The Sunbeam Tiger is a high-performance V8 version of the British Rootes Group's Sunbeam Alpine roadster, designed in part by American car designer and racing driver Carroll Shelby and produced from 1964 until 1967. Shelby had carried out a similar V8 conversion on the AC Cobra, and hoped to be offered the contract to produce the Tiger at his facility in America. Rootes decided instead to contract the assembly work to Jensen at West Bromwich in England, and pay Shelby a royalty on every car produced.
Two major versions of the Tiger were built: the Series I (1964–67) was fitted with the 260 cu in (4.3 L) Ford V8; the Series II, of which only 756 were built in the final year of Tiger production, was fitted with the larger Ford 289 cu in (4.7 L) engine. Two prototype and extensively modified versions of the Series I competed in the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans, fitted with the larger engine, but neither completed the race. Rootes also entered the Tiger in European rallies with some success, and for two years it was the American Hot Rod Association's national record holder over a quarter-mile drag strip.
Production ended soon after the Rootes Group was taken over by Chrysler in 1967, who did not have a suitable engine to replace the Ford V8. Due to the ease and affordability of modifying the Tiger, there are few surviving cars in standard form.
The Sunbeam Tiger was a development of the Sunbeam Alpine introduced by the British manufacturer Rootes in 1953. Rootes realised that the Alpine needed more power if it was to compete successfully in world markets, but lacked a suitable engine. Neither did it have the resources to develop one, and therefore Rootes approached Ferrari to redesign the standard inline-four cylinder engine, recognising the sales cachet that "powered by Ferrari" would be likely to bring. Initial negotiations seemed to go well, but eventually broke down.
Racing driver and Formula 1 champion Jack Brabham suggested to Rootes competition manager Norman Garrad the idea of fitting a Ford V8 to the Alpine in 1962,[a] an idea Garrad relayed to his son Ian, then the West Coast Sales Manager of Rootes American Motors Inc. Ian Garrad lived close to where Carroll Shelby had his Shelby American operation, which had done a similar V8 conversion for the British AC Cobra.
Initial prototypes 
After having measured the Alpine's engine bay with "a 'precision' instrument of questionable antecedents" – a wooden yardstick – Ian Garrad despatched his service manager Walter McKenzie to visit the local new car dealerships, looking for a V8 engine that might fit. McKenzie returned with the news that the Ford 260 V8 engine appeared to be suitable. Apart from its size advantage, the Ford engine was relatively light at 440 lb (200 kg).
Ian Garrad commissioned Carroll Shelby to construct a prototype V8-powered Alpine based on the Series II car at an agreed price of $10,000 taken from his advertising and marketing budget. Shelby estimated that the work would take eight weeks to complete, so Garrad, impatient to discover whether the conversion was even feasible, commissioned racing driver and fabricator Ken Miles to build another prototype as quickly as he could. Miles was provided with a budget of $800, a Series II Alpine, a Ford V8 engine and a 2-speed automatic transmission, and in about a week he had a running V8 conversion, thus proving the concept.
Shelby began work on his prototype, the white car as it has come to be known, in April 1963. Provisionally known as the Thunderbolt, it was more polished than the Miles version and used a Ford 4-speed manual transmission. Like Miles, Shelby found that the Ford V8 would only just fit into the Alpine engine bay:
I think that if the figure of speech about the shoehorn ever applied anything, it surely applied to the tight squeak in getting that 260 Ford power plant into the Sunbeam engine compartment. There was a place for everything and a space for everything, but positively not an inch to spare.
The Rootes factory was initially resistant to the project, but Garrad shipped the Shelby prototype to the UK, and the car convinced the parent company that the project was viable. Garrad arranged to have Lord Rootes himself test drive the second prototype, who was sufficiently impressed to immediately contact Henry Ford directly to work out a deal to purchase Ford engines.
Installing such a large engine in a small touring vehicle required a number of changes to be made. The exterior sheet metal remained essentially the same, but the necessary chassis modifications included moving from the Alpine's Burman recirculating-ball, worm and nut steering to a more modern rack and pinion system.
The Ford V8 was only 3.5 inches longer than the Alpine's 4-cylinder engine it replaced, so the primary concern related to the engine's width. The lack of space causes a few problems in maintaining the engine. For example, the left bank of spark plugs must be accessed through a hole in the firewall, which is normally sealed with a rubber bung. The oil filter had to relocated from the lower left on the block to a higher position on the right-hand side, behind the generator.
Even though the larger engine added weight, requiring some minor suspension modifications, the Tiger's front-to-back weight ratio is substantially similar to the Alpine's, at 51.7/48.3 front/rear.
Shelby had hoped to be given the contract to produce the Tiger in America, but Rootes was somewhat uneasy about the closeness of his relationship with Ford, so it was decided to build the car in the UK. The Rootes factory at Ryton did not have the capacity to build the Tiger, so the company contracted the job to Jensen in West Bromwich, England. Any disappointment Shelby may have felt was tempered by an offer from Rootes to pay him an undisclosed royalty on every Tiger built.
Jensen was able to take on production of the Tiger because its assembly contract for the Volvo P1800 had recently been cancelled. An additional factor in the decision was that Jensen's chief engineer Kevin Beattie and his assistant Mike Jones had previously worked for Rootes, and therefore understood how the company operated. The first of 14 Jensen-built prototypes were based on the Alpine III bodyshell, until the Series IV became available at the end of 1963.
The Tiger went into production in June 1964, little more than a year after the completion of the Shelby prototype. Painted and trimmed bodies were supplied by Pressed Steel in Oxfordshire, and the engines and gearboxes were received directly from Ford in America. Installing the engine required some unusual manufacturing methods, including using a sledgehammer to bash in part of the already primered and painted bulkhead to allow the engine to be slid into place. Jensen was soon able to assemble up to 300 Tigers a month, which were initially offered for sale only in North America; the Tiger did not become available in the UK until March 1965. Ford was unable to provide gearboxes for the first few Tigers off the production line, which had to be fitted with a Borg-Warner 4-speed all-synchromesh manual gearbox, until Ford resolved its supply problems and was able to provide an equivalent unit as used in the Ford Mustang.
A number of performance modifications were available from dealers. The original 260 CID engine was considered only mildly tuned at 164 hp (122 kW), and some dealers offered modified versions with up to 245 hp (183 kW) for an additional $250. These modifications were particularly noticeable to the driver above 60 mph (97 km/h), although they proved problematic for the standard suspension and tyres, which were perfectly tuned for the stock engine. A 1965 report in the British magazine Motor Sport concluded that "No combination of an American V8 and a British chassis could be happier".
Production reached 7085 cars over three distinct series. The factory only ever designated two, the Series I and Series II, but as the official Series I production spanned the changeover in body style from the Series IV Alpine panels to the Series V panels, the later Series 1 cars are generally designated Series IA by Sunbeam Tiger enthusiasts. Only 536 Series II Tigers, fitted with the larger Ford 289 cu in (4.7 L) engine, were produced, most of them sold in America.
One of the primary differences between the two versions was of course the engine displacement, but others included upgraded valve springs, as the 260 had developed a reputation for self-destructing if pushed beyond 5000 rpm. Other improvements included an oil cooler for the engine, an alternator instead of a generator, bigger clutch, wider ratio transmission and some rear-axle modifications, but the other changes were cosmetic.
Series I 
|Engine||260 cu in (4.3 L) Ford V8|
The Girling-manufactured brakes used 9.85 in (250 mm) discs at the front and 9 in (229 mm) drums at the rear. The suspension was independent at the front using coil springs and at the rear had a live axle and semi-elliptic springs. Apart from the addition of Panhard rods to better locate the rear axle, and stiffer front springs to cope with the weight of the V8 engine, the Tiger's suspension and braking systems are identical to that of the standard Alpine. The kerb weight of the car increased from the 2,220 lb (1,010 kg) of the standard Alpine to 2,653 lb (1,203 kg).
The Series I Tiger was priced at $3499 when it went on sale in the US. It was also available in South Africa, badged as the Sunbeam Alpine 260 after the cubic inch displacement of its engine, where it sold for R3350.
Series II 
|Engine||289 cu in (4.7 L) Ford V8|
Priced at $3842, the Series II Tiger was little more than a re-engined Mark IA; by comparison, a contemporary V8 Ford Mustang sold for $2898. The larger 289 cu in (4.7 L) Ford engine improved the Tiger's 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time to 7.5 seconds, and increased the top speed to 122 mph (196 km/h). The Series II Tiger was only officially available in the US.
Rootes had never been sufficiently capitalised, and losses resulting from a damaging 13-week strike at one its subsidiaries, British & Light Steel Pressings, coupled with the expense of launching the Hillman Imp meant that by 1964 the company was in serious financial difficulties. At the same time Chrysler was looking to boost its presence in Europe, and so a deal was struck in June 1964 in which Chrysler agreed to pay £12.3 for a large stake in Rootes, although not a controlling one. As part of the deal Chrysler agreed not to acquire a majority of Rootes' voting shares without the approval of the UK government, which was keen not to see any further American ownership of the UK motor industry. In 1967 Minister of Technology Anthony Wedgewood Benn approached BMH and Leyland to see if they would buy out Chrysler and Rootes in an effort to keep the company British, but neither had the resources to do so. Therefore later that year Chrysler was allowed to acquire a controlling interest in Rootes for a further investment of £20 million.
Chrysler's own 273 small-block V-8 was too large to fit under the bonnet without major modifications to the Tiger. Compounding the problem, Chrysler's small-block V8 engines had the distributor positioned at the rear of the engine, unlike the front-mounted distributor of the Ford V8. Chrysler's big-block V8 had a front-mounted distributor but was significantly larger. The first major decision taken by Rootes' new managing director Gilbert Hunt after taking office in mid-1967 was to end production of the Tiger.
Competition history 
Three racing Tigers were constructed for the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans, a prototype and two that were entered in the race. Costing $45,000 each, they were highly modified versions of the production cars, fitted with aluminium fastback coupe bodies produced by Lister. The 260 CID engine was replaced with a 289 CID engine, something that became standard equipment in the Tiger II version in 1967. The standard Ford 4-speed manual transmission was replaced with a BorgWarner T10 close-ratio racing transmission, which allowed for a top speed of 140 miles per hour (230 km/h).[d] The brakes were upgraded to 11-inch discs on all four wheels. As with all Le Mans cars, the fuel capacity was increased, in this case to a 44-gallon drum in the back seat that could hold 40 imp gal (180 l; 48 US gal) of fuel. At 8 mpg-imp (35 L/100 km; 6.7 mpg-US) that gave the car a range of just over 300 miles (480 km).
Both Tigers suffered early mechanical failures, and neither finished the race. All three of the Le Mans Tigers still exist.
Once Rootes had made the decision to put the Tiger into production an Alpine IV minus engine and transmission was shipped to Shelby, who was asked to transform the car into a racing Tiger. An early appearance for Shelby's competition Tiger was in the B Production Class of Pacific Coast Division SCCA races, which resulted in some welcome and "highly successful" publicity for the new car. But Shelby was becoming increasingly preoccupied with development work for Ford, and so the racing project was transferred to the Hollywood Sports Car dealership, whose driver Jim Adams achieved a third place finish in the Pacific Coast Division in 1965. A Tiger driven by Peter Boulton and Jim Latta finished 12th overall and first in the small GT class at the 1965 Dayton Continental. The Tiger was also raced on quarter-mile drag strips, and for two years was the American Hot Rod Association's national record holder, reaching a speed of 108 mph (174 km/h) in 12.95 seconds.
Rootes entered the Tiger in European rallies, taking first, second and third places in the 1964 Geneva Rally.
In popular media 
The 1965 Tiger Series I gained some exposure on American television as the car of choice for Maxwell Smart in the spoof spy series Get Smart. The Tiger was used for the first two seasons in the opening credits, in which Smart screeched to a halt outside his headquarters, and was used through the remainder of the series in a number of episodes. Some of the scenes featured unusual modifications such as a retractable James Bond-style machine gun, which would not have fitted under the Tiger's bonnet, so a number of rebadged Alpine models were used instead. After the series ended actor Don Adams, who played the protagonist Maxwell Smart, gained possession and later gave it to his daughters. It is reportedly on display at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.
The Tiger also featured in the 2008 film adaptation of the TV series. A counterfeit Tiger had to be constructed using a stock Sunbeam Alpine and specially created Tiger badging as no available Tiger could be found in Canada where the film was produced. The production team recorded the sound of an authentic Tiger owned by Sue Kesler, a collector in Los Angeles, and edited it into the film.
During the early years of the Tiger's production Rootes advertised the car extensively in Playboy magazine, and loaned a pink Tiger with matching interior to 1965 Playmate of the Year Jo Collins for a year.
- Jack Brabham floated the idea with Norman Garrad after he and Stirling Moss had co-driven an Alpine to second place overall in the Production Car Class of the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix held in October 1962 at Riverside, California.
- The 1925 Sunbeam Tiger was the last car to be competitive as a land speed record holder and a circuit-racing car.
- The standard Series II Alpine had a top speed of 98.6 mph (158.7 km/h) and accelerated from 0–60 mph (97 km/h) in 13.6 seconds.
- The Lister-bodied Tigers were timed during the race at 157.7 mph (253.8 km/h).
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