It may have been Riverside in October 1962, February 1963 at Daytona, or then again it could have been a month later at Sebring, where the Sunbeam Alpine team placed 31st and 36th. It doesn't really matter which, because th e result was the same.
Ian Garrad, then West Coast manager for Rootes Motors, Inc., had seen Carroll Shelby's Cobras run, and the idea which had been bouncing around in his head for some years began to come to a point of focus.
Garrad and other Rootes types in the United States had been looking at what was happening to the sales charts of Chevrolet's Corvette, Jaguar's E T ype and the Healey 3000, then comparing it with their own Sunbeam Alpine... with unfavorable results. The Alpine had been around since 1959 in one form or another, and while the road testers generally had nice things to say about i ts styling, creature comforts, handling, braking and finish, they usually ended up with a big "however" when it came to discussing the somewhat anemic performance offered by the various versions of what remained essentially a 1 .5- liter 4-cylinder engine that, with overdrive, would just about reach a ton.
The thought had crossed their collective minds that the solution might l ie in mating the desirable Alpine package to an American V-8 engine. A look at the then-available answers wasn't too encouraging. Chevrolet looked good but was too big and heavy. Olds' Rocket, Chryslers's Hemi, Cadillac, AMC, Ford... they w ere all too big.
But then they hadn't known about the experimental Ford Fairlane 260cid lightweight which Ford had introduced in it 1963 line and Shelby had tucked into his first versions of the AC Cobra.
Garrad saw them run, either East or West Coast, and visited Shelby at hi s Venice, California, plant with the big question. Could the Ford 260 V-8 be shoehorned into the Sunbeam Alpine 2-seater sports car? Shelby said "yes" in April 1963, and work was started.
Garrad was also acquainted with West Coast racer Ken Miles, long famous for his "Flying Shingle" MG specials but more recently a Rootes driver in a Sunbeam Alpine on the factory team at Sebring. Garrad asked a similar questi on of Miles with the same result.
Late 1962 cars were supplied to both Shelby American and Miles, and they went to work independently to produce a car, Bill Carroll did the work at Shelby, Miles most of his own. Within a couple of weeks, by May 1963, the prototypes were running.
At Shelby, great pains had been taken to try to maintain the 51/49 weigh t distribution of the Alpine with the Rootes 4-cylinder engine. This required moving the engine back considerably, with some transmission tunnel and firewall chopping necessary. However, it was done, and other victim of the change was elimination of the Alpine's recirculating-ball, worm-and-nut Burman steering box which had resided in a space now occupied by a cylinder head and manifol d. This led to a scrounging of the wrecking yard and its replacement with a rac k- and-pinion unit which was the right size and shape to fit into the open area ahead of the front suspension cross-member.
On the Miles-built car, the original steering was retained and the engin e placed farther forward, which resulted in a front-heavy car with some unhapp y handling characteristics.
The Miles car, which had a 2-speed automatic transmission, was shelved and work continued on the Shelby version. Considerable road testing followed , and some high-speed work at Riverside Raceway, with Miles following through on some needed suspension tuning. The Shelby car was fitted with a 4-speed manual transmission.
After the car's handling manners were sorted out, some over-the-road testing was carried out to see if the improved performance provided by the =46ord V- 8 could be turned into a street sports car as well, capable of being handled by the average sports car driver.
High-speed testing was carried out in the California Mojave Desert and mountains with temperatures to 110=B0F. The car was driven extensively in Lo s Angeles traffic to see if the transmission, driveline and cooling systems co uld stand up to everyday use (and temperatures). Rumors circulated among the LA sports car crowd about a Q-ship Alpine that was dusting Corvettes in stop li ght battles. The real truth was known only to a few Rootes U.S.A. execs, the gang at Shelby American, and Miles.
By July 1963, everybody agreed they had gone about as far as they could without getting the factory into the act, so Garrad packed up the Shelby-built car and sent it home to England for a command performance before the Rootes fact ory engineering staff, board of directors and, most apprehensively, Lord Rootes himself, who had personally participated in car development and racing since an early day.
However, approval by Lord Rootes was the acid test. Garrad had the car i n readiness at the Rootes factory in Coventry and was on had himself to explain its operation to the old man and to go along as his passenger on a shakedown run .
Lord Rootes departed with wheels spinning and put the car through its paces, cruising it at over 100 mph down the new superhighway near the factor y, then onto the winding English lanes, with their short straights and sharp curves, bringing repeated acceleration to near 90, followed by panic braking to a complete stop.
Following a one-hour run, Lord Rootes pulled the prototype back through the factor gate where sons Brian and Geoffrey Rootes, along with a group of engineers and executives, waited. The flushed cheeks and smiling face of the chairman told the story before he said a word.
Rootes assigned the name "Thunderbolt" to the project, and then Rootes engineers started from scratch and redesigned the car under the skin from th e ground up. The exterior shape of the Sunbeam Alpine roadster was left unalte red, but inside, many interior unit-constructed panels were reshaped and= stiffened to allow both space and strength for the Ford 260 V-8 installation.
The Salisbury rear axle and springs were also strengthened to handle the increase in torque. A deep recess was made in the cowl to accommodate the V- 8, and there was a general widening in the engine compartment where possible. The steering column had a U-joint to clear the engine.
Negotiations began nearly at once with Ford Motor Company to supply engines to Rootes specifications, the decision already having been made to h ave engines shipped from the United States and installed in the Rootes factory, thus maintaining quality control at home. By October 1963 Ford had agreed on the engine sale, and in November the first of some 4000 V-8s for their first= year of production were on the way. The car was then registered with the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and the Sports Car Club of America for production car racing. SCCA nearly blew the lid off the project in a release on new racing sports cars for 1964, when they listed the new Rootes car and called it the "Thunderbolt."
By December 1963 and January 1964, several more prototypes were completed at the factory, and over-the-road testing throughout England and i n Belgium, North Africa, Canada, the U.S., the Pyrenees, the Alps and Scotland was begun. Results were good, and the car was finalized for production.
In March 1964, the decision was made to name the car "Sunbeam Tiger," in honor of Sir Henry Seagrave's special V-12 Sunbeam Land Speed Record car bui lt in 1925, which had captured the record for a time in 1926 at 152.33 mph.
Meanwhile, at Shelby American three more V-8 Sunbeam prototypes were under construction, being readied for race testing which was carried out in =46ebruary 1964 at Le Mans, where one car was clocked at better than 160 mph down the Mulsanne Straight. In England, Brian Lister's engineering company was also at work on a team of aluminum-bodied fastback Le Mans models for entry in the 1964 24-hour race.
The opportunity for introducing the car to the American market was at hand, and the Tiger had its quiet debut at the 8th International Automobile Show in the Coliseum, New York City, to the press on April 3 and the public on April 4, 1964. There, on Stand #12, was what the catalog called the Sunbeam Alpine 26 0, the Tiger name not having been designated in time to make the listing. Howev er, a Rootes ad in the program asked, "Have you met our automatic Tiger?", promoting the automatic transmission version and listing it at $2794 East Co ast POE, and $2595 with 4-speed manual transmission. This writer was there, and it didn't make much of a ripple.
Specifications of the Tiger version show a wheelbase of 86 in, 51-in track at front and 48.5 at rear, and an overall length of 156 in, one inch longer than the Sunbeam Alpine IV. Weight distribution is 51% front and 49 rear, a reverse of the Alpine IV.
The weight increase in the Tiger is not as much as expected, with the lighter Alpine IV crossing the scale at 2280 lb and Tiger just 285 heavier at 2565 lb. Interestingly, there is very little weight difference between the Rootes 4-cylinder 1.6 fitted to the Alpine IV and the 260cid Ford V-8 installed in the Tiger. The increase is almost entirely the result of the re-engineering of the unit- construction body/chassis to handle the increased performance.
And what an increase it is! The 0-60 time, still the yardstick by which performance cars are rated in this country, varied with the tester at the time, but went from high readings of around 8.6 sec to a low of 7.8. Good acceleration figures with the Tiger were difficult, as the short-wheelbase car was prone to axle windup in showroom stock condition. Traction Masters were available as an accessory addition through Rootes and were nearly a necessity for good acceleration figures. Top speed was from 115 to 125 mph, depending on the te ster and conditions.
The standard version Tiger with 260 engine was rated at 164 hp, but a modified high-performance version, homologated for SCCA production racing, was offered right from the start. This version, rated at 245 bhp included a different cam, solid lifters, heavier valve springs, centrifugal advance distributor, 4-bbl carburetor and new aluminum manifold and dress-up aluminum valve covers. This equipment was initially supplied, according to Shelby American Presiden t Carroll Shelby, directly by them. It was termed the L.A.T. 1 Stage 1 tuning kit.
Prices by the time Tigers hit the dealers' floors in September 1964 were something higher than the prices announced in April at the New York Auto Show, with $3499 listed as the POE price. By 1967, this had grown to $3690-still a lot of performance for the price.
Another development at Rootes in 1964, aside from the introduction of th e Tiger, had a definite bearing on the future of the car and, most likely, its short (1964-1967) life span on the market. This was the conclusion of an agreement between Rootes Motors Limited and the chrysler Motors Corporation, whereby t he latter invested 27 million pounds sterling and acquired, in exchange, 83.2% of the total equity share capital in Rootes.
So there they sat, in early 1965, Chrysler Motors Corporation producing one of the world's hottest production sports cars, beneath the hood of which lurked a "Brand X" engine built by their archrival. Chrysler gritted its teeth and continued production of the Tiger. Their first literature promoting the cars, issued in late 1965 for the 1966 cars, called them "Chrysler's new Sunbeams. The British sp orts car now imported and backed by Chrysler Motors Corporation." Under the specifications for the Tiger, they listed it as carrying an "American V-8 powertrain" and, with suitable modifications such as those already mentioned , plus 4-wheel disc brakes, being ready to go "cobra-hunting" (lower cased) "a t Daytona or Riverside."
The facts seem to point to Chrysler's not having a suitable small V-8 in its own stable with which to trade for the Ford without a total re-engineering of the entire package. So, they kept the Ford.
In 1966, just prior to the announcement of the 1967 models, Ford informe d Chrysler's Rootes Division the 260cid version of their V-8 was being dropped from the line, and a new punched-out version would be the only one available to t hem after their contract delivery was completed. As the car had already been beefed up for the 260, no major problems were expected in the jump to the 289cid version. Its stock horsepower output, rated at 200 bhp, was still below that some racing versions of the 260 were putting out while handling very well.
Production of what is called the Mark II Sunbeam Tiger began in December 1966, following delivery of the first 289 engines, with no delay on the assembly line.
The Sunbeam Tiger II differed little. There was no change in the chassis/body construction. The 289 engine came with a slightly larger clutch (10.4-in as opposed to a 10-in on the 260) and wider spaced ratios in the gearbox to take advantage of the better torque range of the 289. Rear suspension was rearranged to cope with same, and a Mopar alternator system replaced the generator. An oil cooler was added as standard equipment at the bottom of th e radiator.
Exterior changes included a new eggcrate grille, bumper-high Mylar stripes running the length of the car, stainless steel trim moldings around the fenderwells and body sill and a new crest which simply said "Sunbeam V-8."
Acceleration figures were slightly improved, but there was more need for Traction Masters, as axle tramp was even more severe. Top speed remained abo ut the same. Price with just about any kind of options was now over $3800.
And so, we come to the end. The last Tiger II came off the assembly line on June 30, 1967, with delivery of new cars going into the fall. The Tiger II was still being tested as a new car by American magazines into the fall of 1967, and s ome were mistakenly called 1968s.
In all, a total of 7067 Tigers rolled out of Rootes' Coventry plant, and a goodly number remain today, most in the loving hands of members of the major Tiger owners' clubs. (See names and addresses at end of article.)
Our Retrospect car is a nearly showroom-new 1966 Tiger with the stock 16 4 bhp 260 V-8. It has been owned from new by Marsha and Dick Guthoehrlein of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, two of the prime movers behind the old Hershey Hillclimb, which was one of the last vestiges of sports car hillclimbing left over from the early 1950s. It has remained as-delivered stock, except for the addition of several of the factory-issued or approved accessories, including the most attractive factory alloy wheels and hardtop.
Upon entering, one is quickly reminded of the late Uncle Tom McCahill's comment about the handbrake lever, placed to the left outside the driver, wh ich gives a gentle nudge in the posterior region. Seats initially seem a bit snug around the lower back, but after half an hour at the wheel, their firm support is appreciated more. The short (Ford) gear lever fails at hand, and large clutch and brake pedals are nicely spaced. The engine starts easily on a key turn, and the heavy V-8 rumble is pleasant but not objectionable. Clutch bite is firm but can be handled without stumbling or jerky starts with only a few tries. Shifts can come nearly anywhere within the usable rpm range, with max power reached at 4400.
Accelerating through the gears, 100 mph seems to come up very quickly, although not Cobra-fast. After bringing it back to a less Smokey-attracting 60 mph, you concentrate on the good-surfaced, winding Pennsylvania back road an d begin to appreciate the Tiger's virtues.
Sunbeam and the originators of the project alike go to great pains to ma ke clear the Tiger was not intended to be, and is not, a road-detuned track racer. The project from the beginning was the creation of a reliable, inexpensive high- performance grand touring machine. In this they succeeded admirably, even remarkably.
The amount of re-engineering claimed by Rootes at the time the Tiger was being created becomes believable after only a few miles. The most impressive factor is the "togetherness" of the entire package. There just isn't any slop in steering, engine, driveline or brakes, and not rattle one in this 10-year-old car. There is none of the visible body flexing which can be observed in a Cobra, just a continuing feeling of everything being well hung together. Instrumentation i s complete, even by today's standards, and gauges are done in both European metric and American calibration.
The roll-up windows and snug-fitting hardtop are both appreciated on a chilly day. Interior finish is more to European sedan standards than what is normal for an open-to-the-weather roadster. The dash is walnut burl veneer, beautifully finished, which kind of says it about the Tiger from one end to the other.
As I happily burbled away into the leaf-strewn, sunny winter afternoon, I couldn't help wondering where we have come since Rootes put this machine on four wheels back in 1963 and asked but $3600 for it. Today, to come close to the performance and finish, you are looking at five figures and high-priced maintenance.
But then, those knowledgeable about our automotive tastes say we aren't interested in buying this kind of car anymore. I can only smile and comment, "Says who?", 'cause I just put a down payment on a '66 Tiger some guy was cr azy enough to let me have!
Sunbeam Tigers Owners Assn.
5067 Valpey Park Drive
Fremont, CA 94536
Jessup, PA 18434
California Association of Tiger-owners (CAT)
4508 El Reposo Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90065
Midwest Tiger Owners Assn.
Melvindale, MI 48122
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