The legend of how Carroll Shelby was inspired by Ford’s very compact new V8 to create the Cobra by stuffing it into an elderly and underpowered little British roadster is well known. The fact that it had a copycat is not quite so legendary. That probably has everything to do with the choice of the car to be the beneficiary of the Ford V8 engine transplant:
The AC Ace had a tube frame chassis with four wheel-independent suspension and a racy Italianesque aluminum body draping it. That’s what inspired Shelby to inquire about a V8 version. The Sunbeam Alpine? It was Rootes’ attempt to compete with the MGA and MGB, and was even more pedestrian than the Austin-based MGs in its origins. It sat on a modified Hillman Husky station wagon platform and was blessed with all the finest kit stolen from the Rootes parts bin: a 1600 cc pushrod four with 80 hp, a live rear axle, and a body that was an obvious rip-off of the ’55-’57 Thunderbird, but with exaggerated fins, as seen here in this version driven by Sean Connery in one of the early James Bond movies. That wasn’t an accident; Rootes designer Ken Howe worked at Ford previously.
As so many sports cars of that era, the Alpine’s primary target was the US, where it was hoped that 80% of the production would be sold. Like the T-Bird it imitated, the Alpine’s lack of power and hardly stellar steering and handling resigned it more to the role of a tourer than a genuine sports car. Having seen what the little Ford V8 did to the Ace, Rootes’ US West Coast Sales Manager Ian Garrad contracted with Shelby to stuff the 164 hp 260 cid engine into the Alpine. In his usual rapacious way, Shelby agreed, for $10k ($70k adjusted). The result was deemed good. But just for good measure, Ken Miles was asked to build a second prototype at his shop, which he did in a few days and for a bill of $600.
The newly and duly-named Tiger was greenlighted, and Rootes gave the production job to Jensen, who built about 7,000 of the little bombs. Fortunately, by the time the Tiger got rolling, Rootes modified the pointy fins to bring them closer to earth. Production started in 1964, and was ended prematurely in 1967 when Chrysler (ever so wisely) bought Rootes, and pulled the plug on selling a Ford-engined car. Chrysler’s 273 cid LA engine wasn’t nearly as compact as the Ford, and had its distributor in the rear. The Tiger’s short prowl was over.
This particular example, which is being groomed for sale, has a 271 hp HiPo 289 that its previous owner inserted in place of the two-barrel 260. But I’ve been told that utilizing the full power of the 289 is dangerous in more ways than one, including damaging the spring shackle mountings and other aspects of the car’s undercarriage that started life as a 50hp Hillman wagon. The original 260 goes along with the sale, and may well be put back for authenticity’s sake and the fact that 164 hp is about as much as the Tiger can handle.
Keep in mind that the AC Ace needed some modifications to its front and rear ends in its 289 incarnation, and was completely redesigned (with major help from Ford) with a totally new frame and suspension to handle the 427 and 428 engines (yes, contrary to myth, many of the “427″ Cobras were actually built with the 428 FE engine).
The Tiger has an undeniable charm, and a lovely exhaust burble. But it never quite escaped its origins, and always had a bit of a mixed image: was it a poor man’s Cobra or a shrunken T-Bird? The fact that Maxwell Smart drove one didn’t exactly help either.