The Sunbeam Tiger is a factory V-8-swapped version of the Rootes Group’s Sunbeam Alpine roadster, built from 1964-1967 by Jensen Motorcars and powered by the Ford Windsor V-8. The Sunbeam Alpine, built from 1959-1968, was the typical British auto manufacturer’s attempt to sell sports cars to American customers, but the underpowered and aging architecture of its 75-hp 1.5-liter inline-four engine made higher-performance and cheaper sports cars from Triumph and MG more attractive options.
Lack of motivating force aside, the Sunbeam Alpine was a refined and capable little roadster. Standard front disc brakes, leather-and-wood-trimmed interior, and a folding convertible top that stowed beneath integrated covers were all luxurious touches that helped the Alpine stand out among its competitors, but it was the industry-first wind-up side windows that really set it apart from other British roadsters. Personal luxury wasn’t enough to move units in the performance-driven American car market during the escalation of the horsepower wars, however, and Rootes Group lacked the resources to develop their own high-performance engine.
Initially, Rootes Group reached out to Ferrari about collaborating on a high-output four-cylinder engine, knowing a “Powered by Ferrari” badge would dramatically increase the performance credibility of the Alpine, but Ferrari declined. That’s when Formula 1 driver Jack Brabham approached Rootes competition manager Norman Garrad about using Ford’s new 260ci Windsor V-8 to power a factory hot-rod version of the Alpine.
Sunbeam Tiger Development: Carroll Shelby’s Other British Roadster
Garrad was intrigued, and relayed the idea to his son, Ian, who was Rootes’ West Coast sales manager for its American subsidiary. At that time, in 1962, Carroll Shelby was already making a name for himself as a sports car manufacturer, and proving the viability of the new Ford small-block V-8 in a performance car with the Shelby Cobra. Ian reached out to Shelby about developing a prototype Windsor V-8-powered Alpine, and Shelby agreed to develop the car, dubbed “Thunderbolt,” for $10,000.
Lord William Rootes (owner and founder of Rootes Group) had to see and drive the Thunderbolt prototype himself before signing off on the venture, and had the car shipped across the Atlantic after Phil Remington and Shelby’s Venice, California crew were done with their modifications. The prototype was approved and Lord Rootes fast-tracked the program so that they could unveil Sunbeam’s new high-performance roadster at the New York Motor Show in April 1964. As a tribute to Sunbeam’s 1925 land speed record-holding racer, the V-8-powered roadster was renamed “Tiger” before the debut.
It may have seemed counterintuitive for Carroll Shelby to take on development of the Sunbeam Tiger—it is technically a direct competitor to the Shelby Cobra—but Carroll was the ultimate salesman and was always looking for ways to increase his bottom line. Ultimately, Jensen Motorcars would be awarded the contract to build the Sunbeam Tiger (after concluding production of the Volvo P1800), but Carroll Shelby received a royalty fee for every Tiger produced.
Sunbeam Tiger vs. Shelby Cobra: Discerning Taste or All-Out Performance
The two British roadsters weren’t in as direct a competition as it may seem. Shelby Cobras are famously high-strung performance machines. They’re loud, they’re hot—their only purpose is to drive fast, and they can’t do much else very well. Sunbeam’s approach with the Alpine and Tiger was to provide a more luxurious motoring experience, filling the performance and luxury gaps from competitors in both Europe and America.
To compare, the 289-powered Shelby Cobra had a retail price of around $6,000 in 1964, and an MGB could be had for as little as $2,700; the Sunbeam Tiger Mark 1 slotted in between at $3,500. With more performance on tap than its European four-cylinder-powered rivals and a much more relaxed and luxurious driving experience than its American counterparts, the Sunbeam Tiger was a sales success for the Rootes Group.
Still, the model was ultimately doomed. In 1967, Chrysler Corporation, looking to increase British market share, purchased controlling shares of Rootes Group and killed production of the Sunbeam Tiger, with only 7,083 examples built over three distinct models. Part of the reason Ford’s Windsor V-8 was chosen for the Sunbeam Tiger was its forward-mounted distributor. Packaging in the Tiger’s engine compartment is so tight that the left-side spark plugs have to be changed from inside the car, through an access panel in the firewall.
When Chysler took control of the Rootes Group, its new LA small-block V-8 with its rear-mounted distributor was too large to fit under the Tiger’s bonnet. For the last months of Tiger production, Chrysler removed the Ford badge and replaced it with a Pentastar logo, then discontinued the Tiger when Rootes had exhausted its supply of Ford V-8s purchased before the Chrysler take-over.
Sunbeam Tiger Mark I, Mark IA, or Mark II—What’s the Difference?
In four years of production there were three distinct models of Sunbeam Tiger produced: Mark I, Mark IA, and Mark II. They were distinguished mostly by cosmetic changes, the biggest mechanical difference between Marks I and IA and Mark II being engine size. Marks I and IA Tigers were powered by the 260ci version of the Windsor V-8, but Mark II’s received the 289ci Windsor, decreasing 0-60 time by almost one second (from 8.6 to 7.5) and increasing top speed two miles per hour (from 120 to 122).
Mark I and Mark IA Tigers have some engine differences—the 260ci Windsor in the Mark I didn’t like revving past 5,000 rpm, and received new valve springs with the introduction of the Mark IA—but the main differences come from the evolution of the Sunbeam Alpine. Tigers were based on the Series IV and Series V Alpines, using most of the same running gear, with updates to the suspension and driveline aft of the engine.
Series IV and Series V Alpines can most easily be differentiated by the sheet metal stampings. Mark I Tigers are based on the Series IV Alpine, with rounded corners on the doors and on the boot and bonnet lids (British for trunk and hood). Mark IA and Mark II Tigers are based on Series V Alpines and can be further differentiated from the later Mark I/Series IV cars by the lack of eggcrate grilles and vinyl speed stripes running down the car laterally, above the sills.
Unrestored 1965 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I: the Savvy Collector’s Choice
Only 633 Mark II Tigers were produced, making them the rarest of the breed, but that doesn’t mean Mark I and IA Tigers are easy to come by. In total, only 7,083 Tigers were built—small potatoes when compared to the nearly 70,000 Sunbeam Alpines constructed. The unrestored Mark I seen here is rarer still; Sunbeam Tigers were never a sports car of concession, and Rootes wanted Tiger buyers to have their performance and enjoy their luxury too, meaning many Tigers were modified right away.
Carroll Shelby had a hand in increasing the performance capability of the Tiger post-sale, developing Rootes’ factory catalog of hop-up parts known as Los Angeles Tiger (LAT) options. This Mark I still has its original LAT wheels and Tiger Paw Redline tires, and has been labeled as one of the definitive examples of an original model by Hagerty. Muscle Cars Magazine featured this car in the September 1993 issue, and at that time the red Mark I Tiger only had 25,000 miles on the odometer. In the nearly 30 years since that feature was written, the Tiger has only racked up another 3,000 miles, making it possibly the most original Sunbeam Tiger Mark I in the world—and it’s on the auction block at the Mecum Auctions event in Orlando on July 8, 2022.
HOT ROD Technical Editor Johnny Hunkins was on staff at Muscle Cars Magazine in 1993 when this red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I was featured, and happily snapped a couple pictures of the magazine for us to include here. Photo by Johnny Hunkins.
A real Shelby Cobra can’t be had for less than $1,000,000 these days, with the rarest models going for 5-10 times that price (or more!). A Sunbeam Tiger Mark II isn’t affordable anymore, either, with concours-quality examples changing hands for $140,000-160,000. By contrast, a solid-running Mark I Tiger can be found for around $40,000, and the best-quality Sunbeam Alpines top-out at that level. Will this Sunbeam Tiger Mark I set a new benchmark for collectible British sports cars? Tune in to the Mecum Auctions event in Orlando to see what happens.
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