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Sunbeam Lotus

Published: 9th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Sunbeam Lotus

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Fancy owning a motorsport legend? Paul Davies looks at true classics that made their names on rally stages and race tracks, and still provide fine drives today

November 19th, 1980, was a big day for Britain’s Rootes Group, by then reduced to a minor player within France’s Peugeot- Talbot organisation. Reliving motor sport glory days of the late fifties and sixties, the company was on top of motor sport again, bagging a famous outright victory on the Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain. The car was the Sunbeam Lotus, a triumph of competition requirements over marketing sensibilities, and the driver the young Finnish hot-shoe, Henri Toivonen. The following year the car would take the manufacturer to overall victory in the World Rally Championship, a year later it would be no more. Through the seventies the Ford Escort was the car to beat. Both Vauxhall and Chrysler (then owners of Rootes) had aspirations to knock the blue oval from the podium – the Chevette HS failed, the Sunbeam Lotus succeeded. Both cars had similar births. Des O’Dell was Chrysler’s Bill Blydenstein, the former Aston Martin and GT40 engineer convincing his superiors the marriage of the Lotus twin camshaft power unit, supplied for the Jensen Healey sports car, with the small Sunbeam hatchback was a winner. With 150bhp from its 16-valve, 2.2-litres, all alloy, engine driving the rear wheels, the Sunbeam Lotus was an homologation special with potential. In rally tune, with 240bhp, it was a match for its rivals, and after winning both the Arctic Rally (Toivonen) and Mille Pistes (Guy Frequelin) the scene was set for the Lombard. Henri’s victory did not surprise Des (he’d already spotted the Finns potential) but third place for Frequelin and fourth for privateer Russell Brookes pushed the parameters of even O’Dell’s well known enthusiasm. A win in Argentina and high places on other WRC events knocked up enough points for (by then) Talbot to beat Datsun and Ford to the 1981 Manufacturers championship; Frequelin was second in the Drivers category (to Ari Vatanen), Toivonen was seventh. But by then Audi’s Quattro was getting into its stride, Frequelin’s co-driver Jean Todt was team manager, and the Peugeot 205T16 was being developed. Unlike Vauxhall’s struggle to make 400 Chevettes to qualify for Group 4, Talbot had no problems meeting Group 2 requirements (1000 units) and before production ceased the combined efforts of Linwood (body/chassis), Hethel (engine/gearbox), and Coventry (finishing), had put over 2000 cars on the road. If you can get one, it’s a great drive – but, despite the efforts of the Sunbeam Lotus Owners Club, you’re just as likely to see a Chevette on the road nowadays. The Sunbeam Lotus was the last gasp effort for a once-proud manufacturer. From Rootes, to Chrysler, to Peugeot Talbot, motor sport glory passed from Britain to France, Des O’Dell retired (to himself pass away in 1999), Jean Todt masterminded WRC success for the 205T16 before moving to Ferrari. And Henri Toivonen - the man who first steered the Sunbeam Lotus to the top – died a fiery crash in Corsica in 1986 before he could achieve the champion status he deserved.

Sunbeam Lotus Summary


1979-1981: 2308


Engine: Lotus manufactured, all alloy, four cylinder, in-line with twin overhead camshafts, 16-valves. 2 x Dell O’rto carbs, 2174cc
Power: 150bhp (road); 240bhp (rally)
Gearbox: ZF five-speed
Drive: rear wheels
Suspension: front struts and coil springs, rear live axle, coil springs
Brakes: disc front, drum rear
Steering: rack and pinion

Claim to fame

Winner 1980 RAC Rally (last two-wheel drive victory), Winner WRC Manufacturers 1981 (1st Argentine, 2nd Portugal, France, Brazil, Italy; 3rd Great Britain)

Famous names

Andrew Cowan, Henri Toivonen (youngest RAC winner), Guy Frequelin, Tony Pond, Jean-Pierre Nicolas, Russell Brookes, Stig Blomqvist, Jean Todt and Paul White (co-drivers), Adrian Seabridge (BHRC), Joss Ronchetti (Classic Modified Saloons)

Where to buy

Hard to find. Ads in Classic Cars for Sale and other publications. Join the Sunbeam Lotus Owners Club

What to look for

Rust in wheel arches, wings and sills. Engines require regular maintenance (cam belts need changing at regular intervals), check for oil leaks and excessive smoke on start up. Oil pressure can be low (5psi) at idle but should reach 35psi at 3500rpm and 45psi at 6500rpm. Gearbox may crunch when cold, but should be smooth once running temp is reached. Check rear axle is Lotus and not a standard Sunbeam replacement. Chassis numbers should start R4DCY or T4DCY. Speedo should be calibrated to 140mph

What to pay

Decent cars start from around £5000. It all depends upon condition, if you find one!


Sunbeam Lotus Owners Club:

Classic sport

It was a rally winner back in the ‘80’s, so why not again? The car is eligible for Category 3 (1975-81) of the British Historic Rally Championship and could be a front runner, but hard to beat the latest Escorts and Porsches. The car is also a class winner in the Classic Modified Saloons race championship

Maintenance, tuning and sport

Rally engines can make 240bhp on 48mm carbs. Second-hand parts available through owners club

Competitive Rating: 7

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