The slick style of the Sunbeam Tiger puts one in mind of a small Shelby Cobra, and with good reason: Carroll Shelby himself was involved in its design.
Shelby’s A.C. Cobra wasn’t the only British sports car to benefit from Ford V-8 power. The Sunbeam Tiger boasted genuine Carroll Shelby involvement, and could be regarded as a sort of “Cobra junior.”
Sunbeam was the sportiest of several English brands controlled by Britain’s Rootes Group. Sunbeam had run Grand Prix events and Indianapolis and built sporting road cars before the Rootes takeover in 1935. Rootes marketed touring cars under the Sunbeam-Talbot badge, but not until the ’50s did the name appear on a sports car, the Sunbeam Alpine.
Seeking more performance for this trusty if timidly styled four-cylinder roadster, Rootes contracted with Shelby for a prototype with Ford small-block power. Dubbed the Tiger -- after Sunbeam’s 1928 land-speed-record car -- it debuted at the 1964 New York Auto Show and soon went into production in England.
Visually similar to the concurrent Sunbeam Alpine, the Sunbeam Tiger shared the Cobra’s 260-cid Ford V-8, but in milder tune than that 260-hp bomb. Still, its 164 hp was more than twice what the Alpine had and, at 9.5-seconds 0-60 mph, it was nearly twice as quick. The live-rear-axle and four-speed gear box were Ford’s, but the chassis was Sunbeam Alpine’s modified by Shelby with a stiffer suspension and rack-and-pinion steering. Brakes remained front discs and rear drums. Handling, roadholding, and ride comfort earned high marks, though the skinny tires and torquey V-8 added up to axle hop and poor traction off the line.
The Sunbeam Tiger boasted a Ford V-8, which gave it plenty of muscle, but ultimately spelled its doom when Sunbeam was acquired by Chrysler, who did not want a Ford-engined car in its lineup.
At $3499, the Sunbeam Tiger found 6495 buyers before an improved Tiger II went on sale in 1967. It had Ford’s 289-cid V-8 rated at 200-hp and badges that read “Sunbeam V-8” instead of “Powered by Ford 260.” Zero-60 times fell two seconds and top speed rose five mph. Most Cobra speed equipment could be fitted, including dual four-barrel carbs for up to 300-hp.
Sunbeam Tigers were production-class road-racing threats in America and rally winners in Europe. On the street, they were significantly quicker than the last of the big Healeys or the first of Triumph’s six-cylinder TRs. But it didn’t matter. Chrysler had bought into the Rootes group in 1964 and couldn’t countenance a Ford-powered car. The Sunbeam Tiger II was unceremoniously dumped during 1967.