By on March 19, 2010

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.

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19 Comments on “Curbside Classic: Sunbeam Tiger – The Other Cobra...”

  • avatar

    Nice article! Brings back memories of severe Tiger lust at one point in my younger years. Poured over Hemmings, Autotrader and every other collector car classified pub could get my hands on, scouring ads and getting a feel for the market. Finally got hot on the trail of a red 289-powered Tiger up on the DelMarVa peninsula (lived in SE Virginia at the time). Drove up one wet spring weekend with my wife to look it over, test drive it and buy it if satisfactory.

    Came away utterly disappointed. It was a beautiful Tiger, perfect condition, super nice everything…Nardi steering wheel, Smiths gauges, Panasport wheels and track-modded suspension. But it drove like a milk truck. Or at least how I imagined a milk truck would drive. Really heavy controls, even at speed, less “urge” than I expected (properly built 289s, even non-HiPo 289s should rev like crazy)…it completely deflated my Tiger desire. Sigh….

    Ended well, though. Three or four months later I had a ’65 Shelby GT350 rolling off the Passport transporter and into my driveway. Tiger lust was completely erased.

  • avatar

    I participate in a lot of vintage driving events with my old British car, and often see Tigers. Usually they are overheating. I’d put a bigger radiator into one long before I’d think about putting a bigger engine!

    As for the Get Smart title sequence, perhaps it is an indicator of my odd visual mindset, but I always thought it would be cool if some bit of title would follow Maxwell into the phone booth (like all the previous titles’ had dome with the doors) and then did a cartooning hang/delay before falling after him in time with the music’s last stab. The Title Designer left that one on the table I suspect.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    This one is a real classic. Always fancied a Tiger , and quite fancied “99” in my youth as well.At one time I was watching the secondhand prices fall , waiting for them to bottom-out , but I got distracted by a Jaguar.
    The live rear axle wasn’t really a problem in those days. The AC Ace had more sophisticated engineering but that was an altogether more exotic and expensive beast , usually bought for circuit racing.
    The car pictured needs a little adjustment to the panel fits , particularly the bootlid , but looks very nice.
    I’m surprised anyone else remembers the Husky. It was a SWB estate version of the Hillman Minx – maybe the first ever hatchback ?

  • avatar

    Always liked the look of these cars-probably the fins.Max Smart gave them 60s street cred.

  • avatar

    I never had the chance to drive a Tiger, but I owned a Series V Alpine. While it was more powerful than the earlier series cars, no one would ever be fooled into thinking it was a fast sports car. It was wonderful to drive, though; it could eat up the miles because of the great combination of an economical 4 cylinder engine and an amazingly comfortable ride. Rationally, I knew that the Alpine was the more rational version of this car, I often dreamed that the four would morph into an eight.

  • avatar

    Changing the rear 4 plugs in the V8 requires engine removal. Yikes.

    • 0 avatar

      That isn’t true, actually. Only the rear-most plug on the driver’s side is hard to get to, but not impossible. There is a rubber grommet that covers a pretty large hole in the firewall through which you use a socket and extension to remove that plug.

  • avatar
    Scorched Earth

    My best friend has a 289-powered Tiger rotting in his driveway. Cool car, but what a nightmare to work on!

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    We would call the Sunbeam Alpine a chick car today, not very exciting. The Tiger version, however, was a whole different thing. I test drove one in about 1964 out of the magnificent Rootes Motors’ showroom at the southwest corner of Eglinton E. and Warden Av in Toronto. The site was also the starting line for the annual Canadian Winter Rally.

    I tore up Warden Avenue to go east on the 401 in a light drizzle, matting the accelerator on the ramp. Few have done anything that friggin stupid and lived to tell the tale. It was like shooting a paper clip from a garter. The small diameter, narrow, bias-ply tires were no match for the horsepower. I nearly spun out. After thoroughly scaring the poop out of myself I drove like a pansy for next several weeks.

  • avatar

    In the summer of ’84 between high school and college, I worked at an auto repair shop (Skillern’s in Decatur, GA) as a gofer/clean-up kid. One day, this customer brought in his Sunbeam Tiger for whatever – I forget 26 years later. But I remember moving it around the lot and goosing the gas quite a bit – at 18 I was young, dumb, and full of c_m, and didn’t realize at the time the significance of this car, nor the value (and that was in 1984). I never drove it on the road though, but I remember one of the mechanics took it out on the open road for a “test drive”. As he got back, I heard him say, “that Sunbeam ain’t shit!”. At least it sounded fast to me.

  • avatar

    What I remember about these cars is they were pretty dangerous to drive in anything other than a straight line, unless one put 200lbs of packaged dry cement in the trunk.

  • avatar

    Our neighbor had one of these when I was a kid back in the 80s. I never realized it had a V8 in it. He also had a Pantera and a Jaguar E-Type. Then he went bankrupt and lost it all.

  • avatar

    If anyone is really interested, Fantasy Junction in California is selling the Sunbeam Tiger that belonged to Don Adams (he played Maxwell Smart in the show), but I think $45,000 is a lot for a Tiger.

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    I had a 1967 Mark II Tiger (289, egg crate grille) I purchased when I joined the Navy in 1973. I put over 100k miles on it but the ill handling, lousy brakes, endless broken driveshafts and the Prince of Darkness electrical system made it a much less than ideal car.

    The only nice thing I can think of is I paid $1200 for it and sold it four years later for $2500.

  • avatar

    As soon as I laid eyes on that little red sunbeam I could hear the theme music to “get smart” playing in my head.

  • avatar

    I wonder if Don Adams got “stunt credits” for that intro – first barreling around a street corner in the Tiger, then dropping to a crouch that fast (in the phone booth) can crunch ones “jewels” against ones ankles :-)

  • avatar

    The Sunbeam Alpine was on my list when I was shopping for a used convertible years ago. I ended up with a Fiat Spider. I did drive a Sunbeam and it was downright scary. The handling was horrendous and the brakes totally inadequate.

  • avatar
    Mike Laupp

    I traded a well used Alpine for a new ’65 Tiger in ’66. The Tiger was black and stock except for the mag wheels with the Tiger logo spinners on them (real magnesium alloy). Wow was it a blast to drive. City driving was: Start rolling in 1st and then shift to 4th and drive away. That 260 had a lot of torque. I only lost 2 street drags with it, one to a big block corvette and the other to blown GTO. Still got 22+ mpg combined driving. Top end was somewhere over 117, I never found enough good road in the mid Ohio area to let it wind all the way out. I did get airborne a few time on paved back country roads, the Mustang GT who was trying to keep up had to back off after bottoming out twice, no problem for the Tiger. I do remember very hot foot wells on long summer trips. There was a trick to help cooling, you installed small blocks of wood under the bonnet latch and stops to raise the back of the bonnet and let the heat out of the engine compartment. Handling was very good for the era, just don’t drive hard into a corner with any kind of loose material on the road surface, don’t ask me how I know. And above all, don’t dump the clutch with the engine torqued up if you want to keep the rear end. Had to get rid of the car after a couple of years due to family size increase and did not have the dinero to run 2 cars. Probably a good thing come to think of it, I probably would have kept up with the wild driving until something nasty happened. This Tiger was my favorite out of all the cars/trucks/SUVs that I have owned over the years.

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