The Tiger that kept roaring

The Rootes Group achieved only minimal success with its Tigers, but one rally car turned circuit racer bucked the trend for a time

Ever since I first drove a Sunbeam Tiger I’ve had something of a soft spot for the Rootes Group’s Cobra equivalent. Of course the Alpine-derived Tiger never matched the achievements of Carroll Shelby’s brainchild on either road or track, but they were handsome and comfortable sports cars, affordable and, certainly on the public road, fast enough.

While the Lister-built Le Mans Tigers of 1964 might be recalled as the best of the litter, the works rally cars impressed me on the couple of occasions I saw them perform – the belly-rumbling note of their unseen approach round the bluffs of the Alpes Maritimes always a prelude to real surprise as a carnival-red good-looker would burst into view, perhaps with the hawkish Peter Harper behind the wheel, arms sawing, power sliding across the gravel-strewn byway, then away from view round the next bend.

But I believe the works rally Tigers won only one international event, the 1965 Police Rally. The car in question – ‘AHP 295B’ – had been loaned by Rootes to John Gott, who was not only an enormously experienced and capable rally driver (of considerable Austin-Healey fame), but also Chief Constable of Northamptonshire. Navigated by D E Nicholson he won the event outright. Subsequently ‘295B’ was sold to burly club racer Mike Combe, who modified it as a specialised circuit car. He eventually passed it on to Malcolm Sears, who then further developed it into one of the fastest prodsports (modsports) cars in the country. Malcolm was a transport manager-cum-amateur racer who became a great friend of Paul Hawkins and David Piper. He also played a role in the filming of the Steve McQueen movie Le Mans, in which David lost his foot when his Porsche 917 crashed and broke in two.

Sadly, on September 18, 1971, after a very successful season, Malcolm left the road at Old Hall Corner, Oulton Park, and his GT40-engined Tiger slammed into the sleeper-faced outside bank. Having originated as a European rally car, ‘295B’ was left-hand drive, and as its engine and left-front wheel were smashed back into the cockpit, and the wreck caught fire, Malcolm Sears was savagely injured. He lost an eye and lay in a coma for three months, followed by nine years in hospital. He emerged brain-damaged but slowly regained capability and has survived to this day. The Tiger’s crushed and burned hulk was retrieved from Oulton Park, and lay rusting beneath a tarpaulin in Essex for several months, before being hauled out by Malcolm’s brother and trailed to oblivion in Jones’s scrapyard in Delamare Road, Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire; a very final resting place for this rare breed’s only international rally winner.