16 September 2014

Sunbeam Tiger 50th Anniversary

A Cobra for the rest of us.

Fifty years ago, America’s Sunbeam dealers wanted a more powerful version of the smartly styled Alpine roadster, a car that had achieved some onscreen fame as James Bond’s ride in the first film of the franchise, “Dr. No,” in 1962.

But even Bond’s image couldn’t make up for the Alpine’s lack of performance. The Alpine could barely muster zero-to-60 mph in under 14 seconds. Triumph kept making its TR series sports cars quicker, and a turbocharged Corvair was faster, too. The Corvette was of course in a different league.

A clandestine effort within the American arm of the Rootes Group, Sunbeam’s parent company, got the ball rolling to inject some mechanical testosterone into the little roadster. Who better than Carroll Shelby to turn up the heat under the Alpine’s hood? If it worked for the AC Ace, the Alpine seemed a natural, too.

Shelby’s operation concocted a prototype using a Ford 260 cubic-inch small block V-8, just as it had done to make the Cobra. The Ford V-8 was a tight fit in the Alpine’s engine compartment, but the transplant was a success. The car was duly shipped to Britain for blessings from the Rootes board. Head honcho Lord William Rootes was reportedly all smiles after a test drive.

A deal was made with Ford to supply the 260 V-8 and 4-speed transmission. Shelby, however, lost out on the final assembly deal to Britain’s Jensen, which had just ended its contract building the P1800 sports coupe for Volvo. Shelby, ever the dealmaker, received a royalty for each car sold.

But what to call the speedy new bullet? Sunbeam wanted “Thunderbolt,” but Ford had just applied it to a limited run of Fairlane drag race cars. So Sunbeam reached into its own past and came up with “Tiger.” That certainly fit the roaring sports car, too.

The first Tiger, the Series I, used the Ford 260 with a 2-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts, getting a 164-hp rating. The transplant chopped down the zero-to-60 time to eight seconds, with the quarter-mile in about 16. That was within the range of a base-engine Corvette, which was about 500 pounds heavier and $500 pricier than the $3,500 Tiger.

Many Americans got their first glimpse of the Tiger as Maxwell Smart’s wheels in the popular “Get Smart” TV series. Take that, 007.

Braking and handling could have been better, but with the U.S. as the Tiger’s prime market, customers were more focused on squeezing more juice from the easily and inexpensively modified Ford V-8. In stock form, the Ford 260 was rated at 258 lb.-ft. of torque, easily triple that of the Alpine’s four-banger.

Turning up the wick probably wasn’t the best thing for the chassis, but that didn't stop Sunbeam dealers from eventually offering customers a whole catalog of speed parts, including an Edelbrock 4-barrel carburetor “Super Induction Kit,” a solid-lifter cam kit, headers, 2-inch dual exhausts, traction bars and more. These were known as the LAT options, for “Los Angeles Tiger.” Few Tigers stayed stock for long.

Even more power was on the way. In 1967, Sunbeam offered the Mk. II Tiger with a 200-hp Ford 289. Rear track bars, an oil cooler and larger clutch came with the bigger-cube engine. And so did something totally weird — a Chrysler pentastar badge!

Chrysler, in one of its numerous failed international dalliances, had by 1967 acquired a controlling interest in Rootes Group. The company had no interest in buying engines from Ford. “Powered by Ford” badges were replaced by “Sunbeam V-8.” Chrysler Corporation’s fine 273-cube V-8 wouldn't fit in the Ford’s place, so that was the end of the Tiger.

And what did the Chrysler-Rootes hookup give America? If you remember the 1971-1973 Plymouth Cricket, try to forget it.

Just under 7,100 Tigers were built over four years, with 633 of those Mk. II models. Recently, values have been shooting upward, a fine 50th anniversary present for lucky owners.

Ask the Man Who Owns One

Many in the auto industry know Bob Austin for his years leading Volvo Communications. Today, he’s executive director for the Rolls-Royce Owners Club based in Pennsylvania and with 7,500 members in 50 countries. And he has a Tiger.

“My first personal experience with a Tiger came in 1967 when a beautiful British Racing Green example turned up on campus in January in Milton, Wis.,” said Austin. “It looked hot, it had a hardtop and for 90 percent of that winter, it was going sideways!”

Austin admired the way its owner, an art major, kept the car mostly parallel to the road’s center line in Wisconsin’s snow. “Not only did this look like great fun, but it sounded fantastic. I had to have one.”

It took 30 years, but Austin bought a California Tiger from automotive journalist and radio show host Len Frank, who passed away in 1996. “He was a wonderful friend and mentor,” said Austin.

The car was 100 percent dismantled and on the opposite coast.

“That was more than 15 years ago, and I still do not have it done,” said Austin. “But, when I do, I hope I can demonstrate some of those skills at making forward progress while going sideways that makes driving a Tiger so special.”

30 Reader Comments

  • 1
    HolyCat United States September 17, 2014 at 17:01
    Once again, a gross error is perpetuated. There were only 536 Tiger Mk IIs produced. While the final one has a VIN ending in 633, 001 and 002 were pre-production cars. Regular production Tigers started with 100. Hence, only 536 were made, not 633. Otherwise, a nice article about this often overlooked car.
  • 2
    Richard clarkson New Jersey September 17, 2014 at 17:11
    50th anniversary of a Scottish car, on the eve of a vote for independence. Fitting. They will vote for Independence, unfortunately. The end of Empire for sure.
  • 3
    Ron Jones United States September 17, 2014 at 17:23
    Funny story but you could, at least, have had a Tiger owner that actually has 1 running. BTW, how about a spread on the Alpines.
  • 4
    Keith E. Deaton Kennewick, WA. September 17, 2014 at 17:40
    I had a standard 1967 Sunbeam convertible. No power, but fun. It was always breaking down and parts were hard to get and expensive. My Ex-Wife talked us into trading in our 1965 GTO. Dumb!!!! Wish I still had the GTO. She then traded in the Sunbeam for a 1968 red Mustang convertible that I still have. I don't have her anymore. LOL
  • 5
    Murray Mitchell Georgetown, Texas September 17, 2014 at 17:54
    There is nothing wrong with the Cricket, in fact in Hillman Avenger 'Tiger' form it was a very potent vehicle. The problem lay mostly with Chrysler's US marketing. Sending only 1500cc versions with power sapping BW automatics would not endear them to anyone. Had Chrysler gone with the 1725cc engine it would have been more able to cope with the rigors of the US market. The Avenger Tiger with twin 40 weber carbs would have hooked all those Sunbeam Tiger owners that had graduated to the burbs with 2.4 kids and needing something more suitable but still with the sporty performance. OK never in the V-8 mode but speed is never everything. I helped fettle a survivor Cricket a few years back and with modern radial tires even the base model with auto 'box it is still able to hold its own on the freeways as well as the country roads. Never 'forget' the Cricket!
  • 6
    terry flanagan wenatchee wa September 17, 2014 at 18:10
    bought one new summer 1966. Still have it ready to growl, in my garage. Had a lot of fun with it.
  • 7
    David Dean LaPorte, IN September 17, 2014 at 18:27
    I had a 65 with the 260 V-8, put those slotted wheels on because they were 6 inches wide , but needed to flare both front and rear fenders. Had a cobra 4 bbl manifold but ran a 500 cfm Holley 2 bbl carb so I could continue to run in B stock class at the autoX . It took a lot of first place tropheys. When I sold it in 1977 for $3600 I thought I was making a killing. As I had bought it in 1972 in Cincinnati for $1500. I really wish I had kept that one. I now have a 1980 TR-8 but it does not quite have the grunt that Tiger had.
  • 8
    Frank WA September 17, 2014 at 18:47
    Guess what a 289 HP does for it! Other than increase the red line.
  • 9
    bubber flanagan eagleville pa 19403 September 17, 2014 at 18:49
    We have ,1965 sunbeam alpine IV and everyone has been calling to see if i will sell . to make it a tiger i like the 1725 engine in my car but i will keep the phone numbers for some lucky owner to make their DAY. IT IS A GREAT CAR TO HAVE . ENJOY THE RIDE. Bubber.
  • 10
    bubber flanagan eagleville pa 19403 September 17, 2014 at 19:10
    We have ,1965 sunbeam alpine IV and everyone has been calling to see if i will sell . to make it a tiger i like the 1725 engine in my car but i will keep the phone numbers for some lucky owner to make their DAY. IT IS A GREAT CAR TO HAVE . ENJOY THE RIDE. Bubber.
  • 11
    Theo Calgary September 17, 2014 at 20:30
    As a Tiger owner that's pretty familiar with the production history of the Tiger, I'd like to point out that the production figure for the MkII Tiger is 534 cars, not 633.
  • 12
    Ken Frederick Kendalia, Tx September 17, 2014 at 20:33
    In the fall of 1964 I was a senior in high school in Oklahoma City. One of my good friend's father had an auto repair shop and somehow managed to become one of the first Sunbeam Alpine/Tiger dealers in the area. I'll never forget the day his dad, Gene, came over to our house in a British Racing Green 260V8 Tiger with a tan interior. It was GORGEOUS! He took me for a ride around a nearby lake road full of twists and turns and I was in LOVE! Of course, I could no more afford that Tiger than a Corvette but I've always wished I'd have bought one later. I'm restoring a 1960 Corvette now (have had it since 1986) and with current prices of Tigers, I'll likely never own one, but what a ride that was in the fall of '64!
  • 13
    Jack Womack Pensacola beach , fl September 17, 2014 at 20:57
    I had a 1965 260hp white Tiger that I traded in for. a 1967 289hp when I was going through Naval aviation flight school. I sold it in 1978, wish I had it back. It was BRG and a blast to drive. It would burn rubber in 3rd and suck the doors off a 327 cube corvette and out corner it too!! One last note, I put a high rise manifold on it, could not latch the hood down, but the intake noise was awesome!!!!
  • 14
    Ron Boto Oklahoma City September 17, 2014 at 22:21
    When I was a kid, my boys club (Awana) had a Sunbeam. I didn't know anything about it, but every Tuesday when he'd drive me and his son home a love for his car began to slowly, but steadily build.
  • 15
    tom Virginia September 17, 2014 at 23:18
    The Alpine was a fun car. I liked the under-the-hood starter--especially when I tried carburetor adjustments. Great article on the Tiger but I always thought the V-8 did not belong---just me--I guess.
  • 16
    scott Ferguson la selva beach CA September 18, 2014 at 01:35
    Great article, I almost bought a 67 MkII with 302 and 4.11 rear end. in college but with rollcage I didn't fit. 2800.00 in 1977 from USC student.Would have been a great investment.
  • 17
    John Atkinson Los Angeles September 18, 2014 at 15:33
    My dad bought a 1966 Series 1 from it's original owner in 1977 for $1200. It had maybe 30,000 miles on it and was totally original in BRG/black. Being only a summer car he put maybe another 10,000 on it before he died in 1989. I sold it for my mom thru Hemmings magazine for $15,000. The best investment my dad ever made. At the time of sale restored Tigers were going for $25K to $30K. Today, this unrestored Tiger would probably bring $60K at auction if it's in the same condition as when it was sold!
  • 18
    Bob Farris Queen Creek, AZ September 18, 2014 at 09:52
    As I remember the one my brother and I purchased to race, saying "braking and handling could have been better" is being quite nice. As I remember my brother saying, "Watch out it wallows like an old sow!" My souped up TR6+ ran circles around it on the road course and our mom's 66 Dodge Dart GT blew its doors off on the drag strip. I think we kept it almost two months (and if I know my brother, sold it for a profit.) All said, I wish it were still in my garage.
  • 19
    John Sims New Mexico September 18, 2014 at 10:34
    I had a Sunbeam Tiger that I replaced the 260 with a 289 Hi Pro with better cam shaft. The original real end came with a 2.88 ratio which I replaced with a 3.73 ratio. The rear end was exactly the same as a 1956 Police Interceptor or Station Wagon rear end. This Tiger was a real super car eater in a straight line, corners were a little more challenging as the vehicle was front end heavy. The smaller tires in the rear also didn't last long as wheel spin was so easy to perform. In a straight line I was only beat once, it's big brother showed up at the same stop light and by the time I got into 3rd gear the Cobra was a memory. What a fun car....It did turn heads!
  • 20
    Bud Stets 14620 September 18, 2014 at 10:47
    Yeah, Yeah, yeah. Better late that never. How about the real British V8 the Daimler Dart or SP 250 as it was forced to become. More car than the Tiger ever expected to be. 1/2 the engine and carbs and 99% of speed and power and it had a HEMI.
  • 21
    Jim Sencindiver Fredericksburg, VA September 18, 2014 at 11:42
    Sunbeam only made 534 Mk II Tigers (and 2 prototypes). The prototypes were VIN B382100001 and B382100002. Regular production Mk IIs started with VIN B382100100 and ran through B382100633. Yes they are a LOT of fun and yes, you can steer them with the gas pedal as well as the steering wheel!
  • 22
    Wesley Thorpe Knoxville TN September 18, 2014 at 12:34
    Happy Anniversary Sunbeam ! Even the little Alpine is a great investment and a ball to drive. It is a shame that a company like Chrysler was allowed to put a brand like Sunbeam and its Alpine and Tiger on a shelf to collect dust.
  • 23
    Bob Florida September 19, 2014 at 18:15
    I've had 3 tigers over the years, but my favorite was my first on and I would dearly $$$ love to have that back. It was sold in Southern California around 1970 when I got married and I wish I would have kept the car instead of the wife. It was very distinctive baby blue with a dark blue racing stripe. It had "Terlingua" racing badges on the fenders. I had some engine work done, it was very quick. There was a lot of history with that car and I would love to have it back at any price.
  • 24
    Chris Baker California September 19, 2014 at 10:16
    I read that the original prototype of the cobra had the 221 cu in small block that grew into the 260 then to 289, finally to 302. I think it was in the book "Ford High Performance Vehicles", but I'm not sure. The book is in storage and I may have the title wrong but it's close. It was a paperback with a mostly powder blue cover.
  • 25
    Peter Freytag Castle Rock September 20, 2014 at 10:10
    I have owned five Sunbeam Tigers. One 1965, one 1966 and three 1967's. Every time I buy one, I remember why I sold the last one. I can't help it; I love them anyway. My love affair started with Maxwell Smart on Friday nights and still continues.
  • 26
    Don Lutjen Portland, Ore. September 22, 2014 at 13:19
    In 1975 and at the age of 19 I purchased my 1967 Mk II for $1,900.00, it seemed a bargain for and affordable for a college student at the time. I drove this car back and forth to college and used it as my reliable daily driver for at least 5 years. I still own this car today, it's seen a recent restoration, several high performance mods, and remains a reliable classic to this day.
  • 27
    DAVID BROWER WAKE FOREST , NC September 23, 2014 at 06:32
    What about the other tigers ? In 1957 goliath launched their tiger sports coupe . This had a 1100cc boxer 4 with front wheel drive . One horse per cube ! Messerschmitt launched the ultimate microcar in 1958 . Prototypes were badged as "tiger" but the goliath was already on the market so production models had "tg500" emblems on them . They have always been called tigers . These were rear engine 2cyl 2 strokes . Both of these tigers were gone by the time sunbeam picked up the name . The sunbeam was made in much greater numbers than the goliath or messerschmitt . All 3 of them were produced by modifying a slower higher production car and producing as new model with higher horsepower engine . I did have a 1964 sunbeam tiger mk1 a few years ago . It had A 302 in it so there were originality issues . I have also had two 1960 goliath tigers and am currently building a 1959 messerschmitt tiger . I am guessing there are not many people on earth that have owned all 3 kinds of tigers in their lifetime.
  • 28
    Andy Landis Wichita Falls, Texas September 29, 2014 at 14:59
    I bought a '65 model when I got out of the service in '73. And as this article states, the 260 didn't last long. It was swapped for a balanced and blue printed 289, with an Edelebrock intake and a 780cfm Holley carb. Biggest problem was trying to get the 13" tires to take all the power in any gear. Living in Texas, I don't think I ever turned the heater on. The packed engine bay produced and transferred enough heat of its own. Even in the winter! But it was a fun car to autocross and learning how to throttle steer.
  • 29
    mike orcutt, ca 93455 August 18, 2015 at 03:03
    revisionary history is a common practice and even good for the soul. I should be dead in my Tiger long ago in the early 70's having left the road once missing by luck the stand of trees I went through. Still my favorite car and I have owned many brands. That is my wife and Tiger on the cover of Hemmings sports & exotics celebrating the 50th for Tiger. Also, the Tiger wasn't really nose heavy having close to 51% weight up front and 48% and a fraction weight at the rear.
  • 30
    Tom New Jersey August 25, 2015 at 00:32
    Had a '65 in college during 1973 -1974 that I bought with a 1972 Ford Pinto trade plus $200. Sold for a nice profit after 2 years but always regreted it. Saw the Jay Leno/Mike Michaels video and had to get another. That was 3 1/2 years ago, and it is still the favorite of my current collection. Not a bad investment either.

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