Carshow Classic – 1955 Sunbeam Mk3 Convertible – Yearning For A Lost Age

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Badge engineering took many forms over the years. It is still widely associated, in Europe at least, with British Leyland and its predecessor BMC, but perhaps the leading British exponent was the Rootes group. Rootes not only used the same basics across differing brands, but also created one of their smaller but fondly remembered brands from the assets of a takeover of a financially failed business.

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The Sunbeam-Talbot 90 Drophead Convertible also qualifies as one of my favourite convertibles. Not an obvious choice, perhaps. It’s not as glamorous as a Jaguar, Rolls-Royce or Mercedes, as fast as a Ferrari, as focussed as the Mazda MX-5, as stereotypically British as a Morris Minor or an MGA, or as American as a Lincoln Continental or the Edsel.

Quite why is entirely personal preference, rather than being based on any scientific (or even pseudo-scientific) assessment. Put simply, it was a Rootes group product, I’m a Rootes fan, and this was Rootes’ most glamorous and stylish car. Simple as that.

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Sunbeam and Talbot were separate brands owned by the Anglo-French Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq (or STD) combine. By 1935, Sunbeam had a proud history over some 30 years or more of building almost everything from bicycles and motor bikes to cars, trolley buses and aero-engines. Along the way, the company eventually focused on high value, low volume cars, and used motor sport, principally record breaking and early grand prix racing. Sunbeams were a familiar sight at Brooklands, and names like Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell featured regularly in Sunbeam’s history.

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Talbot, meanwhile, had stared as a joint venture between Adolphe Clément-Bayard (French) and Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, 20th Earl of Shrewsbury (British, as you may have guessed), initially building cars in UK based on French designs, initally known as Clément-Talbot, and later known as Talbots. In 1919, this company was purchased by Darracq of France, to create Talbot-Darracq, which failed in 1935 at which time the British assets were purchased by the Rootes Group. Talbots of this era are now recognised as being arguably some of the best engineered, by Georges Roesch, and specified cars of their era, and a match for any other sporting and luxury car. Sunbeam was added to the stable in 1920, creating Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq, or STD.

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The whole STD combine failed in 1935, and the French and British companies went separate ways.

Rootes bought the UK business, the existing Sunbeam range went whilst the reportedly profitable Talbots were allowed to continue for a short period. In 1938 a new brand Sunbeam-Talbot brand was launched, based on existing Hillman and Humber models. The range went from 4 Litre, based on the larger Humber Snipe, to the 2 Litre based on the Hillman Minx chassis, which just made it to the market before the war.

After the war, only the smaller car re-appeared, and was produced in relatively small volumes until 1948.

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Like many great British cars, the Sunbeam-Talbot 80 and 90 made their first public appearance at the 1948 London Motor Show, alongside the Morris Minor, the Land-Rover and the Jaguar XK120.

The Sunbeam-Talbot 90 was itself a development of the 1938 Sunbeam-Talbot 2 litre saloon built on the same chassis, and therefore was closely related to the 1938 Hillman Minx Magnificent, but with an all new and elegantly styled body. The Sunbeam-Talbot 90 had a 65 bhp, 1944 cc straight four overhead valve engine shared, in side valve form, with contemporary Humbers, Rootes’ upscale brand. The car, in Mark 1 form at least, had beam axles front and back with semi-elliptic springs. The 1.2 litre version, known as the 80, was more closely based on the pre-war Sunbeam-Talbot Ten, and had 47 bhp from an overhead valve version of the Minx engine.

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Significant changes came in 1950, for the Mark II. A new chassis frame, with independent front suspension, a larger 2.2 litre, 70 bhp engine, shared again with Humber, though only the Sunbeam-Talbot had overhead valves, and styling revisions to raise the headlights, in a similar way to the Morris Minor at the same time. The car was now capable of 85 mph and 0-60 in around 20 seconds. In 1952, power was increased to 77 bhp.

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Rootes used the car extensively in motorsport, particularly rallying, with many class and outright wins, some by a promising young driver named Stirling Moss, who finished second in the 1952 Monte-Carlo rally.

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The car was one of the last exponents of suicide doors in this sector of the market, alongside the Rover P4 (seen alongside the 1954 MK III saloon), on which such doors endured until 1964. The rear doors featured an unusual draught and water seal arrangement with the quarter light, essentially consisting of a seal trapped between the faces of the glass panes, and almost giving a pillarless effect

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The manufacturing logistics were somewhat complex, even convoluted. The bodies were pressed by British Light Steel Pressings, a Rootes company, in London, assembled, painted and trimmed by Thrupp and Maberley, Rootes’ specialist body builder in north London and then shipped up to Coventry for final assembly at Rootes’ Ryton assembly plant. Engines and transmissions were built in central Coventry. The Convertible was completed by Thrupp and Maberley.

 

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The exterior might have had the feel of old English sports saloon, but with a more modern style than, say, a contemporary Rover, but the interior always had an American feel, in a typical Rootes fashion. Notice also how the instrument pod and glovebox are interchangeable, for markets driving on the right.

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It is hard to think that an interior mirror with a clock within would ever feature on a Rover, for example.

Actually, the Sunbeam-Talbot was, or at least aspired to be, more like a compact Jaguar than a Rover. It was for someone who wasn’t too worried about the discretion that a Rover presumed. Competing cars would have been the BMC Wolseley, Riley and MG saloons, although the Sunbeam-Talbot was prodcued in smaller volumes.

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One off-shoot of the Sunbeam-Talbot 90 was the first Sunbeam Alpine roadster, seen previously seen on CC. This was actually a private venture by Rootes dealers George Hartwell, and used a body based on but separate to the saloon and convertible, and which was built by Thrupp and Maberley. Total production of the Alpine was around 1500 cars, with the majority going to North America.

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There was no Sunbeam-Talbot 90 Mk III; Rootes dropped the Sunbeam-Talbot branding in favour of Sunbeam alone, and the car became the Sunbeam MK III, although the bonnet badge on occasion called it the Sunbeam Supreme. Sunbeam had been used for some overseas markets since 1938, rather than Sunbeam-Talbot, incidentally. Power was up again, to 80 bhp, there were styling additions with some very Buick like portholes and revised air intakes. But essentially, this was now an old car, and Rootes had the new Sunbeam Rapier ready to roll.

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The Rapier was based on the forthcoming Audax series Minx, but with a more strongly styled two door Coupe or Convertible monocoque body, and was significantly more compact and lighter (2200 lb rather than 2900lb) than the old Sunbeam Mk III. The Sunbeam looked like an old car,and under the skin it was, with large elements of the 1938 Minx within. The new car was based on the new Minx, and came to market ahead of it.

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The launch of the Rapier ahead of the Minx was similar to the process VW followed twenty years later, when launching the Golf (VW Rabbit) after the Scirocco – the saloon, commercially important for volume, came after the lower volume, higher image coupe.

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The Rapier went on to achieve much higher volumes than the Sunbeam-Talbot 90 and its variants, but the special feeling was perhaps not there. It was the passing of a brand, which is always a sad feeling, and more importantly perhaps the passing of a type of car.