The Family Cats (Pt. 1) - 1964 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I

Article and photography by Richard Butschi

The Sunbeam story begins in the bicycle shop of William Rootes, in Hawkhurst, England, in 1888. Rootes, along with sons Billy and Reginald, expanded into the auto business ten years later. Business boomed and by 1925, the Rootes Group conglomerate had grown into one of Britain’s largest car dealers, buying up smaller companies. In 1935, they acquired Clement Talbot, Ltd. and Sunbeam Motor Co. - both companies big into land speed records. In the early ‘20s, a Talbot was the first car to travel 100 miles in an hour, and a Sunbeam V12, called “the Tiger,” set a world speed record of 152.33 mph in 1926. In 1938, a Sunbeam named “Thunderbolt” powered by two “R-type” Rolls Royce aircraft engines (making 5000 hp!) set a record at Bonneville at 359.6 mph! The need-for-speed was a priority. In 1958, the Rootes group unveiled the Sunbeam Alpine – a stylish 4-cylinder, which was eventually “tweaked” for more horsepower and was very successful in major European races. But big-name racers like Stirling Moss and Ken Miles, were emphatic that it needed even more power to compete with the likes of Corvette, Austin-Healy and Jaguar.

The competition manager for Sunbeam, Norman Garrad, first headed to Italy and Enzo Ferrari, citing that a “powered by Ferrari” tag on the car would draw a lot of attention, but the deal fell through. After actually measuring some small American-made V8s with a yardstick, Garrad’s son, Ian, found that the Ford 260 cu.in. V8 might just be the ticket. Also at this time, Carroll Shelby was dropping Ford 260s into small, British-made cars (Bristols) and calling them “Cobras.” Shelby’s shop just happened to be located between Garrad’s home and the Rootes Group offices in CA. Coincidence? Shelby ended up agreeing to make a prototype from a basic Alpine for Rootes for $10,000 in just eight weeks. An overly-anxious Garrad also contacted racer Ken Miles to try his hand at a second prototype for comparison, resulting in $800 for engine work and $400 for red paint, in just one week.

Shelby’s more successful white Sunbeam was later shipped secretly to England for more test drives by the company heads. Owner, Lord William Rootes, although getting on in years, decided to drive it himself, but had his chauffer follow him. It wasn’t long that the chauffer returned and despairingly confessed, “I lost the old man.” A short time later, the Rootes Group ordered 3,000 260V8s with transmissions from Ford – the largest separate engine order in FMC history – eventually producing 7,067 Tigers in just over three years. Engines and trannies would be shipped to England for assembly and finished Sunbeams were returned to the U.S. Shelby didn’t get a build contract, but did receive a royalty check on each unit. Late production in ‘67 saw a new model, the Tiger Mark II, which had the new Ford 289, which was also going into the Cobras. Chrysler Corporation had been buying stock in Rootes and eventually took over the company. They tried to come up with a small V8 from their arsenal to replace the Ford engines, but couldn’t. They took a hit and stopped production of the Tiger entirely.

In 1967, John Watertor, of NW CR, was looking for a fun daily-driver and spotted an ad in the paper for a ‘64 Tiger in Waterloo with only 16,000 miles on it, paying a mere $2,000. He’s now celebrating 50 years with his Tiger and the odometer reads 120,000 miles. He’s also celebrating the fact that his investment of $2 grand is now worth in the upper 5 digit range. Watertor had some body work and paint done by Dan Costello, of Newhall, added a 4-bbl Holley carb with a Weiland intake manifold (which added 30 hp to about 200), along with new aluminum wheels and bigger tires. He has taken it easy on the Tiger in recent years, getting it to an occasional car show or short cruise. John and his wife, Madeline, also have a couple thoroughbreds in the stable – Corvettes, plus a second feline – a 1969 Jaguar XKE, which you can read about in Part II, next month.

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