Chrysler Competitive

All set to add another chapter to Sunbeam’s sporting history with help from the 16-valve Lotus engine

“Last year nobody wanted to know about, or talk to, or drive for Chrysler. Now the World and his wife are beating on the door … ringing on the telephone …. writing. They all want to drive a Sunbeam, and our job – after we have shown that we can produce an outright winning works car for Tony Pond – is to see that they all get one. I literally want to supply a Sunbeam for all sporting seasons!” The shock of grey hair is a little less thickly swept back, but the twinkle in the eyes of Chrysler Motorsport Director Des O’Dell is as strong as it was when he first arrived at Gate 5, Humber Road to take on the competitions managership of Rootes in 1966.

Not only has a lot of water flowed under the bridge since then, a lot of merging and financial anguish has spiked the path of the ex-Aston Martin competitions engineer. He scaled the peaks of winning the London-Sydney Marathon with the Hunter, descending to the constant threat of closure at Chrysler’s convoluted attempts to tackle their English offspring’s problems. Troubles that eventually led to the present situation where Chrysler are 15% stake holders in a European organisation that is controlled by Peugeot-Citroen.

From a competition viewpoint the merger offers the promise of far wider European cooperation, O’Dell’s directorship meaning that he also heads the Chrysler sporting activities of those in France, Belgium and Spain. It means that the market for sporting models like the 1600 Sunbeam Ti and the forthcoming Sunbeam-Lotus are far wider than what could – in the case of the Sunbeam – have been merely an homologation exercise for a potent 2.2-litre, 5-speed ZF gearbox equipped hatchback.

Although we were unexpected visitors O’Dell very kindly lifted the veil of discreet silence that has accompanied the development of such an effective rally car that Britain’s most promising rally driver – 32-year-old Tony Pond – has forsaken not only the Leyland TR7+ 8 but also a firm offer from the coffers of Fiat. So, Pond will drive the Sunbeam works entry in ten 1979 events.

As we unravelled the story of the development it became obvious that the car had shown exceptional traction, handling and power delivery from the early days. Though it has only appeared in half a dozen events at the time of writing the performance has been more than enough to convince Chrysler to go ahead and manufacture the road-going cousin in sufficient numbers to ensure not only the planned homologation of the model into Group 4 next season (it has run only as a Group 5 prototype or club car to this point) but also for extended manufacture by Chrysler at Linwood and Lotus at Hethel (engine and gearbox installation for the rolling chassis prepared in Scotland), considerably beyond the legal requirements. Make no mistake, it has cost Chrysler a great deal of money to gear up for the limited production model, but that car and its competition cousins look capable of brightening a corporate image tarnished by the lethargic UK record of recent years.

Although it happened that we talked to Des O’Dell, I must point out the enormous contribution made to the car’s success by competition manager Wynne Mitchell. He was away on holiday when this was written, but anyone who has seen him in consultation with Pond will know that a strong working relationship has been developed … and Wynne’s engineering expertise and contacts with Lotus (he was at technical college with Lotus managing director Mike Kimberley!), plus his determination to have an outright winner after years of class or divisional success with the Avengers made all the difference.

In the Humber Road workshops and offices seven of the staff are concerned with the profitable supply of parts to customers and another 11 are straightforward competitions employees, staff who have now changed their thinking and working patterns to the idea of a factory car and driver that can win outright. The Imps, Hunters and Avengers are history to them, though the Avenger in rally trim does supply the bulk of the income from competition parts sales.

In its life the Avenger has won both the national Rally Group 1 Championship and the RAC British Saloon Car Championship (three times in four years) but the BRM-engined version, which was intended to make the Avenger an overall winner, was a fiasco. There were initial troubles with the power plant, but the feeling at the factory now is that the real problem was that they simply could not attract drivers capable of giving the car front-running performance.

O’Dell recalls that the development of today’s Sunbeam-Lotus was prompted by discussions amongst the competitions staff almost exactly two years ago. In December 1976 they felt demoralised by the Avenger-BRM’s performance; knew that the company had a new small hatchback on the way coded 424 and it was also remembered that Lotus were interested commercially in dealing with Chrysler. In fact the first contacts had been made in 1971 when Chrysler had looked hard at giving the Avenger Tiger (a twin Weber-carburated 1600) more power still and the most famous name at Lotus made them an offer … which they were able to refuse. The memory of that occasion encouraged Mitchell and O’Dell to approach Lotus again and see if the company would supply an engine which met Chrysler’s needs: (1) they could not afford to go to Cosworth and have a special engine created à là BDA Escort RS1600; (2) thus the engine had to be an existing unit, possibly modified in a way unique to Chrysler. Both turbocharging and extra capacity were obvious ways of achieving such results from an existing high-performance power plant. At this stage O’Dell would have put the 5.4-litre Aston Martin V8 into a Chrysler, if he had thought it was commercially possible!

Of the car itself, the men of Humber Road knew some qualities the finished rally car must possess. The first was a ZF 5-speed gearbox; the second was 240 genuine horsepower (subsequently they acknowledged that an appropriate torque curve to go with that output was even more important); excellent traction. It was also felt that it was pointless doing anything else with the Avenger: it was time to whip up some enthusiasm amongst the senior management, and the new car was the obvious route.

Why put the car before the horse? Usually companies homologate what they wish to compete in advance, then go out and do the job. Sometimes the two happen together (or not at all if the manufacturer and national sporting club manage to slip the homologation past the FIA!) but to go out and run the car first is unusual today. I asked O’Dell the reasoning and he simply said, “We had to go out and show that this new car was capable of winning outright. To get the management bubbling with enthusiasm so that they would then back the manufacture of the road cars. They had to be right behind us and when they had seen what we could do with the car that is just what happened.” Demonstrating that the car was fast first was also important to the team in order to attract the best driver. Pond had already said he was going to leave Leyland at the end of 1978 early in this season. Naturally Chrysler’s people hotly deny any suggestion that Pond was approached while under contract to Leyland: in fact Pond’s contract did allow hint to drive another brand of car if Leyland had no call for his services, and that is what happened. The only time Pond was not able to drive was right at the end of the year when Hitachi sponsored a rallysprint in Ireland and Leyland naturally did not want him out possibly beating his old car with the new. Derek Daly took over and proved sensationally good in the Sunbeam: more of that later.

So, in the early months of 1977 O’Dell and a party including one of the engine-building lads went up to Lotus, following a January meeting between Mitchell and Kimberley. They came back having ordered a 2-litre Lotus twin-cam 16-valve engine in road trim (output quoted as 155 b.h.p. at 6,500 r.p.m.) and a rally engine that Lotus offered to build for them.

By totally underhand means I discovered that this first rally engine (the only engine for the majority of the development and public appearance 1977-78, so it did a fantastic job!) actually gave 234 b.h.p. initially and just over 240 following a rebuild for an event in mid-1978. Using the same ruthless methods outside Chrysler I also found that the rally engines actually measure 2,173 c.c. from a bore and stroke of 95.2 mm. by 76.2 mm. This compares with 1,973 c.c. from a bore and stroke of 95.2 mm. by 69.2 mm. for the production alloy Lotus 907 unit.

The longer stroke comes from a new crankshaft, connecting rods and pistons (the gudgeon pin is relocated compared with a Lotus 2-litre), and the engineering side also includes a strengthened bottom end to the block and its five main bearings. The engines used so far tend to run around 11-to-1 cr. and 48 mm. choke Dell’Orto carburettors: the exhaust manifolding – tucked away under the slant engine and running from four branches into twin pipes the length of the car to exit on either side at the rear – is by Janspeed to Lotus and Chrysler design. The twin exhaust system is an unusual feature for a four-cylinder rally car, but it all tucks away neatly alongside the propeller shaft for much of its length and has survived the rigours of the rough French Mille Pistes rally.

Those with very sharp eyes will note that the 76.2 mm. stroke is the same as is used in a 2.3-litre Vauxhall (such as the Chevette HS2300). This would mean that an item like a DTV steel crankshaft could be modified to fit this engine. Remember that the rallying Chevette used a Lotus-headed version of the Vauxhall iron-block slant engine and that, in the past, engine engineering experiments between Lotus and Vauxhall were routine and you begin to see that quite a lot was already known about the Lotus engine in sporting use.

Chrysler themselves used a DTV bellhousing to connect up the ZF 5-speed gearbox with the standard road engine in a red Avenger, TAC 691R. This car was immaculately presented for the road and O’Dell used it for many thousands of miles after I was privileged to drive it following the July 1977 British GP meeting. This car excited the management, but O’Dell’s next step, while the Lotus rally engine was being prepared, was to go and talk to the workers at Linwood in Scotland. He told them in a series of public addresses why he thought the car was important to Chrysler and came away with a 424 assigned to the department. This rolling chassis duly arrived and during the launch of the Sunbeam 424 series it sat on the sidelines as an example of what the company expected to do in motor sport with the new model.

However, that show car had the engine bay filled with the old BRM-Avenger 16-valve 2-litre motor! The Lotus engine did not arrive until after the launch of the Chrysler Sunbeam (a protracted affair in the spring of 1977) had been completed. That car became WRW 30S. It is still the development machine today having survived five rallies and one 30-stage mile “rallysprint”. That car still drives beautifully, as I was able to find out briefly, and is presented attractively as is typical of this competition department. Not for them the development hack: neat presentation and preparation really is part of the routine of this under-rated équipe.

During the early months of summer 77, the department also completed a Sunbeam to show how a club customer sales vehicle would look and drive. While the BRM-rnotored Sunbeam was a non-runner the other machine (WRW 29S) was vigorously used by all and sundry, serving as a course car in the recent RAC rally. This car had an Avenger 1,600 c.c. pushrod engine and the well-proven running gear (Armstrong shock-absorbers and other cheaper but effective equipment for the privateer) but the 125 b.h.p. 1300 engine or the 2.0-litre Brazilian block engine of Avenger Group 1 ancestry can also be purchased. This allows 160 b.h.p. and Henri Toivenen used a similar car to finish a magnificent ninth overall on the RAC Rally. The gearbox had to be changed three times, but the department have now upgraded gearwheel metal specification. In these cases the pushrod, double Weber engines are mated to close ratio 4-speed gearboxes within the production Avenger casing.

A hectic Christmas and January period saw the department purposely steering away from open contact with old friends, customers pointed firmly at Tim Millington’s department, and all the Avengers prepared and sold off. It was actually February 1st 1978 before they could get earnestly to grips with inserting the Lotus-built 2.2 engine into WRW 30S and preparing it ready for testing. Bernard Unett tested the car at a military establishment and MIRA circuit; the car was complete by March 14th, and it was out on the Bank of Scotland Rally right at the end of that month. So March 31st marked the competition debut of the new car with Andrew Cowan and Mike Broad as the crew. Cowan was not entranced by his new mount, reporting it to be quite twitchy along the straights, and there was a persistent misfire before the car was officially retired with a broken exhaust manifold.

The misfire was quickly solved by lowering the Dell’Ortos and sand cast alloy manifolding back to the production angle from the semi-downdraught position that had been adopted.

For the second event, the April 8th Raylor Rally, Cowan’s complete honesty came across in a company report when he said that some youngster should be hired, for he was thrilled with the way the car was going. It actually finished sixth, but had been delayed after going off the road, though its stage speed on the loose was obvious to everyone. On April 22nd the Sunbeam was out on the Granite City Rally, again with the same crew, and again showing great speed. Once more the undergrowth lured them from the stony tracks, but the car was eventually released to finish well out of time. Cowan then left for South America and his Mercedes commitments, leaving Chrysler without a driver.

Pond was appraised of the situation (no, I do not know how!) and obtained permission from Leyland Comps manager John Davenport to test the Sunbeam at Esgai Daffyd in Wales with Bernard Unett for company.

On his second lap Pond reportedly knocked five seconds from his best Triumph time. Enthused he then set feverishly to work, tramping around 370 miles trying 17 different suspension layouts (the car is still rigged for a bewildering number of conventional rear suspension layouts). Such was Pond’s obvious enjoyment and eagerness to improve the little Sunbeam that the mechanics were swept along too and it was obvious – to Chrysler’s men at least – that this combination was the way to go.

Pond was able to do the Mille Piste rough road rally in the South of France for Chrysler in July. He flew in from a victory in South Africa, where he had used a GM product, with a touch of dysentery and generally feeling 10 degrees under. Not surprisingly, Pond’s performance on the Mille Piste did not really catch fire until the second day, then he gobbled up Chris Sclater on one stage and was actually leading Therier’s Toyota before a puncture. After 18 kms. with the deflated Dunlop Pond’s final second place was 34 seconds behind the Toyota.

“This was the most important event we have ever done,” says O’Dell with an expansive sweep of the hands. “The next day I had a meeting in Paris which would literally decide the future of Chrysler in the sport. It was such a good result that I was adding noughts onto my budget proposals in the corridor before the meeting … and we got them all through after I presented the blasted great second place cup to one of the men that mattered!”

The Mitchell-Pond relationship was strengthened during some tarmac testing ready for the Peter Russek Manuals Epynt Rally. If Pond found that the Sunbeam handled as well on tarmac as it did on the loose, then he would almost certainly join the team for 1979. They ended up with a specification that deleted anti-roll bars front and rear (they are back on now) and lowered the car considerably. On the event Pond delivered a thrashing to the rest of a top-level club field over roads that he does not know particularly well until the engine blew up after 12 stages. This was not unexpected. In fact it was a credit to Lotus that the engine had lasted as long as it had: Chrysler had been warned not to use it again after the Mille Piste, for which event Phil Davidson had rebuilt it at Humber Road, but they had no alternative. Pond was impressed enough, for the car had pulled out 30 sec. over the nearest rival on one stage, and no Chrysler had ever been able to do that against the works specification Escorts before.

The car was not eligible to compete in the RAC Rally – though the Group 2. Sunbeam with 2-litre engine was – and its next and last appearance to date was in the Hitachi Tarmac Rallysprint held three days after the end of the RAC Rally.

Ensign’s GP driver Derek Daly readily agreed to fill Pond’s boots, and casually took the ribbing of the top Finns before the event. RAC Rally winner Hannu Mikkola had the shining black Escort RS prepared by David Sutton for just this sort of going and Pentti Airikkala had his RAC Rally-retired DTV Chevette. Daly had little practice in the mountains before tackling the event, but he produced a true competitor’s set of times. On the first run around the 9.68 miles of tarmac he was just two seconds slower than Mikkola and five seconds slower than Airikkala. His next run was even more spectacular, including a trip backwards across a bridge! Spectators lifted him out the other side and he dropped little more than five seconds on his first run time. On the third run the Finns were swopped over onto racing slicks, but Chrysler were apprehensive that “Double D” would tip the car – their only car at the time – on its side. So they left him on 9in. wide wheels with Dunlop A2 stage tyres on: he was still only nine seconds slower than Airikkala on the fastest closing runs. The aggregate result was that Airikkala led Mikkola by to seconds, with Daly a fabulous 13 seconds behind after his first taste of rally terrain in competition. Daly certainly bubbled over with pleasure for the event and the car … and he had the last word when the Finns requested him not to come back next year! Daly said, “Next time we’ll do it at the British Grand Prix!” The point is a valid one; all these so-called deciders on racing versus rally ability are conducted in production-style cars. The spectacle of Hannu Mikkola in a Lotus Grand Prix car might drag in a few of the reputed three million Britons who attend the RAC Rally stages and provide a unique TV viewing spectacle.

Today’s Sunbeam

I was fortunate to find the original development 2.2 Sunbeam Lotus rally car at home and in working condition when paying my surprise visit. Still carrying Daly’s name on one side I found it hard to believe that this was the one and only car … until I looked underneath and saw the scars left by the Mille Piste! For Daly’s outing a new Lotus engine had arrived, but everything else was much as described.

The blue and white car is closest in concept to the Chevette, but it would be hard to mistake one for the other in competition guise. Pond will have two more new Sunbeams to choose from, this car staying as the development vehicle – a French driver will also have a pair of such vehicles for French events. The two Pond vehicles were approaching completion when I called.

Meanwhile WRW 30S shows some interesting development ideas. With the bonnet open the tubular steel cross-bracing front turret to turret of the Bilstein gas-damped front suspension cab be seen, together with additional location back the front bulkhead. A 24-volt starting system with a single small battery on one inner valance is employed. The whole layout is especially neat with the Lotus engine’s double overhead camshaft covers nestling cosily just within the engine bay: to make it fit 80 thou. has to be machined from the topside of the cylinder head.

Theoretically it was thought that the engine should sit with only the second cylinder bisected by a line drawn transversely between the turrett of the front suspension. In fact the engine projects nearly three cylinders beyond this line, yet handling and traction are particularly singled out for praise. Quite why the distribution of the 287 lb. Lotus engine should not make much difference to the car’s handling is not known, but the 1-ton machine certainly does not feel nose heavy as theory suggests it should. To reduce weight where possible bodywork features which are likely to be retained include an aluminium skinned bonnet and the use of perspex for the entire rear hatch and all side-windows. The wheelarch extensions are aluminium items lot serious factory rallying only.

The interior features the driver’s bucket seal in the normal position, but the navigator it seated in the latest mode: virtually on the floor, well into what was the rear passenger compartment with the HaIda distance recorder and massive drilled foot brace for company. I was told that this was not so much a traction feature (though lowering the mass of the car is worthwhile from a handling viewpoint) as to keep the navigator out of the driver’s way. It feels quite odd at first, but after a few miles the driver gets used to the disembodied voice from the rear chundering away with the music of the limited slip differential …!

Few supplementary gauges are fitted to rally cars nowadays. The prototype has small mechanical instruments to record oil pressure and water temperature, but otherwise the production dials suffice. The electronic tachometer has its pointer set at 8,500 r.p.m. (the engine should be safe to some 9,200 revs.) and the speedometer is set to cope with the 4.89-to-1 rear axle ratio.

The strut front suspension and ventilated disc brakes with massive Lockheed calipers are traditional rally car wear these days, as is the hydraulic handbrake, large Salisbury limited slip differential rear axle and rear disc brakes. O’Dell reckons that most of the competitive cars have 240 b.h.p. as well, whatever is said, and the ZF 5-speed gearbox is common too. The thorny homologation thicket means that only Ford are allowed to run triple-plate clutches where Group 4 is applied, but the Sunbeam prototype also has this feature. Another aspect that has received attention along time-honoured lines (Ford started all this common thinking with their comprehensive equipment for the Mk. 1 Escort) is the steering, which has faster action of under three turns lock to lock.

Spoilers are mandatory amongst the rallying the now, and the Sunbeam has its quota: one on the rear panel in rubber and a deep front foil.

I tried the car under very greasy and foggy conditions, but I had the advantage of a very enthusiastic and courageous “navigator” from the competitions workshops who ensured I explored the performance and handling a little more thoroughly than would be normal on nodding acquaintance.

The engine was already well warmed and, with the Willans 4-point safety harness pulling me further into the envelope of the bucket seat, I set off trying everything I knew to avoid the humiliation of stalling. The triple-plate clutch is surprisingly light in action which is a welcome change on a rally car, but the action was as sudden as ever. Beginner’s luck took me through the first take-offs, but I did eventually stall.

The rear axle layout has been the subject of many changes, as can be seen from the bracketry attached to the axle and the floorpan. However it now follows production lines, though the actual components are newly fabricated. That means large lower arms with coil springs attaching to the bottom of the axle; inclined dampers behind the axle, and two shorter top location links from the differential splayed outward to the underbody.

The result is a good compromise between grip and handling on tarmac. When you want the car to break away at the rear it does so readily, even in third or fourth gear if the full torque of the engine is employed. However its outstanding characteristic is the acceleration from rest. This Sunbeam scuttles up to a full-blooded 8,500 r.p.m. in the gears about as fast as you want to change gear. I hear that Pond prefers to use little over 7,000 r.p.m. and I can understand that for the engine has such a nice torque delivery that this probably produces better results. How fast is It? Well the pre-production 155-b.h.p. cars have recorded 0-60 m.p.h. in the low six-second region with top speeds of 128 m.p.h. The rally car’s lower gearing will obviously bring the acceleration times right down into the AC Cobra/exotic supercar bracket but top speed on stages is usually limited to 115-120 m.p.h.

As I said, I am sure Pond’s methods are more scientific and faster than mine so far as r.p.m. are concerned, but the sheer fun of running through the first three gears as fast as I could change on that responsive gearbox was too tempting to resist. The car is quite noisy inside but one is constantly surprised how quickly the car gains speed: even 4th gear is quickly used up and exchanged for 5th, but on the tarmac course I used 5th gear was a luxury rather than a necessity.

The braking, even on such treacherous and slimy surfaces as I enjoyed, was first class. I think Mr. Dunlop’s tyres take a great deal of credit for transmitting the retardation to the ground with no sign of wheel lock.

With such easily controllable power slides available and that relentless acceleration, driving this little Sunbeam is akin to being inside an energetically propelled squash ball. You bounce back from obstacle to obstacle at maximum speed. Even if you have to take second gear it is literally only a few seconds later that the car will be howling along with the driver stretching for fifth gear as it accelerates toward 100 m.p.h.

My memory was of a car that had achieved all the objectives set out for it. I particularly liked the combination of smooth revs and excellent torque. You can trickle the car through the rush hour once the clutch is mastered, and it pulls well from 3,000 r.p.m. in 3rd or 4th, which is more than we could ever have expected of competition engines a few years ago.

To complete an enjoyable day the department sent me out in one of their service vans a large, 6-litre, VS-engined Dodge B3000 Tradesman. This beast can cruise at 70 m.p.h. with 2 tons payload, such as trailer and rally car plus full range of spares and 30 wheels on the roof rack. That is its practical side, but the point is the comfort in which it does such tasks. Up front there are two large armchairs, complete with armrests and cloth centre sections. The driver surveys those below from the LHD position, mastering a small steering wheel that controls light power steering. Other comforts include 3-speed automatic transmission, radio/cassette player and air conditioning!

In a different way this was just as much fun and I could quite see why the team had ordered another such device, this time a LWB version.

I am convinced Chrysler have a car they can win with under modern rally conditions, but my personal feeling is that it was a shame that the management of Leyland Motorsport and Pond could not have got along sufficiently well to stay together. Pond really was the right man to drive the V8 Triumph. By contrast the Sunbeam’s characteristics could be mastered by other drivers. I would have thought that Chrysler’s programme of five European events and five in Britain was perhaps less than Pond could have expected at Leyland, who have every commercial reason for attacking both European tarmac events and British events. I would also repeat that at present the Sunbeam is not homologated in the form I have written about it. I am genuinely surprised that a driver of Pond’s stature could be persuaded to change mounts prior to this basic requirement being fulfilled.

On the other hand both Chrysler and Pond are hungry for success. This little Sunbeam is the staple diet to assuage such an appetite. – J.W.