Sunbeam Tiger - we drive the last of the V8 greats that everyone is chasing. Malcolm Thorne falls for the charms of the Sunbeam Tiger, as he marks 50 years since its demise by sampling the last one built and meeting some of the Ford V8-powered model’s biggest fans. Photography Tony Baker.
END OF THE LINE We take the wheel of the last Tiger to leave the factory. Tale of the final Tiger. Fifty years after production ended, we celebrate the Anglo-American V8. Graham Vickery puts his Tiger – the last one built – through its paces during our recent photoshoot.
1967 was a poignant year for fans of British roadsters. Yes, it’s true that a number of exciting new models were launched – the Triumph TR5 endowed Canley’s sports car with six-cylinder motivation in place of its endearing but agricultural four-pot, while Abingdon’s MGC also promised a lusty ‘six’, albeit with mitigated results – but at the same time one of the decade’s finest sporting models was quietly withdrawn. A victim of corporate politics following the Chrysler takeover of Rootes Group, the demise of the brilliant but Ford-engined Sunbeam Tiger was a matter of considerable regret.
The Tiger’s genesis began back in 1962 when Jack Brabham suggested a V8-powered Alpine to Rootes competition manager Norman Garrad, who in turn mentioned it to his son Ian – the firm’s West Coast sales manager in the USA. Before long, Garrad Jnr had enlisted chicken farmer, Le Mans winner and father of the AC Cobra, Carroll Shelby to engineer a prototype. It reputedly cost $10,000, with the funds ‘borrowed’ from the American marketing budget. Meanwhile, a second car was completed before the first by former Shelby race engineer Ken Miles at his workshop on Cahuenga Boulevard, Hollywood. “Ken and I took it for a test drive,” recounted Ian Garrad in 1980. “I must admit to furtively looking for a change of underwear when we hit the fast lane, but within five minutes I knew that we had a winner.”
By 1963, Lord Rootes had learnt of Shelby’s ‘White Car’ – as the first development vehicle became known – and it had been repatriated to Coventry for appraisal. It was deemed to be precisely what was needed for the all-important US market. After a first run of 10 British-built ‘AF’ (Alpine Ford) development vehicles the new model – baptised Tiger in homage to Sunbeam’s eponymous pre-war record-breaker – was launched at the New York Auto Show in April 1964. Powered by a lazy 260cu in Ford V8, it weighed about 200lb more than an Alpine, but with 164bhp and 258lb ft, produced twice the power and three times the torque of the fourpot.
Assembly of the cars was undertaken by Jensen in West Bromwich, where part-finished bodyshells were ‘carefully’ altered – including a little teasing to the chassis rails and a modified bulkhead – to accept the larger powerplant.
Almost as soon as the car had been launched, development boffin Alec Caine suggested a raft of updates and improvements for a Mk2 version, including a wider rear axle, four-wheel disc brakes and larger five-stud wheels, but such costly developments were swiftly vetoed by the Rootes bean-counters. As a result, when the supply of 260cu in engines dried up in 1966, the update into the Mk2 was far more superficial: an egg-crate grille and brash side stripes were the primary aesthetic differences, while beneath the skin a 289cu in (4.7 litre) V8 superseded the original unit. Most significantly for the domestic market, although the right-hand-drive Mk1 had been offered in the UK from early 1965, Mk2 production was restricted to left-hand-drive only. Or, at least, that was Rootes’ intention.
The decision not to offer a right-hooker was pragmatic (reputedly, as late as 1968 there were still a few unsold Mk1s at UK dealers) but shortly after Chrysler announced that Tiger production was ending, the Metropolitan Police requested six cars to complement the four Mk1As that were already in use as pursuit vehicles. It may seem remarkable today, but Rootes agreed to fulfil the order. The complexities of producing a small batch were negligible – the conversion of the production shell into right-hand drive didn’t represent any particular difficulties – but it’s hard to imagine such small-scale manufacturing today, even for such a valued customer as the Met.
Those police vehicles, which left the Jensen works in late March ’1967, would have been the only factory-built right-hand-drive Mk2 cars, but when Autosport editor Gregor Grant learnt of their existence, he too asked for a right-hooker – as did three of Rootes’ valued dealers. Handwritten build ledgers saved from Jensen indicate that William Waters of W Waters & Sons in Hertford received one car and that a second went to a garage in the Sunderland area. The third and final car, chassis B382100633 – which was also the last of the 7085 Tigers built, a mere 534 of which were Mk2s – was despatched to Roy Thompson Ltd in Aberdeen on 27 June 1967. Registered HRS 121E on 3 July, it was retained by the company owner for the next 19 years, during which time it racked up 70,000 miles.
In 1986, HRS was put up for sale via a sealedbid auction. Fortuitously, given that the model was by then viewed as something of a boy-racer’s hot rod and was certainly nothing like as valuable as it has become in recent years, the car was acquired by Sunbeam Tiger Owners’ Club stalwart John Day. He now owns the Gregor Grant Mk2 – and previously a works rally car – and knew precisely what he had bought. After almost two decades’ use, the Tiger was unmolested but rather tired when Day purchased it, so soon after the Eastbourne-based enthusiast subjected it to a comprehensive restoration. He rebuilt the small-block V8, transmission and body, then repainted the car in its original Orchid Green (or ‘goose poop’ as it is affectionately called in club circles today).
“I saw it at a show at Sandown Park in ’91,” recalls current owner, STOC vice-chairman Graham Vickery. “I’d first experienced Tigers back in ’67 when I’d been given a 100mph ride along the Shere bypass and bought one for my daily transport in ’73, so when I spotted HRS it was love at first sight. I gave John my card and asked him to call me if he ever decided to sell the car. The following year, he did just that.”
Unfortunately for Vickery, about six months later work commitments meant that he found himself moving to Sweden. So the Sunbeam was put into storage – only to be joined by a second, a Mk1 shortly afterwards. “A friend offered me the left-hooker,” he recalls, “saying that it would be ideal for Stockholm, but ironically it wasn’t until Sweden joined the EU in ’95 and import duty was scrapped that I was able to take it there.”
In a strange twist of a fate, the left-hand-drive car went on to spark a fascination for historically significant Tigers that Vickery still enjoys today: “Alpine bodies have a serial number with the prefix SAL, for Sunbeam Assembly Line, whereas Tigers have a JAL number, signifying Jensen Assembly Line. When I discovered that the car had an SAL plate, my heart sank because I thought that I’d bought a Tiger reshelled with an Alpine body, which was once a common way of rebuilding a rotten example. After a bit of research, though, I discovered that it was a development vehicle – AF6, with a chassis number just prior to the first production Tiger – meaning that my two cars neatly bookended Tiger production.
Lately I have acquired with a friend two more prototypes: AF7, which has the earliest British chassis number and was the first development car to be fitted with the production 289cu in engine, and AF9, which was one of two pilot production cars. Those are both awaiting restoration, while AF6 is the one that gets the most frequent use. In 2014, former Rootes rally driver Rosemary Smith drove it to Monaco as part of a club event celebrating the Tiger’s 50th anniversary. A few years ago I was also offered the ‘Miles’ prototype, but I declined because I felt that, as an American prototype, it belonged in the USA.”
Mention of Shelby and Miles’ involvement inevitably draws comparisons with that other famous Anglo-American hybrid, the AC Cobra. For the uninitiated, it’s easy to view the Tiger as little more than a rapid but unsophisticated plaything for scorching tyres away from the lights. It is so much more than that, however.
“It may still bear the ‘poor-man’s Cobra sobriquet,” says Vickery, “but unlike the AC, the Tiger is a car for all tastes and you can make it whatever you want it to be – a street rod, rally car, circuit racer, long-distance GT. My preference is for factory spec, so aside from the Minilite alloys, that is how HRS remains to this day.”
Crank the small-block V8 into life and it burbles seductively: the aural experience is everpresent but sufficiently subdued to be enjoyable rather than intrusive, a catchy bassline rather than an extrovert guitar solo. The Alpine’s ‘four’ may have made it a fab little sports car, but this ‘eight’ sounds just great. It’s hardly a surprise that the Dearborn motor manages to enchant with its deep blue-collar rumble, of course, but what confounds your preconceptions is the manageability of the rest of the Tiger package.
The wide transmission tunnel that shrouds the four-speed gearbox – the chromed lever sprouting from way over on the passenger side is evidence of its colonial origins – and the considerable torque that the unit has to handle leave you expecting a weighty and uncooperative ’box of lorry-like cogs. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. The transmission is a delight – slick and light as it slots cleanly from one ratio to the next – while the clutch is neither heavy nor fierce, and the steering is amazingly delicate to the touch. She might not appreciate the poor lock while manoeuvring it out of the WI car park, but your grandmother could easily drive this magnificent machine.
The Tiger is happy to potter, too. If you’re not in a rush it will happily amble along, the seamless band of torque carrying it along effortlessly. It’s so flexible, in fact, that in 1965, Country Life was moved to say that it ‘could be driven in town in the manner of a ceremonial limousine’. An automatic ’box was considered as an option, but it would surely be superfluous: the mechanical unit is to all intents and purposes a semi-auto with the effortless torque. There’s a limo-like quality to the fixtures and fittings as well. The lovely timber dashboard and elegant wood-rim wheel have a genteel sense of occasion similar to that of a large Humber – all very civilised and dignified.
But don’t be misled into thinking that this car is a softly-softly boulevardier. Slip on a pair of lead-soled loafers and that lazy V8 wakes up, punching you forward with iron-fisted vigour. “In 2004, a group of us took our cars to the Le Mans Classic,” remembers Vickery. “I was with Jimmy Blumer, who had raced a works Tiger there in 1964, and he floored the throttle as we rounded Tertre Rouge onto the Mulsanne Straight. We were soon pulling 5000rpm in top, which gave us an indicated 125mph. He was in his late 70s at the time, and often reminisced to us about it afterwards – it was certainly a rejuvenating experience for him!”
The short wheelbase and heavy lump of metal under the bonnet mean that if you really press on you could find yourself dealing with either understeer or oversteer, but at less than ludicrous velocity it feels wonderfully benign and utterly beguiling. It is with a real tinge of sadness that I return the keys to Vickery at the end of our photoshoot, and I’m not alone in having been seduced by the Sunbeam. C&SC’s Mick Walsh and Julian Balme both have a soft spot for the Tiger’s mesmerising character (see panels).
“With the benefit of hindsight, the end of the Tiger production run was perhaps timely,” reflects Vickery. “It was a car of its era, and had done its job.”
He has a valid point: there would be no ignominious powersapping smog controls or ugly impact-absorbing bumpers for the Coventry roadster, no embarrassingly antiquated road manners alongside more modern rivals. The Sunbeam bowed out as an unsullied design with its head held high, an unqualified success of which its maker could be justifiably proud. But having experienced what a delight this lovely little V8 can be, it’s hard not to lament its short life and relatively low production numbers. Long live the Tiger!
Thanks to Graham Vickery and the Sunbeam Tiger Owners’ Club (www.sunbeamtiger.co.uk)