Sunbeam Rapier. The car that brought the Mille Milgia to the middle classes is now a much sought-after rarity. We drive an early example of the austerity busting Sunbeam Rapier. Words Andrew Roberts. Photography Gus Gregory.
Rootes’ Dazzling Sunbeam It brought the Mille Miglia to the masses with a healthy dose of austerity-busting American charm – we drive the lovable Sunbeam Rapier. How transatlantic style met rally-proven spirit in the dashing Sunbeam Rapier.
Preparing to drive a 1957 Sunbeam Rapier – especially one as lovingly cared for as the blue and white Series 1 example here – always makes me feel as though I ought to be wearing driving gloves and a flat cap. Firing up the engine causes the instrument needles to flutter and dance in a satisfying manner and the exhaust to elicit a deep, yet subdued hum of latent intent. Ahead lies Warwickshire’s daunting Long Marston Airfield and already the Rapier feels primed for a dash to victory.
It starts with the turn of a key, not the prod of an old-fashioned starter button – after all, this car is a modern grand tourer, boasting such luxuries as two-speed windscreen wipers and a cigarette lighter. Every detail of the dashboard, from the ivory-coloured steering wheel to the overdrive switch, hints at the pursuit of speed and the bodywork’s two-tone paint makes it look even more rakish and dynamic.
In period the fact that this car shares much of its mechanical underpinnings with the rather more mundane Hillman Minx couldn’t shatter the dreams of a modern suburban driver looking to release a dormant inner champion.
The Rapier is a clever compromise between compact family transport and elegant sports car. It’s softly sprung but it handles tidily, with only a faint tendency towards understeer and no hint at all of wallowing in corners.
The brakes, so often a challenge in a car of this era, are surprisingly responsive and its vaunted ‘fingertip synchromatic gearchange’ is essentially a modified Humber Hawk gearbox originally controlled by a steering column lever. This Rapier, however, has been modified with a proper floor change. It works extremely well, too, especially once you learn that first gear is really only there for occasional use.
It seems that Rootes positively disapproved of Mini Cooperstyle rapid upward shifts. Instead, gently coaxing the lever rather than snatching at it produces much more satisfactory results, especially when dealing with the long-winded travel between second and third gears.
The Rapier’s steering is unquestionably its weakest aspect. The worm-and-nut mechanism always feels slightly vague and is extremely heavy at low speeds – it must have seemed like an excellent way of building up muscles when being driven through its natural urban environment. To be fair, the Sunbeam is no worse in this regard than, say, an Austin Cambridge but against the more manoeuvrable likes of an MG Magnette or Jowett Javelin it does feel somewhat ponderous.
No, a ’1957 Rapier is most in its element when you treat it as a straightforward cruiser. Purring along in third gear at an easy 70mph with the Laycock de Normanville overdrive helping you to whoosh past lines of dawdling Standard Vanguards, an early Rapier may not provide Hollywood-style transport, but it certainly offers burgeoning-starlet levels of glamour.
I’ve always found the narrow cabin of the Rapier’s predecessor, the Sunbeam-Talbot 90, to be claustrophobic to the extent that I have to open the sunroof. Yet despite being smaller the Rapier offers much more space and feels light and airy thanks to its slim A-pillars. The front seats are comfortable, although the combination of a large steering wheel, short wheelbase and limited rearward seat adjustment do impinge on the space of front-seat occupants. Ironically, this compromise was allowed to ensure there was enough rear seat legroom.
On the plus side the pillarless construction is particularly well executed, and with all windows down I can imagine that I’m bowling along Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Only the four-cylinder engine note serves as a constant reminder that the Sunbeam hails from downtown Coventry. Certainly, the Series 1 Rapier looks like a Detroit hardtop carefully scaled down for British roads.
And it’s not just the lack of the familiar tailfins and square radiator grille that gives this early car a different image from that of the later Rapiers – there’s also the conspicuous lack of any outward traditionalism. The Z-series MG Magnette may have had a leather-and-walnut lounge reminiscent of a headmaster’s study, but although the Sunbeam’s seats are also upholstered in hide its dashboard is liberal in its use of Bakelite. The overall effect could never be described as understated, but class-conscious Fifties motorists were nevertheless reassured that the Sunbeam was a socially acceptable proposition.
In common with all good Rootes cars, the Rapier has an abundance of thoughtful details. There’s an air vent in the driver’s footwell, stylish side armrests for the rear passengers, and a dashboard studded with six chrome-bordered dials.
The sprint from standstill to 60mph takes a not-inconsiderable 20 seconds, but it feels a good deal faster than mere figures would suggest. But overt sportiness was probably not part of the Rapier’s original remit when Rootes Group first conceived it back in 1953 as a direct replacement for the Sunbeam-Talbot 90. That grand old dowager may have been introduced in 1948, but was derived heavily from the earlier separate-wings-and-running-boards 2-Litre and its lines were starting to look dated as the mid-Fifties approached. Worse, its narrow frame design resulted in limited interior space, especially when compared with such roomy market newcomers as the MG Magnette ZA.
And so the decision was made to phase the 90 out in favour of a new Sunbeam – the Talbot suffix was dropped after 1954 – which would be based on the next generation Minx, code-named Audax.
The new Sunbeam had a rather wider remit, however, in that it was also intended to succeed the 1953 Hillman Californian, a fourseater coupé version of the Minx MkVI. The earmarked engine was the same 1.4-litre overhead-valve unit fitted to the 1954 MkVIII Minx, but with the addition of a bigger clutch, Stromberg carburettor and an enhanced compression ratio.
Styling was partly entrusted to designers at Raymond Loewy Associates because Rootes management was clearly very taken with the lines of the firm’s Studebaker Starliner. This meant any Sunbeam owner seeking the 90’s restrained respectability would probably have found the young pretender’s reverse-curve roofline and wraparound rear windscreen rather shocking.
Rootes launched the Rapier at the 1955 Earls Court Motor Show some months before the Audax series Minx was introduced, thereby allowing the Sunbeam to establish its own identity. But the public immediately suspected that there was nothing more than a Hillman Californian with ideas above its station beneath those sharp new lines. Full production began in early 1956 and continued alongside the 90 until 1957.
The Rapier’s transatlantic appearance might have tempted those with around £1000 to spend away from a Ford Zephyr-Zodiac or an E-series Vauxhall Cresta, but its Sunbeam badge equally appealed to the type of sporting driver who owned at least one club blazer.
This was a time when many motorists believed that any car decked out in whitewall tyres could never be a competition champion, but this was a prejudice the new Sunbeam promptly dispelled when it succeeded the 90 as Rootes’ official rally car. It was competitive straight out of the box too, albeit with the standard single Stromberg carburettor replaced by twin Zeniths.
Peter Harper and Sheila Van Damm’s Sunbeam won the Special Touring Class up to 1600cc in the 1956 Mille Miglia, and another Rapier went on to a class victory in the Tulip Rally the following year. Yet another Rapier – this one a works entry – came fifth overall in the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally.
The considerable volume of publicity gained from seeing a Rapier dash along the Adriatic coast or plough through snowdrifts in black and white Pathé newsreels was immense, especially when production cars gained the rally cars’ carburettors – good for another 3mph on the top speed. The host of rally successes also reinforced the message that the Sunbeam was as tough as it was smart – the Mille Miglia encompassed 1000 miles in less than a day across four mountains – and allowed the Sunbeam’s more sedate stablemates to bask in its reflected glory.
The Rapier received a major facelift in February 1958, gaining tail fins and a Talbot-style grille. And by way of response to complaints from enthusiastic drivers the column gearchange was replaced by a floor-mounted lever. A 1494cc engine and convertible option further established a wholly separate identity to that of the Hillman Minx and the Rapier’s image as a prime sports saloon was cemented when Peter Harper’s Sunbeam won that year’s RAC Rally outright. With the Rapier by now firmly established as respectable sporting transport with a long and distinguished circuit and rally career, the Audax models wouldn’t give way to the Arrow series for another nine years. By this time, however, the original versions were almost forgotten.
To best understand the Rapier’s impact, take look at a photograph of almost any period British street scene. You’ll find that many cars were still pre-war models – usually painted black – but the Rapier epitomised chrome-plated freedom from beneath the shadow of post-war austerity when it made its debut at the Earls Court Motor Show. Of course Rootes’ cars had long favoured Detroit-inspired lines, but the Sunbeam was a proper scaled-down Studebaker for the discerning British motorist. And just in case this blatantly US-inspired car was deemed too frivolous for a nation that regarded chocolate digestives as dangerously decadent, Rootes’ advertising often highlighted the sensible transport lurking beneath the model’s two-tone visual excess and overdrive-enhanced performance.
One advert boasted that there was ‘plenty of room in the boot’ and ‘generous fascia locker and shelf space for last minute odds-and- ends’, while a 1957 Motor report approved of how there was enough space in that locker for a man’s hat. Stirling Moss may have featured in the Rapier’s publicity shots, but this emphasis on practicality evokes a world less of cocktail gatherings and race meetings and more of East Cheam High Street.
Early Rapiers are now very seldom seen thanks to the combined ravages of time and rust, but the survivor featured here is a wonderful reminder of a car that showed the masses that mild flamboyance was not just tolerable, but downright desirable.
Thanks to The Sunbeam Rapier Owners Club (sroc.org.uk), Long Marston Airfield (longmarstonairfield.com)
Living with a Sunbeam Rapier
Phil Walters is an avid collector of all cars with a Coventry connection – ‘Standards, Jaguars, Daimlers – so many cars were made in the city!’ He has owned his 1957 Series 1 Rapier for eight years. It was in the same condition as you see it now although a previous owner had fitted its floor gearlever.
As for maintaining such a rare car, Phil points out that its mechanicals ‘offer no real challenge because the Rapier has such basic engineering’.
Rootes famously tested the 1.4-litre engine for durability by driving prototypes for hundreds of thousands of miles across Europe, but one problem with the early Sunbeam can be in sourcing replacement trim parts (the Series 1 was made for fewer than three years) and tackling corrosion. ‘It’s a myth that Rootes cars were worse than any other British product of the Fifties,’ says Phil. ‘It was designed at a time when companies wanted people to change and upgrade their cars regularly, although the fact that the Rapier lacks wing liners does make it vulnerable to rust.
‘As for driving, it keeps up with modern traffic in overdrive-top. Sometimes people slow down to take a better look at it – then I overtake them.’
Tech and photos
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1957 Sunbeam Rapier
Engine 1390cc, in-line four-cylinder, ohv, two Zenith 36 WIP carburettors
Power and torque: 67.5bhp @ 5000rpm; 74lb ft @ 2400rpm / DIN
Transmission Four-speed manual, overdrive
Front: independent coil and wishbone.
Rear: semi-elliptic leaf springs, live axle.
Brakes Drums all-round
Weight 2408lb (1092kg)
Performance Top speed: 86mph; 0-60mph: 20sec
Fuel consumption 30mpg
Cost new £1043
Classic Cars Price Guide £3.5-12.5k
The Rapier’s scaled-down transatlantic looks offered a bold vision to a Britain that was still emerging from post-war austerity.
Pillarless structure offers a light and airy environment to driver and passengers.
Early cars had a column shift but this example now has a floor-mounted gearlever.
Detroit swagger didn’t make it as far as the engine bay, but later twin Zeniths did add more power.
In a time of post-war melancholy, the Rapier’s chromework brought some American glitz to Britain’s roads.
‘It looks like a scaled-down Detroit hardtop; only the engine note reminds you that it hails from Coventry’
‘The Rapier epitomised chrome-plated freedom from beneath the shadow of post-war austerity’