THE ALPINE TIGER THAT RIDES THE SUN­BEAM

New Straits Times - - Cars Bikes & Trucks - SHAM­SUL YUNOS cbt@nst.com.my

SUN­BEAM goes to­gether with Tiger like fish and chips. To most peo­ple, the most re­mem­bered model from this small Wolver­hamp­ton brand is the V8 ver­sion of the Alpine, a two-seater open road­ster that was built from com­po­nents within the Rootes group.

Like many small sports cars that came out of Bri­tain in the 1950s and 1960s, they are based on ex­ist­ing en­gines, chas­sis and trim of more mar­ketable sa­loon or fam­ily cars.

The shrink­ing em­pire, and much bet­ter cars from Europe and Ja­pan meant a loss of cap­tive mar­kets and this forced many car firms to merge to sur­vive, forc­ing the en­gi­neers to work on a shoe­string bud­get, and to come up with vari­ants they raided the cor­po­rate parts cat­a­logue.

The Sun­beam Alpine shared many of its un­der­pin­nings with the many vari­ants of the Hill­man Minx and, to make it spe­cial, the com­pany en­gaged le­gendary Amer­i­can designer Ray­mond Loewy’s to come up with the styling.

Loewy is most fa­mous for cre­at­ing the iconic Coke bot­tle and the blue and white liv­ery of the Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial air­craft, the Air Force One.

He came up with a clean and mod­ern de­sign that had hints of Amer­i­cana, which is not a bad thing as Amer­i­can cars were among the best-look­ing cars of the era.

If we look closely at the front of the Alpine, the semi-hooded lamps and wide grin­ning grille are fea­tures that were im­ported from across the pond, as were the fins that gave home to the tail lamps and the bumper pods that were found on iconic Amer­i­can cars, such as the 1956 Chevro­let Bel Air.

Build­ing road­sters on the un­der­pin­nings of sa­loons meant that they have to share some of the fam­ily car sen­si­bil­i­ties and di­men­sions, and this helped tremen­dously with fun­da­men­tal el­e­ments such as er­gonomics and cabin space. At least we know that av­er­age peo­ple can fit in them quite com­fort­ably. Build­ing road­sters on the un­der­pin­nings of sa­loons also meant shar­ing the more pro­saic fea­tures

of the fam­ily sedan, such as their de­cid­edly unath­letic four-cylin­der en­gines and puny brakes.

Some say the end re­sults are great light­weight com­pact sports cars that are af­ford­able, re­li­able and easy to main­tain. Oth­ers say they are hair dressers’ cars. This ex­plains the rather odd ti­tle of this ar­ti­cle. It doesn’t? Oh, well.

Half a decade af­ter the Alpine’s launch in 1959, mus­cle car spe­cial­ist Car­roll Shelby stepped into the breach and promised to work his magic and turn the Alpine into an au­to­mo­tive Icon.

Ian Gar­rad, who was the West Coast man­ager for Sun­beam in the United States, was not too ex­cited about the small four-pot un­der the bon­net and im­me­di­ately mea­sured how much space he had.

Leg­end has it that Gar­rad mea­sured the en­gine bay with a par­tic­u­larly pe­cu­liar piece of pre­ci­sion in­stru­ment, a stick of wood.

Gar­rad in­formed his ser­vice man­ager of the pre­cise di­men­sions of the en­gine bay, which was two and half sticks by one and three quar­ter twigs times one branch and told the chap to ur­gently in­quire what en­gine would fit in that space. He was told that a 260 cu­bicinch Ford would fit right in.

Keen to have some­thing more mus­cu­lar to sell, Gar­rad called Shelby for help.

He told Gar­rad that it would take all of eight weeks to get a pro­to­type go­ing and it would cost them US$10,000.

Shelby had al­ready turned the AC Ace, a rather at­trac­tive road­ster, into the AC Co­bra and was now fa­mous.

The AC Co­bra is a car that is so hard­core, it can leave a dent in a bil­lion­aire’s bank bal­ance. Well not a dent but a nick. If you are just a multi-mil­lion­aire then, yes, the price of a Co­bra can make your money man­ager frown.

Armed with Shelby’s rep­u­ta­tion, Gar­rad went to Sun­beam and got the ap­proval.

56 days later, the Tiger was born.

Sun­beam placed an or­der for 3,000 en­gines from Ford, the largest sin­gle or­der of en­gines that Un­cle Henry ever re­ceived from another man­u­fac­turer, so they were happy to sup­ply the mo­tors.

That was the tar­geted an­nual sales fig­ure for the Tiger, most of which ended up state­side.

Ob­vi­ously, this is a fic­tional drama­ti­sa­tion of ac­tual events, but we be­lieve that the as­ser­tions made here are suf­fi­ciently con­gru­ent with the facts so as not to im­pose an un­rea­son­able bur­den of logic on those who read it. We mean to say that our ver­sion could be true.

Once Shelby was done, he thought the com­pany might hand over the pro­duc­tion con­tract to him.

Maybe they didn’t trust him be­cause he was al­ready do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar with the Co­bra or maybe they just wanted to keep the job Bri­tish. The fact is, we don’t re­ally know why Jensen ended up build­ing the cars and Shelby just col­lected roy­alty cheques for ev­ery car made.

We don’t know if the Amer­i­can stormed out in anger or joy upon hear­ing this de­ci­sion, but we know that the Tiger was in pro­duc­tion from 1964 to 1967.

In the last few months of pro­duc­tion, the car re­ceived a 400cc boost when they bolted on 4.7-litre en­gines. These slightly big­ger en­gines were also from Ford. They built just over 600 of these vari­ants.

Pro­duc­tion stopped af­ter 1967 be­cause Chrysler bought over the Rootes group and they didn’t have a suit­able V-8 to fit un­der the bon­net.

Sun­beam Tigers are a lot less de­sir­able than the mad AC Co­bra be­cause it doesn’t have the full 7.0-litre to draw ev­ery­one’s jaws slack, but 4.7-litre was plenty enough to get around.

Tigers are rare in these parts, but if you can find them, they are worth a look at, es­pe­cially since these cars are rather pretty and have the mark of Shelby and Jensen on them. While they may not be the most prized of cars, they have an in­ter­est­ing back story, which is just as im­por­tant as the sheet metal.

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