Take one Sixties British sports car, add an American V8, a touch of Carroll Shelby magic and serve hot. The result? The stunning Sunbeam Tiger
Words: Keith Moody • Pics: Martyn Barnwell
Imagine it’s the early Sixties and the awesome V8-powered AC Cobra is sweeping away the competition, especially in the US. Every car maker worth its salt is desperately trying to find a V8 that will fit their sports car, including Rootes.
Well, sort of. You see, double Formula One champion Jack Brabham has mentioned the idea of shoehorning Ford’s 260cu in V8 into the Sunbeam Alpine to his contact at the factory, competition manager Norman Garrad. But the response was a little flat to say the least. Sure, Norman heard what Jack was saying, but he just didn’t see how it was possible – this is Rootes, after all: it takes them at least three years to develop a new car. Three years, maybe four. Nevertheless, Norman has mentioned the V8 idea to his son, Ian Garrad – West Coast sales manager for Rootes America – who just happens to live not too far away from a certain Carroll Shelby. Ian could make a call…
Ten-thousand dollars and a few weeks later, Shelby had developed a working prototype of the Thunderbolt, as the Tiger was originally called. With head honcho Brian Rootes in San Francisco for a sales conference, Ian saw his opportunity and made a move. ‘Okay,’ said Brian. ‘Let’s do it. But don’t tell dad.’
Lord Rootes would find out, however. And the rest, as they say, is history…
SQUARE PEG, ROUND HOLE
But despite taking just eight months to get from the back of a fag packet and on to the plinth at the 1964 New York Motor Show, it wasn’t all smooth running. For a start, there was the small matter of which engine to use.
It quickly became clear that Ford’s lightweight V8 was the obvious winner. Not only did it weigh just 200kgs with all the auxiliaries attached, it was also compact – thanks largely to its wedge-shaped combustion chambers. Moreover, the back end of the engine was free from clutter (the distributor, oil filter and co were located towards the front) – perfect for cramming into a small British sports car.
And cram they did. As Shelby himself said, ‘There was a place for everything and a space for everything, but positively not an inch to spare.’
But there were problems to sort out, too – like the cooling system. Not only was a bigger radiator required to keep the new powerplant from boiling up, it also had to be pushed closer to the nose for the engine to fit. And then there was the steering. Alpines used a recirculating ball steering box pushed right up against the bulkhead, with a steering link across the back of the engine to an idler box on the other side of the bulkead.
Fine for slim in-line fours – but with the Ford V8 in there, the flywheel was backed right up against the bulkhead. The obvious solution was to fit a rack and pinion set up, but Rootes didn’t have any available. For the prototype, a unit was borrowed from an MGA while production steering units were built by Engineering Products. And although rack and pinion was the best solution, it wasn’t ideal – the rack sat too far forward on the suspension, which meant the track rod ends needed to be bent backwards to function properly. At full lock, the tyre scrub was awful – apart from that the system worked a treat.
With the prototype ready to go, it was time to let the Tiger-shaped cat out of the bag. So what exactly did the team at Rootes say when the car arrived at the factory in July? One legendary story has it that Peter Ware, Rootes’ engineering number two, was so impressed by the driveability and performance of the car that his pipe fell out of his month and was ignored for the rest of the test drive.
Having been convinced of the project’s merits, it was now time for Lord Rootes to take a test drive – after all, no car got the green light until he’d driven it. So, at the ripe old age of 69, Rootes ditched his chauffeur driven Humber and climbed in to give the Tiger a go... and loved every minute of it.
The next step was to secure the necessary engine deal from Ford, which was busy developing its new Mustang pony car. The reception to Rootes was initially lukewarm, until Ford heard the sales projections – 8,000 cars a year? Ford would sell that many Mustangs in a week. Rootes could have as many engines as they thought they wanted.
The next hurdle was where to build the Tiger. Rootes’ Ryton factory just wasn’t up to it so, after a bit of head scratching, the gig went to the Jensen brothers over in West Bromwich –
after all, they had plenty of space now that Volvo had taken P1800 production in house.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
With the new car’s show debut just weeks away, time was running out. But the job was nearly complete – all that was needed was a name. After a trawl through the history books, the company turned to a Twenties four-litre race car produced by the independent Sunbeam company called the Tiger – it was perfect. What wasn’t perfect, however, was Jensen’s approach to assembly. No sooner had the shells arrived at West Bromwich, than the line workers realised that – if the car was to meet its production targets – a revision to the bulkhead was unavoidable.
Speaking to Graham Robson, Jensen worker Roy Axe remembers a large gentleman with a sledgehammer stepping into the engine bay and smacking the bulkhead to make for an easier fit.
But the Tiger wasn’t out of the woods yet. With the Rootes Group suffering financial woes, America’s third largest car maker Chrysler had begun a takeover bid in an effort to get a foothold in Europe. The fact that Rootes latest model used an engine supplied by one of Chrysler’s rivals was lost on no-one – not even the tea boy.
A TRANQUIL END
Despite positive press reaction, the Tiger failed to live up to its man-eater title, but it was a pleasant enough little sports car – well-engineered and easy to drive (as long as you were under six-foot, that is).
Perhaps it was the lack of gusto that kept sales small – it certainly failed to give rivals like the Austin-Healey 3000 a run for its money. By 1966, Tiger sales stood at 1,826, compared to 5,494 for the Healey – perhaps an unfair comparison given the Healey’s established place in the market, but a mountain Rootes needed to climb if it wanted to shift units. There were other factors at play, however. By this point, Chrysler had a firm hand in the running of Rootes and, with little or no interest in the car, refused to put any money in the pot to market and promote the Ford-engined soft top.
The issue of the engine just wouldn’t go away – this time it was to do with supply. Ford’s 4.2-litre (260cu.in) V8 was now obsolete, replaced by a more powerful 4.7-litre (289cu.in) unit. More power meant even more stress on the already overwhelmed Tiger, forcing the company to consider fitting a host of upgrades, including an auto ’box, four-wheel disc brakes, 14in wheels, De Dion rear suspension and radial tyres.
Now the Tiger really was in trouble. Pressure was already mounting for a restyle to help it stand out from the Alpine. This, plus any mechanical upgrades, were bound to push up the already high cost of the car.
In 1967, two things happened. First, the Tiger II was launched as little more than a re-engined Mk IA with a different grille and larger price tag ($3842). This, by the way, compared to $2698 dollars for the boggo six-cylinder ’Stang – for an extra $200 you could have a V8 and that was before you visited the sweet shop that was the options catalogue.
The other thing that happened was that Rootes placed a suspiciously low order for Ford’s 289cu.in engine. Perhaps the bean counters been warned that Chrysler wanted to wield the axe. Sure enough, by the time Chrysler completed its takeover of Rootes in 1967, the order went out that Tiger production would end when the current stock of Ford engines ran out.
That was how the Tiger became extinct – not with a bang, but with a whimper.
I BOUGHT ONE!
Grantham based gardener and tree surgeon John Welham, 56, found his Mk IA Tiger in 2003 via the owners’ club. Back then, it was just a bodyshell and a box of bits so it was shipped off to the Sunbeam Spares Company for a new lease of life.
Doing it this way meant that John could build the car to his desired colour and specification. Gone was the original red finish and the car was resprayed in Commodore Blue (an authentic colour available for the Tiger II).
As you’ve probably spotted, it’s also sitting on 14in Minilite alloys. Under the hood, the Ford Autolite carb is replaced by a Holley four-barrel, a bigger aluminium radiator and Kenlowe fan, plus a stainless steel exhaust system.‘I’d originally thought about buying an MGA and went over to Sherwood Restorations to drive one, but it just didn’t do it for me. Then they showed me a Tiger and I took out for a test drive. That was it – I was hooked.’
1966 Sunbeam Tiger Mk IA
ENGINE: 4261cc V8 OHV
GEARBOX: 4sp man
POWER: 164bhp at 4400rpm
TORQUE: 258lb-ft at 2200rpm
PERFORMANCE: 9.5secs 0-60mph/118mph top speed
LENGTH: 158.2in (4018mm)
WIDTH: 60.5in (1537mm)
WEIGHT: 2644lb (1200kg)
Gone are the days of finding a ropey Tiger for £8k. Prices are now heading north – and fast. If you find a good one for £16k then snap it up because the very best ones are fetching more than £20k.
NEED TO KNOW
Sunbeam Tiger Owners’ Club, 01207 508296
Sunbeam Spares Company, 01207 581025
Sunbeam Supreme, 0116 2742525
Sunbeam Classic Spares, 01332 850856
Dave Herning Motorsport, 0208 501 3680
THINKING OF BUYING ONE?
The Ford V8 is massively unstressed and needs just an oil change every 3000 miles to keep it in fine fettle. Although spark plugs get neglected because they’re tricky to reach.
Despite all that power and torque, the gearboxes are renowned for their strength. But listen out for a clonk as you drive off – a sure sign that the universal joints on the propshaft are ready for replacement. Reverse difficult to grab? That’s probably down to a worn linkage – budget £250 for repair. And check the clutch doesn’t slip – otherwise you’ll be £650 lighter.
There are horror stories of the Panhard rod being ripped from its mountings under full power so check that a) it’s still attached, and b) it’s in good nick. While you’re down there, check the rear spring hangers for rust. And so we turn to the body. Check for rotten sills – all three layers – rot around the headlamps, windscreen base, rear arches, boot floor and floorpans.
Published in the September 2011 issue of Classic Car Mart.
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