1965 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I
1965 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Powering sporty English cars with big American engines has long been a favourite activity of genteel hot-rodders. Some examples are 1930’s Hudson-powered Brough Superiors and Railtons.

After World War II, Sydney Allard installed Cadillac engines in a light classis and produced his blindingly-fast Allard J2s. And Donald Healey teamed up with Nash Motors to produce the beautiful Nash-Healey. Then in 1962 a California racer turned car builder named Carroll Shelby stuffed a Ford V-8 into the AC Ace, creating the AC Shelby Cobra.

The Rootes Group, producer of the Sunbeam Alpine, were interested observers. Their attractive Alpine sports car introduced in 1959, was based on the chassis of the utilitarian little Hillman Husky. But its 1.6 litre overhead valve Sunbeam Rapier four produced only moderate performance.

The idea for using American power for the Sunbeam Alpine came from Ian Garrad, the Rootes Group’s U.S. west coast distributor.

He was impressed with the performance of the Cobras, and discovered that other U.S. Rootes people shared his concern about the Alpine’s performance. A large American engine seemed like the answer.

But which one? The Alpine’s engine bay was made for a four, so finding an eight that would fit would not be easy. With Rootes’s blessing, the Americans began searching for a suitable V-8.

Fortunately, the Ford Motor Co. had just developed a new 3.6 litre (221 cu in.) overhead valve V-8 for their new intermediate Fairlane. It was the same basic powerplant that Shelby was putting in his Cobras.

Its outstanding feature was Ford’s thin-wall casting which produced the lightest V-8 in the industry. It was compact and had potential for enlargement, soon being increased to 4.2 litres (260 cu in.), and then to 4.7 (289).

Rough measurements indicated that the Fairlane V-8 would fit, but the real test was to try it. Late in 1962, Alpines were provided to both Carroll Shelby, and California racer and car builder Ken Miles, with orders to fit the V-8 into the Alpine.

Both succeeded, but Shelby located the engine farther back for better balance, and fitted MG rack and pinion steering and a strong Ford Galaxie rear axle. The Shelby car was chosen as the development prototype.

After American testing, the Alpine V-8 was shipped to the Rootes factory for assessment. The board of directors, including Lord William Rootes himself, approved. They decided to assemble the entire car in England, rather than have the engine installed in Shelby’s shop in California as originally planned.

Jensen Motors Ltd. of West Bromwich, Staffordshire, was contracted to do the job. By the spring of 1964 Jensen had conducted considerable testing, particularly in engine cooling, and had completed 11 prototypes. These were based on the latest Alpine Series IV, which had been redesigned to reduce the size of the original’s tail fins.

Named the Sunbeam Tiger, Rootes exhibited a prototype at the 1964 New York Auto Show. In spite of having little but wheel covers, striping and badges to distinguish it from the tamer Alpine, the Tiger was a success. Orders came in and production began in the summer of 1964.

The Tiger with the Ford 4.2 litre (260 cu in.) V-8 was praised by the motoring press. Road & Track (11/64) found it to be ” … a comfortable and refined sports/touring car. In 164 bhp (brake horsepower) form, the performance and handling of the car are just about ideal.”

They recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 7.8 seconds and a top speed of 190 km/h (118 mph), not as fast as the brutal Cobra, but still excellent.

For 1967 the 4.7 litre (289 cu in.) V-8 was fitted to the Tiger, now designated the Tiger II. It had a new eggcrate grille replacing the single horizontal bar.

In spite of its 200 horsepower the Tiger II wasn’t much faster; the problem was getting the power to the road through the small 5.90-13 tires. Road & Track (9/67) recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 7.5 seconds, and a top speed of 196 km/h (122 mph).

The Tiger was like a poor man’s Cobra, and was more comfortable to boot. Unfortunately, events in the boardroom were soon to disrupt activity on the shop floor.

About the time the Tiger was being launched, Rootes was being taken over by the Chrysler Corp. It was a little chagrined to find a Ford-engined car in its stable, and since Chrysler’s V-8s wouldn’t fit the Tiger, it was discontinued in 1967.

During its production run, 6495 of the 4.2 litre engined Tigers were produced from 1964 to 1966; only 571 of the 1967 4.7 Tiger IIs were made. The Sunbeam Tiger was a successful marrying of English sportiness and American power. It’s unfortunate that the demise of such a good affordable sports car was brought about by a corporate take-over.

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