Veteran to classic: Sunbeam Tiger

V8 classic

Classic cars seem to bring us right up to the present , so I lean more towards vintage and post-vintage thoroughbreds, the latter being how the VSCC, in its infinite wisdom, defines desirable 1931-40 models. I do, however, have a special affection for one memorable Classic, namely the Rootes Group Sunbeam Tiger. This Ford-powered version of the Sunbeam Alpine, with which I was by then fairly conversant, appeared in 1964.

Just as British Leyland engineers later discovered a discarded General Motors V8 engine, intended I believe for a military project and used in the Oldsmobile and Buick compact-cars, which transformed Rover’s four-cylinder image, so Rootes found that a bog-standard Type 260 pushrod ohv Ford V8 powerpack could be shoe-horned into its Sunbeam Alpine sports-car. This endowed the Alpine with 164 bhp at 4400 rpm, and 258 lb ft torque at 2200 rpm, a net power increase of some 82 bhp in a car weighing 23 1/2. cwt. The Ford engine was a 96.5mm x 73mm (4261cc) unit with a compression ratio of 8.8:1, which not surprisingly transformed the Alpine’s performance.

Jensen Motors of West Bromwich did the necessary structural alterations to get the big Ford engine into the 7ft 2in-wheelbase Alpine chassis, where it was mated to an all-synchromesh Borg-Warner gearbox; a heavy-duty propshaft drove a 2.88:1 Salisbury back-axle.

A modified front cross-member took new rack-and-pinion steering gear, and higher rate coil springs and revised damper settings were used in the Sunbeam Alpine independent front suspension, but the servo disc/drum brakes were unchanged. The engine retained its two-barrel Carter carburettor, and naturally there were twin exhaust tail-pipes — these and the “Tiger 260” badges being identifying features. The tyres were Dunlop RS 5.90 x 13s. A cross-flow radiator was fitted and electric fuel-feed devised from two fuel tanks feeding as one, with a capacity of 111/4 gallons.

I remember letting DSJ try the first Sunbeam Tiger offered to us. After he had realised this was no Shelby-Cobra or Le Mans sports/racer, he was favourably impressed. Top speed did not match the claimed 125 mph, but peak engine speed equal to 105 mph was held along the Stevenage bypass (no speed-limit, then !). During a race practice session DSJ was able to get the Tiger hard-top timed electronically, and a standing-start quarter-mile was done in 16.34 seconds.

Later in 1965 I was able to do a full road-test of an openable Sunbeam Tiger, which I recall as being a very enjoyable car, able to ascend South Harting Hill (where the JCC once held speed hill-climbs)in the 2.88:1 top gear. It ran very quietly, getting from 0-60mph in nine seconds — and this was 23 years ago remember!

My standing start quarter-mile took 17 seconds, and this lively Tiger ran from 15-116 mph in the highest gear. As its speedometer was virtually accurate, credence was lent to the maxima in the lower gears of 42, 66 and 87 mph respectively, and I recorded 19.2 mpg on a fast journey, 22 mpg with more lenient driving.

The Tiger’s snags included violent backaxle tramp under hard acceleration in bottom cog and maybe undersized tyres and brakes; against which was the modest 1965 price of £1445.50 including purchase-tax. For 1967 the Type 289 Ford engine was used, its bore opened out to the full 4in from 3.8in. 200 bhp gross being developed in this 4.7-litre form.

Just as Ford’s skilled foundry techniques had made possible the first inexpensive V8 with integral blocks and crankcase in 1932, so Ford thinwall castings had made these later engines suitable for a car as small as the Sunbeam Alpine. They certainly endowed the impressive Tiger with the smooth pick-up, emphasised by the wufiling V8 exhaust-beat, which had been so impressive 33 years earlier from the original multi-pot Fords.

To round off these Tiger recollections, when first we went to live in Wales we used to see a little apple-cheeked lady driving a MkII Bertelli Aston Martin — its hood down no matter what the weather. We assumed she had had the car from new. Later we were to learn that, ever since she was a girl, taught to drive in a Clyno by the family coachman-turned-chauffeur, she had wanted a Bentley, and that when she could afford a sports-car she had bought the Aston Martin. Not to be outdone, her husband bought a Sunbeam Tiger.

Eventually the AM was given to a neice (it was used last year for a Spanish rally)and after her husband’s death the lady took over the Tiger, keeping it running with the help of the Sunbeam Tiger OC. Only recently I saw her loading it with Christmas fare, which suggests that longevity is another quality of the memorable Rootes Group sports-car.

The Tiger went out of production in 1967, Only because Ford power became distasteful when Chrysler took over a large slice of the Rootes Group; there was no Chrysler engine small enough or light enough to act as a substitute. WB