I have driven all the Sunbeam Rapier variants, from the first of these cars which had a rather pathetic performance to the later models which, rally-developed, were excellent, rugged fast saloon cars, although because of a certain harshness of ride and gear shift, and spongy steering on the earlier versions, they just failed to head my short-list of personal desirables. Then came the excellent open Sunbeam Alpine two-seaters, still manufactured, but overshadowed for a time by the exciting Ford V8-powered Sunbeam Tiger.
Now we come to the Sunbeam Rapier in its latest two-door fastback, or as some unkind critics have it, slow-back, form. Enthusiasts for the Rootes way of making cars, which have a little something others in similar price-classes lack, and complete equipment into the bargain, should find this Rapier very acceptable. All that I have against it is that it looks so ugly (but contrary opinion called it handsome), like the very first of the Ferrari fast-backs of years ago, because it is virtually impossible to blend a full four-seater with the fast-back form; its handling and suspension are also a bit outdated and therefore it feels rather ponderous.
Having said that, I must confess that there is no other car quite in the category of the 1968-Sunbeam Rapier. It offers four comfortable seats, with an unusual line from a body that is beautifully and unobtrusively trimmed, it has a solid safe feel, it is sensibly and lavishly equipped, and Rootes make good use of their 1,725-c.c. 4-cylinder engine (with in this instance twin sidedraught Stromberg carburetters, in which guise it gives 88 net b.h.p.), to provide a top speed of over 100 m.p.h. and acceleration of the order of a s.s. ¼-mile in 18½ sec., and 0-60 m.p.h. in 12 sec.
The gearbox is quite nice to use, with a well-placed central lever, and reverse, on the o/s of the gate, very easy to engage. The handbrake is out of the way beside the o/s of the driving seat. As to the seats, I never got used to sitting so low, while the seat-cushion length is inadequate. But with adjustable squabs, good fore-and-aft movement, and an extensible steering-column, it is possible to get into a comfortable position for controlling this Rapier. Moreover, by pressing down on a little lever at the base of each front seat, these lift up easily, and stay up, giving easy access to the comfortable, shaped back seats. But these front-seat safety catches, another manifestation of self-preservation inflicted on us by the “do-gooders,” mean that two hands are needed to lift a seat, awkward if arms are full of parcels and the kids or the dog want to be let out. . . .
On the subject of body amenities, the Sunbeam Rapier has many. The windows, front and back, aft of the openable ¼-lights, wind right down and, being frameless, give that noted Rapier open-car feeling. (The n/s door window-winder was fearfully stiff, unfortunately.) There is padding over the rear passengers’ heads, black safety padding round the facia, the black Ambla upholstery looks like real leather and is very well fitted, there are good carpets, and very efficient ventilation, with extractor-slots under the back window and those Ford/Rootes-style facia fresh-air inlets. The interior door handles, lifting up under the grabs, which form comfortable arm-rests, and the slide-type locks, are very well contrived, the steering wheel is, well placed, and the narrow console contains two lidded ash-trays and a lighter. There are roof-grabs, incorporating coat-hooks. The screen pillars and the back window frame mask traffic in certain situations.
The driver is confronted by paired speedometer and tachometer (red line at 6,000 r.p.m.), these being flanked neatly by fuel gauge (fully calibrated), ammeter, water thermometer and oil gauge; there is also a large clock, on the black panel. A r.h. stalk looks after horn, lamps-flashing and turn-indicators. A l.h. stalk selects overdrive, which I do not like because it has to be used every time a gear lower than 3rd is used, to regain o/d. in 3rd and top gears, which is like having to use two gear-levers, one on the floor, another on the column. Press buttons on the heater panel control 2-speed fan and instrument lighting. Stowage is generous—a full-width under-facia shelf, a lockable illuminated cubby hole, a well in the console, and a deeply-recessed back shelf. The boot holds as much as an equivalent Rootes’ saloon boot and the spare wheel winds down from under its floor. Lamps dipping is done by a floor knob, rather stupidly located on the footrest for the clutch. There is a four-headlamp Lucas sealed-beam lighting set. Two keys are provided; the trick of cutting off the flank of one of them to give it a different feel from its companion makes one key unpleasantly sharp! Curiously, in addition to Sunbeam and Rapier scripts, the body carries the old London Talbot badge on sides and bonnet. Incidentally, it complies with British Standards AU 48 specification of 1965 and has a Triplex “zebra-zone” toughened screen. The quick-action plated fuel filler in the n/s of the body is commendably petrol-tight.
As to handling, the ride is a bit lurchy and lively but comfortable, with a front-end understeer tendency, the 13-in. Dunlop SP41 tyres giving adequate grip, but the back axle should be more positively located. The steering is geared 4½ turns, lock-to-lock, is a bit spongy, has moderate castor-return, and transmits mild shake but no kick-back; something odd happens on full lock. The brakes could be more convincing but are of average efficiency, and progressive, with a slight tendency to squeal and rub. The engine starts fairly promptly from cold, but the choke is as insensitive as its knob is large and protruding; the 2-speed wipers control, pushed for washers, also protrudes prominently from the facia. The Sunbeam was used almost exclusively for local chores and town motoring. Under such unfavourable conditions it went 350 miles and the tank still held some two gallons of fuel with the gauge at zero, the overall consumption being 24.6 m.p.g. of premium petrol. In this distance no oil had been used. The speedometer trip, like the proverbial patient in the doctor’s surgery, resolutely said 99, but wouldn’t wind beyond this. The driver’s door “keep” freed with a nasty graunching sound, the heavy doors seem tough on the hinges, and the driver’s anti-dazzle vizor was loose. Otherwise, no complaints. This latest Sunbeam Rapier is a well-finished and luxuriously appointed car (but there is no vanity mirror in the n/s vizor). I felt embarrassed in it, a daughter thought it looked very nice, and I know a well-known pre-war Riley racing driver who saw one and thought the Rapier just his sort of car. And a garage hand said it “looked smashing.” So, at £1,200, plus whatever Roy Jenkins has done to it purchase-tax-wise, Rootes should sell sufficient Rapiers to justify the model’s introduction. As I have said, there is nothing else quite like it.—W. B.
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