The Sunbeam Tiger was an iconic sports car of the 1960s manufactured by the Rootes Group in Britain. It was built from 1964 to 1967 and was based on the Sunbeam Alpine roadster. The pretty Sunbeam Alpine was a sports car aimed at the likes of the MGB. With a 99bhp engine this was enough to compete against the MGB in the British market, but to compete in the US market would take a more powerful engine.
The Tiger Gets Its Stripes
Rootes initially contacted Ferrari in a bid to enhance the performance of the four cylinder engine. After the consultation, Ferrari went quiet. Carroll Shelby was contacted to see if he could work his magic in the same way he’d done with the AC Cobra.
Carroll Shelby and racing driver Ken Miles quickly built a prototype of the Tiger at Shelby American garage. The 1.7 litre four cylinder was replaced with the Ford Windsor “small block” V8. (Most Tiger’s have the 260 cubic inch engine, but in the final year of production got the 289 cubic inch version). The new engine was twice as powerful as that of the Alpine.
The engine bay of the Sunbeam was not large enough to house the V8 motor so it took some brute force and lateral thinking to make it work. The body shell and bulkhead had to be modified to fit the V8.
When Sir William Rootes was informed about the Tiger, he was angry not to have been involved from the outset. His sign off was required before any car went into production so the prototype was sent to England to receive its final approval.
From West Bromwich to New York
Once happy with the car Sir William contacted Henry Ford ll and ordered 3000 Ford V8s to fit to the upcoming Tiger. After some deliberation, it was decided that production should remain in Britain. This was sub contracted to the Jensen factory in West Bromwich.
The Sunbeam Tiger was launched at the New York Motor Show in 1964, just months after the prototype was finished and signed off.
Sunbeam Tiger Specification
The interior is almost identical to the Alpine with a four-speed manual transmission and a wood-rimmed steering wheel. The Tiger had a modern rack and pinion steering fitted in place of the Alpine’s recirculating ball steering. This made it easier to fit the engine and improved steering somewhat.
The new engine added 280 pounds of weight so suspension was changed accordingly. The Tiger never really lived up to its billing as a performance car. It was criticized for both handling and braking.
And yet, the Tiger is still a fixture in various racing events in America. It’s Anglo-American development earned it the title of “the poor mans AC Cobra”. It also accomplished some success on the circuit which boosted its popularity. The Tiger won two major races in 1965. It also finished second in the 200-mile Road America race.
After a few years of production, Chrysler acquired a majority stake in Rootes. The Sunbeam Tiger was discontinued, and Rootes sold its automotive properties to Chrysler. In addition to the automobiles, the company still had an interest in the chassis and bodies of the Sunbeam Alpine.
Around 7000 cars were built before production was ended. The Tiger is remembered fondly in the UK for being a successful cross Atlantic collaboration.
I'm fortunate enough to drive classic cars and speak with owners, designers and engineers. This has given me both inspiration and stories to share. I write stories that interest me, from the E-Type replacement that formed the basis of the Aston Martin DB7, to the missing Metro Cooper and the truth behind the Rover 220s nickname. In addition to attending car shows, track days and other informal automotive events for the last 20 years, I have planned & driven various road trips. I once drove to the Nurburgring and back in a day, went karting in Montenegro and also drove through the Florida keys in a Mustang GT. The blog is a passion project so any support is appreciated; whether that is by sharing on social media or buying me a coffee!