What is a Sunbeam Tiger?
by Von Levandowski
From Cobras Magazine, Summer 1995
Carroll Shelby. Winning driver of Le Mans, builder of Cobras, team leader of World Championship winning Shelby American. The legacy left by the wonder-crew at Shelby American is nothing short of miraculous.
Unfortunately, to obtain a true piece of this Shelby magic doesn't come cheaply. Cobras are all priced beyond the affordability of most aficionados, and GT 350 and GT 500 Mustang prices are the equivalent or beyond, of most yearly salaries. Don't despair, because Carroll has another goodie, made in the '60s, of British birth with a blue oval V8 which is still affordable, and an absolute blast to drive.
Sunbeam Tiger. Named for the world land speed record holder of 1926, the Sunbeam Tiger was the cheapest way to have a Shelby engineered, small block Ford powered two seat British convertible in the '60s. Fortunately, this opportunity still exists today. Built by the Rootes Group, the Sunbeam Tiger was a leading sportscar value in the '60s. Just as the Cobra was born from the lesser AC Ace, so was the Tiger born from the lesser Sunbeam Alpine.
Introduced in 1959, the Sunbeam Alpine was an attractive two seat convertible, with a standard soft top, roll up windows and an optional hardtop. Alpines were equipped with 1494cc four cylinder engines, 4 speed trannys with optional electric overdrive, disc/drum brakes and recirculating ball steering. Though perceived as a comfortable road car, with good brakes and adequate acceleration, Alpines were also raced with great success. In 1961 an Alpine, with a Harrington fastback body modification won the Thermal Efficiency Index at Le Mans.
Their durability proven, Alpines began to become also-rans in races because the MG and Triumph camps had engines which were making more power. Knowing they needed more power, the engineers at Rootes began looking in-house for a solution. Unfortunately, not a single powerplant was found which would give the increase in horsepower without a large increase in weight. Designing a new motor was out of the question, as Rootes financial situation was growing desperate due to labor disputes.
Ian Garrad was Rootes West Coast Manager. Well aware of the excitement the Cobra was generating, Garrad arranged for a meeting between himself, Carroll Shelby and John Panks (Director of Rootes Group America), to see if the Alpine could be transformed along the lines of Shelby's Cobra. Shelby agreed the Sunbeam transplant would be possible, and said that the small block Ford was the engine of choice.
Shelby agreed to do the engineering for $10,000, with a potential commission per car should it reach production. Fabrication was overseen by Phil Remington of Shelby's shop. The 260 c.i. Ford small-block was dropped into place, requiring a slight relief of the firewall. The installed transmission was a T-10, sending power back to a Salisbury rearend. The steering was upgraded to rack and pinion, and a revised cooling system was installed. Dual exhausts were fabricated and routed through the frame rails.
Once done, the first rides in the car convinced Garrad he had a winner. Shipped to england, the car was presented to factory engineers. The initial response was lukewarm at best, at least until the first drive. Once the prototype turned a wheel under power, everything changed! The Chairman of Rootes Group, Lord Rootes himself drove the prototype on its presentation to the company executives. Even though he had driven the prototype with the handbrake on, Lord Rootes was greatly impressed.
An agreement with Ford Motors was reached to supply 260 cu in V8 motors, with the first order for a lot of 3,000 units. Rootes then started their own development of the prototype into a certified, mass produced sports car.
The resulting Sunbeam Tiger was a huge success. Sunbeam was no longer competing with MGs and Triumphs, but rather Jaguars and Corvettes, and for a lot less money, retailing for under $3,500.00. Tigers came with a two-barrel 260 as standard equipment, but high performance options were screened by Shelby American, then offered for sale through Sunbeam dealerships just as Cobra hop-up kits were available through Ford dealers for Mustang owners. Most of the performance options were called LAT options, which ostensibly stood for Los Angeles Tiger. Factory mag wheels (LAT 9 and LAT 70) were available, as well as four-barrel Holley carburetors on Edelbrock F4B manifolds (LAT 1), traction bars (LAT 6 and 7) and scrattershields (LAT 7). Once warmed over, Tigers really ran.
In 1965 Gordon Chittenden set the A.H.R.A. national record with an ET of 12.95 and a top speed of 108 mph in his Larry Reed Sportscars Tiger. So good were the numbers (for that period), Chittenden retained the record through 1967. In 1965 Stan Peterson won the N.H.R.A. Class C World Championship with a time of 12.9 and a trap speed of 110 mph in his Tiger. Though very successful drag racers, Rootes emphasized the road racing and rallying of competition Tigers.
Tigers were extensively rallied throughout Europe. Dirt roads, high horsepower, and the Tiger's short wheelbase combined to make for an interesting race experience. Tigers won first in class at the 1964 Geneva Rally, the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally, the 1`965 International Scottish Rally and were the outright winners in the 1965 International Police Rally held in Belgium.
July of 1964 saw coupe bodied Tigers competing at Le Mans. Though limited by short development time, these Lister bodied cars were timed at over 160 mph at Le Mans. Unfortunately, the motors in both team cars expired. Fortunately though, road racing in the U.S. was where Tigers had some of their greatest victories.
For the 1964 season, Ian Garrad contracted with Shelby to construct a stateside race car. The car completed and tested by Ken Miles (who had earlier built the "first" V8 prototype for $800.00 while Shelby was fabricating the "authorized" prototype). The Shelby racer won the 1964 SCCA Class B Pacific Coast Divisional Championship Race at Willow Springs, beating Jaguars, Corvettes, Stingrays and Cobras. By this time, Shelby American was in full swing with the Cobra racing program, and could not give the Tiger program the time it deserved. Factory support was given to the efforts of the Hollywood Sports Car team, headed by Doane Spencer.
Well versed in making British sports cars work on the track, Doane Spencer attacked the Tiger project with his usual precision, planning and careful execution of details. The Santa Barbara Road Race in 1965 was the car's first race, and first win in Class B, driven by Jim Adams. Later that year Flying Tigers Airlines flew the race car to Mosport in Ontario, Canada. Adams let wire to wire in front of a packed house, leading the second place GT350 by 3 seconds at the end of the race. Season end saw the Hollywood Sports Car entry being taken out by a Corvette (darn bowties!) at the American Road Race of Champions at Daytona. Rootes was very unhappy about the loss of the season championship, and the wrecked racer was sold for $5,000.00 at season's end. By 1967 the SCCA had reclassed Tigers into C production. In addition, Tigers were no longer allowed to use LAT options and the cars were no longer as competitive.
Obviously, Tiger and Shelby deserved to be uttered in the same breath. The cars were successful as racers, especially considering the limited funding and development resources allotted to them. On the street, they provided unmatched fun for the price. Sunbeam built 7,085 Tigers. The Alpine, which shares the Tiger's body shell, was built in the tens of thousands. Therefore, there is still a good availability of parts and cars to buy.
Which Tiger to buy? The first 3,763 are known as Mark I cars, and had VIN numbers starting with B947XXXX. Mark I's feature 260 V8 engines, Ford top loader transmissions, round corners on the doors, hood and trunk, metal convertible top covers and lead filled body seams. Prices currently run in the neighborhood of $5,000.00 to $20,000.00, depending on options and condition. The 2,706 Mark IA cars had 260's also, and VIN numbers starting with B382XXXXXX. They came with square cornered doors, soft vinyl convertible top boots, fresh air ventilation and unfilled body seams. They cost around $5,000.00 more than a comparable Mark I. The last cars are known as Mark II Tigers, which number only 536 of the total 7,085 Tigers built. Their VIN numbers start with B382100XXX. Mark II cars came stock with 289 c.i. V8s, all the revisions of the Mark IAs, plus a new eggcrate grill. The chrome side trim and Tiger emblem were removed, replaced by stainless steel fenderwell molding. Mark II Tigers cost another $5,000.00 beyond Mark IA prices, but may go for even more, as they were the most refined, featured the 289, and were built in the smallest numbers. Mark IA cars are seen as the favorite of many because of greater availability, and more refinement over the first series. Mark I cars were the most affordable, and the most available. Many people prefer the look of the hard metal convertible top cover and the appearance of the leaded body seams. These prices are expected to rise, considering how collectible Tigers are becoming in the marketplace.
When purchasing a Tiger, watch out for conversions. The vast number of cheap, available Alpines in the '70s caused dishonest people to convert Alpines into Tigers. These fakes are sometimes easy to spot, sometimes not. There now exists The International Registry of Sunbeam Tigers," originally founded by George Fallehy, and now operated by Norm Miller. This registry includes information on each Tiger by VIN #, and current ownership status (if available). The Sunbeam Tiger Owners Association (STOA) is now inspecting Tigers through their Tiger Authentication Committee. This process involves carefully examining the body shell for tell-tale Tiger only assembly techniques. Once a car is verified as a Tiger, a non-removable permanent registration sticker is affixed to the car's body shell in an unobtrusive spot.
Tigers are currently being autocrossed, raced at vintage events, run at Shelby club open tracks and shown at concourses all over America. While about 80% of the original Tiger sales were located on the west coast, ownership opportunities now exist nationwide. Therefore for less than half the cost of a GT350, you can be running down the road in a two seat convertible, the Ford small block happily burbling out the twin tailpipes.
California features two of the largest Tiger clubs in North America, California Association of Tiger owners (CAT), and the Sunbeam Tiger Owner Association (STOA). CAT features a parts supply, including reproductions of no longer available parts. STOA offers the aforementioned Tiger Authentication Committee, as well as tech support. Out east, Tigers East/Alpines East supports the east coast owners with tech support and events. Smaller regional clubs also exist, such as the Washington based Pacific Tiger Club. Though only 100 members strong, PTC offers hands-on assistance to its membership, as well as a wealth of information about keeping your Tiger purring. All of the clubs can prove invaluable to Tiger owners seeking assistance with their cars.
Recently Carroll Shelby held an auction to support his indigent children heart fund charity. Numerous cars were auctioned, slimming his collection down to the cars he considered important. One of the cars Shelby chose to keep, because he valued it highly, was his personal Sunbeam Tiger. I can think of no finer endorsement. So, if you've ever wanted a real Cobra, but just couldn't afford one, consider a Tiger. They provide a thrilling drive, good looks, comfort and exclusivity.