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Sunbeam Rapier Vs Triumph Vitesse

British sense of sportsmanship Published: 29th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Triumph specialist Steve Travis of Triumph Nuts (http://www.triumphnuts. co.uk. Tel: 01928 788733) reckons that, mechanically, the Vitesse is bomb-proof, with all parts availableapart from some 1600 engine components. The problems are in the structure, particularly the chassis legs which rot around the differential bolts and the bulkhead around the body mountings. New chassis are not available but as it is shared with the Herald, obtaining used ones is no problem. He agrees that the peach of the range is the MK 2 and he currently has three excellent cars for sale.

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The ‘50s and ‘60s saw the birth of true badge engineering in Britain, under influence from the USA. Our own conglomerates, Rootes Group and BMC, climbed on the bandwagon and, particularly in the family car sector, were quick to take one of their basic vehicles and spin-off luxury and sporty versions. BMC had the Farina series, including the Austin A60, Morris Oxford, the luxurious Wolseley 16/60, plus the sporty MG Magnette and Riley 4/68. Rootes did the same with the Hillman Minx, luxury Singer Gazelle sporty and luxury Humber Sceptre and the raffi sh Sunbeam Rapier. All these faster versions were relyingon the racing and rally successes of their forebears to maintain the sporting profi le, despite being based on prosaic underpinnings. Triumph had launched the Herald in 1959, prior to the takeover of Standard- Triumph by Leyland Motors in 1961, and the Vitesse six-cylinder version followed and a wide grille. However, it was more for the poser than the enthusiast, owing to a column change and Hillman Minx handling, albeit with a little more powerand that standard overdrive for cruising on the Preston bypass and other anticipated motorways. Of course, today’s classic car enthusiasts can choose any age of Rapier or Vitesse but, by the time the Triumph was launched, the Rapier 111A was amuch better car than the original 1955 version, with 1592 cc instead of 1394cc and no less than 80bhp instead of 62.5bhp. It did make a difference! The Vitesse was very much the result of a sophisticated engineering approach. Its little sister, launched in 1959, was ground-breaking, with all-independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, a taxi-like turning circle, amazing access thanks to the one piece bonnet/wings and a high-quality, well-equipped interior. One of Michelotti’s best works, the design was right up to date and the car was a success with coupé, convertible in 1962, perhaps the fi rst example of a big engine in a small car. At this time, the Sunbeam Rapier, another two-door saloon with a reasonably powerful engine, was on its fourth generation, with the Series 111A boasting 10bhp more and a rally-winning background to support its sporting pretensions. The Rapier was fi rst launched in 1955 and was very closely based on the Hillman Minx but with two doors, a more elaborate fascia and a standard overdrive. Really it was the fi rst ‘Capri’. In their day, these models would have been termed ‘Sportsman’ cars for the enthusiast. Today they make interesting go-faster classics that are a cut above the usual family ferriers for the same money.

Which one to buy?

Americana or a good old British pedigree?

With its American infl uence, the fi rst Rapier was a head-turner, with forward-curved and estate versions to follow. The Vitesse was perhaps even better looking, with its Gordon-Keeble style front end and twin headlights. However, there was nothing sporting about the interior, or that swingaxle rear suspension with transverse-leaf spring which, if you were silly enough to lift off and decelerate mid corner, could have you in the ditch. On the other hand, the 1596cc six-cylinder engine was very sweet and smooth in use. Alas it’s hardly swift as the lump only yielded 70bhp. Yet that’s still enough to keep up with the slightly more powerful, but heavier, Rapier.

What’s the best to drive?

Rapier earns its scalp

The fi rst scalp must go to the Rapier, the handling of which is at least predictable, with a gradual, if rolly, oversteer, against the frightening behaviour of the original swing-axle Vitesse. There is no doubt that a well-driven Vitesse was the quicker car across country, but for the average driver the Rapier was safer and nicer. In 1966 Triumph unbelievably increased the engine size to a full-fat 2-litres, with an extra 25bhp, but failed to sort the rear suspension – merely increasing the speed at which you joined the landscape! Triumph also launched a convertible version, which the Rapier had offered since 1962. By now the Rapier was in Mk V form, with 1725 cc and 85bhp, but no match for the nippy Triumph 2000-engined Vitesse. The best Vitesse was the fi nal Mk2 version, launched in 1967, with 104bhp and properly located rear suspension which actually provided very decent handling. Overdrive, unlike with the Rapier, was not standard but essential for reasonably relaxed and far more frugal cruising. Another point in the Sunbeam’s favour was its automatic transmission option. By now the Rapier had changed altogether, with its Plymouth Barracudainspired styling and new Hillman Hunter underpinnings that were an improvement. This was probably no longer in Vitesse rear side windows, two-tone paintwork territory although there was an interesting development; the 105bhp Holbay-tuned H120 capable of 106mph and 0-60 in 11 seconds. Twin DCOE Webers, close-ratio gears a higher fi nal drive and even a tail spoiler certainly cut a dash at the time, but this model was now more aimed at big-engined Capris and Alfas.

 

Owning and running

Total Triumph

This round must go to the Vitesse because, while both cars rust for fun, at least the Vitesse, with its ladder frame construction and bolt-on panels, is much easier to repair. Also, because of the popularity of Triumph TRs, GT6s and even Triumph saloons, there is a much better parts back-up. Both offer convertibles and prices are very similar, with decent saloons with no work required running from £3000-£5000 and convertibles from £4500-£7500. Neither dropheads are particularly easy to get hold of but there are easily more Vitesses about at the moment.

And The Winner Is...

These are both extremely attractive cars and either would make an easy-to-cherish classic. There will be little difference in running costs, with similar insurance and tax exemption for all but the latest Hunter-based Sunbeam Rapiers. The Vitesse is easier to work on, but that won’t affect the cost, so the only issue is getting hold of parts for the Rapier. The original Rapier is a pretty car, although now ver y rare. So, from a practical point of view, a Series V is the Sunbeam to go for. The fi rst 1600 and 2000 Vitesses are best avoided because of that rear suspension which leaves the fabulous Mark 2 which is the BMW 130 Coupé or Audi S3 of its day and is particularly great in convertible form. With its overdrive, it will make a peppy, pleasing classic without breaking the bank. The Vitesse is therefore our pick, although a nice H120 is hard to resist.



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