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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sunbeam Tiger: Carroll Shelby’s Forsaken Mistress


sunbeam tiger photo

Automotive history is like show business. Both are filled with heartbreaking stories of those who came close to stardom, only to fade into obscurity. For example, consider the Sunbeam Tiger, built by the British-based Rootes Group from 1964 through 1967.

The peppy little roadster had a strong engine, sporty looks, and the backing of no less than Carroll Shelby himself. Sadly, the Tiger missed its shot at lasting fame and fortune. This is a shame, because it really was a great automobile.

The Tiger was a performance version of the Sunbeam Alpine, which first appeared in 1953. The Alpine was a solid machine, but lacked the get-up-and-go needed to appeal to performance drivers. Its builders hoped that Ferrari would revamp their car’s underpowered engine, but negotiations with the Italian automaker broke down after a promising start.

In 1962 Formula One racer Jack Brabham suggested to Rootes manager Norman Garrod that his company outfit the Alpine with an off-the-shelf V8 engine. Garrod contacted his son Ian, who was Rootes’ West Coast sales manager in the United States, telling him to find a suitable motor.

sunbeam tiger profile photo

Ian in turn dispatched Walter McKenzie to assess the possible options. McKenzie recommended Ford’s 260 engine, a lightweight, yet powerful, choice.

 Garrod then reached out to Shelby, asking the legendary auto designer to build a prototype around the idea.

Shelby began work on the one-off vehicle at the beginning of April 1963. By month’s end the car was ready for a trial run. Garrod and colleague John Panks took Shelby’s creation for a test drive and were thrilled at its performance.

Shelby, who was enthusiastic about the Tiger, hoped that Rootes would allow him to build production vehicles in his US workshop. The company feared a conflict of interest, however, due to Shelby’s tight relationship with Ford.

So they opted to build their roadster in West Bromwich, UK. The Rootes Group unveiled the Tiger to the public at the April 1964 New York Motor Show.

sunbeam tiger top up rearview photo

Production issues plagued the building team from the start. The oversized engine barely fit into the small car’s frame. Despite such problems, the series 1 production car sold well to American buyers. The Tiger had a top speed of 120 mph and went from 0-60 mph in 8.6 seconds, which was considered respectable by the standards of the time.

Despite the Tiger’s success in the U.S., Rootes struggled financially. The company never attracted sufficient capital to function smoothly. This problem, along with a crippling 13-week strike at one of its subsidiaries, made the automaker vulnerable to corporate raiders.

Ford’s arch-rival Chrysler gained a controlling interest in the Rootes group in 1967. One of its first moves was to send the Tiger to its grave. Splendid examples of the car survive to this day. Still, one wonders what might have been, had cruel fate shown a little kindness.