, the scene was set for the eventual Chrysler take over. In 1978 Chrysler UK was broken up and sold to Renault and Peugeot. Rootes Group and many of those old British manufactures names simply slipped away and are now almost forgotten.  

1/32nd scale conv'.
Built by Rod.

   This conversion of the Revell Sunbeam Alpine kit was built by Rod in the 1990s. Revell UK's kit # H-1255 was a mid' 1960s release with subsequent re-releases including a 1979 re-boxing by Advent, as kit # 3004.

   Painted with Halfords spray paints and Humbrol enamels this conversion is quite easy to do as the exterior panels of the Tiger are so similar to the Alpine. The hard top though is scratch built as the kit doesn't include a cover.