Curbside Classic: Sunbeam Tiger – The Other Cobra

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The legend of how Carroll Shelby was inspired to create the Cobra–his idea was to stuff Ford’s new and very compact V8 into an elderly and underpowered little British roadster–is already well known. However, the fact that there was a copycat vehicle is not quite so legendary–and it probably has everything to do with the other car chosen as the beneficiary of a Ford V8 transplant.

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The AC Ace had a tube-frame chassis, four wheel-independent suspension–all draped within a racy, Italianesque aluminum body that inspired Shelby to inquire about a V8 version.

As for the Sunbeam Alpine, it was Rootes’ attempt to compete with the MGA and MGB, and was even more pedestrian than the Austin-based MGs of its origin. Sitting on a modified Hillman Husky station wagon platform, it was blessed with the finest kit that could be stolen from the Rootes parts bin: a 1,600 cc, 80-hp pushrod four engine, a live rear axle, and a body that even with its exaggerated fins (seen here in this version driven by Sean Connery in one of the early James Bond movies) was an obvious rip-off of the ’55-’57 Thunderbird. The resemblance wasn’t an accident; Rootes designer Ken Howe had previously worked at Ford.

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Like so many sports cars of its era, the Alpine’s primary target was the U.S., where it was hoped that 80% of the total production would be sold.  Like the T-Bird it imitated, the Alpine’s lack of power and hardly-stellar steering and handling relegated it more to the role of tourer than genuine sports car. Having seen what the little Ford V8 could do in the Ace, Rootes’ U.S. West Coast Sales Manager Ian Garrad contracted with Shelby to stuff the 164 hp, 260 cid engine into the Alpine. In his usual. rapacious way Shelby agreed, in exchange for $10k ($70k adjusted). The result was deemed to be good–still,  just for good measure, Ken Miles was asked to build a second prototype at his shop–which he did in just a few days, and for a total of $600.

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After the newly- and duly-named Tiger was green-lighted, Rootes gave the production job to Jensen, which built about 7,000 of the little bombs. Fortunately, by the time the Tiger got rolling, Rootes had modified the pointy fins to bring them closer to earth. Production started in 1964, but was ended prematurely in 1967, when Chrysler (ever so wisely) bought Rootes and pulled the plug on selling a Ford-engined car. Chrysler’s 273 cid LA engine wasn’t nearly as compact as the Ford mill, and its distributor was at the rear. The Tiger’s short prowl was over.

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This particular example, which was being groomed for sale, has a 271-hp HiPo 289 that its previous owner inserted in place of the two-barrel 260.  I was told by the knowledgeable folks at the Sports Car Shop, who are also active in vintage racing, that utilizing the full power of the 289 is can have unintended consequences, including damaging the spring shackle mountings and other aspects of an undercarriage intended for a 50-hp Hillman wagon. The original 260 goes along with the sale, and may well be re-installed, both for authenticity’s sake and the fact that 164 hp is about as much as a stock Tiger can handle.

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Keep in mind that the AC Ace needed some front- and rear-end modifications in its 289 incarnation, and was completely redesigned (with major help from Ford) with a totally new frame and suspension to handle the 427 and 428 engines (yes, contrary to myth, many of the “427″ Cobras were actually built with the 428 FE engine).

The Tiger has an undeniable charm and a lovely exhaust burble. But it never quite escaped its origins, and it always had a somewhat mixed image: Was it a poor man’s Cobra, or simply a shrunken T-Bird? And of course, the fact that Maxwell Smart drove one didn’t exactly help matters.