Sunbeam Tiger 289 MkI road test 2017 / 2018

Sunbeam Tiger misuse the power and it will spin. Rob Norton grew up on a diet of second-hand Sixties sports cars, but the Sunbeam Tiger has eluded him since the Seventies. Will driving the one that got away meet his expectations? Words Sam Dawson. Photography James Pardon.

The list

Jaguar E-type ‘Preferably a 1966 drophead like the one I owned in the Seventies. Mine had a Heron panoramic hardtop.’

Daimler Dart SP250 ‘I owned A- and C-spec Darts in the Seventies and think that they’re massively underrated. I’d love to be reacquainted with them.’

Lotus Carlton ‘I had a Carlton 3000GSi in the Nineties but always fancied a go in the ultimate sports-saloon.’

Lotus Cortina MkI ‘Another car that I owned when they were cheap. I wish I still had it now!’

Reader Rob Norton gets to tame the Tiger that has always eluded him. The List Reader Rob Norton owned E-types and MGs in the Seventies, but the Sunbeam Tiger always eluded him. We realise his dream of driving Rootes’ hot rod.

style=”flat” size=”4″]We’re in the wish-fulfilment business here at Classic Cars and put a lot of thought into matching one of our readers to dream drives. It’s the reason why we ask you to submit a list of the cars you’ve owned – it helps us to work out what kind of classic you’re most likely to enjoy.

Reader Rob Norton’s wishlist baffled us though, because he’d already owned most of the cars, or at least versions of them. But there amid cars such as the Jaguar E-type and Lotus Cortina was one car that doesn’t appear on his ownership list – the Sunbeam Tiger.

I meet Rob in the car park of UK Sports Cars in rural Kent where a very special Tiger is waiting for him. While the staff manoeuvre it around Lotuses and Caterhams into the early autumn sunshine, Rob produces a pair of photo albums detailing his life in cars.

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‘You guessed correctly – it was the one that got away,’ he says, leafing through the faded images from the Seventies. ‘Back then I used to buy these cars when they were just cheap second-hand transport. I started with an Austin-Healey Frogeye Sprite and MGBs, then bought a Jaguar E-type with a Heron hardtop for £1000 – hard to believe now. I loved my Daimler SP250s the most – it was that combination of a British sports car and a V8 engine, I think. The Sunbeam Tiger was the one I always wanted, though but there were a number of reasons why I never got my hands on one. Firstly, the oil crisis meant that the very few in circulation tended to be bought only by people who could afford to run them, which kept the prices higher than cars with smaller engines. Also, the Ford V8 engine meant that they were very popular among ModSports racers, either for racing or just for their engines. I’ve owned various cars since, but the Tiger is still out of my reach and that’s one of the reasons why I think today is going to be so exciting – I never thought I’d ever get the chance to drive one!’

The Tiger is out in the open air now, its Ford V8 throbbing and rumbling and a flickering heat-haze tracing a line of warmth around the bonnet and tailpipes as though it’s fuelled with Ready-Brek. Rob walks around it, contemplates the driver’s seat then decides to take a look at the engine first. We twist the handles at the top of the bonnet – part of a period modification to prop it open slightly and improve cooling – and open it to reveal the Tiger’s thundering heart. ‘Look at that – it’s huge!’ says Rob. ‘As I understand it, workers on the production line had to take hammers to the bulkhead to get it to fit – I can see why they struggled to keep these cars cool.’

There’s more to this particular Tiger’s engine than meets the eye too. It’s a MkI – as all UK-market right-hand drive Tigers were – but unlike others, it boasts a later MkII-style 289ci V8 rather than a 260. This car was the last MkI sold, having been used as an exhibit on a turntable in the window of a Rootes Group showroom in 1965. It was sold when Sunbeam stopped marketing the Tiger in the UK, but the first owner wanted the latest engine. So it’s not just a 289, but a special-order Shelby-fettled K-Code V8 – the engine that helped the Tiger to win the National Hot Rod Association’s production car dragracing championships in 1965.

Rob gets comfortable in the driver’s seat and fastens the fourpoint harnesses fitted to the car as part of a package of classic rallying modifications. ‘There’s more room in here than I was expecting,’ he says. ‘The steering wheel is grazing my knees, but I suppose that’s normal for a car of this era. It makes you realise just how bulky modern dashboards are – just a huge slab of instruments and that’s it. Everything else in here feels light and airy, especially with the roof down.’

Rob doesn’t say much during his first ten minutes behind the Tiger’s wheel as he spurs it down the narrow, rutted country lanes. But before long he’s smiling, as much in memory as appreciation. ‘It’s the kind of car – and drive – I remember so well,’ he says. ‘You have to think all the time and be so aware of your skills and responsibility as a driver, otherwise you’ll end up in all sorts of trouble. Misuse all of that power and I’ve no doubt that it’ll spin – I managed to spin my Darts a few times back in the Seventies and the chassis flex actually made the doors pop open. I don’t fancy doing that today!’

He’s rapidly gaining confidence in the car, enjoying the V8’s highlyamplified chunter as we turn on to the fast-flowing Adisham Road, keeping the gearbox in third to enjoy the sound and immediate, analogue throttle response. ‘The gearbox takes some getting used to,’ Rob shouts over the chilly wind whipping round the windscreen.

‘Early on I felt as though I had to rummage around to find the ratios, but it’s much easier to negotiate now that I’ve realised that they’re at the extremities of the gate. The steering is very heavy – certainly compared to cossetting modern cars – but what amazes me the most is how precise and immediate it is. I must confess that I was expecting it to roll a lot in corners, but it’s incredible how quickly it can change direction and how planted it feels on the road.’

That’ll be Shelby’s design in action – the Tiger wasn’t just an Alpine subjected to a hot-rod engine-swap job. Modifications included a wider track, bigger wheels, firmer dampers, a Panhard rod to control the live rear axle and space-saving rack and pinion steering rather than the usual recirculating-ball box to clear the huge engine.

Next, we subject the Tiger to a three-lane, 70mph section of the A2 running south towards Dover. As we pull on to the motorway, outside-lane warriors hurtle by in their hulking Vauxhalls and Audis, causing the comparatively little Tiger to shudder in their wake. But Rob isn’t fazed at all and rather than adopting the traditional classicdriver motorway position – skulking along at 60mph between lorries in the inside lane just in case something breaks or falls off – he selects third gear, plants the throttle and sets off in pursuit.

‘Motorway cruising is really easy in this car,’ Rob shouts over the roaring V8. ‘I hardly feel like I need to shift into top gear. Obviously we’re quite exposed because it’s open-topped, but it’s hardly out of its depth when used as a motorway machine. The ride is particularly impressive – it shames all of these other hard-riding modern cars – and yet it doesn’t have that typically bouncy, lolloping gait that so many classics have either. It’s really smooth – something that a lot of cars simply can’t manage nowadays.

‘However, I know that I can’t take liberties with it. There’s a hell of a lot of torque and it’s delivered almost instantly when I hit the pedal. It’s got a very short wheelbase for something so powerful too. Come to think of it, I seem to remember that the Tiger had a reputation for inherent instability back in the Seventies, especially in the wet. I’m thankful that it’s dry today. Having said that, I like the fact that I can test my driving skills in it without having to be silly with it.’

Rob powers the car down to the Dover junction, pulls off the motorway and drives along a meandering, leafy lane towards the imposing stronghold walls of Leeds Castle. We’ve half a mind to park the Tiger in front of it, grab a coffee and answer the inevitable battery of questions from passing tourists but perhaps predictably, much of the castle’s environs are now pedestrianised and we can’t get anywhere near it. But while we’re sitting at a pair of red traffic lights wondering where to go next, the pedestrian crossing in front of us is blocked by a phalanx of school children on a history trip to the castle. It seems they can’t take enough photos of the little sports car making a big noise, a machine that was built four decades before they were born. In the end their teachers have to physically usher them out of the way and on to the safety of the pavement.

I think for a moment, then remember another focal point that I’d spotted earlier on our way here. Rob executes a neat U-turn and we head back up the A2 to a venue that resonates more with the car’s aftermarket history than cosy images of Olde England – Lydden Hill.

This small track – England’s shortest, in fact – is as iconic as it is famous. Rallycross was invented here after an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease forced the cancellation of the RAC Rally in 1967. James Hunt scored his first race win here in Formula Ford and it was one of the first venues to introduce professional drift-racing to the UK. Unlike the thoroughbreds of so many other circuits, Lydden’s most successful cars are often unique, overpowered specials that wouldn’t taste victory anywhere else, and to this end it suits the Tiger perfectly. Not only because of its over-endowed hot-rod nature, but also in the way that this particular car spent much of the Seventies fitted with an automatic gearbox, widened wheelarches, slot-mag wheels and paintwork designed to make it look as though it was covered in fish scales.

Thankfully it was restored to period-style perfection last year, the only modifications nowadays being for classic regularity rallying, but the hot-rod and street machine era actually resonates surprisingly deeply for Rob. ‘I remember cars like that back when I was buying Sixties British sports cars,’ he recalls. ‘They were fun, I suppose, but I always preferred my cars to be in original condition. Still, it was an important part of motoring culture that perhaps we’re in danger of losing – I mean, who has a customised Jaguar E-type or Sunbeam Tiger these days? And who would want one? And yet it’s a key moment in this car’s history.

‘I remember seeing ModSports cars racing back in the day at circuits like Lydden Hill – traditional small motor sport venues with only one or two grandstands that weren’t completely plastered with adverts. It seems like an appropriate place to bring the Tiger because even though this is a Sixties car through and through, today has actually taken me back to the Seventies in many ways – to an era of cheap and widely available Sixties sports cars that were driven hard and enjoyed for what they were. It was a time when owners felt less bound-in by history and rigid adherence to originality – they were their cars to do with as they pleased, although if I had one, I’d want it to be like this one.

‘I’m so pleased that the Tiger is no longer the one that got away now that I’ve driven it, but I now dearly wish that I could say that I have owned a Tiger of my own – either today or back in the day. It’s just a shame that I have the same problem now as I had back in the Seventies – I still can’t afford to buy one!’

Thanks to: UK Sports Cars (, 01227 728190), Lydden Hill Circuit (, 01304 830557)

Sunbeam Tiger 289 MkI road test

Tiger’s hardcore performance isn’t echoed by its ride quality. ‘It’s smooth, but without the bouncy, lolloping gait of so many classics,’ according to Rob. Rob was surprised by the Tigers cruising prowess but admits, “You can’t take liberties with it”


Sunbeam-Tiger history

SHELBY THUNDERBOLT When Enzo Ferrari refused to supply Rootes Group with Dino V6s in 1962, the company turned to Carroll Shelby. Two prototypes were built in 1963 – one by Shelby, codenamed Thunderbolt, and another by Ken Miles – using Ford V8 engines and Alpine Series 2s. Shelby’s was the most production-ready and involved replacing the Alpine’s recirculating-ball steering with sharper rack and pinion.

SUNBEAM TIGER MKI 260 The Tiger was rushed into production in late 1963 based on the concurrent Alpine MkIV. Jensen built the first 14 cars with Borg-Warner gearboxes and Ford 260ci V8s. Once it reached full production in 1964, Ford supplied Mustang gearboxes and a Panhard rod was added to provide rear axle lateral location. The Alpine was updated to MkV spec in 1965, giving that year’s Tigers a retrospective ‘MkIA’ designation.

LISTER LE MANS FASTBACK Two Lister steel-monocoque racing Tigers, which looked similar to a Harrington-bodied Sunbeam Alpine coupé, contested the 1964 Le Mans 24 Hours. Each could hit 140mph but suffered mechanical problems and didn’t finish the race. The Tiger was more successful in production-class competition – K-Code performance-spec Shelby V8s dominated their class in American SCCA and drag racing.

SUNBEAM TIGER MKII 289 The 1966 MkII used a 4.7-litre Ford 289ci V8 in the Alpine MkIA bodyshell. It was sold only in the US following poor UK MkI sales from 1965-’1966. By this point the car had 200bhp and 282lb ft of torque but Chrysler curtailed the Ford engine deal when it bought a controlling stake in Rootes Group in 1967. The fact that Chrysler’s own small-block V8 wouldn’t fit in the engine bay ended Tiger production.


Engine 4727cc V8, ohv, Ford four-barrel carburettor

Power and torque 200bhp @ 4400rpm; 282lb ft @ 2400rpm

Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Brakes Discs front, drums rear

Suspension Front: independent, wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar / Rear: live axle, Panhard rod, semi-elliptic leaf springs, telescopic dampers

Steering Rack and pinion

Weight 1145kg

Performance Top speed: 122mph; 0-60mph: 7.5sec

Fuel consumption 17mpg

Cost new £1446

Current values (2017 UK) £23,500-£52,500

Rob was amazed by the V8’s urge, ‘There’s a hell of a lot of torque delivered almost instantly. Tiger’s simple interior impressed Rob, ‘It makes you realise just how bulky modern dashboards are’. Trip meters, harnesses and fire extinguishers are there for regularity rallying – the bonnet latches are to aid cooling.

“The smooth ride is particularly impressive – motorway cruising is really easy in this car”

“You have to be aware of your driving skills – I’ve no doubt that it would spin if I misused all that power”


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