The Sunbeam Tiger, from Rootes Motors Inc. and containing a high-performance V8 engine, was in production from 1964 until 1967. The original Sunbeam Tiger, which held the world land speed record in 1925, inspired the name. The Sunbeam Alpine was in production since 1953, but this under-powered car couldn’t compete in the world market.
Ferrari was approached and asked about refurbishing the engine on the Alpine without a positive outcome. Carroll Shelby’s name came up, and he was approached to help with the redesigning of the Alpine. This was shortly after his similar successful British AC Cobra project. He agreed and found that the Ford 260 V8 was light enough and could fit into the engine compartment with relative ease. Shelby got permission from Brian Rootes’ manufacturing manager for an expenditure of $10,000 over the estimated eight-week design period. The company owner, Lord Rootes, knew nothing about the scheme.
The Ford engine is less than four inches longer than the Sunbeam Alpine’s original four-cylinder and has double the power. With the V8 installed, the Tiger is about 20 percent heavier than the Alpine, so they made some suspension changes before installing the V8. The engine width was a problem, and a rack and pinion system replaced the original steering mechanism, partially to provide more room, although the frame also needed some modification. The end product, however, was the V8 shoehorned into the Alpine without any changes to the body sheet metal on the outside.
The prototype, nicknamed the “white car,” was to the point where it was doing road tests and trial runs in the Los Angeles area by the end of April 1963. The outcome was more successful than expected. The Tiger, equipped with a four-speed standard, had as much raw power as the XKE Jaguar with a far smaller price tag to the consumer. To Shelby’s dismay, he didn’t take part in the manufacturing process, which was done in the U.K. although he did receive am undisclosed royalty on each unit sold.
Lord Rootes was a bit miffed when he found out about the project and insisted on testing the car himself so the “white car” Tiger prototype was shipped back to the U.K., and he liked it! Rootes was so impressed that he contacted Henry Ford II directly and placed an initial order for 3,000 engine/transmission combinations—the largest order that Ford Co. ever received from a manufacturer. Normally, from this point to production takes about three or four years, but Rootes Motor Inc. planned to unveil the Sunbeam Tiger at the 1964 New York Motor Show, only eight months away.
Jenson Manufacturing did previous work with the Rootes Motor Inc. and so took on the job. The Tiger was in full production by June 1964. Ford provided the engine, and Borg-Warner supplied the fully synchromesh four-speed manual transmission in the first few units until Ford could produce enough Mustang four-speeds to meet the demand. The bulk of the work was all completed by U.K.-based companies. Some of the production methods were a bit unorthodox, such as having to take a sledgehammer to the primed and painted fire wall to slide the engine into the compartment, but within three months Rootes managed to have 300 units a month leaving the assembly line, with most of them bound for the American market.