July 1, 2006

To understand the Sunbeam Tiger, you need some understanding of the Sunbeam Alpine sports car. From 1959 to 1968, The Rootes Group, a family-owned British company, produced the two-seat Alpine, on which the Tiger is based. It has been written elsewhere that automobiles produced by The Rootes Group were never much on character, let alone sportiness. They were more about practical transportation. The Sunbeam Talbot automobile, produced by The Rootes Group, was a good example, although they were fiercely reliable automobiles with a good reputation.

The Alpine was something of a renaissance for The Rootes Group. A burning ember within the company named Norman Garrad was responsible for bringing the car to market. Garrad had a passion for racing, and inspired Lord William Rootes, chairman of the company, to get involved in rally.competition just after World War II. Although the Sunbeam Talbot was underpowered, it performed well at the hands of some of England's best drivers. With experience and success in rally competition, The Rootes Group became more interested in producing a two-seat sports car. Rootes would call the two-seat sports car "Alpine," named for the successful Alpine Rally Team. The '53 Alpine was little more than a two-seat Talbot with a shorter wheelbase.

The two-seat Alpine sold remarkably well, despite its humble Talbot platform. This demonstrated to Rootes there was a ready sports car market. Rootes saw great marketing potential in the American automotive marketplace where virtually no sports cars existed. This inspired Rootes to develop a totally new Alpine sports car. Developing a new Alpine wound up being a formidable task involving a team of stylists and engineers. Most of the credit goes to Jeff Crompton and Ken Howes, stylists who designed the new finned Alpine. Because the Alpine's success was so important to Rootes, it was among the first automobiles tested in a wind tunnel.

Economics prohibited development of a new Alpine platform, though. The Alpine would be built on an existing platform Rootes already had in its Hillman Husky two-door automobile-much like the Falcon platform-based, sporty Mustang years later. The engine and driveline were borrowed from the smaller Minx/Rapier-series sports car-a modest 79-horse,1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with Zenith carburetion. Worm and sector steering worked hand in hand with front coil and rear elliptical leaf suspension. There was nothing revolutionary about the Alpine's engine and chassis, but it worked.

Though you may laugh at the Alpine's features based on what we consider today's standards, it was leading edge when it was introduced in 1958. Extra-wide doors made it easier to get in and out. Roll-up windows were unique to the Alpine-other sports cars didn't have them at the time. The Alpine also had front disc brakes, considered state-of-the-art then. Ultimately, the Alpine became a successful British rally car that even went to Le Mans at the skillful hands of extraordinary world-class drivers.

The Alpine always came up short in terms of power throughout its nine-year production life. There were efforts to get more power in the car, none very successful for Rootes. Rootes looked at the 1.6-liter Alfa Romeo four and the Daimler 2.5-liter V-8 for the Alpine.

Neither engine would fit the platform without substantial modifications, which was unacceptable to Rootes. A quick study of Ford's new small-block V-8 stimulated imaginations in England.

This leads us to Los Angeles long about the time Carroll Shelby was developing the Cobra in the early '60s. Norman Garrad's son, Ian, was the West Coast manager for The Rootes Group in the United States. He couldn't help but notice all the attention Carroll Shelby's Cobra was getting. The Cobra, to be blunt, was nothing more than a reengined British sports car. Garrad knew the Alpine could be just as successful given the power of a V-8. He investigated engine options in the American marketplace. There was Chevrolet's time-proven, small-block, V-8 and Ford's new small-block Fairlane V-8. Anything else would be a poor fit for the petite Alpine. GM was unwilling to provide engines for anything that would take a bite out of Corvette sales. This left Ford as the source for Alpine V-8 engines.