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Sunbeam Rapier

Sunbeam Rapier Published: 31st Jan 2020 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Sunbeam Rapier
Sunbeam Rapier
Sunbeam Rapier
Sunbeam Rapier
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It beat the Capri to the coupé market in the late 1960s yet few thought that the Sunbeam Rapier was sharp enough to warrant promising themselves one like the more popular Ford. And more’s the pity…

As coincidences go, it was questionable. Roy Axe, the designer of Rootes’ products, claims he took no cues from the Plymouth Barracuda coupé when he designed the last Sunbeam Rapier despite the fact that parent company to both – the American Chrysler Corporation – would have dictated proceedings.

Whatever, the Rapier definitely needed restyling. Before the 1964 take over, Rootes’ ranges were still all 50’s fins and things and – Imp apart – sorely out of step with the swinging 60s. The new ‘Arrow’ range consisting of Minx and Hunter saloons were a step in the right direction although they looked very much like the new Mk2 Ford Cortina, including the mechanical layout. Launched almost simultaneously in October 1966, it lead some cynics to suggest industrial espionage although who copied who was in doubt – but you can’t accuse either companies of such antics when it came to their coupés!

The Series VI Rapier was essentially based on the Hillman Hunter, not the saloon but the estate to help give it a longer look although, unlike previous ranges, there was now no convertible, which was a shame as it would have suited the shape well. The Rapier was a very good looker in its day, a sharp silhouette helped by those side windows which could be fully wound down – very American and great in hot weather as road tests remarked at the time.

It’s as well to remember that, in their day, Rootes was respected for its quality and engineering which was perceived above Ford and Vauxhall levels.

Hillman aside, the upmarket middle England Singer, and Sunbeam brands were for those who aspired to a Rover or Triumph some day. Consequently, the Rapier came with only one, well appointed and tasteful trim level which featured an adjustable steering wheel reach.

Powering this frisky fastback was the engine first seen in the Alpine sports car, a 1725cc ‘four’ equipped with an alloy cylinder head (and sump) fed by twin carbs to yield a healthy enough 88bhp, which was on par with a Cortina GT at the time. Its standard overdrive was in effect a six-speed gearbox, another point in the Rapier’s favour over a Capri.

With a launch price of £1200, some £60 dearer than the very similar but more luxurious new Humber Sceptre saloon, the Rapier – along with its Imp coupé called Stiletto – had the market much to itself until the Capri came along in January 1969 and pulled the rug right from underneath Rootes being cheaper, faster and available in a much wider range. Rootes aimed the Rapier at a select clientele where as Ford – using lessons learned from the Mustang – made its Cortina in a party frock open to everybody who had the money offering a handful of engines, from 1.3 to 2-litre, and an ocean of trim packs and accessories. But even before the Ford launch Sunbeam made a sharper Rapier called the H120 which should have stolen some of the Blue Oval’s forthcoming thunder.

Bred out of the 1968 London- Sydney Marathon winning Hunter, its engine was developed by Holbay of Suffolk who was no stranger to making quality competition engines. In the H120 Rapier, the 1725cc unit delivered a claimed 105bhp and sure looked the part with its polished rocker cover and twin Weber DCOEs sticking out loud and proud – very Lotus Ford like. The rest of the car was suitably beefed up including the transmission and even the stub axles were duly strengthened to cope, so it was a pretty thorough engineering job all told.

Externally, the cosmetic make over involved Ro-style wheels, some quite restrained go faster stripes and a novel ducktail boot lid for supposed aerodynamic advantages. ‘H’ stood for Holbay and ’120’ should have stood for 120bhp – but it didn’t.

Yes, the Rapier engine could be coaxed to that fi gure but the result was something that was totally intractable and unsuited for road use, so the tune was toned down, to the point where, when you add the H120’s higher gearing over the regular Rapier, real world pace wasn’t signifi cantly greater. According to renowned Alpine and Tiger tuner Chris Draycott, the H120 unit was a “waste of time” but you see many H120 engines were fitted to older Alpines…

Alpine not at its peak

As the 1970s got into gear, Rootes finally realised that it needed a Rapier to compete with the plain Capri 1600 XL buyer and so reintroduced the Alpine name that was dropped along with the sports car in 1968. However, this Alpine wasn’t such a peak performer as it was merely a Rapier body propped up by Hillman Hunter/ Singer Vogue running gear. Inside, it lacked the nice Rapier touches, including the dash layout, although it did inherit the controversial at the time high-backed sports seats first seen in the Hillman (Minx) GT.

In the wake of a cluster of coupés originating from Vauxhall (Firenza), Morris (Marina), Opel (Manta) and Toyota’s Celica, the Rapier and Alpine received scant development thereafter, chiefly because Rootes, now known as Chrysler UK, was so cash strapped that some Hillmans even went back to dynamos instead of having alternators. The Rapier’s end came in 1976 just as Chrysler was revamping the Avenger and Hunter ranges after 46,046 versions were made in total, although both names were later used, the Rapier talisman to highlight a special edition Chrysler Alpine hatchback, for example.

The Sunbeam’s biggest downfall was its old fashioned character. Although the sharp styling suggested otherwise, Rapiers come over all staid and fuddy-duddy compared to Ford’s Capri which enjoyed a much sportier feel despite their design similarities. In a Capri you’d wear a rally jacket and jeans; in the Sunbeam you feel a sports jacket and tie far more appropriate. Goodwood here we come…

Part of the family

David Sutherland is the custodian of this May 1968 Rapier which has been in the same family from new. He purchased it from a relative in 1976, just as production ended, and remains totally original having never been restored and is naturally a keeper. “Having overdrive and servo assisted front disc brakes make it a very comfortable car to drive on modern roads and motorways,” says David.

Why we love them

Good taste, that best sums the Rapier up. Never a cutting edge design even for 1967, it’s not the sharpest of GTs so it won’t appeal to boy racers of any age. Rather the satisfaction and gratification comes from the Sunbeam’s leisurely cruising gait once up to speed and flicked into overdrive.

The pillar-less side windows help give the interior a particularly airy feel and the Sunbeam feels more solid and of a better quality than a rival Ford or Vauxhall. Then there’s the Barracuda-inspired styling which was always well proportioned and tasteful.

See one in the flesh today and you’ll appreciate their overall lack of fussiness. Now the Sunbeam’s rarity and cracking value is perhaps the biggest head turner with asking prices a good half of what decent Capris change hands for – if you can find one that is. Which would you rather have on the drive?



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