Alloy-Head Engine, Closer Gear Ratios and Disc Front Brakes distinguish the Series III Version of this Excellent Rally-developed Rootes Group 1-1/2-litre Sports Saloon.
It is to the credit of the virile Rootes Group and its technicians that the Sunbeam Rapier, which when it first appeared in 1955 was a rather mediocre two-door fast version of the popular Hillman Minx, has so greatly improved. At this time the Minx had recently been redesigned and after extensively testing the original Rapier Motor Sport felt obliged to point out that there was all too slender a gap between the performance of the two cars and, moreover, that the Sunbeam Rapier would scarcely stand comparison with the current Fiat 1100 TV.
Then the Rootes engineering group set to work and, undoubtedly assisted by lessons derived from the entry of the Rootes’ resurrected Sunbeam in rallies, a far better car began to emerge.
The first development was adoption of the slightly modified, twin-carburetter R67 engine, which, in the autumn of 1956, gave the Rapier an extra five m.p.h. or so, power output now being 67 b.h.p. The next step, taken in 1958, was to increase the engine size from 1,390-c.c. to 1,494-c.c., which, with larger valves, improved inlet porting and increased compression-ratio, raised the power output. to 73 b.h.p. With a floor instead of a steering-column gear lever, higher gear ratios, better brakes, stiffened-up front suspension, revised steering gear and other improvements the Series II Sunbeam Rapier became a much-improved motor car, although revised styling, which included tail fins, caused some critics to describe it as the Studebaker Golden Hawk’s poor relation.
Motor Sport published a full road-test report on the Series II Rapier in March 1958 and gained further experience of its ability to cover the miles rapidly and take much punishment when one of these cars was driven through France and Germany last year on the occasion of visits to the Peugeot, Borgward and Mercedes-Benz factories.
Now it is time to consider the Series III Sunbeam Rapier, which was announced last September and which is again a much-improved car, worthy of the successes gained in important rallies by the works-entered team cars. The engine now has an alloy head giving a compression-ratio of 9.2 to 1 and, with new manifolding, develops 78 b.h.p. at 5,400 r.p.m. The three upper gear ratios are closer together and Lockheed 10.8 dia. disc brakes are used on the front wheels. There is greater windscreen area and a new polished veneer facia panel behind a lower scuttle line.
The Rapier continues to be available both in two-door saloon and Convertible forms and for those who find a two-seater car with space for an occasional extra passenger sufficient there is now the extremely handsome Sunbeam Alpine in open or hard-top form, which has the latest engine, but with twin carburetters and a four-branch exhaust manifold – a road-test of this pleasing Rootes’ model appeared in the November 1959 issue of Motor Sport. Exciting as the Sunbeam Alpine is, it does net overshadow the latest Rapier, which is only slightly inferior as to performance – it is no secret that experienced rally drivers have expressed a preference for the Rapier.
Taken all round this Series III Sunbeam Rapier is a sound proposition in its capacity and price category. Indeed, since the demise of the pre-Farina M.G. Magnette it is virtually without parallel in this country. At one time Britain tended to specialise in 1-1/2-litre cars but today this class is sparsely represented and, even if competition classes now tend to smother the 1,500-c.c. engine, it is pleasing that the Rootes’ Sunbeam is of this capacity. It also has far less abstract desirables….
The separate front seats are comfortable and generously upholstered and the driving position is very satisfactory. The steering wheel is well located and, if its substantial rim isn’t sweat-proof, its undersurface possesses excellent finger grips, and there is a full horning. The pedals are convenient, with room for the left foot away from the clutch, and there is the large dipper button found on Routes Group cars. The new facia is smart and not so obtrusive as some “wood” dashboards appear in the modern “tin” saloon. The neat speedometer and a tachometer are set before the driver and four small dials are neatly lined up in the centre of the panel, consisting of an oil gauge, petrol gauge, water thermometer and ammeter. These dials couldn’t be better placed for quick consultation but for some reason difficult to define the rather more haphazard layout of the Alpine’s facia panel seems, more likeable, although this could be a purely personal preference.
Rootes are always meticulous in calibrating their instruments in metric as well as English readings and this good practice is continued on the latest Rapier. The 100-m.p.h. speedometer has total and trip-with-decimal mileage readings, is calibrated every 10 m.p.h., and has clear white figures. The slender needles of speedometer and tachometer move in the same plane; the latter reads to 6.000 r.p.m. and gives commendably steady readings when the needle has settled down, but it is calibrated in rather wide divisions of 1,000 r.p.m. The radio panel below the facia carries a matching veneer finish and a rather too hasty Smith’s clock, while it is flanked by the vertical quadrant controls for heating and de-misting, the heater being notably efficient at the expense of an irritating noise if the fan is used (its switch being incorporated in the knob of the l.h. control lever). Below the high-set row of small dials are the neat black knobs for panel lighting, choke and lights, the last-named a single knob selecting both side and headlamps. The ignition key actuates the starter or can be turned to the left to work the radio only, but not, as one would wish, the wipers and horn in this position. Incidentally, the H.M.V. radio has an excellent tone.
Continuing with the controls, there are two-speed wipers (which did not always self-park properly) with the control knob on the right of the facia and the plunger for the efficient screen washers adjacent. A flick-lever on the right of the steering column actuates the overdrive, the positions clearly labelled, and a rather longer stalk on the left works the self-cancelling direction flashers, the indicator light for these and headlamps’ full-beam being commendably anti-dazzle. There is a cigarette lighter but this is placed outboard of the lights switch and the left hand tends to find it at night when the desire is not to “light up” but to put the lamps on! Transposition of these two items would be an improvement, A drawer-type ash tray is provided below the radio and the wide transmission tunnel which extends through the car contains a rather vunerable-lidded ash tray for the rear-compartment passengers.
Forward visibility is good, but on first acquaintance the driver seems to sit lower than usual, and is conscious that the pedals are biased to the off-side. In common with most present-day cars the Rapier has no door pockets but there is an under-facia shelf before the driver, unfortunately largely filled by the radio speaker, and a very capacious but deeply lipped cubby-hole with a lockable lid before the front-seat passenger; a pity, however, that the lid still carries a dangerous metal projection serving as a handle. The cubby-lid drops to constitute a useful small table.
There is hard crash padding below the facia shelf before the driver and along the screen and window sills. A folding metal door-pull is provided on the off side (vulnerable to the elbow when winding the steering wheel!) and an arm-rest-cum-pull on the near side door. A scuttle ventilator is controlled by an under-facia lever, and not only do the doors possess quarter lights with rain gutters (lacking, however, thief-proof catches) but the rear side-windows wind down flush with the body sides. The main window handles need just under three turns to fully open the window, the back window handles 4-3/4 turns. There is a good wide rear-view mirror and twin vizors (non-transparent), with vanity mirror in that on the near side. The body is free from rattles and the doors have efficient “keeps” and close nicely, each having a sill interior lock and a good normal lock incorporated in the handle. The remote gear lever is short, rigid and has a large knob marked with the gear locations. The hand brake is equally well placed from the operational viewpoint on the right of the driver’s seat. The width of the back seat is somewhat reduced by fixed side arm-rests. Access to it is by folding forward the front-seat back rests. There is a generous parcels’ shelf behind the seat. Commendable aspects of the handsome and compact Sunbeam are the self-supporting and opening action of both bonnet and boot-lid and the fact that bumper over-riders are provided as standard. Although the spare wheel stands vertically in the off side of the boot the luggage space is extremely generous. There is a well-placed roof lamp, with courtesy switches.
The Sunbeam Rapier is a car which becomes more acceptable the further it is driven. At first the ride seems rather “dead,” with an impression of weight at the front, the engine’s lack of fuss masks the excellent acceleration, and until retardation from high speed is called for the excellence of the latest braking system goes unremarked.
The engine is quiet at normal speeds and the facility with which the tachometer needle can be put into the red band (5,500-6,000 r.p.m.) and even beyond, in the indirect gears, is notable. Normally, 5,500 r.p.m. should be regarded as the limit. The clutch refuses to slip under rapid take-off but is somewhat insensitive in engagement, which is different from being fierce. The gear change is quick but unpleasantly harsh in action and the reverse spring can be overridden. The brakes offer foolproof, if slightly spongy, fade-free retardation of a high order and are an outstanding feature of the Series III Sunbeam. It is interesting to discover shields placed inboard of the discs to protect them front road grit. Pedal pressure is commendably light for progressive retardation, somewhat heavier for full power retardation, as is usual with disc brakes. Incidentally, disc brakes were introduced without increase in price.
The car is transformed by liberal use of the Laycock-de-Normanville overdrive. By going up to peak revs. in third, then using overdrive third, continuing in normal top gear, maximum acceleration is achieved, at the expense of more concentration than use of a close- ratio four-speed gearbox entails. This was the method adopted for the timed tests. For less rapid motoring the lower gears can be ignored once the car is moving, overdrive top, direct top and occasionally third being the only ratios required. No ill effects were apparent from snatching full throttle changes from third to overdrive third when timing acceleration.
Although acceleration is good, as the data in the table confirms, it has to be faced that the speedometer is considerably optimistic. being 3 m.p.h. fast at 30, 4 m.p.h. fast at 40, and 6-1/2 m.p.h. fast at 70 m.p.h., so that not much more than 60 m.p.h. is obtainable in normal third gear with the overdrive axle ratio, although in overdrive third this is lifted to an acceptable 76 m.p.h. The absolute maximum speed is in the region of 92 to 94 m.p.h. A more advantageous use of overdrive than that of giving the car its highest maximum is the ability to cruise effortlessly in the 3.8 to 1 ratio at 80 m.p.h. with the engine running at 1,300 r.p.m. below the red band on the tachometer, while this Rapier is very restful at 70 m.p.h., which represents less than 3,700 r.p.m.
In a total of nearly 1,300 miles no trouble was experienced with the Sunbeam, no oil was added and at the end of the test a quart brought the level up to normal. Petrol consumption averaged 24.7 m.p.g. of premium fuel, inclusive of hard driving, including a spell on M 1 and performance testing, the range thus being 247 miles. There is a quick-action fuel filler facing rearwards The engine started promptly in frosty weather and exhibited no vices. The water temperature does not exceed 190 deg. F. (normal 180 deg. F.) and oil pressure is approximately 60 lb./sq. in.
In normal fast driving the Rapier exhibits good qualities of road-holding and control. The suspension feels quite stiff at low speeds over rough surfaces and the ride can become somewhat lively, while tremors are transmitted through the body structure, some steering column shake resulting. It is not particularly evident that “cart springs” are used at the back, although some movement at the rear of the car betrays the rigid axle. The steering is spongy on lock and somewhat vague, but it is reasonably light, smooth, and devoid of unpleasant reactions, and there is useful and quick castor-return action. It is somewhat low geared, at three turns lock-to-lock. The Dunlops protest only mildly if they are correctly inflated for fast cornering, and there is enjoyment to be had from taking the car fast through open bends. There is considerable roll oversteer when taking corners fast, which results in early breakaway of the back wheels on wet roads. On dry surfaces the wheels grip the road in spite of this tendency to roll.
Here, then, is an independent opinion, summing up the latest Rapier:
“The Series III Rapier is a car with many attractive features not easily found in combination in any other car at the price.
“The latest engine with aluminium cylinder head has an astonishingly quiet and unobtrusive tickover together with the ability to run happily and smoothly up to nearly 6,000 r.p.m.; by keeping the revs. high a most satisfactory performance is obtained at the expense of a certain amount of noise. The gearbox now has much better ratios than previously but the operation of the floor change was a little heavy and considerable pressure was sometimes needed to override the synchromesh resistance going into second and third gears. The intermediate ratios are quiet, but the box emits a whirring noise and. at times, a trace of chatter.
“A very level ride is provided, with firm damping which causes some pronounced vertical motion at times, but eliminates all semblance of float. There is, perhaps, a little more than average harshness and noise on sharp bumps, and very rough-textured surfaces produce an audible vibration in the steering column.
” Sitting at the wheel for the first time is a pleasing experlence. The seats, the long arm driving position, and the control placing and operation are excellent, although the windscreen is further away than desirable, and the accelerator and brake pedal are too far apart for heel and toe operation.
“Road-holding and steering have improved immensely since the Series I model, but it is disappointing to find that they have still not attained the high standards one would expect from a sporting machine with such a distinguished rally record. The steering, which is now tolerably light, requires about three turns from lock-to-lock, but the slight sponginess of the complicated steering linkage together with pronounced understeer at normal cornering speeds makes it feel rather lower-geared than this. However, apart from a slight lack of precision it would be unreasonable to complain of the handling at normal speeds. Driven hard round corners there is considerable roll, and the understeer going into the corner changes to oversteer part way round, leading to a breakaway at the back. It would seem that this change in handling is associated with a sudden increase in rear roll stiffness, and in confirmation the inner back wheel can be spun very easily even in the higher gears. The suddenness of final breakaway is more sensitive to throttle use than with many cars of much greater power/weight ratio. On bumpy fast corners the back axle remains on the road very well, but the roll/steer effects lead to coupling between roll and yaw which makes a tidy line hard to achieve even with vigorous steering correction. These effects are particularly marked when the car is well laden. Tyre squeal is very moderate with standard pressures, and can be reduced still further by a small increase all round.
” The brakes are first class in all circumstances, and although the pressures required are fairly low, the progressiveness is such that the driver never over-brakes by mistake.”
To conclude, the Sunbeam Rapier Series III is a well-appointed 1-1/2-litre sports saloon, possessing excellent performance. It is in a class of its own and represents good value at the £986 it costs in standard form. It is a car which has been improved enormously since it has scored notable rally successes, of which the latest has been that of highest-placed British car in the Monte Carlo Rally, from which the conclusion might well be “If you can’t afford a Mercedes, buy a Sunbeam!”
The Sunbeam Rapier Series III Saloon
Engine: Four cylinders, 79 x 76,2 mm. (1,494-c.c.). Pushrod-operated overhead valves. 9.2 to I compression-ratio. 73 b.h.p. at 5,400 r.p.m.
Gear ratios: First, 15,99 to 1; second, 10,23 to 1; third. 6,65 to I; overdrive third. 5,34 to 1; top, 4,78 to 1; overdrive top, 3,83 to 1.
Tyres: 5,60 x 15 Dunlop “Gold Seal” Tubeless, on bolt-on steel disc wheels.
Weight: 1 ton 1 cwt. I qr. 0 lb. (without occupants but ready for the road, with approximately two gallons of petrol).
Steering ratio: Three turns, lock-to-lock.
Fuel capacity: 10 gallons (range approximately 247 miles).
Wheelbase: 8 ft. 0 in.
Track: Front, 4 ft. 1-3/4 in.; rear, 4 ft. 0-1/2 in.
Dimensions: 13 ft. 6-1/2 in. x 5 ft. 0 in. x 4 ft. 10-1/2 in. (high).
Price: £695 (£986 inclusive of purchase tax). With extras as tested: £1,104 18s. Id.
Makers: Sunbeam-Talbot Ltd., Coventry, England.
A date for your diary!
Here is a date for your diary which has nothing whatsoever to do with motor racing. The final of the Miss Great Britain National Bathing Beauty Contest will be held at Morecambe on August 31st. That is what the circular on our desk says; or could it be that we were supposed to refer to the L.A.C. Morecambe National Rally which takes place from May 13th-15th?