There are some combinations that just work, and the Sunbeam Tiger proves this. The Sunbeam Tiger is a melancholy example of this. “Why so sad?” you may ask. It’s sad because it was killed by Chrysler, who simply refused to develop an engine for it, and had no suitable engines that would fit, and refused even more to have the car run with the engine of a competitor.
But this was way in the future of the Tiger. It started off in 1964, and it was not long after Rootes (or the Rootes Group) felt it needed more power to be able to compete in the international market, and set out in discussions with Ferrari to redevelop the 4 pot setup it called an engine. Talks went well, but ultimately failed. The idea seemed very nice at the time to have a “Powered by Ferrari” sticker some where, but lets face facts. An old British roadster (prone to rust and electrical issues) run my an Italian power plant (unreliable, temperamental) would most likely break down the second it left the factory floor.
Jack Brabham (racing driver and F1 champion) proposed an idea to Norman Garrad, the competition manager of the time, to fit an Alpine car with a Ford V8. This idea was relayed later on to Ian Garrad, the son of Norman, which coincidentally lived very close to legendary car designer and builder, Carol Shelby.
According to journalist William Caroll after measuring the Sunbeam’s engine bay with a “a ‘precision’ instrument of questionable antecedents” – a wooden yardstick, it was agreed than a Ford V8 “should” fit. Ian dispatched his troops to local new car dealers, to look for a Ford that had what they were looking for.
They found it. The heart that would be used was the Ford 260 V8. Ian asked Shelby for a cost and time frame to build a prototype, and was told it would take 8 weeks and cost $10,000.
Ian was impatient, and wanted to see if this conversion would be feasible, and commissioned another racing driver and fabricator, Ken Miles to build a concept. The difference was that Miles was told he should build one as fast as he could, he had a budget of only $800, a complete car, and engine. Ken Miles built the prototype in a week, proving the concept.
Carol Shelby finished his prototype dubbed “the white car” in May 1963. When this early version was tested by Ian and John Panks, the director of Rootes Motors Inc. of North America, Panks liked it so much that in a letter to Brian Rootes, head of sales. It went something like this; “we have a tremendously exciting sports car which handles extremely well and has a performance equivalent to an XX-K Jaguar … it is quite apparent that we have a most successful experiment that can now be developed into a production car.”
There was one tiny problem. All Rootes products had to be approved by Big Boss Lord Rootes, whom it is said was a “very grumpy” when he found out about this Anglo-American abomination. He agreed to have the Shelby prototype shipped to him.
He was so impressed by the car that he contacted Henry Ford II to negatotiate a deal for the supply of the Ford V8 engines.
The Tiger was built by Jensen in 1964, less than a year after the initial prototype built by Shelby. This was quick, seeing that Alpine usually had a cycle of 4 years from idea to production.
Some unusual manufacturing techniques were used when it came to fitting the engine to the already painted bodies. One of the methods used involved a sledgehammer to bash in parts of the painted bulkhead for the engine to be slid in to place.
This is where the Sunbeam Tiger shone. The MK1 had a “mildly tuned” Ford 4.3l V8 making roughly 164bhp. it was able to run from 0-100km/h in 8.6 seconds. With the introduction of the MK2, which looked exactly the same, except for some minor cosmetic changes, dropped this to run from 0-100km/h in just 7.5 seconds. The top speed is said to be 196km/h
What made this car even better to it’s rivals back in he day was the weight distribution. It was almost 50/50.
By the time the MK2 came to be, Chrysler was firmly in charge of the Rootes Group, who faced financial difficulties due to strikes and the launch of the Hillman Imp.
Chrysler would stop production of the Tiger, as soon as the “Stock ran out”, but did a homage to the Sunbeam in 1972 by building a very rare car. It was called the Chrysler Avenger Tiger.
In the end, only about 7500 units (give or take 200) were ever built. They were mainly sold in the USA, but we also had the option of buying one, at a very steep price (back then) for R3380!
Image source: topspeed.com