1960s Car Stories: Sunbeam Tigers

It is easy to become disenchanted with a vintage car when comparing it to the reliable, properly heated, sealed from the elements, power assist systems, not to mention the info-tainment options in today’s automobiles. Oddly, it is beyond disenchantment, it is maddening to try to appreciate cars from the ‘70s and ‘80s period between what are considered vintage cars and today’s basic transportation. Cars built during the years when wood dashboards and trim were transitioning to early plastic. Early ABS juddered the brake pedal. Electronic ignition systems at times failed. Power steering overpowered road feel. In other words, all the systems we appreciate today in their nascent stages. Think sixties Mustangs and Corvettes versus seventies and eighties models. How about fabulous sixties Ferraris and what has been offered since. Very different, even better/faster cars, but nowhere near the romance like a 250 SWB or a 275 GTB. (Except of course for the Ferrari 308.)

The ultimate usable vintage cars are the unaffordable but beloved and beautiful Bentleys, Bugattis, and Alfas of the ‘30s and ‘40s. At times brutal to operate, they now grind their gears and make appreciative eyes water from their heavy fumes as they pass on road rallies such as the Mille Miglia and the Carrera Panamericana. Seemingly overnight, the ‘50s and ‘60s begins an age when cars became more civilized. One could conceive of a cross country trip in a sports “Grand Touring” of the period such as an Aston Martin, a number of Ferraris or a Mercedes 300 SL. Some even came with fitted luggage for the purpose. Available then only to the wealthy but now, due to their age and condition, relatively affordable today are cars from smaller manufacturers. Bizzarrini, de Tomasso, Apollo, Jensen and, of course, the Sunbeam Tiger.

Sunbeam Tiger: A Personal Experience

The feature all the models above share is American V8 engines. Yet only the Tiger is derived from an existing production car and it is the subject of our look back thru rose colored glasses in this issue. The Tiger’s progenitor, the Sunbeam Alpine, competed in the market for Triumph and MG enthusiasts. It was a refined car for the period. It was a new car with no racing history. The Alpine from birth was civilized and often deemed a “ladies” car. It was never part of the early sports car lore that was replete with stories of road racing, poor heaters, flapping side curtains and general discomfort. The advent of the Tiger with a Ford 2bbl V8 260 engine changed all that. Sunbeam was now competitive.

In 1965 I was 21, living with my parents on the South shore of Montreal, Quebec, Canada and driving a ’55 Chevy 265 CID three speed with a Hurst shifter to my clerical job about twenty miles away. I had owned sports cars and bounced back to my first love, hot rods. I was also helping a friend build a Bugeye Sprite for road racing. Ninety long miles away Le Circuit Mt. Tremblant had opened the previous year, and although I didn’t know it then, I would race that Sprite there and Le Circuit would become an important part of my life for the next decade. Meantime we were building the car in a nearby garage and sharing the space with an American engineer who was working at the nearby Pirelli Cable plant. Roger Mandeville was tuning a street car to race, just as we were. I don’t remember what the car was or how competitive he was with it, but I was later amazed to read his name in motorsports magazines of the day. Roger moved back to the US, became affiliated with the Mazda racing program, and won several IMSA championships against top racers. By chance we reconnected two years ago at Lime Rock where he was driving a vintage car for the then Colliers Collection. He was as warm and affable as ever and we reminisced over those “good old days” as car guys always do. It reminded me that racing and the people I met through racing broadened my horizons and changed my life. I am certain that I am not the only person to whom that happened. Back to Quebec in 1965, while I don’t remember at all what race car he was building, I do remember that his street car was a green Sunbeam Tiger and the first Tiger I had seen on the road. In Canada, because of the harsh winters and the fact that most people drove one car all year round, sports cars were hardly for the timid. One day Roger asked me to pick up something he needed in town. He suggested I use his Tiger and I happily accepted. I had owned MGs, a Triumph, and a 356 Porsche, all of them fairly clapped out. To drive a relatively new “anything” was a real treat. This little 2500 pound sports car with a 160HP V8 was the fastest sports car I had ever driven. I don’t really remember much about it other than I was impressed by the power, the exhaust burble, and that great little gearshift. Remember this was the basic Mustang engine/transmission package and though I probably drove it no more than 20 miles, it made a great impression on a 21-year-old car crazy kid. In the day, several people raced factory Tigers and some made a name for themselves but most found that once you put Cobra 289 engines in them the short wheelbase and narrow track made them a handful. Today I see John Morton, a driver of consummate skill, (read The Stainless Steel Carrot) wheel one around Laguna Seca during Monterey Week and even with the advancements in tire technology and other bits, I remain in awe. Not many could/would do what he does with it.

But back to the original Tiger. Even with the 260 CID Ford engine and a 2 bbl carburetor, it was a good package. Warm and generally water tight, it was a solid car and far better suited to winter driving in Quebec than many of its competitors. Today, as a second car, it is ideal. Until relatively recently they went begging but the current interest in collectible cars has made this a rising star. As with all such purchases we recommend you find a local Sunbeam Tiger club for information regarding who repairs these things and have your prospective purchase checked out. Then buy the best you can afford. My suggestion is to stay away from cars that have been tarted up with chrome goodies and “hot” engines. This car is what it was, a great little sports car for Saturday drives. It doesn’t handle like a Porsche or go fast like a Corvette and it certainly isn’t a long distance GT car. The Series II with the Ford 289 engine and wider ratio gearbox is probably a better package but either car will serve you well if you remember what it was in its day and appreciate it for the wonderful frog that it is. Kissing it with a more powerful engine and chrome or billet add-ons will not make it a prince. Look for a solid basic car. Preferably not one that has wintered in Quebec in its youth.

In the coming weeks, we will share other recollections of cars and people we met in the sixties. We hope you enjoy them. You are encouraged to share your own experiences with the community, if you so wish and can keep it reasonably clean.