1965 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I
The sunbeam tiger is a factory version replaced by the Rootes Group V-8 Sunbeam Alpine Roadster, built from 1964 to 1967 by Jensen Motorcars and powered by the Ford Windsor V-8. The Sunbeam Alpine, built from 1959 to 1968, was the British automaker’s typical attempt to sell sports cars to American customers, but the underpowered and aging architecture of its 1.5-litre inline-four engine 75 hp made sports more capable and less expensive. cars from Triumph and MG more attractive options.
Lack of motivation aside, the Sunbeam Alpine was a refined and capable little roadster. Standard front disc brakes, leather and wood-trimmed interior, and a folding soft top that stows under the built-in covers were all luxurious touches that helped the Alpine stand out from its competitors, but it was the industry’s first self-winding side windows. which really set it apart from other British roadsters. However, personal luxury was not enough to move units in the performance-oriented American automotive market during the escalating power wars, and the Rootes Group lacked the resources to develop its own high-performance engine.
Initially, Rootes Group approached Ferrari to collaborate on a high-output four-cylinder engine, knowing that a “Powered by Ferrari” badge would greatly increase the credibility of the Alpine’s performance, but Ferrari refused. It was then that Formula 1 driver Jack Brabham approached Norman Garrad, Rootes’ competition director, 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 passed the idea on to his son, Ian, who was Rootes’ West Coast Sales Manager for its US subsidiary. By this time in 1962, Carroll Shelby was already making a name for himself as a sports car builder and proving the viability of Ford’s new small-block V8 in a performance car with the Shelby Cobra. Ian approached Shelby to develop a V-8 Windsor-powered Alpine prototype, and Shelby agreed to develop the car, nicknamed “Thunderbolt”, for $10,000.
Lord William Rootes (owner and founder of the Rootes Group) had to see and drive the Thunderbolt prototype himself before signing the company, and had the car shipped across the Atlantic after Phil Remington and the crew of Shelby’s Venice, California have completed their modifications. The prototype was approved and Lord Rootes accelerated the program so they could unveil Sunbeam’s new high performance roadster at the New York Motor Show in April 1964. In tribute to Sunbeam’s 1925 land speed record racer , the V-8 – The engined roadster was renamed “Tiger” before its debut.
It may seem counterintuitive for Carroll Shelby to take on the development of the Sunbeam Tiger – it’s 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 for each Tiger produced.
Sunbeam Tiger vs. Shelby Cobra: Demanding Taste or Total Performance
The two British roadsters weren’t in as direct competition as it seems. Shelby Cobras are famous machines for their performance. 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 automotive experience, filling the performance and luxury gaps of competitors in 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 falls between the two at $3,500. With more performance on tap than its four-cylinder engined European rivals and a far more relaxed and luxurious driving experience than its American counterparts, the Sunbeam Tiger was a sales success for the Rootes Group.
Yet the model was ultimately doomed. In 1967, Chrysler Corporation, seeking to increase its UK market share, bought majority shares from the Rootes Group and killed production of the Sunbeam Tiger, with only 7,083 built across three separate models. Part of the reason Ford’s Windsor V-8 was chosen for the Sunbeam Tiger was its front-mounted distributor. The packing in the Tiger’s engine bay 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 over the Rootes Group, its new LA small-block V8 with its rear-mounted distributor was too big to fit under the Tiger’s hood. During the final months of Tiger production, Chrysler removed the Ford badging 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 takeover.
Sunbeam Tiger Mark I, Mark IA or Mark II: what’s the difference?
In four years of production, three distinct Sunbeam Tiger models were produced: Mark I, Mark IA and Mark II. They were primarily distinguished by cosmetic changes, with the biggest mechanical difference between the Mark I and IA and Mark II being engine size. The Mark I and IA Tigers were powered by the 260ci version of the Windsor V-8, but the Mark IIs received the 289ci Windsor, cutting the 0-60 time by almost a second (from 8.6 to 7.5 ) and increasing top speed by two miles per hour (from 120 to 122).
Mark I and Mark IA Tigers have a few engine differences – the 260ci Windsor in the Mark I didn’t like revving above 5000rpm and received new valve springs with the introduction of the Mark IA – but the main differences come from the evolution of the Alpine Sunbeam. The Tigers were based on the Series IV and Series V Alpines, using most of the same running gear, with updates to the suspension and drivetrain at the rear of the engine.
The Series IV and Series V Alpines are most easily distinguished by the sheet metal stampings. The 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 boot and bonnet). The Mark IA and Mark II Tigers are based on the V-Series Alpines and can be further differentiated from the later Mark I/Series IV cars by the lack of egg-crate grilles and vinyl speed stripes running laterally from the car, above the thresholds.
Unrestored 1965 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I: The Discerning 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 find. In total, only 7,083 Tigers were built – small potatoes compared to the nearly 70,000 Sunbeam Alpines built. The Mark I unrestored seen here is even rarer; The Sunbeam Tigers were never a dealership sports car, and Rootes wanted Tiger buyers to have their performance and enjoy their luxury too, meaning many Tigers were modified immediately.
Carroll Shelby helped increase the performance capability of the aftermarket Tiger, 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 Car Magazine featured this car in the September 1993 issue, and at that time the red Mark I Tiger had only 25,000 miles on the odometer. In the nearly 30 years since this article was written, the Tiger has only covered an additional 3,000 miles, making it perhaps the most original Sunbeam Tiger Mark I in the world – and it is up for auction at the Mecum Auctions event in Orlando in July. 8, 2022.
HOT ROD Tech Editor Johnny Hunkins was on the Muscle Cars Magazine staff in 1993 when this red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I was shown, and happily took some photos from 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 costing 5-10 times that price (or more!). A Sunbeam Tiger Mark II is no longer affordable either, with concours-grade examples changing hands for $140,000-160,000. In contrast, a solid Mark I Tiger can be found for around $40,000, and the best quality Sunbeam Alpines at this level. Does this Sunbeam Tiger Mark I set a new benchmark for vintage British sports cars? Tune in to the Mecum Auctions event in Orlando to see what’s going on.
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