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.

Garrad, along with John Panks, director of Rootes Group America, looked to Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles for help engineering the Alpine into a fresh V-8 persona. This happened in 1963. Extensive engineering efforts followed in both Los Angeles and in England. In England, Rootes code-named the V-8 Alpine effort "Thunderbolt," and went to work with Jenson, which had built a number of Chrysler-powered sports cars. By the time the car was ready for mass production, it was renamed "Tiger." Although it's easy to assume the Tiger was direct competition for the Cobra, it was anything but. The Tiger was priced at $2,295, a smoking deal for anyone looking for a two-seat V-8 sports car. Cobras were priced around $6,000, and had more advanced engineering.

Although it is widely assumed Sunbeam Tigers were all assembled in the United States, exactly the opposite was true. They were mass-produced at the Rootes factory in England and shipped to locations all over the world. Sunbeam ordered 3,000 260ci small-block Fords and began producing those first Mk1 Tigers in 1964. The Tiger success story grew into the Mk1A for 1965, with 289 power beneath the bonnet. The LAT (Los Angeles Tiger) package made these nimble little Brits even more appealing with a Shelby-inspired tuning kit that included a hot mechanical cam, a dual-point distributor, an Edelbrock F4B manifold, and more, yielding 245 hp at six grand on the tach. This is likely why some folks assume these cars were assembled in Los Angeles.

As Tigers roared out of Britain across the Atlantic, they left their mark on American motorsports in so many ways. Enthusiasts road raced and drag raced them. Buyers eager to drop the top loved them. With all this interest came a better Tiger, the Mk2, with the larger 289 V-8. Tiger production ended in 1967 when Chrysler acquired The Rootes Group. Because Chrysler couldn't come up with a suitable V-8 for the Tiger, it decided to terminate production entirely. Alpine production ended a year later with falling sales.

This history primer is important because it leads us to Lynn and Shaunna Wall of Park City, Utah, who have a solid appreciation for the Rootes heritage. Lynn found this '67 Mk1A in a garage in California, the apparent victim of a fire. It was hauled to Utah by Lynn's father, where it sat for three years. When Lynn hauled it out of storage, he went for broke, stripping the car completely down to the shell. The car was chemically dipped and stripped to make the metal pure, which gave Lynn a clean slate on which to apply his talents. The '67 is a textbook example of what a concours-restored Tiger should be.

Lynn applied some of his own personal touches, which made the car better, more fun to drive, and certainly a pleasure to see. That's not a Sunbeam color, but instead '92 Jeep Cherokee Colorado Red. Underneath are some nice chassis mods that make the car a thrill to drive.

It's easy to assume Lynn hauls this pristine example in an enclosed car trailer and dons the cooler and lawn chair. But his passionate affair with his Tiger is so much more than that. For one thing, it is never trailered. It is driven everywhere and detailed to perfection. What's more, Lynn autocrosses the car just about anytime the cones are set up. We watched him master the course in Utah, plowing into some unassuming cones at the course's end. He flew it into Reverse, cracked the throttle, and-red-faced-finished the course. He came back several times that afternoon, finishing the course a little better each time.

When Lynn set out to restore his Tiger Mk1A, his goal was a first-class restoration he wouldn't be afraid to drive. Follow him through an average Saturday afternoon in the summertime and you will find him at the wheel, scanning those Lucas instruments, grabbing the shifter, and cruising the gears. And that's what Rootes built these cars for to begin with 45 years ago.

The Details
67 Sunbeam Tiger Mk1A
Owners: Lynn and Shaunna Wall
Park City, UT

Engine
260ci 4V V-8
3.830-inch bore, 2.870-inch stroke
Nodular iron crank
Forged I-beam connecting rods
Forged pistons
Edelbrock Torker II intake manifold
465-cfm Holley 4160 carburetor
Los Angeles Tiger (LAT) dress-up kit
Crane flat-tappet hydraulic cam
Autolite dual-point distributor with PerTronix Ignitor
K&N air filter

Transmission
Top Loader four-speed

Rearend
Dana 44
2.88 Gears

Exhaust
CAT Club 1-1/2-inch headers with 3-inch collectors
Custom dual-exhaust system

Suspension
Front: Coil spring, drop spindles
Rear: Leaf spring
Rack-and-pinion steering

Brakes
Front: Stock disc
Rear: Stock drum

Wheels
Front: Panasports, 16-inch
Rear: Panasports, 16-inch

Tires
Front: Yokohama, P205/45R16
Rear: Yokohama, P205/45R16

Interior
Restored to stock
Simpson seatbelts
LeCarra steering wheel
Custom Autosound Secret Audio system

Exterior
Body chemically dipped and stripped
92 Jeep Cherokee Colorado Red basecoat/clearcoat

Titillating Tiger Facts

Production Numbers
Mk1 3,763 units
Mk1A2,706 units
Mk2536 units
Total7,085 units

  • All were produced in England at Rootes
  • Most were shipped to the West Coast (USA)
  • Very few were sold in England and Europe due to pricing concerns
  • LAT (Los Angeles Tiger) package pumped up the power to 245 hp with 289 Hi-Po-style modifications and dress-up kit
  • The Tiger was developed in the United States with the help of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles