Sunbeam Tiger Buyer's Guide
Ever fancied a Maxwell Smart car? Lots of people are amazed when you open the bonnet on one of these things, to discover a V8 lurking in there. Here's what to look for if you're in the market.
Referred to as ‘the poor person’s Cobra’, Sunbeam’s Tiger has similar appeal to its more famous sibling, at a fraction of the price. Where a Shelby Cobra can command up to seven figures, a very good Tiger can be had for around the $90-100k mark.
Okay, maybe not a bargain for most of us, but it has similar genealogy to a Cobra and shares the whole ‘V8 shoe-horned into a roller skate’ design philosophy.
In his Carroll Shelby biography, author Rinsey Mills credits the inspiration for the Tiger to the US west coast manager of the Rootes Group (Sunbeam’s parent company), Ian Garrard. He had been watching the instant race success of the Cobra (which had started life as a four-pot English sports car, the AC Ace) and figured something similar could be done with a Sunbeam Alpine, which was also powered by a modest four-cylinder powerplant at the time.
The first prototype wasn’t built by Shelby but by one of his trusted drivers, Hollywood-based racer and mechanic Ken Miles. His effort was quick and low-budget and essentially designed to get a feel for what such a car might drive like. It ran a Fairlane 260 motor tied to a two-speed auto.
Shelby was soon working on an ‘official’ prototype for the Rootes Group, featuring a four-speed manual, and that’s what was eventually sent back to the UK for evaluation.
John Bowe, our in-house race legend and all-round nice guy, recently had a spin in a Tiger and had this to say: "It has the Shelby DNA but it’s not as angry as the Cobra. Shelby wisely chose the 260-cubic-inch Ford Windsor V8 as it was quite small; nothing else was going to fit. In fact, this car only became possible after Ford made the little Windsor, which began life as a 221, became a 260 then a 289, 302 and so on.
"The Alpine is a small vehicle and it’s shrink-wrapped around the engine. The clearances are tiny and the steering shaft only just manages to snake its way past the exhaust. You change the rear-most spark plugs from inside the car!"
So what’s it like to drive? "The shape is right, but its size doesn’t quite match the baritone V8 burble emanating from a lithe and diminutive car such as this. On the road, it’s surprisingly pleasant. It’s light – around 1000kg, give or take a few Mars bars – the suspension is compliant, and it rides really nicely. It’s tight, too – there’s none of the shimmying or shaking you might expect (and accept) from a car of this vintage.
"It’s got a Borg Warner T10 gearbox, 2.78:1 diff and 13-inch-diameter wheels – tiny by today’s standards – so it’s tall geared, really tall geared. It’s like having a five-speed ‘box with no first gear; very long-legged. This one has Minilite-style wheels and they’re a good looking classic wheel, but the originals would have been steels. All up it has a good surge of power and with the tall gearing, the engine’s torque is doing the work.
"One of the big changes to the original car was fitting rack-and-pinion steering. It was mounted forward of the front cross-member and required fillets be cut from it to make it fit. And the steering is beautiful, with a vibrant and tactile feel. English cars with rack and pinion, such as the E-Type and the MGB, always drive well but on full lock the Tiger shows a few geometry compromises; it scrubs the front tyres."
There were two Tiger series: 6450 Series I cars with the Ford 260ci V8 were made from 1964-67, and there were 650 Series II versions with the 289 engine built in 1967.
TAKE A PRISSY Brit sports car, drop in a small-block Ford V8 and tell the world you’ve built a supercar? Surely not! But in 1963 and in the wake of AC’s success with the Ace-based Cobra that’s what Britain’s staid Rootes Group did to its Sunbeam Alpine. They called their 4.2-litre version the Tiger and the US bought them by the boat-load. Today they are a prized collector car in the US; recent offerings including a scarce Mark II at US$225,000! Mark Is are the easiest to find, with around 6500 built from 1964-67. In the US, these start at $60-70,000 and excellent Mark 1s exceed US$125,000. A Mark 1 with significant history was advertised in Britain for around A$130,000. Locally available cars in fair condition start at $55,000.
CHECKLIST BODY & CHASSIS
Australia got very few Tigers as new cars so most of what resides here spent their early years in places where the winter roads are icy and salt promotes rust. It is possible to completely replace a rusted Tiger body with one from an Alpine, however experts in Tiger verification can spot a converted Alpine (or ‘Alger’) without much trouble. Talk to the international Tiger Owners Association and join a local club for advice from other owners. Some body panels and rust repair sections are being remanufactured, but a shell that has been weakened or badly repaired might not be economically salvaged. A hardtop adds value.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION
Nothing mysterious about Ford small-blocks and the Top Loader was common to many other models. Get the correct casing if buying a replacement ‘box. Lack of underbonnet clearance makes mechanical work difficult and inhibits cooling. In traffic, heat generated can overwhelm the small radiator and standard fan. Various remedies have been tried including a large electric fan, slotting the bonnet, and blocking the horn holes, but perhaps the Tiger is best enjoyed in winter. The clutch has a firm action but if the pedal takes a big effort to depress or gears won’t engage, suspect a faulty slave cylinder.
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Before even considering suspension components, look hard at the hefty cross-member that supports the engine, suspension and brakes. If it is bent downwards or has impact damage the whole lot will need to come out, otherwise nothing anyone does will make the car handle. Coil springs collapse and in rare instances can snap, but new ones are available and not expensive. The rear leaf springs can be replaced with new items including some classy and costly items that reportedly do tie the rear down very effectively. Brake replacement starts below $1000 but can top $5000 if you go for an all-disc conversion.
INTERIOR & ELECTRICS
The Tiger cabin is more spacious than most sports cars, attracting some larger owners who then flatten seat cushions and bend frames. Luckily, the US after-market industry is aware and repair parts including new cushions and seat straps are available. The Tiger speedometer and tachometer are different from Alpine items so the timber veneer dash is also slightly different. Check the top for wear or rips and make sure it secures easily to the windscreen rail. Some water entry is inevitable so check for soggy carpets. The battery in the boot needs to be kept fully charged to combat voltage drop.
ENGINE 4261 or 4737cc V8 with overhead valves & single down-draft carburettor
POWER & TORQUE 122kW @ 4400rpm; 348Nm @ 2200rpm (Mark 1)
PERFORMANCE 0-96km/h 8.9sec, 0-400 metres 16.7 sec (Mark 1)
TRANSMISSION Top Loader 4-speed manual
SUSPENSION Independent with coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers & anti-roll bar (f); live axle with leaf springs and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES power-assisted discs (f) drums (r)
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