Call it the poor man's Cobra; you wouldn't be challenged in many quarters. It had an English body and chassis, and was originally produced to have a relatively anemic four-cylinder engine. The hybrid was powered first by a 260-c.i. Ford V8 and then for a short time by the Ford 289. And the original prototype was put together by ol' Carroll hisself at Shelby America. Meet the Sunbeam Tiger.

Unlike the Cobra, the Tiger was assembled in Britain by Jensen, using trimmed rolling chassis supplied by Rootes to accept the Ford engines. But also unlike the Cobra, with a little patience and some knowledgeable advice, you can find one of these retro-rockets for less than the price of a good used Miata.

The Sunbeam Tiger was conceived out of the Sunbeam Alpine, a tight and comfortable two-seat sports car produced by Rootes. Unfortunately, the Alpine was powered by a four-cylinder engine and lacked in performance when compared to the MGs or Alfas of the day, two of its closer competitors. Even its use by James Bond in the first 007 spy thriller didn't erase the label "secretary's car" that was pasted on it by the first press testers.

However, in a classic tale of skunk works engineering, young Brian Rootes, son of Lord Rootes himself, took $10,000 out of the US advertising budget and got Shelby, who had just designed the Cobra, to shoehorn the 260-c.i. Ford V8 into the Alpine's chassis. With some judicious changes in mounting points, a new steering rack, and the differential from a Ford Galaxie, Shelby put together the prototype in only eight weeks. Its overwhelming power and surprisingly tractable handling captivated Rootes management; the car was at the US auto show ten months later.

But the car didn't last. Rootes was suffering in the backwash of the dying British auto industry and less than two years after the Tiger's introduction, was bought out by Chrysler. The second generation Tiger, with a Ford 289 engine, was already in production when the Ford labels were pulled off and "Sunbeam V8" labels put in their place. There was no way the larger Chrysler V8 would fit, no money to re-engineer the car, and no way Chrysler was going to promote a Ford component. So, with fewer than 700 of the Mk IIs produced, the Tiger was put to rest.

Tigers seem to come in one of three states today: very nice, terrible and fakes. Because they have been low-budget hot rods with engines that could be hopped up with parts from the nearest NAPA store, few Tigers still have their original blocks, valve covers, carburetors or distributors. Further, if rust didn't get to the body, the do-it-yourselfers did by grafting fender flares on to the rear. Really, you can reasonably pay up to $30,000 for a nice original Mk II. You can't pay little enough for a bad one.

However, your worst danger in buying one of these cars is buying a converted Alpine, into which someone has stuffed the remnants of a broken Tiger. And there were many broken Tigers; the car's tendency to head off at an angle from the line when the clutch was dropped at high revs, coupled with the capacity of the engine to overpower the brakes and suspension, put more than a few into the ditch. There are only two ID tags, and both are just screwed into the car with very few differences between the basic Alpine and the Tiger. Consequently it takes an expert to spot a good modification job. Surprisingly, there isn't a huge difference between a real Tiger and a nicely executed fake. According to Rick McLeod of Sunbeam Specialities in Los Gatos, California, a real (as certified by Sunbeam Club specialists) Tiger Mk I will be worth about one-third more than a converted Alpine, say $15,000 versus $20,000. A real Mk II brings a premium of $5,000 to $7,500 over a Mk I.

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