Sunbeam Tiger Mk1, Mk2 – Grab a tiger by its tail
Most sports car buyers like hairy cars to look tough too, which is why the V8 Sunbeam Tiger is still undervalued – for now
Misunderstood, undervalued, too subtle for its own good, yet enormous fun to drive. That’s the Sunbeam Tiger in a nutshell. But the car that made the Tiger’s creation possible is also its biggest downfall – because it looks just like the Alpine on which it was based. That has always made the Tiger hard to sell as something special – but drive one and you quickly discover that’s exactly what it is. You get real sports car performance from the same Ford V8 engines used in AC Cobras, but for Austin-Healey 3000 money rather than the price of a Cobra. And the Tiger is more comfortable and easier to drive than the ‘Healey.
The similarity between Tiger and Alpine bothered US importers from the start. They thought the car lacked the style and distinction needed to justify its $3499 price tag, even though it was $800 cheaper than a Lotus Elan. Because of their intervention stainless steel side strips were added at the last minute, but they along with badges and a second exhaust pipe are the only visual clues to the Tiger’s identity, and without them it would have been even more the Q-car that Lord Rootes insisted on.
But Lord Rootes had nothing to do with the Tiger’s concept. The credit for that goes to lan Garrad, Rootes’ US West Coast manager and son of Norman Garrad, who had formed Rootes’ competitions department in the Fifties. Garrad Junior set the Tiger project in motion, after a proposal from F1 driver Jack Brabham, whose tuning business was already making Alpines go faster. Hoping to land a contract for the work, he talked to Rootes about dropping the latest Ford V8 engine into the Alpine. ‘We had the manpower and know-how,’ Brabham said. ‘Rootes was listening, but seemed embarrassed at the idea of an American engine in one of its cars.
Word got to Ian Garrad, who spoke to his street rodding friend Doane Spencer of Hollywood Sports Cars about fitting Alpines with a Buick/Oldsmobile (later Rover) aluminium 3.5-litre V8. Spencer knew the engines well. ‘Forget them,’ he told Garrad. ‘They’re bigger than the car itself. Use a Ford unit.’
Thus in February 1963 the seed was sown and Garrad called his boss in New York, John Panks, who saw the potential and flew out for further meetings. One of the first was over dinner with Carroll Shelby, who had recently pulled the same trick to create the AC Shelby Cobra. By the end of the week Garrad and Panks were with Ken Miles, Shelby’s chief development engineer and test driver, chalking out dimensions on the floor of Shelby’s workshop in Venice, Los Angeles.
One of the Rootes brothers, Brian, agreed the project could be funded from the local Rootes advertising budget. Shelby accepted the deal for a $10,000 fee plus commission on any cars sold, and said the prototype would be ready in eight weeks. But Garrad didn’t want to wait eight weeks and asked Miles if he could perform a quick engine transplant in his own small workshop. Miles said yes – for just $600 – and produced the first prototype in a week while working on the official version during the day.
Based on a Series II Alpine, the Miles prototype was powered by a 260ci (4260cc) V8 with a two-speed automatic gearbox. The car revealed all sorts of problems with cooling, axle tramp and weight distribution. Switching from a steering box to MG-sourced rack-and-pinion set-up – which also appeared on the Shelby car – allowed the engine to be moved back, improving the car enormously. By the time Shelby’s ca: was ready the Miles prototype had already racked up 5000 miles on California!: roads and proved that Garrad’s theory could be turned into reality.
The Miles car may have been first, but the Shelby car was better and also had a manual gearbox. This would be the car used to sell the idea to Lord Rootes. Still mindful of costs, the wife of a Rootes regional manager drove it from Los Angeles to New York where it was loaded on to a banana boat bound for England. Garrad flew over and collected the car from Southampton for a nervous drive to Coventry for the crucial decision.
As it turned out Lord Rootes was so impressed after driving the car that he personally called Henry Ford – not easy as he was on a yacht in the Bahamas – to arrange to buy Ford V8s for the project. It also hadn’t escaped his notice that Ford motors would make the car easy to service in its main US marketplace. All the new car needed now was a name.
‘Thunderbolt’ was considered, but another manufacturer had registered the name, and it was John Panks who suggested naming the car after Sir Henry Segrave’s 1925 Sunbeam Tiger that took the world land speed record at 152.33mph.
Garrad returned to America, leaving the car to be developed for production. Rootes had neither the capacity to build it nor the experience to produce whatitconsideredalow-volume ‘special’. But just up the road in West Bromwich was a company that had been doing just that with its own cars and Austin-Healeys for some time, and did have spare capacity: Jensen. Work started there in earnest in September 1963. Initially this meant strengthening and modifying the bodyshells so that the Ford V8 would fit. Struts were also added to brace the inner wings to the bulkhead.
By December 2 Jensen had a prototype not only on the road but heading for Europe for an extended test in France, Italy and Spain. This car differed from production examples in several ways, including being based on the big-finned Series III Alpine bodyshell. Later prototypes and production Tiger Mkls used the Series IV body introduced in January 1964 with cut-down tail fins. It also used a Borg-Warner TIO gearbox – to reduce the risk of an engine blow-up by lowering revs at speed and to aid high-speed cooling – and a 3.07:1 ratio rear axle, which was changed for a 2.88:1 ratio and (after the first 56 cars) a Ford four- speed gearbox. Cooling would always be a Tiger problem and still regularly crops up in club magazines and online forums.
Other differences between Tigers and Alpines included using the redundant holes for the latter’s Burma n steering box – replaced by rack- and-pinion in the Tiger – for attaching cast iron brackets for the V8 engine mounts. To aid weight distribution the battery was moved from under the occasional rearseat to a well in the boot. The spare wheel was moved from an upright position against the rear seat to lay flat on the boot floor. The radiator was much larger and was given a separate header tank mounted on the inner wing. All this added 196kg (4331b), but the Tiger had more than enough power to handle it without noticing. Surprisingly, a key feature that remained unchanged was the brakes: other than the spec of the front pad linings, the Alpine’s front disc/rear drum set-up was considered adequate for the Tiger.
Early signs were encouraging: tests at MIRA showed the 164bhp version of the V8 supplied by Ford produced a 0-60mph time of 8.6sec, faster than a ‘Healey 3000 and not far short of an Aston Martin DB5. Dealers would certainly have something to shout about, and they didn’t have long to wait – by April 1964 Jensen’s eighth prototype was deemed fit for public consumption and debuted at the New York International Auto Show. This was fitting because Rootes had decided all early production cars would go to the US and Canada. Here concerns that the car was too Alpine-like soon faded when the majority of the £4.5million in orders Rootes took at the New York show were for Tigers.
British motorists finally got to see the car at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1964, where its £1445 price tag was right in the middle of the £1000 gap between MGB and Jaguar E-type prices. UK sales didn’t start until after the car’s official launch on March 4, 1965: ‘Sunbeam unleash the Tiger’, said the ads. ‘It is a bit pricey – but what a lot of fun it can give’, said Basil Cardew in the Daily Express.
Enthusiasts received the car well and the editors of Autocar and Autospurl, Maurice Smith and Gregor Grant, each bought a Tiger Mkl. Later both were well enough placed to snap up one of the few right-hand drive Mkl Is that made it on to the UK market. In fact the Mkll featured here is the car owned by Gregor Grant from 1967 until his death in 1970. Current owner John Day, a founder-member of the Sunbeam Tiger Owners Club, took on the car in 1976 in exchange for a works rally Tiger that had proved impractical as a road car. Day did a lot of sprints and hill climbs in this car before a growing awareness of its rarity and significance prompted him to restore it back to standard.
Rootes was working on a Mkll even before the MkT’s UK launch. Development engineers had plenty of ideas for improving the car when Ford announced it was ending production of the 260ci V8. Handily, the 289ci (4736cc) unit that replaced it proved happier to rev, noticeably improved performance, yet barely suffered any increase in petrol consumption. But otherideasthat worked wellon prototypes – including all-round disc brakes, independent rear suspension and 14in wheels – were canned to keep down costs. They would have made the car almost as expensive as an E-type and Rootes knew it couldn’t compete on that level – the Tiger’s US success was largely due to its competitive price.
Before leaving the Mkl, let’s clear up the mystery of the Tiger Mkl A. This is often assumed to be a model change, but its introduction merely signifies Rootes’ introduction on August 9, 1965 of computerised chassis numbering, which changed the first four digits of Tiger chassis codes from B947 to B382. Few changes were made to the cars apart from soft-top stowage, but Mkls built after that date became Mkl As.
As well as a different engine, changes introduced for the Mkll included a wider-ratio gearbox, oil cooler, eggbox grille and stainless steel wheelarch trims, and the side trim was lowered to sill level. It doesn’t sound a lot, but the engine made the Tiger considerably nippier, and the visual changes at last set it apart from the Alpine. Another departure from the Mkl was that the Mkll used the Alpine Series V bodyshell,with squared rather than rounded corners to the door, bonnet and boot panels.
The first Mkll was built on December 23, 1966 and all early production was again destined for the US market. But while Britain waited, a big problem rolled in from America. In January 1967 Chrysler, which had built up a stake in the loss-making Rootes Group, increased its holding and took control of the company. In May it appointed its own managing director, Gilbert Hunt. Clearly Chrysler couldn’t continue to sell a product containing a deadly rival’s engine, but its own small-block V8 wouldn’t fit satisfactorily. The Tiger’s extinction was inevitable. Chrysler designers sketched ideas for a replacement, but mass-market models were the order of the day, so nothing came of their proposals.
The last Tiger Mkll was built on June 27, 1967, but not before a few right-hand drive examples had been released into the British market. Six went to the Metropolitan Police, which had already bought four MklAs to replace Daimler Darts as motorway traffic pursuit cars. These were all white and carried no police markings, just a single spotlamp and a Winkworth bell on the front bumper. There were only four other true UK production cars, plus six left-hand drive export models rescued from a dockside and converted to right-hand drive by Rootes dealer Hartwells. Advertised at £1500 each, five sold immediately and Alan Hartwell kept the sixth. ‘I wanted to sell them as quickly as possible,’ he said. ‘But on reflection I think I probably sold them too cheaply.’
Only about 6550 Mkl and 536 Mklls were built, but finding a Tiger today is not as hard as you might think. Almost 4000 – including all ten original UK-market Mklls – survive, a remarkable number for a mid-priced Sixties sports car built with zero rust-proofing. On the downside, Tiger ownership tends to be long-term, so there arc rarely many on the market.
Drive one and you quickly understand why a Tiger would be hard to part with. Driving Shaun Banks’ Mkl and John Day’s Mkll back-to- back leaves an indelible mark. Even on the smaller-engined Mkl the power delivery is addictive, with acceleration coming in a solid rush that doesn’t fade until you pass 100mph. Drop a gear or two and the Tiger is a devastating overtaker. All this is performed to a powerful snarl that helps the Tiger live up to its name.
Good points don’t stop with the engine: the ride is sporty enough to feel right but forgiving enough for comfortable long-distance cruising. The clutch is smooth if heavy, the steering smooth and light with direct feeling coming from a good rack-and-pinion set-up – feel that helps the car remain controllable and predictable even when you start to explore how easy it is to kick the tail out under power and steer on the throttle. It’s naughty but nice, fun not frightening, and almost ludicrously simple to control.
Tigers were criticised for their handling in the early days, but remember they left the factory on crossply tyres: improvements in modern radials have rendered most complaints redundant. The brakes aren’t brilliant, though. Adequate at best, you can see why Rootes’ engineers were keen to uprate them and why doing so is popular today. A common upgrade, fitted to the Mkll here, uses 12in vented front discs. They’re good enough to change the way you drive the car, giving you confidence that it will always stop quickly, though wilh even more of a dip of the nose than the Mkl. And that’s despite uprated suspension, which makes the car even more laut, but not uncomfortable. The engine has also been uprated to 270bhp Mustang tune. Engine mods are common with Tigers because they’re so cheap and easy. Don’t worry, the chassis still copes admirably, and the Mkll has the popular option of a limited-slip differential to tame the extra power – though it will leave two long stripes of rubber on the road without much provocation.
For decades Tigers had an almost underground following, which kept prices down. When Cobra values headed for the stratosphere Tigers stayed sane and only crept up. But that’s changed in the last year or so and for a usable Mkl you can now expect to pay £20k-30k, and cars with show potential or interesting history can command more. Even project Mkls are now hard to find for less than £10k. Nice Mklls can cost £30k-40k for a left-hand drive car or right-hand drive conversion. Really special Mklls have changed hands in the last year for up to £60k. Anyone selling an original UK car can write their own ticket.
When buying, first establish a car is a Tiger and not a converted Alpine. Most survivors have been documented by the Tiger Register, so if in doubt contact the Sunbeam Tiger Owners Club for advice. Some Tigers have been rebodied with good Alpine bodyshells during restoration. If done well, only an expert can tell the difference, but such a car will never have the same value as one retaining a properly repaired original bodyshell. Modified or different engines – Ford’s 302ci (4949cc) V8 is popular – have less effect on value, and uprated brakes and suspension are welcomed rather than criticised. Rust is the Tiger’s worst enemy, but you also need to check the quality of any repair work.
I came to Tigers merely intrigued about the effect of dropping a V8, hot rod style, into an Alpine. I left wanting to own one, and it wouldn’t have to be a MkII.