The Sunbeam Rapier

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A Road-Test Report on a Rootes Group 1.4-litre Two-door saloon possessing brisk performance, good appointments and economy of petrol.

 

At last year’s London Motor Show the Rootes Group exhibited its Sunbeam Rapier saloon, a car which was intended to offer the same performance as the well-established, rally-victorious Sunbeam Mark III while being a more compact and economical vehicle, with an engine developed from that of the well-known Hillman Minx.

To meet the interest aroused, Motor Sport published a special article last April on the development of the new Rapier. Naturally, the Editor was anxious subsequently either to confirm or correct the impressions which a very brief run on that occasion had imparted and to publish a road-test report on the Rapier in order to comply with numerous requests received from readers—many potential overseas buyers—for more details of this latest vehicle to bear the illustrious name of Sunbeam. The earliest date on which we were able to obtain a test car was during July but, unfortunately, oil soon began to drip ominously over the radio and on to the floor of the front compartment of that car, while performance checking was rendered impractical because the throttle either stuck wide open or else would scarcely open at all. Another car was requested and, after delays because two Press Rapiers were involved in accidents, we duly got away to a fresh start last month, the mileage driven by the writer in the two cars amounting to 744.

Performance and Handling

On the road the Sunbeam Rapier is both pleasing and disappointing. It has a very lively engine, the revs rising promptly in response to the throttle, which will run up to 6,000 rpm in the indirect gears. A switch-operated Laycock-de-Normanville overdrive operates in top and third gears, so that the driver has a choice of four upper ratios with which to play. Some enterprise in this direction results in deceptively high average speeds being accomplished, especially as acceleration is in the order of 0-50 mph through the gears in 15 sec, and a ss 1/4-mile in under 221/2 sec. The overdrive switch moves at a touch and thus there is little time for the driver to adjust engine speed to suit engagement or disengagement, so that jerkiness usually accompanies selection of overdrive-top or reversion to normal-top gear. The engine is sufficiently flexible to pull away in overdrive-top from about 1,300 rpm, equal to 24 mph in top and less than 20 mph in third, but acceleration in these high ratios is impaired, normal top and third being called for if the driver is in a hurry. The engine, however, makes its presence heard above 3.000 rpm, and is noisy and slightly rough from 4,000 rpm onwards, so that, having accomplished the desired brisk acceleration, there is every incentive to go back into overdrive-top or third, the driver being thus kept notably busy. As the car weighs over a ton, top-gear aceeleration is not outstanding.

The gear-lever is of steering-column type, on the left, spring-loaded towards third and top-gear positions, and with reverse engaged, past second, by pulling out the knob. It is no better than most of its type and second gear is sometimes difficult to locate, although the upper gears engage smoothly. Incidentally, resting a hand on the lever when it is in top or third gear with overdrive selected automatically causes normal-top to engage, which one feels isn’t intentional. But then the modern car is a wondrous thing for instance, the handbook says that if overdrive fails on no account must you reverse, and that first gear should be engaged occasionally “to prevent it becoming stiff from disuse” ! The gap between top and overdrive is a matter of 5.22 to 1/3.95 to 1, representing a drop of 1,043 rpm when cruising at 60 mph as this is equivalent to 4,281 rpm in normal top gear. The effect of an average driver selecting overdrive is considerable load on the back axle and a jerk, which passengers with sensitive stomachs seem to find unpleasant, or even disastrous. So far as speed is concerned, the gaps are again appreciable, for whereas in normal third not much more than 50 mph is possible, if overdrive is used this maximum rises to a shade over 70 mph. Similarly, in normal-top gear the maximum is approximately 80 mph, whereas in overdrive-top 90 mph can almost be reached under good conditions and 85 mph held for considerable distances, given a long run to work up speed. On normal English roads 80 mph is about the practical limit, but the engine cannot be overdriven in overdrive-top, so that if 90 is attained downhill no anxiety need be felt. The lower gear ratios could have been spaced more effectively, especially as first is an emergency starting gear only.

The steering and handling qualities are difficult to analyse. On dry roads the Rapier corners fast in a very pleasant manner, the tendency being mild understeer changing to in very faint oversteer leaving a corner, due to considerable roll taking place. This is certainly not vicious roll-oversteer, and the balance between under and oversteer is commendable, although, correctly inflated, the Dunlop tyres protest on acute corners, even at speeds as low as 20 mph. On wet roads the wheels lose adhesion rather early and the safety factor becomes open to question. That we are not biased in this is confirmed by the impression of a contemporary, which reported : “While the car will get round corners quickly, the driver is left in some doubt as to his security if he drives near the limits of adhesion. The steering is accurate, yet at the same time it lacks feel, and the suspension permits more roll—together with a feeling of flexibility—than is desirable in a car of the Rapier’s performance.” These handling and braking characteristics, one feels, may be a contributory cause of three works Rapiers coming to disaster in this year’s Alpine Rally (in which, however, one of these cars won the “standard” 1,600-cc category) and of Press gentlemen having accidents in them.

The suspension, with which these cornering characteristics are tied up, is rather soft. At low speeds the road wheels transmit vibration to the steering wheel and road wheel noise through the body-chassis structure. At higher speeds this smooths out, although at 50 mph it is still troublesome, but considerable up-and-down motion is then experienced. The steering, which calls for 21/2 turns lock-to-lock, is unpleasantly heavy for parking and not much lighter at speed, although the tyres were correctly inflated. Road-wheel return motion is scarcely transmitted but vibration is felt by the driver. There is useful castor-action. There is a lack of “feel” between the steering wheel and the road, and the action is rather low-geared, which is unfortunate, because the car is slow to respond to changes of direction.

The 9-in Lockheed 2LS brakes are none too convincing, a combination of lost motion and the need for fairly heavy pressure, together with a “hard” feel between shoes and drums, being experienced. However, applied in emergency fashion at moderate speed, there is reasonable stopping power and no vices show up. When used from high speed something suspiciously like fade intrudes. A return spring could be heard expanding when the pedal was depressed. The hand-brake consists of a very sensible lever lying almost horizontally to the right of the driver’s seat, pleasant and effective to use.

Visibility is good, both front wings being just in sight of the average driver, while the pillarless door windows and wrap-round back window render the interior pleasantly light. The central rearview mirror is adequate, if slightly restricted. The front bucket-seats provide unusually good support And their squabs fold almost flat to facilitate easy entry to the back seat of the two-door body. A wide gearbox tunnel intrudes into the front compartment, so that the pedals are off-set to the right of the driver’s seat, the driver’s clutch foot resting on the dimmer button. In the back compartment the tunnel is narrower and carries a lidded ashtray. The clutch and throttle action is light but the pendant pedals are rather flimsy.

Summing up, the Rapier is an 80/85-mph four-seater saloon which is pleasant to drive fast providing discretion is used on wet or difficult roads, when useful average speeds are accomplished in a willing manner.

Minor controls and equipment

The Rapier is well equipped and many features display a refreshing individuality of approach.

There is a crash-pad before the front passenger and a subsidiary one for the driver, but it is rather droll that the wiper control knob and sharp overdrive switch are permitted to protrude through it. Matching 31/2-in AC speedemeter (reading to 100 mph, with total and decimal trip mileage recorders) and 6,000-rpm rev-counter (with red segment at 5,500-6,000 rpm) are set side by side above the steering column, their red-tipped white needles moving steadily across the black dials in the same plane when overdrive is in use. High set in a panel on the centre of the dash are four 13/4-in dials recording, from left to right, water temperature (normally 170 deg F), fuel contents, oil pressure (normally 37 lb/sq in) and ammeter reading. They are very easy to read and, a Rootes’ speciality, all dials are calibrated in litres, kgs, and kph as well as in the English equivalents, a useful feature for those who cross the Channel. Three labelled white knobs above the radio control choke (which also opens the throttle), lamps, and cigarette lighter, the fourth space being for the ignition key. Here another practical feature is found, for the key can be turned to the left to allow the radio and heater fan to function while the ignition coil is out of action, and it is thus preserved from overheating. Having provided this refinement, however, the designer allows the wipers to work only with the ignition on. Turning the key to the right starts the engine, Continental fashion. The ignition key also locks the doors, but a separate key locks the big, lined, under-dash cubby-hole and the luggage-boot lid, so that luggage and small items are rendered tamper-proof yet the car can, if required, be driven by garage or hotel staff. Continental influence is found in the door-locking arrangements. The front doors can be locked by pushing down buttons on their sills, but these locks disengage automatically when the doors are slammed, so that while it is possible to lock oneself in the car, the owner is never locked out. Exit is possible through either door when locking the car, as both have key-type locks, these, and the boot-lid lock, possessing rain covers. Twin antidazzle visors are fitted, the passenger’s carrying a vanity mirror, as every passenger’s visor should. These visors can be detached from clips and swung round to combat side glare but they are not transparent.

The two-spring-spoke steering wheel carries a half-horn-ring, but as this turns with the wheel it is not always where one expects to find it ! The direction-flashers self-cancel and are controlled by convenient little lever on the right of the steering column. Subdued warning lamps are used for flashers, headlamps-full-beam and ignition. A clock is not fitted as standard (time for a “Timex” !) and no door pockets are provided, but there is a wide shelf behind the back seat and a dash shelf, partly obstructed by the radio loudspeaker, before the driver.

The trailing doors have ventilator windows, stiff to open, with mediocre catches. The flimsy handles of the main windows are tedious to operate, as they call for eight turns up-to-down. An excellent arrangement is that the pillarless rear windows swing down completely into the body: the handles require five turns, up-to-down. The driver’s door has a folding metal pull, a small armrest on the opposite door being shaped for the same function. There is a tray-type ashtray incorporated in the heater-box. A central roof lamp is used, its switch convenient for the front seat occupants, while it lights automatically as the doors are opened. The Rapier is essentially a four-seater, as the back-seat cushions are separate, with a hard area between them, on to which a rather feeble arm rest drops, apart from the presence of the propeller-shaft tunnel. Curved armrests are incorporated at the side of the back seats.

Excellent two-speed, self-parking wipers are fitted, controlled by a knob on the dash, and Ekco or HMV radio and a Smith’s heater are available as extras, the latter having twin slide controls, of which the right-hand one operates the fan, Under the heater box is a tiny tumbler-switch for the dash lighting. Independent of the heater, a control under the dash shelf, notched to give three settings, brings in a fresh-air supply. The radio aerial cannot be extended from within the car. The luggage boot is of generous proportions, although the spare wheel is carried vertically therein. The lid of the boot springs partially open when the handle is turned and its dual props release automatically when downward pressure is applied. The bonnet is opened merely by moving a catch at the front, the usual interior control being sensibly omitted. The bonnet has overcentre hinges and rises to reveal a packed engine compartment. The oil and water fillers, Lucas battery and Tecalemit oil filter are, however, readily accessible, and the dip-stick only slightly masked. There is a servicing data plate on a shelf on the off side, Shell being the only oil recommended. The Stromberg downdraught carburetter has a huge AC air-cleaner, and the cooling system incorporates a four-bladed fan. The plugs of Nos 3 and 4 cylinders appear to be hopelessly masked by the distributor and horizontally-mounted Lucas coil.

The body suffered from a few minor rattles. It is styled in the Continental manner and finished in the usual Rootes’ two-colour “Gay Look.” The first car we had for test was red and grey, the second one honey-beige and grey, the latter colour-combination meeting with considerable disapproval, especially as the upholstery and trim were in blue and grey with brighter blue front-seat covers ! The roof lining is of easily-washable material, the upholstery is in leather, there are carpets, front and back, and rubber mats for the front occupants’ feet. The Rapier has neat, close-moulded bumpers, a roof gutter, slotted wheel discs, hooded 7-in Lucas headlamps, a chromium-plated exhaust tail-pipe and an external quick-action petrol filler-cap on the back panel, as distinctive features. It is difficult to fill the petrol tank from a can, as rally drivers may need to do. Dunlop tubeless tyres are standard equipment, but the spotlamps on a badge bar, supplied on earlier versions of the Rapier, have apparently been deleted. After some 7,000 miles the plated beading along the dash-shelf was beginning to break away, while the window in the passenger’s door was a trifle out of alignment.

The second Rapier was used to visit the seashore, a trip spoilt by gale-force winds but cheering to the writer because he encountered a vintage Hispano-Suiza at Petersfield, and a vintage Alvis and two Citroen 2 cvs at the same house, both in the same colour scheme, at Selsey. On the following day it was driven fast to Bristol and on to Weston-super-Mare and back. With increasing familiarity some fast driving on wet and dry roads was accomplished, the Rapier being quite happy when “thrown about,” although the aforesaid handling qualities in combination make it rather tiring to drive rapidly. A fuel consumption cheek showed the commendable economy of the high-compression engine, 31.6 mpg of National Benzole being achieved, using overdrive liberally but maintaining high average speeds. Driven thus the engine does not pink on good fuel or run-on, nor was any water or oil required, while it starts promptly from cold, given a little choke. At Weston-super-Mare, although this was mid-August, a biting wind was driving sand over the seafront and causing the girls to take their swimsuits to the swimming-pool, which smacks of transporting coals to Newcastle. The road from Bristol to this convenient seaside resort is generally excellent, two black spots being narrow, steeply-humped bridges over—British railways ! Returning via Wells, Frome and Warminster, the Somerset scenery is strongly to be recommended, and a parked 41/2-litre Bentley was sighted some way before Cheddar, where we gave the famous Gorge a miss because it seemed likely to be infested with crawling baby saloons. Incidentally, going places from the centre of Bristol isn’t easy, because only the outskirts of this West-Country town seem to be signposted.

All in all, the Rapier, which Costs £1,047 17s inclusive of pt, served us well on this long week-end.

Postscript..–In retrospect this Sunbeam Rapier, which was introduced at the last Earls Court Show, is more of a “hotted-up” Hillman Minx than a Gran Turismo or sports saloon. This is particularly true in view of the excellent performance of the Hillman New Minx. as the following figures illustrate :-

Both cars have practically the same overall dimensions and the same wheelbase and track. Both use basically the same “square” 1,390-cc engine, that of the New Minx developing 471/2 bhp at 4,600 rpm, that in the Rapier 571/2 bhp at 5,000 rpm. The New Minx has the added convenience of four doors. The gear ratios of the New Minx appear to have been more happily chosen, being 17.04, 11.8, 7.12 and 4.77 to 1, compared to the Rapier’s 16.64, 12.9, 7.79. 5.89, 5.22 and 3.95 to 1. Altogether the Hillman New Minx seems to be a very bright family car which rather overshadows its “hotted-up” companion. We have not yet driven it, so the above figures are taken from a contemporary road-test report. Using the same source, it is interesting to consider whether, regarding the Rapier as a tuned-up version of the New Minx, the increase in performance is as great as for similar cars of Continental origin. Taking the Fiat 1,100 as a good example, we find that when tested in 1953 in normal form this small Italian saloon developed 36.6 bhp at 4,400 rpm, and that the 1954 Turistno Veloce version gave 50 bhp at 5,200 rpm, the respective compression-ratios being 6.7 and 7.6 to 1. 

Although the New Minx is closer in performance to the Rapier than the Fiat 1,100 is to the Fiat TV, it is seen that the. Fiat TV is a match for the Rapier in all save speed in the latter’s overdrive third gear, in spite of the Fiat having but a 1,100-cc engine. This is probably due to the lighter weight of the Italian car and, indeed, the lower-end acceleration of the Rapier is rather disappointing, being inferior to that of the Ford Taunus 15M family saloon, which also licks the Rapier by a second over the ss 1/4-mile. Although the Sunbeam Rapier has some endearing qualities, we rate it as rather disappointing, in respect of handling and performance, and not such an outstanding car as the Sunbeam Mk III, on which Motor Sport was pleased to bestow considerable praise in its road-test report of August, 1955.-WB.