If you were to name a British sports saloon in the late 1970s that included the qualities of traditional sports cars, history, familiarity, relative affordability, high performance and innovation, then the names Talbot, Sunbeam and Lotus cover them pretty well. Talbot. Sunbeam. Lotus. Run them together and you’re there, aren’t you? All the right ingredients, all you need to do is to get them together in the right way?
Well, maybe, but it was certainly a memorable mix.
Let’s address those ingredients in the order the brochure quoted them.
Talbot was the name adopted by Peugeot when Chrysler called time, in 1978, on the Chrysler Europe adventure. Chrysler bailed out for two reasons – the losses in North America and the need to reduce baggage, and because the UK arm of the business was still teetering, three years after the UK Government had bailed out the business as an alternative to it being closed completely.
Peugeot bought the whole European business, including the UK branch (something Lee Iacocca said Chrysler should never have bought, and which was sold for a nominal £1, plus the debts), primarily for the French, UK and wider European market share and French production capacity. In the UK, Peugeot was now custodian of the old Rootes Group business, and around 8-10% of the UK market. The Talbot name fitted both the UK and French origins of the company, was owned through both sides of the family and made a logical fit. The cars were rebranded as Talbot, or Talbot-Simca in some markets, from August 1979. We know now, of course, that the long term forecast for Talbot was never strong and the medium term saw its demise. By 1985, the name had gone.
Sunbeam was an old Rootes Group brand, a name that came from one of the mergers Billy Rootes had engineered back in the 1930s, when he purchased the UK assets of Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq from the receivers. Sunbeam had been a true premium sports and luxury brand, perhaps equivalent to where Jaguar was in the 1960s (indeed William Lyons had tried to buy Sunbeam but Rootes got in first). From 1937, Rootes had sold a series of mostly badge engineered sports saloons and coupes under the Talbot-Sunbeam and later the Sunbeam brands, culminating in the mini-Barracuda Rapier (Alpine GT in North America). In the UK, you could perhaps see Sunbeam as Rootes’s Pontiac to Hillman playing the Chevy role. Sunbeam was also used as a mainstream brand in many European markets – the Hillman Hunter was often seen as a Sunbeam Arrow for example. Sunbeam as a brand was wound down in 1976 after the bailout as all the cars became Chryslers and the Rapier itself died, unreplaced.
The bailout came as Chrysler’s troubles in North America mounted. The UK arm had been persistently unprofitable for many years, under Rootes and Chrysler ownership, and any baggage had to be jettisoned. The French arm may have been in reasonable shape, but Chrysler gave the UK government an ultimatum – bail out, takeover or closure. In December 1975, the UK government accepted the inevitable route of least resistance and the company accepted a package of loans and Government coverage of losses totalling £160m. I think it is fair to say, from this point, that Chrysler’s UK adventure was officially a failure and the comparison with Ford must have hurt.
And what did the Government get for its money? Well, Chrysler committed to building the Alpine hatchback (Simca 1307/1308) at Coventry, to move production of the mid size Hillman Avenger to Linwood in Scotland, where the Hillman Imp was to be phased out and ageing Hunter/Arrow (below) was shipped out to Ireland for low volume contract manufacture.
The Government funded new product for the money, which was the main driver for Chrysler of course. Even with £160m, there was not going to be a completely new car, and time was also of the essence. Within 19 months from the bailout, the new car was on the market. Quite an achievement, for an organisation such as Chrysler UK that had not launched a new car for seven years.
I won’t belittle this achievement; it was substantial, even if the car was essentially the Hillman Avenger, reskinned and with three inches cut from the floorpan. But there had been something in the cupboard.
The Avenger (sold briefly as the Plymouth Cricket in the US) had come in 1970, and spent the next eleven years as a competitor to the Vauxhall Viva, Morris Marina and midway between the Ford Escort and Ford Cortina saloons. It was a perfectly serviceable, directly comparable, market competitive alternative to those cars and latterly Japanese equivalents; it was not competing for the enthusiasts’ choice against the Alfasud or Citroen GS, the drivers’ choice of the Fiat 128 or the innovations of the VW Golf. Or the reliability of the Japanese rivals.
Of course, by 1970, Chrysler was in charge in Coventry, and was planning to invest significantly in the Avenger. A wide range of body styles were planned for, including the two and four door saloons and five door estates that came to market, but also a light commercial, a coupe (known as R429, above, with very transatlantic styling of the period), and a shortened liftback model.
The plans for this were in the works back in 1970, but the lack of funds meant it didn’t come to market, until 1977 using Government money. I guess that makes the Sunbeam Chrysler UK’s Gremlin to the Avenger’s Hornet, albeit with a more modest reduction.
Chrysler made much of the speed of development in the early advertising; some of the sketches used have been dated to the early 1970s.
The comparative dimensions for the Avenger and Sunbeam were length 161 inches and wheelbase 98 inches; the Sunbeam was 151 inches and 95 inches. The style was markedly different from the Avenger’s 1970 aesthetic; the Sunbeam matched the sharp edge late 1970s Chrysler Europe look very well (it shared Alpine tail lights and the second series model shared Horizon headlamps) to the extent that the parentage could be missed, visually. The only externally visible link was the Avenger’s front doors skins, although the screen angle and consequently door frames were different.
The Sunbeam was intended to replace the Hillman Imp; effectively the Imp was all but dead in the marketplace by 1975 and the lack of a replacement was a major factor in the decline of the Linwood factory and the fate of the whole business. But even here there was a twist.
The immediate expectation of many would be that the Sunbeam would use the powertrain from the Avenger, probably focusing on the 1300cc rather than the 1600cc engines. There was also an 1100cc version of the Avenger engine in the Rootes/Chrysler engineering cupboard, albeit never used. But, by some accounts at Government insistence to keep the Linwood foundry and machine shop active, Chrysler offered a 930cc version of the Imp’s engine, installed in line and driving the rear wheels. Still, 1300 and 1600cc options, using pure Avenger drivetrains formed the bulk of the range.
The interior used a lot of Chrysler Alpine, and was also found in the Avenger from its 1976 refresh. Many models had four seats with split rear buckets, rather than a bench. The liftback was simply a flat glass panel with a trim surround only, with a high lip; a low cost legacy of the design’s origins as a fashion conscious and a low key link to the Imp. Indeed, the side window profile echoed the Imp as well, subtly.
Chrysler therefore had a car that matched the Vauxhall Chevette/Opel Kadett City and Toyota Starlet (P60) very closely. The equivalent Ford was by now the front wheel drive Fiesta; the Escort was a little longer and defiantly still a saloon. Other European competitors, Renault, VW, Peugeot, Fiat and BLMC were all now front wheel drive, on bespoke platforms, not cobbled together from larger cars.
But with rear wheel drive, the relatively large by class standards engines and the new marque’s ambitions, there was another comparative criterion with the Escort. The Sunbeam was ideal to go rallying.
Rootes had a strong history of rallying, going back to the Sunbeam-Talbot saloons and Sunbeam Rapiers of the 1950s. The Avenger had some rally credibility as well, although it was less successful and at a lower level than the big budget Ford Escort operations.
The Avenger success had been around the Tiger variant, with a 100bhp 1.6 litre engine, tuned up with a special cylinder head and twin Weber carburettors. The Sunbeam soon appeared in 1600ti form (despite the naming, still with carburettors) and whilst it could and would go into motorsport, it was not in the same classification as the headline taking Escorts. But that’s where the third leg of the naming triangle came in.
Lotus, by the late 1970s, had moved from producing cars that could be assembled at home to producing cars that could be compared (and contrasted) with some of the great names. Cars like the 1976 Esprit and 1974 Elite were not only good enough for James Bond, but also debuted Lotus’s own engine, rather than an engine derived from a Ford engine. The 907 series engine was of (almost) pure Lotus design and manufacture, and had first debuted in the Jensen Healey sports car in 1972, and was one of the first mass produced 16V twin cam engines. Versions of it powered the variants of the Lotus Esprit through to 1999, latterly with turbocharging.
And the “pure Lotus” bit? The story, that personally I take with a pinch of salt, goes that Colin Chapman saw the 1967 Vauxhall slant-4 OHC block and realised it had exactly the same bore spacing as his planned 900 series engine, so he negotiated the purchase of some engines and blocks to speed his development programme. Personally, I think seeing the engine and fixing the bore spacing came in that order, and Chapman used a block based on the Vauxhall design, openly, albeit cast in aluminium for the Lotus versions. The Lotus DOHC head would also fit a Vauxhall block.
Talbot, through the old Rootes competitions department in Coventry approached Lotus in 1977 for a 2174 cc, DOHC 16 valve twin Dellorto carburettor version of the engine, known as the 911 series, specifically for a rallying Sunbeam and the necessary homologation (and image building) cars, coupled to a five speed ZF gearbox with a dogleg first gear. Special trim, Lotus badges, big wheels and black and silver paint completed the package. Power was 150 bhp, torque 150lbft. And maybe 18-20 mpg. By 1979, the car was ready.
Partly built cars were shipped from Linwood in Scotland to Lotus in Norfolk, in eastern England, and then back to Coventry for final finishing. All yours for £7000, say £35000 now. Around the price of a VW Golf GTi.
The press reaction was positive, albeit caveated by the observation that you needed to understand the car to really enjoy it. Performance was 0-60 in around 8 seconds and up to 125mph, depending on how well and recently it been tuned. The closest competitor in the UK at least was probably the Ford RS1800, with the Cosworth DOHC engine and the Vauxhall Chevette (T car) with a 16V DOHC version of the Vauxhall slant 4, both cars that had also been developed to aid rallying. indeed, with the clear Lotus link, one could the Sunbeam was in some ways a successor to the Ford Lotus Cortina as much as a competitor to the RS1800 or Vauxhall Chevette HS.
Talbot went rallying, and with a lot of effort and budget did so successfully, with the Sunbeam Lotus. The RWD Escort was now entering its twilight years, the Chevette was not factory supported (under GM rules, the dealers had to pay for the rally team) and the all-conquering 4WD Audi Quattro was a couple of years away.
In 1980, Henri Toivonen won the British round of the World Rally Championship, the notorious car breaking RAC Rally and in 1981 the Talbot team took the Manufacturers’ Championship title, with Guy Frequelin taking a close second in the Drivers’ Championship. But, from 1982, the Audi Quattro and Lancia 037 were dominant and by 1985 Peugeot were rallying the 205.
When you see Toivonen driving like this, you realise why rally drivers have a fly off handbrake, rather than a rear wiper.
One customer was convinced – the Greater Manchester Police bought a fleet of unmarked Sunbeam Lotuses. How they got these past the budget people and the fleet garage manager remains one of life’s mysteries.
These were also second series cars, distinguished by larger headlamps (actually taken directly from the Talbot Horizon) and new rear lights. The feature car is a second series example, recently offered at a classic auction in the UK.
The Sunbeam, and Avenger, endured to 1981, when Peugeot closed the whole of the Linwood operation. The Sunbeam had sold some 200,000 copies in four years, including 2200 Lotus variations – not bad numbers for what it was, but it was never going to be a great or long lived car. The Avenger did 700,000 in Europe, and lived on in South America (in a range of brands from Dodge to VW) until 1990. Neither were directly replaced, though the Talbot Samba covered the lower end of the Sunbeam range and the existing Talbot Horizon (Euro Omnirizon) covered the Avenger’s spot in a changing market.
Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. All the right ingredients, in the wrong order and served medium rare.
(Hat tip to aronline.co.uk for the development photos)