High-performance roadster designed in part by Carroll Shelby

The Sunbeam Tiger was a two-seat sports roadster built between 1964 to 1967 by British manufacturer Rootes Group, who had purchased the Sunbeam and Talbot brands in 1935. Essentially a more powerful version of the second-generation Sunbeam Alpine (1959-1968), the Tiger went on to become of the most iconic British sports cars.

The project began in 1962, when racing driver and Formula One champion Jack Brabham went to Rootes competition manager with the idea of fitting the Alpine, which was normally powered by small-displacement four-cylinder engines, with a larger Ford V-8 powerplant. Realizing that the Alpine needed more power to compete successfully in the U.S., Rootes approved the conversion, which was designed in part by Carroll Shelby, who had carried out a similar V8 conversion on the AC Cobra.

Although Shelby hoped to be given a contract to produce the Tiger in America, Rootes was unhappy about Carroll’s close relationship with Ford, so final assembly was done at Jensen’s West Bromwich plant in England. Carroll was paid an undisclosed royalty for every Tiger built.

The first prototype was completed in 1963 and the Tiger went into production a year later with a 4.3-liter V-8 engine under the hood. Nearly 7,100 units were built until 1967, when Chrysler purchased a majority stake in Rootes. The Detroit-based company didn’t want rival Ford’s V-8 in the Tiger, and being unable to supply a V-8 that would fit in the roadster’s engine bay, decided to axe the car.

The roadster wasn’t the first Sunbeam to feature the Tiger name. The British firm built the first Tiger in 1925. Developed strictly for racing, the original Tiger set many land speed records and was the last car to be competitive both as a land speed record holder and as a track car.

The Tiger name was resurrected in 1972 when Chrysler introduced the Avenger Tiger, a limited-edition, performance-oriented version of the Hillman Avenger, the first car developed by Rootes after its takeover in 1967.

Continue reading to learn more about the Sunbeam Tiger.

Exterior

1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Exterior
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1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Exterior
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1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Exterior
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The Sunbeam Alpine was by no means revolutionary in terms of design. Much like most sports cars created in the late 1950s, it had simple and clean side body panels accented by muscular front and rear fenders. While the front elements were rounded out to meet the round headlamps above the grille, the rear fenders were more pointed in order to match the oval taillights. Rear fins were still a thing in Europe in the early 1960s and the Alpine kept them throughout its entire production cycle. Up front, the sloping engine hood descended toward a thin grille mounted above the chrome bumper. An identical bumper was mounted to the rear. Although its styling was far from aggressive, the Alpine had a sleek profile and its sub-four-meter length (155 inches) made it seem very light.

It had simple and clean side body panels accented by muscular front and rear fenders.

Sunbeam made several modifications to the body to turn the Alpine into a Tiger. The roadster gained lighter alloy wheels, a revised grille, an additional exhaust pipe, and new fender badges. Granted, it wasn’t much, but the new wheels and the lowered ride height were enough to set it apart from the standard Alpine. Also, because it arrived years after the Alpine was introduced, the Tiger arrived in showrooms with the facelift that Sunbeam introduced in 1964. Compared to the original model, it had revised bumpers, new turn signals, and chrome trim on its sides, just to name a few.

Interior

1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Interior
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1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Interior
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1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Interior
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The interior of the Tiger was very similar to that of the Alpine. Sure, it had a few features that set it apart from the more mundane roadster, but apart from the sportier, bucket-like seats, the larger speedometer and rev counter, the missing battery box behind the driver seat, the shorter shifter, and the wider transmission tunnel there were few visual clues that indicated the car was different from the Alpine.

The Tiger had plenty of legroom and the lack of a battery box behind the driver seat left more room for stowage of small items.

The design was rather simple and quite common for the era. The six analogue clocks, the lights, and the three knobs were set on a wood-grain dashboard with a leather frame, while the steering wheel had two spokes, a wooden main rim, and an additional smaller metal rim in the middle. The door panels were spartan, featuring little detailing aside from the handle and the window crank. The floors were covered in thick carpet, and while the gear shifter was mounted in the standard position on the center tunnel, the handbrake lever was set between the driver seat and the door.

Although British 1960s sports cars weren’t exactly roomy, the Tiger had plenty of legroom and the lack of a battery box behind the driver seat left more room for stowage of small items. The interior was pretty well suited for longer drives, despite the car’s short wheelbase and lack of rear seats.

Drivetrain

1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Drivetrain
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Although dropping a big V-8 under the Alpine’s hood seemed impossible at first, Carroll Shelby used the know-how from his Cobra conversion to stuff a 4.3-liter in the Tiger’s engine bay. The Ford-sourced engine produced 164 horsepower, which pushed the 1,203 kg (2,652-pound) roadster — it was 193 kg (425 pounds) heavier than the standard Alpine — from 0 to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds and toward a top speed of 120 mph.

The Ford-sourced engine produced 164 horsepower, from 0 to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds and toward a top speed of 120 mph.

In 1967, the Tiger’s last year on the market, the 4.3-liter unit was replaced with a larger, 4.7-liter V-8 powerplant. Shared with the Ford Mustang, it generated 200 horses and improved the roadster’s 0-to-60 mph sprint to 7.5 seconds and increased top speed to 122 mph.

Some dealers offered performance modifications to both engines, with a few Tigers known to benefit from as much as 250 horsepower.

Both engines mated to a four-speed manual transmission, but the first few examples had to be fitted with a Borg-Warner 4-speed synchromesh manual gearbox, until Ford resolved its supply problems and was able to provide the same unit offered in the Ford Mustang.

The suspension was independent at the front, using coil springs, while the rear assembly had a live axle and semi-elliptic springs. In order for the chassis to cope with the weight of the larger V-8 engine, Rootes added a Panhard rod to the rear axle and stiffer front springs. Everything else was carried over from the standard Alpine model, including the 9.8-inch disc brakes at the front and nine-inch drums to the rear.

Prices

1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Exterior
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When launched in 1964, the Sunbeam Tiger was priced at $3,499 in the United States. In the U.K., pricing was initially set at £1,446, but the Tiger wasn’t released in its home market until March 1965. Sunbeam built 1,649 units in 1964 and nearly all were delivered to North America. In 1965, production jumped to 3,020 examples, but dropped to 1,486 the following year. Sunbeam introduced the MkII update in 1967, building only 393 units. The British firm delivered 292 by the end of that year, while the remaining 101 were shipped in 1968. In all, the Sunbeam Tiger was built in 6,548 examples. For reference, Rootes assembled 69,251 Sunbeam Alpines between 1959 to 1968.

The Tiger is a sought-after collectible nowadays, with working examples selling for at least $25,000. Well-maintained models are known to trade for $40,000 to $50,000, while cars in tip-top shape and low mileage can fetch up to $70,000. The MkII models with the larger Ford engine are obviously even more expensive due to their limited production run. These models can change owners for more than $100,000, as is the case of the red version shown in this article, which had only 33,000 original miles and just one owner from 1976 until it was auctioned off in 2016.

Brief Racing History

1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Exterior
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The Sunbeam Tiger wasn’t the most successful race car ever built, but it had plenty of activity at the track, being raced from 1964 until 1973. The roadster made its debut at the SCCA Divisional Tucson and was raced at Le Mans in 1964, but its most notable result was recorded at the 200-mile race of Road America, where it finished second with Ken Miles behind the wheel. 1965 was by far its most successful year, scoring two wins and seven podiums, most of them on American soil. The Tiger clinched another podium in 1966, but had to wait until 1967 to earn another win, as well as a second place in SCCA. 1968 was its last competitive season. Between 1969 and 1973, the car made sporadic appearances in Europe and the U.S., but included races in the SCCA and Trans-Am series. Rootes also prepared several cars for rally racing and the Tiger went on to win the 1964 Geneva Rally, the 1965 Alpine Rally (later disqualified), and finished fourth in the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally.

Competition

Austin Healey 3000

Harrison Ford the classic collector
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The 1960s was a great era for sports cars, especially for British and Italian companies. But while models such as the MG MGB, Triumph Spitfire, Alfa Romeo Spider, and Fiat 124 Sport Spider (just to name a few) were tremendous in their own right, none had a massive V-8 under the hood. The closest thing available in Europe without an expensive price tag was the Austin Healey 3000. Launched in 1959, it was built around a similar lightweight philosophy and had a 2.9-liter inline-six engine under the hood. Even though it wasn’t as powerful as the Tiger, the Mark III, which was introduced in 1963, had 150 horsepower and needed around 10 seconds to hit 60 mph on its way to a top speed of around 115 mph. Production ended in 1967, about the same time as the Tiger.

Shelby Cobra

1962 Shelby 260 Cobra "CSX 2000"
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In the United States, the Sunbeam Tiger was a direct competitor for the Shelby Cobra, more so since both cars had Ford V-8 engines and were developed by the same man, Carroll Shelby. Much like the Tiger, the Cobra was a European car stuffed with a big American engine. Following an agreement with AC, Carroll imported painted and trimmed Ace models and finished them with his own engines and transmission in Los Angeles. At first equipped with a 4.3-liter V-8, the Cobra received a 4.7-liter unit in 1963. Unlike the Tiger, the Cobra spawned a lighter and more powerful model, the 427, which used a 7.0-liter V-8 rated at a whopping 425 horsepower. Only 23 were built, but the 427 wasn’t to live on as the most powerful Cobra ever. In 1966, Carroll developed the Super Snake, a beefed-up, supercharged roadster good for nearly 800 horsepower. Only two were made and only one survived, fetching a record $5.5 million in 2007. Although earlier models aren’t as expensive as the Super Snake, Cobras are highly sought-after and the most original examples are evaluated at more than $1 million.

Read more about the Shelby Cobra here.

Conclusion

1964 - 1967 Sunbeam Tiger High Resolution Exterior
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The Sunbeam Tiger is one of the most iconic sports cars of the 1960s, being as important to the auto industry as the MG MGB, Lotus Elan, Alfa Romeo Spider, and, I dare say, the Shelby Cobra too. Sure, it’s not as expensive and rare as the latter and no one is making a living by building replicas of the Tiger, but this tiny British car has everything it needs to be a true collectible. It’s light, it has a big V-8 under the hood, racing pedigree, and the charm you can no longer find in modern cars. It the kind of vehicle you need to drive at least once in your lifetime and it’s probably the car that keeps the Sunbeam name alive more than three decades after it stopped making automobiles.

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    • * MkII models are pretty expensive
    • * Mundane appearance with very few updates compared to the standard Alpine

Source: Mecum

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