(first posted 6/22/2015) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A handsome vehicle with more than a touch of pre-war style; I did wonder if the mysterious clock mirror might be in one but couldn’t find any pictures of that feature. I remember seeing a slightly rough saloon version of these about 30 years ago round the back of a pub in Essex (no camera on me at the time sadly). I do, however, have a picture my Dad took around 1956/57 of one being used in a Carnival procession.
Nice convertible almost Buick like in some ways.
Another great write up Roger. Thank you. Most of us yanks know very little about the long and storied history of the British auto industry. You are educating us a piece at a time.
That is a handsome car. I love the bustleback, and to my eyes there isn’t a bad line there. It would be great for cruising through the South Downs on a summer’s day, picnic basket in the boot.
One classy detail is the steering wheel boss, staying upright while the wheel rotates around it, so the Sunbeam logo is always properly vertical. You can’t do that with an airbag!
Attractive little car, though I prefer the less fussy detailing of the earlier beige sedan – no portholes and a less busy grille design. Also, those pillarless rear doors are quite unusual–exposed upper hinge and concealed lower? Though I suppose that allows for a more robust door than an entirely frameless window design.
Great color on the convertible too, especially with that interior.
Interesting! From the clue of the mirror-clock I was guessing something in the 1930s. I didn’t know those were still around in 1955.
All the shapes and details on this car look more central Euro than British. The dashboard, taillights, seats, license light … all would be more at home on a Skoda or Borgward of that era. They don’t resemble anything on a Morris or Austin or Jaguar.
The spare behind the rego plate under the load floor in its own compartment is typical of British cars of the era, the placement though not always as obvious is identical to the Morris Minor.
I have a 1955 Sunbeam Talbot Convertible Coupe with the mirror – clock.
with LHD, in the USA.
I like how it combines the practical benefits of “pontoon”/”envelope” body with the prewar look, separate front fenders – remind me of the Tatra T87. What I strongly dislike, though, is a metallic paint on such a curvaceous body – just doesn’t look right: no “correct” reflections, only homogeneous “shine”.
I think the beige saloon would have originally had semaphore indicators; the orange turn indicators look like later additions both front and rear.
Lovely car; I recall seeing the convertible at the New York Auto Show in the early ’50s! I wished there were more Alpines around as well.
For those like me not knowing what a Sunbeam Rapier is…
The Sunbeam Rapier looks like the Sudebaker Starliner coupe.
Raymond Loewy did both…..
So, that’s where Bangle got it. Only, he managed to make it look like it was taken from some other car and welded onto a BMW.
Me again. Although the first Bangle trunk pictured was soon facelifted to look a little more normal and subsequently blended in, influencing sedan design worldwide, the original is still totally inexplicable.
Desoto did it better in 1937.
“Aw, Roger, no fair.”, he declared, grinning.
One would rather have to see this very car to remember a detail like the mirror clock, as it certainly predates the build date of the vehicle by the measure of an entire war!
Those Sunbeams have wonderful shapes. The Brits did such nice detailing in those years with subtle body creasing. Even the little Austin A-30/35 has nice “speed lines” on its fenders.
The American design ethos nearly ruined me in the late ’50s as the cars seemed to be styled to impress single-digit-aged me rather than a grown person.
The only thing I don’t get is why the European and British insisted on fitting column shifts on cars with separate front seats for two. Why put up with an ergonomic dead end like that if not for extra seating space?
Also, is that a spare tire tray behind the number plate? I like the way it fits against the trunk lid.
Am I answering my own question by wondering if non power assisted large cars were considered easier and/or safer to drive if the shifting hand didn’t leave the environs of the steering wheel?
More likely it was seen as the modern thing to do.
These cars I bet were in high demand when they were about 10 or 15 years old has a pleasure car for the newly retired. What a great car for a drive in the country in fabulous style. A style that the kids wouldn’t have bothered with. Thanks for the great writeup.
Thank you for another great read,a handsome though rather old fashioned looking car by 1955.I also think it has a touch of Buick in it’s looks especially those bulbous wings(fenders) and the “ventiports”.
I always loved the Sunbeam Talbots – particularly the portholes and that unusual rear quarter light. I never got to ride in one, so I didn’t know about the column change or the terrible speedo, or the clock. Always loved the Rapier too, which was really a souped-up Hillman Minx Californian – the Californian being left out of the Audax range.
What a charming car. As sad as the stories are involving the British car industry in the 1970s, those of the first decade after the war are wonderful stories. There is such tradition in the British design aesthetic that was quite old fashioned by American standards. But those of us who are fans of American cars of the late prewar period, the English gave us a few more years to enjoy that look.
I am a fan of that soft metallic green, particularly paired with that deep red leather. A beautiful car!
Rootes called their column shift finger tip control, YMMV. The Rapier took the rally car favourite on its very first outing with Peter Harper at the wheel putting the heavier Sunbeam out of the sporting business.
Convertible looks great. Sedan really should’ve been a two-door if that was the look they were after – it looks misproportioned with such a thick B-pillar so far forward and that long, conjoined quarter window.
Funnily enough, since I just praised the GM Colonnade sedans for the same thing…maybe its’ the detailing, maybe its’ the S-T’s overall CUV height and weight, maybe its’ because the Colonnades were part of the street furnishings in my earliest childhood memories and I’ve only ever seen one Sunbeam-Talbot sedan in person at an all-British car show a few years ago.
*height and width, not weight.
Very nice and though normally I’m, not much of a fan of green on any car, this light shade really compliments the car. It sure likes like a comfortable interior too.
No Mike sadly it’s not particularly comfortable, in the back seat anyhow. As Roger says, it’s an old, old design that goes back to the 30s. Like many cars of that era, the back axle is mounted too far forward, right under the back seat and it lets you know it’s there. And the back seat is flat and mounted ridiculously high to clear the axle travel, so you’re perched up on a shelf, even in the sedan.
While the portholes say ’60s Buick, mostly I’m seeing a 3/4 scale ’46-47 Packard.
The interior details are fascinating.
Looks like an overdrive switch in the steering wheel hub?
I’m guessing that is an ashtray in the middle of the floor?
Snaps for a tonneau cover?
No idea what that round dial? below the radio is.
Trafficator switch on the steering hub like most British cars of the era.
Looks like an overdrive switch in the steering wheel hub? – very likely to have overdrive
I’m guessing that is an ashtray in the middle of the floor? – I’d concur
Snaps for a tonneau cover? – yes
No idea what that round dial? below the radio is. – rev counter, I think
Looking at the rear-3/4 shot I can’t help but imagine a fastback coupe. I have a feeling that earlier saloons may have had a smoother roofline. I have seen a few of these at car club events or shows, they are very elegantly styled and as a sedan are not that expensive. Thanks for the history too, I did not realise the extent of the pre-war carry over, at least the ohv conversions were a few years ahead of the Hillman or Humber cousins.
Sorry-late to the party! just seen this site. I am the lucky owner of Sunbeam Mk3 UKR 773-the green coupe-for the last 20 years. it was first registered in 1955-like myself! I will try to answer some of the points raised. The styling is a mix of British-Ted White is credited as the designer-and US. it is said the Loewy studio had a hand in some of the details-hence the Buick like portholes. The mirror is unique to the coupe. The chrome ashtray is in the front-useful for a pipe! The column change was standard and is quite good-several have had floor-change conversions. The circle in the dashboard is where the rev counter would go. the overdrive switch is in the hub and works very well-car will still do 80 if pushed! The back seats are a little high for passengers at speed. A great car for driving on the open road and waving to people!
I had a 1956 Mk III for a year in 1966, when I was a student. Great car in a straight line, but heavy, rather sloppy steering. Mine had a rust problem – the sills had practically rotted away, and a friend of mine had one which had rust issues where the body met the chassis. But they were very elegant – and very comfortable, quiet and refined.
Driven briskly by Grace Kelly along the winding roads of Monaco in the 1955 film To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant as her nervous passenger. Great car and beautiful driver.
And here they are.
FWIW, Just last night I watched a Youtube video somewhere in the UK, where an Urban Explorer visited [trespassed] on a large overgrown storage lot and a couple of barns, and the predominant vehicle was the post-war Sunbeam-Talbot; multiple saloons, 2 and 4 passenger dropheads, etc. The 20+ cars in the barns were in various stages of rebuilding, and the 50+ cars outside were in very poor condition. It appears that whoever was in charge of the hoard had not touched the place for many years. There were additional pre-war cars in the barns, but the narrator didn’t have a clue what the Sunbeam-Talbots were, much less the pre-war cars. He did however know plenty about the few 1980s and 1990s cars there!
Nice article (as always) Roger, even if I am 6 years late to it… I’ve always like the S-T 90 sedan – they were popular here in New Zealand, and are still seen around occasionally. The convertible, on the other hand, I was not aware of until we discovered the TV show Father Brown last year and binge-watched it during one of the Covid lockdowns. One of the characters, the fabulously-named Bunty Windermere, drives a rather delicious bespatted Mk II convertible. The spats are an interesting feature actually – their presence really changes the car’s appearance. Those with them look both streamlined and dumpy; those without look more athletic but slightly incomplete.
Always liked the ST saloons, the Convertible not so much. Styling is too bulky for me at the rear. The Alpine was a master piece, a dream car, the most beautiful Rootes car ever made. A pity they only made around 1500, which makes the car pretty rare and expensive. I could never afford one which was fine to me, but you can always dream.
So when I found a LHD Alpine for sale for far less than was usual, I took the bite and bought it. Of course it needs a fair amount of restoration (new floor and sills) but it is mine! Got it delivered yesterday.
That sounds like a great purchase!
I had a mark 1 ST90 convertable back in the early 60s. I got what I paid for (£20). Cable brakes, worm and peg steering box were a hangover from pre WW2. Also the semi-elliptic front springs and Armstrong shocks couldn’t cope with the weight of the heavy motor/front end and the main springs had a habit of cracking. It was a bit of a rust bucket. A friend had a MkII and Roots pretty much fixed all these problems making it a much nicer car.