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Inspired by Carroll Shelby’s success in shoehorning a Ford V8 into the AC Ace to create the Cobra, British carmaker Rootes asked Shelby to perform the same trick with its Sunbeam Alpine sports car. Ford’s 260-ci V8 engine was chosen, and even though this had “only”160 horsepower on tap, its power was nearly double the output of the contemporary Alpine’s 1.6-liter engine.

Assembled by Jensen Motors and introduced in 1964, the Tiger featured a stronger gearbox and rear axle—plus rack-and-pinion steering. Vastly superior to its Alpine progenitor in performance terms, the Tiger stormed to 60 mph in under ten seconds and peaked at 117 mph. Sadly, the model was killed off by Rootes’ new owner—Chrysler—shortly after the Tiger II was introduced in 1967.

This example was delivered new on July 17, 1965, from A. S. Baird Ltd to a Mr. J. Dowling of Belfast, Northern Ireland (the original purchase invoice is on file). Also included in the file is an old-style logbook and a photocopy of the Swansea V5C registration document showing three previous owners, the last being a Ms. J Cochrane. Other documentation includes six old tax discs and three MoTs from Northern Ireland, the most recent of which was issued at 21,471 miles and expired on February 6, 2010.

In the history file also are assorted press cuttings about the car in Northern Ireland; a factory-produced leaflet called The Tale of the Tiger; an AA road test report on the Sunbeam Tiger; an original owner’s service book; and a manufacturer’s warranty book issued by the Rootes Group. Representing a rare opportunity to acquire one of these charismatic Anglo-American sports cars, 2290OZ comes with Swansea V5 document, MoT to June 2, 2010 (issued at 22,315 miles), and factory hard top.

{analysis}{auto}2948{/auto}This car, Lot 322, sold for $44,146, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ RAF Museum sale in Hendon, North London, U.K., on Monday, April 11, 2011.

In the land that begat them both, the Tiger has always been considered the “poor man’s Cobra,” but while even the smaller-engined Cobras soar over the $450k mark, the best Tigers linger at only a tenth of that, which is still well under the price of the cheapest Cobra Mk IV continuation cars Autokraft built in the late 1980s.

Why? They’re not so fashionable, they’re not so light, they have a reputation for overheating—and they can be confused for the lesser Alpine, if that sort of thing bothers you (frankly, I would be far more irritated by the “nice replica” comments if I owned a real Cobra).

Tiger numbers are limited, of course, because of that Ford V8 that it shares with the Shelby Cobra. Actually, Carroll Shelby performed the first Alpine-Tiger conversion—the second was by Ken Miles, just to makes sure it could be easily replicated.

Chrysler, which bought the Rootes Group—including Hillman and Sunbeam—in 1967, couldn’t countenance using a rival’s engine, so the Sunbeam Tiger ceased after just over 7,000 were made, including a total of 536 cars fitted with Ford 289-ci V8 engines.

Re-engineering using Chrysler’s own V8s would not have been possible, as the small-block’s rear distributor would have interfered with the bulkhead, and the big-block just wouldn’t fit. In any case, dealing with quirky little foreign sports cars built in tiny numbers by an even smaller outside contractor would have been under the radar of a huge corporation such as Chrysler. So the Sunbeam Tiger was deep-sixed.

A well-fettled cat

Our subject Tiger was an Irish car from new until it was acquired in recent years by a Middle Eastern collector, who was using this sale to thin out his brood.

The Tiger looked restored but not overdone, with a nice, straight, rot-free body with slightly micro-blistered paint, correct but not concours-shiny engine bay and an original-looking interior that may or may not be factory. It also came with a Works hard top, which was not shown in the catalog but fitted for the sale, and Minilite-type wheels.

At this range—at Hendon, all the cars are locked shut because the RAF Museum remains “live” to visitors—there’s no way of telling whether it had the original 260-ci engine or a 289—or even a 302—as so many now have. But the quoted F-code engine number says it’s a 260, and given that the motor is one of the longest-lived parts of a Tiger—despite overheating problems—that’s entirely believable.

This car shouldn’t have any mechanical worries because it’s been through the hands of noted Northern Ireland Tiger fettler and racer Jackie Cochrane, who knows the type intimately—although he didn’t restore this car.

“I bought it four or five years ago, and it had been a one-owner car,” Cochrane said. “But we didn’t touch it. The engine bay didn’t look like a 30,000-mile car, more like a 100,000-mile car—grubby, with frayed hoses—so someone’s tidied it up since. I bought another Tiger, so I sold it on through Mike Abbas of Lancashire, who found me a buyer, and I let it go for what I paid for it.”

So, despite no hands-on input from “Mr. Tiger” of Northern Ireland, this was still a tidy car, and there was plenty of interest—with at least four bidders after it while it was still under the $30k mark (where it would have been an absolute steal, but it was never going to sell that low). As auctioneer Jamie Knight said: “Perfect for anyone who didn’t get an Allard or a Dart,” (the previous lots) but this was so much more desirable than either of those cars.

Tiger values have been quietly strengthening—how could they not, in the wake of the Cobra inflation, where even “continuation” Mk VI lightweight Cobras are now well over $150,000—helped by their eligibility for pre-1966 (FIA Appendix K) European motorsport. This sale represents a strong—but fair—price for a decent, usable car, and it accurately gauges where the market currently stands for these still-underpriced Anglo-American hybrids.{/analysis}

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