Q-cars are nothing new. While they’re more popular than ever in the 21st century, the trend started several decades ago – and the Sunbeam Tiger is proof. Take one Sunbeam Alpine Series IV, a car styled as innocuously as a convertible MGB, then shoehorn a 4.2-litre V8 into the nose of it. Change the steering box for a rack to improve precision, add a tougher Salisbury rear axle along with a Panhard rod to the rear suspension to help keep the thing on the tarmac – and voilà, a cut-price Cobra alternative.
The Tiger came about after Ian Garrad, Rootes’ US West Coast manager, watched a sports car race that saw Shelby Cobras trounce the opposition. He reckoned there was a market for a hot Alpine, so he approached Carroll Shelby to see how feasible such a car would be to build. Within a month Shelby had a prototype ready and, thanks to the relatively small amount of re-engineering involved in the metamorphosis from Alpine to Tiger, the production car was developed in just nine months.
The first examples were sold in the US during 1964 but the car wouldn’t reach Britain until the following year. From the outset the Tiger was developed for export only (and specifically the American market), as Jensen, which was contracted to build the cars, didn’t have the capacity to meet early demand.
Which one to buy?
As the Tiger was designed with the US market specifically in mind, UK cars are rare. Finding a US car is generally easier, and cheaper. A MkII version was marketed briefly in 1967, again for export only; just ten right-hand-drive cars were officially built. This second derivative featured a 289cu in (4727cc) engine pushing out 200bhp; top speed rose to 125mph, and is significantly more valuable than the Mk1. The plug was pulled in June 1967, when just 6551 MkIs and 534 MkIIs had been built.
Performance and specs
Engine 4265cc V8
Power 164bhp @ 4400rpm
Torque 258lb ft @ 2200rpm
Top Speed 118mph
Fuel Consumption approx 18mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• Ford supplied its small-block V8 in its lowest state of tune for the Tiger, so there’s little to worry about unless it’s been badly neglected.
• The engine was prone to overheating with its original cooling system, but cars fitted with the original radiator are few and far between as they’ve generally been uprated by now.
• The original Ford Autolite carburettor wasn’t up to the job of feeding such a big powerplant, which is why most owners have replaced it with a Carter or Holley on an alloy manifold.
• All it takes to keep the V8 trouble-free is an oil change every 3000 miles.
• If the car doesn’t run cleanly on all eight, remember that the spark plugs at the back of the engine are awkward to get to and are sometimes left in long after they should have been replaced. One of these has to be changed from within the car, via an access panel in the bulkhead.
• The Tiger’s four-speed gearbox is more or less bomb-proof – although the rest of the transmission doesn’t last forever.
If the car has been driven hard, the universal joints in the propshaft will be ready for replacement.
• The Tiger’s suspension struggles to contain the car under full power. If the car has been driven really hard the Panhard rod could have been torn from its mountings
• The Tiger looks great on wire wheels, but the original 13x41/2J design was too fragile to cope with the torque levels – which is why alloy wheels are popular.
• A lack of factory-applied rust protection takes its toll, although the monocoque is strong and most cars have now been subject to a full restoration.
• Key areas to check are the sills. These are essential to the car’s strength, so make sure all three layers of the sill are present. Without taking the car to pieces that’s not possible so, if work has been done, ask for photographic evidence.
• Next check for rust on all the body panels, around the headlamps, along the base of the windscreen and at the back of the engine bay as well as under the master cylinders.
• The bottom edges of the doors are rot-prone, and the doors drop through worn hinges. The front edge and the underside are the most common rot spots
• Floorpans can corrode badly, so lift the carpets in the front footwells to see what state the sheet metal is in. The area around the accelerator pedal is especially rot-prone, and try rocking the seats – they may be mounted on crumbling metal
• The electrics are straightforward, but age and heat takes its toll on connections and some of the components.
• The original interior and dashboard trim isn’t especially durable but good-quality repro items are available, and they’re not expensive. Most seats will have been re-trimmed by now.
1959: Sunbeam Alpine goes on sale, with a 1494cc version of the Rapier engine, four-speed manual gearbox and Laycock overdrive
March 1963: Carroll Shelby is contracted to build V8-engined Alpine, codenamed Thunderbolt
December 1963: Restyled Alpine (Series IV) is launched, with smaller fins
April 1964: Tiger MkI makes debut in New York
June 1964: Tiger production starts at Jensen Motors, in left-hand-drive form only
March 1965: Tiger goes on sale in the UK, with right-hand drive
January 1967: Tiger MkII, officially for US and export market only, has 4727cc V8, wider gear ratios, egg-crate grille and trim revisions
June 1967: Final Tiger is produced
January 1968: Final Alpine is made
Key clubs and websites
• thesunbeamsparescompany.co.uk - Sunbeam Spares Company, great for parts
• www.sunbeamsupreme.co.uk - Sunbeam Classic Spares
• www.sunbeam-alpine.co.uk - Alpine West Midlands, Solihull.
• www.sunbeamtiger.co.uk - Sunbeam Tiger Owners Club
• www.tigersunited.com - Tigers United club, including links to clubs worldwide
Summary and prices
The Tiger has never been more sought after than it is now. While it has a well-deserved reputation for being a real handful, it also makes a surprisingly civilised tourer.
In the past few years prices have spiralled and there is no such thing as a cheap Sunbeam Tiger any more. Un-restored examples can still be found for around £10,000 but show-condition MkIs are now £22,000-37,000. Although the US market is buoyant, cars are frequently brought back into the UK.
Meanwhile, in the USA prices for the ultra-rare MkII are being pushed up by speculators, and the initial association with Carroll Shelby has led to the car being tagged the Shelby Sunbeam Tiger. While a Tiger will never be worth as much as an equivalent Cobra, prices are moving in only one direction, with cars regularly sold for between $100,000-$200,000.