Pity the poor Rootes Group. Proof, according to many, that like BL, that the whole does not always equal the sum of the parts.
Rootes always lay in the shadow of the companies brought together under BL. Whatever sector it competed in its brands were always the second choice for British consumers. This may explain why the company embraced wholesale the 50s and 60s obsession with Americana, styling its cars in the be-chromed American way, pushing exports and eventually selling out to Chrysler.
It may also explain the Sunbeam Alpine, a plucky MGB competitor with the sort of fins that made Americans go weak at the knees. The Alpine was a great and popular car, but today it decidedly lacks the wide appeal of the B. Despite being arguably a better car.
The same fate has befallen the Alpine’s big brother, the Tiger. Back in the 60s car marketers didn’t need to faff about conjuring up new combinations of consonants and vowels with which to name their cars, they just looked visited London Zoo. If you wanted to suggest speed and aggression then the animal kingdom supplied the ready answer. Tiger was Rootes’ sporty badge.
The Tiger was born when the omnipresent Carroll Shelby suggested shoehorning a 260 cu in (4.2L) Ford V8 into the Alpine, to which Rootes readily agreed. The company saw a chance to expand in America and give the Alpine a halo car with which to out-compete the B.
As a car bore I’ve always known about the Alpine and Tiger, but never driven one. They’ve always been a bit off-radar. So when we got one in for filming I was intrigued.
The Tiger was built for a few short years in the early 60s before Chrysler threw a hissy fit about the use of Ford engines. In that time Sunbeam sold quite a few, mostly to America. Sadly nothing replaced it.
The Alpine is a slightly ungainly shape. In photos it looks very dated and of its time, a curious mix of European and American styling cues. In the flesh it works a little better, the low front looking purposeful, the fins stylish but subdued. It feels a little slab-sided though.
Whereas a B is cramped and basic inside, the Tiger is spacious, comfortable and almost luxurious. The dash has veneer and there is a proper ventilation system. The Tiger feels really well screwed together, despite production being out-sourced to Jensen, never the last word in consistent quality.
Fire up the Tiger and any niggles or doubts evaporate. This car sounds simply and unquestionably gorgeous. It rumbles. It burbles. It’s makes almost as good a noise as a Stag, possibly the burbliest of 60s burblers.
I get comfortable – surprisingly easy with the seat, pedals and wheel well placed, and snick the car into gear. Nosing out into the road the steering feels heavy but precise. It is slightly wooden and uncommunicative, but not nearly as bad as a MGB. The gearbox, though, is a delight, slick and precise, not that you really need it much as the V8 is so tractable.
The Tiger feels quick, but not dramatically so. It was probably scintillating in its day, but today the performance feels sedate compared to an E Type. This isn’t a bad thing – the car is more of a GT cruiser than a sports car, the handling assured rather than fidgety and exciting. The Tiger has a reputation for poor handling but it feels undeserved – it is predictable and pointable. The big Ford motor is set well back in the chassis so it doesn’t feel particularly nose heavy. The ride is similarly forgiving, a little soft for British roads but clearly set up for America’s blacktops.
The Sunbeam feels of its time and shows its age more than a B. It is a better car but the dimensions, styling and scuttle shake firmly nail it to its era. The Tiger V8 was a bold and clever idea that feels like it had legs, particularly when you consider how profligate BL was with the Buick V8. Today the Tiger seems to sit between two stools – neither as humdrum and everyday as a B or as exotic as a Cobra. I think that’s a good thing if you’re in the market for a distinctive, rare convertible because values are correspondingly low. There is much to like and little to detract about the Sunbeam – whether you opt for a full fat Tiger or a lowly Alpine. ____________________ Graham Eason www.greatescapecars.co.uk 01527 893733