On the Road With the New Sunbeam Rapier

Latest Product from the Rootes Group Possesses Americanised Styling, Good Performance and Much Improved Roadholding, Steering, Braking and Gear-Change. Prices Unaltered.

When the Hillman Minx-base Sunbeam Rapier came into being in 1955, and eventually replaced the very different Mk. III Sunbeam, there were expectations that a new standard of inexpensive high-performance had been achieved. But, although the Rapier demonstrated durability in the Mille Miglia and put up outstanding performances in International rallies, in standard form it neither lived up to the rumoured economy of 40 m.p.g. nor proved capable of more than about 85 m.p.h. even in twin-carburetter form.

The Rootes Group, however, have always possessed a firm belief in competition participation as a means of improving its production cars and rally-modifications made to the Series I Rapier have borne fruit, for the vastly improved Series II Sunbeam Rapier is now in production.

The Series II version remains a two-door four-seater saloon or convertible but the bore of the engine has been increased to give over-square dimensions of 79 by 76.2 mm., which raises the capacity from 1,390 c.c. to 1,494 c.c. Compression-ratio has been increased from 8 to 1 to 8.5 to 1, inlet porting improved, the inlet valves increased in diameter by 1/16 in., and the exhaust valves by the same amount. The output of the new “Rallymaster” engine is 73 b.h.p. gross (68 b.h.p. net) at 5,200 r.p.m. from this twin Zenith-carburetted power unit. Other modifications embrace twin silencers, raised gear ratios, a central remote-control gear-lever in place of a steering-column stalk, and an increase in brake-lining area of 25½ sq. in., achieved by using 10 in. diameter in place of 9-in, front brake drums. Revised steering gear, stiffer front suspension, better sound insulation, improved interior appointments, and revised styling—with its new radiator grille and tail fins the Series II Rapier looks like a poor relation of the Studebaker Golden Hawk—constitute additional changes.

We were able to drive a hard-used new Sunbeam for over 1,000 miles during a week’s testing and found it a fast, pleasant and entirely dependable car. From early acquaintance the driver appreciates the improvement in steering, roadholding and gear-change which the latest Rootes Rapier possesses compared with its predecessor. The steering is smooth rather than light and a shade spongy, yet reasonably accurate and devoid of all kick-back or column vibration. It requires 3¾ turns, lock-to-lock, which is rather too low-geared, although offset by a small turning circle. There is useful castor action. The car handles extremely well, for, although the suspension is sufficiently supple to ensure a very comfortable ride over indifferent roads and even to provoke fairly lively up-and-down motion, it is not such that control is lost on fast corners. Damping is effective and over ripply surfaces some vibration is conveyed to the body shell, and vibration to the rim of the steering wheel.

The new gear-change is a vast improvement and in keeping with the character of the Sunbeam. The lever is placed exactly right and has a man-sized flat knob, which on one occasion came off in our hand. The gear-changes go through as rapidly as the driver desires and delightfully smoothly; the only possible criticism of the excellent gearbox is that when attempting a rapid change-down into second gear the reverse-position spring may be inadvertently overridden. There is slight gear noise in the indirect ratios and as the smooth clutch takes up the drive some lost-motion is discernible in the back axle. First gear is not always easy to engage from rest.

As with all modern Rootes products the driving position and control arrangements approach the ideal. Forward visibility from the commendably comfortable driving-seat is good, for although a short driver may not see both front wings the bonnet is also short and visibility not impaired thereby. The sloping side pillars slightly impair sideways vision in traffic and the rear mirror gives a somewhat cut-off view, but when reversing the panoramic rear window is much appreciated.

The pendant pedals are well placed, somewhat to the off side, which leaves ample space for the left foot, and for the foot-dipper with its sensibly large knob. The two-spoke sprung steering-wheel carries a full horn ring of conveniently small diameter which sounds a blatant warning. Centrally above the facia are grouped four matching dials indicating, from left to right, water temperature (normally 190 deg. F.), fuel gauge (which is about 2 gall. pessimistic), oil gauge (normally indicating about 50 lb./sq. in.), and ammeter. The facia panel itself carries pull-and-twist lamps switch, choke knob, clock (an extra this), a blank hole closed with a rubber grommet and a Smiths cigarette lighter, with the radio below it.

To the left of this panel is a lidded, lined, lockable cubbyhole of vast capacity and there is a useful divided shelf, also of generous capacity, before the driver. The radio loudspeaker is fitted behind this shelf. On the facia sill is a knob controlling the self-parking, two-speed screen-wipers, and the ignition-key, which is turned right to start the engine and left to leave the radio circuit alive when the ignition is “off.” On each side of the facia panel are the simple quadrant levers for screen-demisting on the left and car heat on the right; vibration made the tiny knobs on these levers unscrew. Before the driver are the matching A.C. tachometer (extra on home market Rapiers) and speedometer, the former reading to 6,000 r.p.m. with red marking from 5,500 r.p.m. onward and rather vaguely calibrated in increases of 1,000 r.p.m., the latter going to 100 m.p.h. and being calibrated also in k.p.h. The clear white needles of these instruments move in the same plane. The speedometer incorporates total and trip with decimal mileage recorders. Indicator lights are confined to those for the direction-indicator warning, ignition-warning and headlamps full beam, the last-named sensibly masked.

Two convenient stalks protrude on the right below the steering-wheel, the short upper one operating the Laycock de Normanville overdrive (operative in third and top gears), and the longer, lower one the direction-indicators. The latter was faintly reluctant to indicate a left turn unless firmly prodded.

Crash padding is used liberally in the Rapier not only on and above the facia but round the waistline inside the body; its value to the front-seat passenger is nullified by a jagged “pull” on the cubbyhole lid. Adequate ventilation is ensured, as the doors are pillarless and the rear windows wind down in an arc almost flush with the body sides. The front windows require 4¾ turns of the handles to open them fully; the back windows nearly 5 turns. The ¼-windows in time front doors operate stiffly; they have rain gutters, a la VW, but not thief-proof catches. We were troubled to discover slight air leaks round these and the side windows, which set up irritating whistles.

We deplore the present-day absence of door pockets but, besides the enormous cubbyhole and useful facia shelf, the Rapier has a very useful shelf behind the back seat. Upholstery is in two-colour soft leathercloth and the roof is covered in washable plastic. Access to the back seat is by folding the backs of the front bucket seats. The trailing doors have push-button handles, each is lockable, interior sill-locks are fitted and the passenger’s door has an armrest-cum-“pull,” the driver’s door a folding metal “pull.” Twin swivelling anti-dazzle vizors are fitted, the passenger’s has a vanity mirror. There is a folding armrest for the rear passengers, as well as fixed side armrests. The roof light is usefully bright and is operated by opening the doors or by a switch convenient to the front-seat occupants. The test car had a screen-washer. The bonnet is opened by a lever within the radiator grille, obviating a cockpit remote lever.

Luggage-boot capacity in the Rapier is truly generous, although the spare wheel is limited vertically on the off side. The lockable lid is spring loaded and props and releases automatically. Below the lid is a quick-action fuel filler which cannot be filled from a can. The fuel gauge is calibrated in gallons and litres, the oil gauge in lb. and kg. Incidentally, the novice will be reassured to find the gear positions marked on the steering-column!

In covering a four-figure mileage in this smart Sunbeam Rapier within a week we formed a high opinion of its excellent performance, ease of control and smooth, quiet running. Although this car had been thrashed unmercifully on Continental demonstrations, its engine started instantly without recourse to the choke and it never “pinked” or ran-on. It is a smooth power unit right to 6,000 r.p.m. The test car had overdrive and lower gear ratios than those without overdrive. First and second gear are rather low, maxima being an indicated 28 and 37 m.p.h., respectively. Sixty is attainable in normal third and well over 70 m.p.h. in overdrive third. The maximum in top, given a very long run and/or following wind, is probably just in excess of 90 m.p.h., and 80 m.p.h. is attainable on normal straights. Seventy miles per hour is just an ambling speed to the Rapier, the engine then turning at just over 4,500 r.p.m,. or at a mere 3,448 r.p.m. in overdrive top gear. Push the speed in 80 m.p.h. and in overdrive top engine speed is still only a shade above 3,900 r.p.m.

Acceleration is particularly brisk although somewhat hampered by the far from ideal gear ratios. In practice overdrive third and top gears were found to provide sufficient upper-end acceleration without causing undue uproar from the engine compartment. Once in top or overdrive top gear (which the frugal driver can select at a speed as low as 30 m.p.h.) the Rapier cruises smoothly and silently, and without excessive wind noise. Even when working against the collar in the indirect gears the engine feels reassuringly unburstable. There was a slight flat spot at around 2,000 r.p.m.

A few minor rattles intrude, noticeably from the region of the facia on the test car, and from the front passenger’s seat when unoccupied. Radio and heater function really well.

On a tankful of petrol the range was 268 miles, driving under varied conditions and moderately hard. Taking the maker’s tank capacity of 10 gallons this represents 26.8 m.p.g., but it is possible the tank holds a little less, as during further checks on consumption, 29 m.p.g. was attained. In quieter driving over 30 m.p.g. should be possible and we believe 34 m.p.g. has been recorded on fast Continental runs when overdrive top was engaged for long periods. After 700 miles a quart of Castrol all but restored the low oil level, equivalent to an oil consumption of almost 2,800 m.p.g. No water was consumed. The Lucas lamps give a good but rather concentrated driving light. The pleasure of driving the Rapier is enhanced by the brakes, which, although the pedal had considerable lost-motion, are powerful, progressive, light to apply and entirely vice free. The right-hand handbrake is particularly well located, and does not impede entry and egress through the driver’s door.

As a final test of the latest Sunbeam Rapier it was driven as hard as possible over a test circuit in Hampshire at night when the roads were clear of traffic. In 115 miles this route embraces long straights, twisty uphill motoring and undulating roads. After inflating the front Dunlops to 26 lb./sq. in. and the rear ones to 28 lb./sq. in. the Rapier was driven round it as hard as possible, averaging the creditable speed of 62.8 m.p.h. Even driven thus, petrol consumption of Esso Extra didn’t fall below 23½ m.p.g. By way of comparison, a Hillman Minx Special saloon, in the hands of the same driver over the same route under similar circumstances, averaged 53.4 m.p.h. and about 23 m.p.g. Downhill the Rapier reached 4,400 r.p.m. (89.3 m.p.h.) in overdrive top, Which is rather too high, and pulled 5,500 r.p.m. in top, equal to 84 m.p.h.

Under this extreme driving the handling was found to be very good, with constant understeer, so that never once did the back wheels break away, while the car felt stable at an indicated 100 m.p.h. and rode well over rough roads at 80 m.p.h. On the other hand it rolled rather too much and proved a thought sluggish on twisty roads, and tiring to drive in such places, although handling very well on fast open 80-m.p.h. bends. The Hillman-like steering now showed up to advantage, the brakes proved satisfactory, but the lamps were not really adequate, and the driver was too often short of the right gear for the engine torque. The small variation in r.p.m. between overdrive third and top gear isn’t very practical, but the greater variation between normal top and overdrive top is usable. The lamps-switch is “fumbly” for flashing a warning and although at little switch under the facia extinguishes the panel lighting, rheostat control is lacking. The Dunlops protest on fast corners.

Summing-up, the Series II Sunbeam Rapier is it great advance on its predecessor and this rally-bred version should become a very popular car with discerning drivers. At just over £1,000, inclusive of p.t., it represents good value in this country, albeit many of the items on the test car are extras (see table). When the Rootes Sunbeam is compared with Continental Gran Turismo cars it is only fair to remember that these cost nearly twice as much in England and that the British car is a full four-seater, with generous accommodation for luggage. — W. B.