Collector Series #53
"In 1962, Ian Garrad, West Coast manager for Rootes Motors Inc. of England, was
looking for ways to increase sales in the U.S. for the Sunbeam Alpine. The Alpine was
introduced in 1959 and sales were much less than impressive. As the major sponsors of a
West Coast factory racing team effort, Ian quickly became aware that horsepower was the
major commodity the little Sunbeam lacked. V-8 power was the answer! Careful measurements
and weight comparisons brought the 260 cubic inch Ford into the picture.
Convincing Lord Rootes (owner of Rootes Motors Inc.) that a competitor's engine would
solve both the horsepower and lagging sales problems was next to impossible without a
prototype car. After a conference with Brian Rootes (Lord Rootes' son), a ten thousand
dollar fund was made available without the knowledge of Lord Rootes.
Ian immediately went to work and commissioned Ken Miles to perform the first transplant.
Upon completion, the V-8 powered Sunbeam was sent to Carroll Shelby's shop for engineering
refinement and changes. In July, 1963, Ian Garrad shipped his Sunbeam V-8 car to England.
After a horsepower display that the Rootes Motors "wheels" weren't accustomed
to, Lord Rootes consented to the production of the super car. On April 3, 1964, the
production Sunbeam Tiger made its American debut, but the enthusiasm that had been created
by the new car caused such a stir inside the Rootes Motors headquarters, that a number of
company executives began looking towards competition with a serious attitude.
The most prestigious race in the world was the 24 hours of Le Mans and that's where they
set their goal. To win class at Le Mans would certainly put the new Sunbeam Tiger in a
favorable sales bracket and win the much needed prestige for Rootes Motors Inc. Peter
Wilson of Rootes commissioned Brian Lister to construct three special bodies; one as a
prototype and two that would be run at Le Mans. Working together with Ron Wisdom, Rootes
body stylist, a ¼ scale model was constructed for wind tunnel testing to determine
minimum drag, lift, pitching, aerodynamic stability, engine-water-and oil cooling, engine
compartment ventilation, and interior ventilation. Graph plotting calculations showed that
with a Carroll Shelby modified 260 cu. in. Ford engine, the new Le Mans Tiger could be
capable of speeds in the 170 mph range.
All pieces began coming together for final assembly under the careful supervision of
Lord Rootes himself. The Le Mans Tigers were to maintain as much of the original shape and
components as possible while still being competitive. Even the frame was kept to basic
original specs as opposed to the alloy tubing suggested by Brian Lister.
Standard features for the Le Mans Tiger engines were as follows: Carroll Shelby modified
275 horsepower 260 cu. in. V-8 with 2-4V carburetion, solid lifter cam kit and, dual point
distributor with high performance wires, Cobra clutch and an aluminum alloy transmission
with close ratio gearing. The V-8's power was transferred to a Salisbury limited slip
differential and the braking came thru heavy duty Girling disc brakes with independent
master cylinders for each aluminum caliper.
On April 15, 1964, the first testing of the prototype Le Mans Tiger began at Mallory Park
with less than impressive results. Keith Ballisat, one of the works drivers was the first
to test the prototype. After several laps, Ballisat returned to the pits complaining of
severe wheel hop and loss of control of the rearend after hitting small bumps. Spring
rates were changed, an anti-roll bar was fitted and the car was shipped to Le Mans for
testing April 18-19. Handling problems persisted and down the long Mulsanne straight, the
oil pressure dropped to a critical level and the radiator boiled.
April 29th was the next scheduled outing prior to which a new set of shocks was installed
along with a large radiator. On the track, the car performed with little improvement as
the pit crew swapped shocks again and made suspension adjustments. Finally, after a three
inch lowering of the panhard rod, the car began to handle better. With the testing
completed to reasonable satisfaction by Ballisat, attention turned towards the two race
cars being prepared for Le Mans.
On Monday, July 15th, the two untested Le Mans Tigers were flown to Le Mans. Practice days
went poorly as the #8 car lost an engine and the #9 car suffered from a lack of power in
high gear. The general consensus was that there had been too little time to locate and
cure all the problems, but since a great deal of money had been spent to build up and
prepare the cars, the project would continue.
Claude Debois and Keith Ballisat were chosen to drive car #8 and Jimmy Blumer and Peter
Proctor were to drive car #9. As the race began, it was obvious that the Tigers were
outmatched. Car #8 lasted three hours and retired with piston failure, although it had
achieved a top speed of 161.6 mph on the Mulsanne straight. Car #9 had better luck, it
lasted nine hours before retiring with a broken crankshaft. #9 had achieved a top speed of
162.2 mph on the Mulsanne straight.
The Le Mans Tigers were retired after the race and with them went Garrad's dreams of
following in the treadmarks of Carroll Shelby's Cobras. Tiger production continued through
1967, with one model change and the addition of a 289 cu. in. V-8. Competitive successes
came in sprints in the form of occasional rally and endurance class wins, but the famous
Le Mans Tigers remained dormant, a forgotten part of Sunbeam Tiger history."