I asked a group of gearheads why Tigers can be bought so cheaply, and
almost in unison they said: "Because of the styling"
almost in unison they said: "Because of the styling"
The story of the Sunbeam Tiger remains a frustrating one to aficionados, who struggle with a version of the Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome. If the car can win respect for its performance, why doesn't it bring more money?
Heavily influenced by the immensely successful AC Cobra, the Tiger was an effort to make an English sports car aimed at American muscle car buyers. Its parent company, the Rootes Group, was best known for stodgy family sedans, but cranked out the Tiger project in 14 months instead of its usual four or five years.
However, in spite of its successful reception, the Sunbeam Tiger was withdrawn from production after only 36 months, with just over 7,000 units built.
Low production, Carroll Shelby design, and Ford V8 power have failed to energize the Tiger market. A genuine Tiger in very nice condition can be purchased today for one-tenth the price of a genuine Shelby AC Cobra, which after all is just another English sports car with a Ford V8 engine. Why is that? Here's the story.
In 1955, Sir William Rootes demanded a sports car to compete with Austin-Healey, MG, and arch-rival Standard-Triumph's TR3. Four years later, the Sunbeam Alpine emerged with the same name as the early '50s Sunbeam-Talbot roadster in which Stirling Moss won the French Alpine rally.
Though it scored a cameo role in the first James Bond movie, "Dr. No", the 1959 Alpine is more often associated with Liz Taylor in "Butterfield 8." Relatively underpowered, it was branded "a secretary's car."
Don't tell Dad
At the time the Alpine was introduced, Ian Garrad was managing Rootes's operations in California, hot bed of U.S. automotive creativity. Probably inspired by Jack Brabham's suggestion to Norman Garrad, Ian's father and manager of Rootes's Works Competitions Department, that Rootes should follow AC's example and insert an American V8 engine into the Alpine, Ian went to see Carroll Shelby.
Shelby took some measurements and concluded that a Ford 260-ci V8 could be shoehorned into the Alpine. He offered to produce a prototype in eight weeks for $10,000.
At that point, Garrad met Brian Rootes, son of Sir William and director of marketing for Rootes, in a bar in San Francisco in February of 1963. During a long, liquid evening, Ian pitched Brian.
Brian's response, as Shelby tells the story, was: "Go ahead, but keep it quiet from Dad until you hear from me. I'll work the $10,000 out some way, possibly from the advertising account."
As a sidelight, Ken Miles, another Brit and West Coast racer, told Ian he could test the concept by putting a Ford V8 with automatic transmission into an Alpine for about $500, which he did in only ten days.
Miles determined that handling and power were going to be issues, but Shelby was confident he could manage. Because the Alpine steering rack took up needed space behind the engine, an MGA rack was mounted ahead of the front cross-member. To handle the engine's power, a narrowed rear end from a Ford Galaxie, located with a Panhard rod, was substituted. Because all the ancillary equipment-especially the distributor-was at the front of the engine, the rest of the fit required only some well-placed hammer blows to the firewall.
Convinced they had a winner
When the prototype was completed, the young Garrad spent a weekend with Rootes's U.S. manager, John Panks, driving backroads in Southern California. The two were convinced they had a winner and Brian Rootes told his father.
Lord Rootes would agree to nothing until he had seen the car, so it was sent to England in July. Norman Garrad was the first to drive it, then Peter Wilson, second in command in engineering. As Wilson later said, "I was expecting some sort of crude lash-up but Shelby had done a great job and it felt right, straightaway."
Then Lord Rootes-who by that time almost never drove cars-took the car out with his chauffeur following, returning alone when the chauffeur was unable to keep up with him. In a decision totally out of character, he approved the car for production, aimed at the 1964 New York Auto Show, only eight months away.
Henry Ford II happened to be in Europe, so Lord Rootes met with him about engines and transmissions. The MGA steering rack was replaced by a Rootes design, and the Ford rear end was replaced by a Salisbury.
But who to build it? Shelby wanted the contract, but urged more radical modifications to the Alpine's chassis, and he was closely tied to Ford. Instead, the job went to Jensen, which was making bodies for the Austin-Healey, but could put the car into production immediately.
Though the car had carried the project name "Thunderbolt," by the time it appeared, Rootes had named it the "Tiger," paying tribute to a famous Sunbeam race car of the 1920s.
Rootes sold every Tiger produced
Though production was slow to ramp up, Rootes was able to sell every Tiger Jensen could produce and for only $3,500-a price $550 more than the Alpine but less than the Austin-Healey. In the two production years of 1965 and 1966, nearly 6,500 Tigers were sold.
Journalists were pleased with the performance, though more with the Tiger's good manners than its full-throttle character. One noted that if the car was revved up and the clutch dropped, it would go off at a blistering rate, but often at a severe angle to its intended course. Once underway, the brakes proved inadequate.
In late 1965, when the Alpines were restyled, the Tiger got the same styling on the model now called by fans the "Tiger 1A." The 289-ci V8 was substituted for model year 1967, with that model known as the Tiger II. The bigger engine raised the Tiger's horsepower from 136 to 174, adding 27 additional pound-feet of torque.
The only other change was in badging, but it was significant. Where the Tiger I carried a badge on its flank that heralded "Powered by Ford 260," the Tiger II's badge said, instead, "Sunbeam V8."
The change was required because Lord Rootes had solved his cash problems by selling 30% of voting shares and 50% of non-voting shares to the Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler insisted the word "Ford" be removed from the car.
Unfortunately, no amount of Chrysler control could shoehorn a Chrysler V8-with its rear-mounted distributor-into the Tiger. So, with approximately 600 units of the Tiger II produced (different sources say 633 and 591) Chrysler forced Rootes to pull the plug.
Why are Tigers so cheap?
In a world where Austin-Healeys powered by a 6-cylinder lump now sell for six figures and real AC Cobras with Ford 289 engines can bring $500,000 (even a replica may fetch $75,000), why can a really good Tiger be bought for less than $50,000?
I asked a group of fellow gearheads that question, and almost in unison they answered: "Because of the styling." The AC body style on the 289 Cobras, and the derivative style on the 427 are accepted as a classic car design.
By contrast, the Tiger looks like an Alpine and is one of several slab-sided British cars of the period, and not the best at that. The AC Cobra is rarer, but there aren't many real Tigers around, either.
That's another problem; it's easy to fake a Tiger. In fact, there are so many V8s stuffed into donor Alpines that the Sunbeam Tiger Owners Association (www.stoa-tigerclub.com) can authenticate Tigers on the basis of subtle differences.
Not that it seems to matter much; a fake with an excellent body, good engine, and high-quality workmanship (the club calls them "Al-gers") can still bring more than a ratty-but-right Tiger.
But find a good Tiger and you've got a car that's acceptable to the classic muscle car crowd and also tweedy British car lovers. Either way, drive it carefully until you get used to its power and handling quirks, and then go have fun with your British muscle car.