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Sunbeam Tiger

Sunbeam Tiger Published: 16th Jun 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Sunbeam Tiger

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Any properly sorted car
  • Worst model: Anything bodged
  • Budget buy: If only!
  • OK for unleaded?: No – unleaded valve seats need to be fitted
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): 3962mm x 1537mm
  • Spares situation: Generally excellent
  • DIY ease?: Some things are fiddly
  • Club support: Superb
  • Appreciating asset?: Very much so
  • Good buy or good-bye?: As much fun as any Cobra, at a fraction of the price
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The ultimate classic Q-car that’s fairly easy to run and maintain, rare and much admired big-engined Sunbeam Alpine now costs more than a Big Healey to buy

Q-cars are nothing new. While they’re more popular than ever in the 21st century, the trend started several decades ago – and the Sunbeam Tiger is proof of this. Take one Alpine Series IV, a car styled as innocuously as an MGB, then shoehorn a snarling 260cu in (4.2-litre) V8 powerplant into its nose. Change the old steering box for a sharper rack and pinion, add a tougher Salisbury rear axle along with a Panhard rod to the rear suspension – and voila; a cut-price Cobra alternative is born.

The Tiger has gone on to become a legend, but before Rootes took the Shelby route it considered all sorts of alternatives. Knowing a halo model was required for the US market, Rootes had explored the possibility of fitting the Alpine with the Humber Hawk’s 2.3-litre engine, a twin-cam 1.6-litre Alfa Romeo unit, the iconic V8 from the Daimler SP250 (thank Jack Brabham for that one-ed) and even a Ferrari-sourced 1.9-litre V6. All of these came to nothing, but thanks to Rootes’ US West Coast sales manager Ian Garrad a solution was found. And what a solution it would prove to be…

Cut-price Cobra it may well bem but Tigers don’t come cheap and in the 50th year since its demise what remains of this rare breed are highly valued and deservedly so.

History

1959 The Sunbeam Alpine goes on sale, with a 1494cc version of the Rapier engine, four-speed manual gearbox and Layock overdrive housed in a Hillman Husky van-derived chassis!

1963 Independently of Rootes UK, Rootes’ US West Coast manager Ian Garrad had worked out that the Sunbeam Alpine was too lacklustre for the American market, where buyers wanted something with a V8 engine. It didn’t have to be all that quick but a four-cylinder sports car didn’t have the right image. The turning point came at the Riverside Grand Prix in October 1962. Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss were sharing an Alpine which came third and after the race the two drivers and Garrad started to discuss the Alpine’s lack of go. That’s when the twice F1 World Champ suggested squeezing in a V8, so Garrad asked his service manager, Walter McKenzie, to look into the options.

Visiting new-car showrooms in the Los Angeles area, McKenzie, armed with a tape measure established the dimensions of the various V8 engines on the market as well as the engine bay sizes of the various V8-powered cars.

Having weighed up all of the options McKenzie came to the conclusion that there was only one V8 that would fit the Alpine’s tight engine bay; the Ford 260ci unit first seen in 1962 in the Fairlane in 221ci form, good for just over 160bhp, a fair output back then. Light and comp act it would be the perfect power unit for the hot Alpine.

Best of all, with the Carroll Shelbydeveloped AC Cobra making waves in sports car racing by this point, Garrad knew exactly who should engineer the high-performance Alpine – not least of all because Shelby’s base was just a few minutes from Garrad’s. Shelby accepted the project (which would be named Thunderbolt) and within a month Shelby had a prototype ready. Thanks to the relatively small amount of re-engineering involved in the metamorphosis from Alpine to Tiger – changes were required to the steering, bulkhead, transmission and rear axle – the production car was developed in just nine months.

The steering rack came from an MGA, a four-speed manual T10 Borg-Warner gearbox was fitted, and that first car retained the single-pipe exhaust along with the Alpine’s disc wheels.

Intriguingly, while Shelby charged $10,000 to build the first prototype and he wanted a month in which to do it, Rootes (and Ford GT40) driver Ken Miles was also asked to create something. For just $800 and within a week he’d come up with his own prototype which was fitted with a two-speed automatic transmission and it also retained the Burman steering box. As a result the engine had to sit too far forward which made his car nose-heavy, which didn’t do the handling any favours. Both prototypes still survive.

1964 Tiger (the name used in honour of Sir Henry Segrave’s Land Speed record Sunbeam) makes its début at the New York Auto Show in April, then just two months later West Mids-based Jensen begins serious production of the car. These first examples are available to US buyers only – the Tiger won’t reach Britain until the following year. From the outset the Tiger was developed for export only (and specifically the American market), as Jensen, which is contracted to build the cars, did not possess the capacity to meet early demand. Ironically, just as the Tiger was born, its death certificate was already being written because Chrysler bought into the ailing Rootes UK group…

1965 The Tiger goes on sale in the UK, with right-hand drive. Other than the steering wheel being on the opposite side, the UK-market Tiger is identical to the models sold across the Atlantic.

1967 Although Tiger proved an immediate success, the writing was already on the wall. Chrysler, having taken a controlling stake in the Rootes Group three years earlier, bought the outfit outright and the American company certainly didn’t want a rival’s engine under the bonnet!

A MkII version was marketed briefly in 1967, again for export only; just 10 or 11 right-hand drive cars were officially built.

This second derivative featured a 289 cu in (4727cc) engine pushing out 200bhp; top speed rose to 125mph but the plug was pulled in June with just 6467 MkIs and 533 MkIIs being built, the last rolling out of the factory on 27th of that month, just weeks before Sunbeam’s nemesis (MG and Triumph) announced their six-cylinder MGC and TR5 respectively.

Driving and press comments

When Motor first tested a Tiger in 1965 the motoring landscape was largely taken up by cars that struggled to exceed 80mph, with acceleration to match.

So it was no surprise that the test team were rather taken by this V8-powered sports car that – care of double the Alpine’s power and treble its torque – could manage 115mph along with 0-60mph in a then excellent 9.4 seconds, with a fabulous soundtrack to match.

The review began: “The first point to establish is that the Tiger is not just an Alpine with a V8 shoehorned in, but a separate car in its own right. The changes are many, all enabling the extra power to be used safely and reliably, and the newcomer need not encroach upon the market for the more stately touring Alpine”.

Of course, the Tiger was little more than an Alpine with a V8 transplant. The review continued: “Considering the inherent limitations of the suspension design – a leaf-sprung rear axle with no additional location – the roadholding is outstanding. On good roads the throttle can be used to advantage in a completely controllable fashion, be the surface wet or dry, either to provoke the tail for amusement or to generate the ultimate cornering power.

“On bad roads the ride gets choppy, the steering kicks and the body shakes but it still holds the road and goes where you point it”.

When Sporting Motorist tried out the Tiger, they found it very easy to drive: “For lazy motoring in light traffic conditions, it is easy to start in bottom gear and go straight to top at around 20mph. Full use of the ratios gives a useful 50mph in bottom gear, 70 in second and nearly 100mph in third, so clearly the box is designed to make use of the car’s potential: period road tests had Tiger pouncing to 60 in under eight seconds and is also exceptionally silent when doing so.

“Braking is well up to the Tiger’s potential although signs of fading were detected after the hardest use we could apply. The system is the same as the Alpine’s using 9.8-inch discs at the front and 9-inch drums at the rear, and a booster has been added. Spring and shock absorber rates have been altered to stiffen the suspension and a Panhard rod keeps the back axle fairly subdued when the power is applied. The changes have had very little adverse effect on comfort, at least for British roads. The whole car gives a confidenceinspiring impression of tautness and robustness that belies its hybrid origins.”

Overall, the Tiger was well received because the Alpine was such a good base to make such a conversion on.

Values and marketplace

Ever since the Tiger met its untimely demise, demand has exceeded supply. In the past few years prices have spiralled and there is no such thing as a cheap Sunbeam Tiger any more. Chris Draycott (01332 850856, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)), has been restoring, racing, maintaining and upgrading these cars for more than 30 years and he currently owns two Tigers. Says Chris: “Even a complete basket case sells for £25,000; I’ve seen bodyshells with trees growing through them sell for over £10,000. However, there are still usable cars that can be picked up for little more than £40,000, although for something really nice you can expect to pay closer to £70,000. The ceiling is £100,000 for something in superb restored condition. If you’re lucky enough to find a superb right-hand drive MkII you’d probably have to pay £100,000 to secure it but these cars very rarely come up for sale. When any Tiger is sold it’s usually through word of mouth”.

Daycott continues: “Considering a Tiger’s value relative to an Alpine you don’t tend to get fake Tigers because everything is easily traced; the owners’ club can help here, as the engine, bodyshell, gearbox and back axle all have serial numbers. Where people get it wrong is by rebuilding a Tiger around an Alpine bodyshell. Done correctly this is no problem, but the right parts must be used and this is where some restorations can be poor. With cars as old as these it’s inevitable that many will have a chequered history with some major replacement parts, which is why a good Tiger will always sell quickly”.

Although the US Tiger market is buoyant, cars are still being brought back into the UK, where they’re generally being converted to right-hand drive.

While getting the correct steering racks is now hard, it’s possible to fit an MGA or Midget rack or even a modified Aston Martin part. With new dashboards available, fresh looms and various other Tiger-specific components, conversions can still be done relatively easily and cost-effectively.

Predictably, right-hand drive cars carry a premium – and even more so if it’s a genuine UK car.

Improvements

A Tiger in completely original condition is perfectly usable; the brakes are fine, the cooling works as it should and there shouldn’t be any running issues.

However, it still drives like a 50 year old car which is why some owners prefer to fit stronger brakes. There are various options here; four-pot callipers are available (for £640 for an axle set) and you can also opt for ventilated discs up front. There are lots of options here including Brembo, Hi-Spec and Wilwood; you’ll need to fit 15-inch wheels to clear some of the bigger kits though. Some find their unassisted steering rather heavy; it’s possible to fit an MX-5 power-assisted system or if you just want more direct steering you can fit a normal rack that will improve your Tiger’s agility.

A well-maintained cooling system should work fine but for peace of mind it’s probably worth fitting a high-gain core and electric fan, so if you’re stuck in traffic on a hot day your engine will keep its cool. On this note, there should be a stainless steel spring in the bottom radiator hose to stop it getting kinked. This spring often goes missing leading to the coolant flow being restricted then the engine overheats – so check this vital spring is there.

Want more power? Being a Ford V8, there’s no shortage of tuning gear; in the US Sunbeam dealers offered Los Angeles Tuning (LAT) bits coaxing almost 100bhp more to 250bhp. Finally, if you’re going to drive your Tiger on track, it’s worth removing the Panhard rod. This tries to push the rear axle out of the side of the car under heavy cornering and with it removed you’ll find the car more enjoyable to drive in extremis.

Paper tiger?

The Alpine never hit the heights as a sports car, unlike the rival MG and Triumphs, but that doesn’t mean to say that you can’t a give birth to a nice Tiger cub out of one and for a fraction of Tiger tokens. According to Sunbeam expert Chris Draycott, who helped with this feature, he has seen 200bhp+ on his racing engines and says 140bhp is attainable for reliable road use with the later 1725cc engine. Don’t assume that the Alpine unit is the same as those fitted to the Rapier or Hillman Hunter because the sports car’s camshaft was unique to that model but Draycottt claims that 98 per cent of today’s Alpine engines are not running on the special ‘298’ camshaft anymore! On the face of it the best bangs for your bucks must surely come from slotting in the hallowed Holbay tune engine, as found in the Rapier H120 and Hunter GLS? Not so, according to Chris Draycott, who says that engine (of which many are housed into Alpines) is a “waste of time” because it was poorly conceived. Originally, 120bhp was extracted (hence the H120 name) by this famous Suffolk engine tuner. However in such a high tuned state, it was badly behaved on the road and so power had to be clipped back to just 95bhp – something a normal Alpine engine can easily achieve and with less fuss says Draycott.

What To Look For

General

 

  • The Tiger’s electrical system is straightforward, but age and heat takes its toll on connections and some of the components. A new loom is £234 and fitting it is simple, so if the original wiring has suffered any damage it’s worth just taking out the whole lot and starting again.
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  • The original trim uses the same design as the contemporary Alpine but with higher-quality materials; good quality repro trim is available and it’s not expensive. Consequently, it’s easy enough retrimming a car from scratch, including fitting a new hood. Hard tops are also available – at a price. Because the rear corners are rust-prone, decent original ones are scarce, which is why you’ll have to pay £1000-£1500 for a restored item.

Body and chassis

 

  • A lack of factory-applied rust protection takes its toll, although the bodyshell is strong and most cars have now been restored. Key areas to check, and those most likely to rot, are the sills. These are essential to the car’s strength, so make sure all three layers of the sill are present. Without taking the car to pieces that’s not possible, so if work has been done ask for photographic evidence.
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  • The problem starts when the caulk seal bridging the gap between the front wing and inner wheel arch drops out, allowing water in; it gets into the leading edge of the sills and works its way to the back, wreaking havoc along the way.
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  • If the vendor claims the car you’re looking at is original, a possible give-away is whether the sills are curved to match the convex profile of the body line. Cheap replacement panels are straight and won’t look right. Also check there’s a step in the splash panel at the back of the front inner wheelarch; if the panel is smooth it’s just a cover panel that’s almost certainly masking something nasty.
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  • To check the integrity of the sills, jack the car up on the forward spring hanger to the rear of the door, then see if the rear door gaps open up. If they do, the structure of the car is weak.
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  • Next check for rust around the headlamps, along the base of the windscreen and at the back of the engine bay as well as under the master cylinders. The bottom edges of the doors are rot-prone, and the doors drop through worn hinges. The front edge and the underside are the most common rot spots; if the door has been reskinned make sure the rubber seal is there and that the profile of the whole door is correct.
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  • Check the base of the wings which should have a drain hole visible; if it’s not there, poor repairs have been effected at some point.
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  • Also inspect the inner rear wheelarches and open the boot to inspect the rear corners of the boot floor – while you’re there make sure the trailing edge of the bootlid isn’t riddled with rot.
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  • Floorpans can corrode badly, so make sure you lift the carpets in the front footwells to see what state the sheet metal is in. The area around the accelerator pedal is especially rot-prone and try rocking the seats – they may be mounted on crumbling metal, just like the handbrake which is mounted to the right of the driver’s seat. While you’re inside the car take a look at the mountings for the seat belts.

Engine

 

  • Ford supplied its small-block V8 in its lowest state of tune for the Tiger, so there’s little to worry about unless it’s been badly neglected. Thanks to the Tiger’s lightness the V8 is unstressed; it was prone to overheating with its original cooling system, but cars fitted with the original radiator are few and far between as they’ve generally been uprated by now.
  • n It’s the same with the carburation; the original Ford Autolite wasn’t up to the job of feeding such a big powerplant, which is why most owners have replaced it with a Carter or Holley on an alloy manifold.

     

  • Because parts for the 4.2-litre unit are getting hard to find, some owners fit a 4.7-litre (289cu in) or even 5.0-litre (302cu in) unit; they’re a straight swap as they’re all from the same small-block family and components for these bigger powerplants are much easier to track down.
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  • All it takes to keep the V8 trouble-free is an oil change every 3000 miles. It’s unlikely you’ll find a neglected Tiger, but because the spark plugs at the back of the engine are so awkward to get to, they’re sometimes left in long after they should have been replaced. One of these has to be changed from within the car, via an access panel in the bulkhead.

Running gear

 

  • Despite the sporty nature of the Tiger, its fourspeed gearbox is more or less bomb-proof – although the rest of the transmission doesn’t last forever. If the car has been driven hard the universal joints in the propshaft will be ready for replacement. Listen out for clonks as the drive is taken up, signalling replacements are due.
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  • If reverse is difficult to select it’s because the gear linkage has worn (around £250 to repair). Also make sure the clutch isn’t slipping from too many emergency starts; a new one costs from £650.
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  • Fitting a modern Ford five-speed gearbox is fairly popular; it raises the gearing from 24mph/1000rpm in top to 37mph/1000rpm – but it’s a pricey job at close to £8000 all in and the car’s value won’t go up accordingly.
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  • The Tiger’s suspension is primitive, and it struggles to contain the car under full power. If the car has been driven really hard there’s a chance the Panhard rod will have been torn from its mountings, so check its condition; it’s an easy £300 repair though.
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  • While the Alpine was fitted with a steering box, the Tiger has a rack-and-pinion set up for greater precision. Although there’s a lot of weight over the front wheels, the rack doesn’t wear rapidly unless it’s neglected. The tyres get scrubbed though, accentuating the poor turning circle, so check their condition.
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  • With discs at the front and drums at the rear, the servo-assisted braking system is up to the job – even though it’s the same as the Alpine’s. The set up is completely conventional, and aside from the usual checks for leaks and seizures there’s nothing to be wary of.
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  • The Tiger looks great on wire wheels, but the original 13x4.5J design was too fragile to cope with the torque levels – which is why alloy wheels are such a popular fitment and simply for vanity.

Three Of A Kind

AC Cobra (and replicas)
AC Cobra (and replicas)
The sports car that launched a thousand copies, 1960s built Cobras are now out of reach for most buyers but the MkIV is far more accessible. However, there’s a multitude of replicas available, most of which are far more affordable than the real thing and many of which are built to at least as high a standard.
Jaguar E-Type
Jaguar E-Type
It may not have a V8 engine, so it doesn’t have the fabulous soundtrack that the Tiger does, but what the Jaguar lacks in aural excitement it makes up for with modern-day performance. You’ll be doing well to find a decent E-type for much less than twice as much as an equivalent Tiger though, so prepare to dig deep.
TVR Chimaera and Griffith
TVR Chimaera and Griffith
Unlike the Tiger the TVR is no Q-car, but it’s more affordable, has a spine-tingling soundtrack and it’s also a lot faster. Power comes from a Rover V8 so there’s plenty of expertise available to keep things ticking over and the club scene is pretty much unbeatable. Plus, buy a good one and watch it soar in value.

Verdict

The Tiger has never been more sought after than it is now, with values reflecting this. The result is that dogs are few and far between, but it also means that Tigers are often bought as an investment rather than for the driving pleasure they provide. However, the active owners’ club contains plenty of owners who use their cars fully.

While you’ll need deep pockets to buy one, they’re still far cheaper than genuine Cobras and while these hot Sunbeams have a well-deserved reputation for being bit of a handful, Tigers are also pussycats when touring and nicer than any Big Healey. So before prices really soar best get your paws on a Coventry Cobra now.



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