Car Show Classic: 1973 Sunbeam Rapier H120 – The Car I Wanted My Dad to Want

1974 Sunbeam Rapier H120_2

Last May 23, I was fortunate enough to have a piece published on CC, about a car my dad did buy: a 1966 Hillman Super Minx.  To mark a year of being a Curbivore, here’s the car I wanted my dad to buy to replace the Super Minx, but which he didn’t.

1968 Sunbeam Rapier_1

You may guess why I wanted Dad to buy a Rapier to replace the Super Minx. Given it was obvious he was going to buy a Chrysler product, as that was where he bought his cars for over twenty years, I therefore considered it the most valid potential successor; it was the fastest and best looking Chrysler product and therefore, using the irrefutable logic that the car Dad chose was the best, I knew it would be the best of the best. Irrefutable, at least in the crucible of informed discourse and challenging debate that is a school playground (aged nine).

1966 Sunbeam Rapier_4

The 1968 Sunbeam Rapier was the last in a series of cars, based initially on the Hillman Minx Audax series and, from 1968, on the Rootes Arrow range. All were sold above the Hillman models, trading on the sporting heritage of the Sunbeam brand.

Sunbeam was founded in Wolverhampton, England in 1877, as a maker of bicycles and by 1905, a separate car manufacturing business had been spun off, which by 1912 was a luxury marque competing with Rolls-Royce and Daimler. The company progressively got involved in racing and land speed record breaking, including achieving many records at Brooklands. During and after the Great War, Sunbeam built aero engines, some of which went on to power land speed record cars in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1921, Sunbeam merged with the French based, but British owned, Automobiles Darracq, creating Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq building Sunbeam cars, trolley buses and aero engines and Talbot cars in the UK, and Talbot-Darracq in France.

In 1935, Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq went in to receivership and the automotive interests were purchased by the growing Rootes Group, in competition with Jaguar. Rootes quickly prepared a range of two cars, which were both heavily based on the Hillman Minx, and badged them the Sunbeam-Talbot 10 and the Sunbeam-Talbot 2 litre.

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Production was suspended for the second world war and the first new post-war cars were the Sunbeam-Talbot 80 and 90, shown at the famous 1948 London Motor Show.

1955 Sunbeam Alpine_2

Sunbeam also offered the more sporting Alpine from 1954, but this was an almost coach-built limited volume car. Meanwhile, the Sunbeam-Talbots were looking dated by the mid 1950s, and the Minx was moving to the Audax series, from 1956.

1948 Hillman Minx Conv

Rootes took advantage of this, and the general British acceptance of badge engineering (to lesser or greater extents), to use the Audax as a basis for a new generation of Sunbeams, dropping the Talbot suffix for good.

1956 Sunbeam Rapier

The Rapier, and therefore the Sunbeam brand, was now clearly a Minx spin off, with a sporting intent, and more performance. The car was offered as a Coupe, or as Convertible, alongside the Minx convertible. Initially the Rapier came with a 1390cc engine, with OHV, as used in the Minx but with a higher compression ratio. The gearbox was a four speed, plus overdrive, with a steering column change mechanism. Suspension was by torsion bars at the front and leaf springs at the rear; the wheelbase, 96 inches. Competitors in the UK were essentially from BMC–the MG Magnette was probably the key competitor along with the Riley 1.5 litre. Ford and Vauxhall had no comparable compact sporting car at this time.

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From the off, the Audax Rapier was strong in rallying, gaining class wins in the Mille Miglia, Tulip and Alpine rallies in 1956, and building on this throughout the rest of the 1950s, including being the first British car to win the Monte Carlo Rally, in 1958. Much of Rootes’ publicity for the Rapier built on these achievements.

1966 Sunbeam Rapier

The Rapier then progressed through an evolution that was typical of Rootes at the time. The engine went to 1494cc in 1958 (known as the Rallymaster) and then to 1592cc and finally to 1725cc; disc brakes came in 1963; the tailfins grew; the two tone paint schemes varied and grille was changed from a design similar to its Hillman stablemates to a much more fussy and dated “traditional” style. What didn’t change was the distinctive and attractive rear roof line, which looped across the back of the car giving a large and panoramic rear window.

1967 Humber Sceptre_2

In 1962, Rootes supplemented the Audax Minx and the upmarket Singer Gazelle derivative with the Hillman Super Minx and Singer Vogue. The intention was to also replace the Rapier with a slightly different car, more closely matching the concept of competing products, such as the MG Magnette and the Vauxhall VX4-90, a sports saloon version of the Victor FB. This would have been a version of the Superminx, but with a higher power engine, and roof line that showed echoes of the Rapier’s previous style. But Rootes had a late change of mind, and this car came as the Humber Sceptre. Potentially, this was sharp move, giving Rootes something to compete with the ethos of the new breed of car epitomised by the Rover and the Triunph.

1967 Humer Sceptre_3

The reasons Rootes opted to change their mind are not openly recorded.  Potentially the goal was a response to the Triumph 2000 and Rover 2000, albeit at slightly lower slot in the market, or maybe Rootes spotted that the emerging compact luxury car would supersede the dated larger Humber Hawk and Super Snipe, or maybe the aim was to make space for a new Rapier that could be seen as the first British car to follow the concept of the Mustang and Barrracuda,  based on the Rootes Arrow (Hillman Hunter) platform.

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Photo from www.aronline.co.uk

The Barracuda reference may or may not be important; visually the car has some strong Barracuda references, especially in the style of the rear window and fastback. This was always contested by the lead stylist, Roy Axe, and as the photo above is dated April 1964 and uses a clear derivative of the previous Rapier rear window roof hoop feature, it suggests there is little reason to doubt him. At this time, the Rapier was planned to use the bonnet, front wings and windscreen of the Hunter. As development progressed, the Hunter wings–with the raised feature line at waist level–were dropped for a design with a much smoother profile. This, with the pillarless profile and the distinctive rear window, made for one the most attractive and individual British cars of the late 1960s.

1968 Sunbeam Rapier_4

The Rapier was actually based on the floorpan of the Hillman Hunter Estate, and the two cars shared taillights. The engine was the higher tune version of the familiar Rootes 1725cc OHV four-cylinder, with a four-speed gearbox and optional overdrive. The engine came in varying levels of tune, ranging from 61bhp for the basic Minx, 72bhp for the Hunter, 76bhp for Rapier and 79bhp for the Hillman GT.

1968 Sunbeam Rapier_3

There was also an entry-level Rapier, with the 72 bhp engine and a reduced level of trim and fittings, marketed as the Sunbeam Alpine. It lost out the blacked out C pillar, some internal fittings and instrumentation, but strangely gained fashionable high back front seats with an integral head rest design.

1974 Sunbeam Rapier H120_1

But Rootes had something else up their sleeves for the Rapier: a 93bhp version of the same engine with twin Weber carburettors, tuned by Holbay, who were long time tuners of Rootes engines. This was clearly the fastest Rapier and the fastest Rootes product until the Avenger Tiger came along. Why the car was named H120 is not clear–it did not have 120 bhp and certainly not capable of 120 mph either.

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Added to the twin Webers were restyled wheels and a revised boot lid with an integral spoiler. Strangely, Dad did not consider this be too cool for its own good (or maybe he did?).

The Rapier shared elements of the interior with other Arrow cars, but the dash was exclusive to the Sunbeam, along with the full range of instruments. It was initially built at Ryton, then Coventry and finally in Linwood, Scotland from 1969.

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The Rapier was announced to very positive reception at the 1968 London Motor Show, exactly twenty years after the first post war Sunbeam-Talbots, and was effectively a very attractive entrant in a class of one. Less than a year later, Ford announced the Capri. Conceptually, there was a similarity between them, as both were based on ordinary (in every sense) saloons, had two-door, fashionable fastback body styles and a premium position in the market compared with the donor car.

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Photo from www.car-from-uk.com

But the Capri had several advantages, not least a wide range of engines, options and trim levels, Ford’s marketing muscle and much larger dealer network, and a more compact size. By sales volume, the Rapier was never in the same league. It should perhaps be seen as a British personal luxury coupe to the Capri’s role as a pony car.

1974 Sunbeam Rapier H120_3

In 1972, the Holbay twin Weber engine was offered in the Hillman Hunter GLS, with a revised front grille and headlamp arrangement that linked to the Rapier as well. The Rapier received no complementary development, as Chrysler UK slowly but surely ran into the rocks. After the UK government bailout of Chrysler in 1975, the product range was quickly trimmed back. All the remaining cars were rebranded as Chryslers, the old Rootes brands of Hillman, Humber and Sunbeam died, and the Rapier was retired. In eight years, 46,000 had been built, a number that would have embarrassed Ford had the Capri not exceeded them by a factor of thirty. Yes, that was the reach of the Ford marketing machine and image. And also part of the appeal of the Rapier to me, as it didn’t have the aura of instant conformity to fashion that the Capri inevitably carried. It was bigger inside, had a bigger boot than the Capri and it came from the garage that Dad preferred. Seemed the obvious choice to me.

1974 Sunbeam Rapier H120_4

So, perhaps Britain’s best looking mainstream car of the late 1960s left little trace and few memories. Personally, I still admire its style and Rootes’s courage to go for it in 1964, and to beat the Capri to the market. BLMC never went for this part of the market (the two-door Marina Coupe was a very different animal) and Vauxhall had nothing until 1978, with the Cavalier Sportshatch.

The Rapier is notable for something else of international significance, though. It launched the career of Roy Axe; within seven years of its launch, Axe was Director of Design for Chrysler in Detroit. And I suspect that is something for which many may be quietly thankful.

Related reading: Ford Capri & Vauxhall Cavalier Sportshatch