"Missed By That Much". Those words were made immortal by the legendary Don Adams, in the Mel Brooks sitcom "Get Smart". The Sunbeam Tiger would be made famous by the opening scenes to the show, but why had Sunbeam squeezed a large American donk under the svelt hood? Maybe this was a case of art imitating life
, with the designers exclaiming "Missed By That Much" after driving the 4-pot Alpine version
British cars, and particularly sports cars (where the emphasis was more on performance), had relied on revs and gusto to extract the exhilaration that the good looks conveyed. The Alpine
was a fine car, and as a tourer it was hard to beat, but performance was hardly a word that would spring to mind when fanging it along the black top.
The Tiger 260 was little different from the Alpine IV, except in the all-important matter of its power unit and transmission, which was effectively transformed from a two-seater tourer to a thrust-in-the-back sports car with a great striding gait and an unburstable mechanical quality.
The idea of "mill switching," as the Americans used to call it, was not new, but for a large British manufacturer to install a foreign engine from a rival firm in one of their own cars was unprecedented. That the changed car should feel so balanced brought as much credit to the basic Alpine design as to the characteristics of the new engine and the development of its installation. Perhaps more than any car that preceded it, the Alpine truly had a sorted chassis that cried out for more power, and the engineers, thankfully, obliged.
Briefly, a 4·2-liter Ford V8 Fairlane engine with Borg-Warner 4-speed manual gearbox was squeezed into the Sunbeam Alpine
. The final-drive gearing was raised from 3·89 to 2·88 to 1, giving 23·9 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in top gear instead of 17·8 - an increase of 34 per cent. Other engineering changes included a cross-flow radiator with larger matrix area and remote header tank, and rack-and-pinion steering instead of recirculating-ball type. To give more clearance for the engine; the battery was moved into the boot alongside the spare wheel.
Power and Performance
In terms of power the Ford engine developed 164 b.h.p. gross, just under double that of the Alpine (88 gross), at 600 r.pm. fewer. Much more significant, however, was the peak-torque figure of 258 lb. ft., which was roughly three times that of the Alpine (94 net). Of course you cannot squeeze quality American muscle without a weight penalty, but like the good old fashioned Aussie beer belly the extra 4cwt was distributed evenly between front and rear. The effect was electrifying (unlike the beer belly), with acceleration times from rest to 80 m.p.h. almost halved and a maximum speed raised 20 m.p.h. to 117. Yet the Tiger was as sweet and docile as the best in family cars, and could manage a standing-start quarter-mile using top gear only in 21·5 seconds, just 1sec less than a flat-out run in an automatic Alpine using all available cogs!
The non-sporting characteristics (and origins) of the engine were felt when accelerating, and although the rev counter had its red sector from 4,700 upwards the pull fell off progressively from about 1,000 r.p.m. fewer (3,700 rpm), but in normal driving you never needed to even approach the limit. Owners have confirmed this impression, claiming times for 20 m.p.h. increments in third would tail off above 70 m.p.h. (3,800 r.p.m.). Once you became accustomed to driving a brilliant British sports car with an equally brilliant American engine (albiet a lazy one, with copious amounts of torque), learning to change up early when accelerating and not to bother with a down-shift unless the speed had really dropped became second nature, and the Tiger was an unquestionably rapid and an exceedingly enjoyable car to drive.
Narrow though the rev band was, the speed ranges in the gears were unusually wide. First had a maxiimum of 54 m.p.h. when required and top would pull quite smoothly from 10 m.p.h. so it was no strain to miss out a ratio, or maybe two, on occaasions. The spacing of the ratios could not have been more even, with almost exactly 20 m.p.h. between the limits for each. Although first was very high, no skill was needed to get the Tiger away from rest. The engine idled at around 700 r.p.m. and with a diaphragm spring and centrifugal assistance the big 10in. dia. clutch could be eased in without touching the accelerator, allowing the Tiger to "creep" happily with no throttle at 7 m.p.h. Most owners have told us that the best technique for sprint take-offs is to use about 4,000 r.p.m. to get the wheels spinning on dry tarmac, leaving only very short black lines behind - brilliant!
In the wet, much more delicate control was needed to avoid violent axle tramp which, if allowed to persist, could damage the rear suspension. Once the wheels were turning and the clutch was fully home, the throttle could be opened wide even in first or second without any snaking or rear-end twitchiness, provided the car was (like most American cars needed to be) pointing straight. Cornering on slippery surfaces called for caution, as expected, although owners have claimed they would quickly learn just how far the tail would kick out, and the ability to anticipate it early with steering correction was not so much an art, as second nature much as dragging one foot after the other.
The Brilliant Sunbeam Tiger V8...
This technique of power drifting, even in the dry, was particularly easy to control with the Tiger. You could run into corners on the overrun to a point just short of the apex, then unwind the lock and stamp on the throttle at the same time.
The tail would slide out just so far and then stop on its own as the weight transferred back under power and added to the rear wheel grip. Normally when driving round bends at a steady speed there was just a trace of understeer with strong self-centring action. This gave good stability at speed, although in a gusty cross-wind steerring responses were a little delayed above 90 m.p.h.
Although we have just written this, we find ourselves scrolling back to the top of the page to check the years the car was made, as if we need confirmation we are finding such a fickle criticism on a car of this vintage at a speed you could never dream of today, given the revenue raising speed camera mantra pedelled by the politicians who "someone else" has always elected. But lets not get bogged down in politics.
Behind the wheel of the Tiger there was a good deal of feedback to the wheel rim from road irregularities, it becoming very obvious the engineers had to compromise in designing the steering. At full lock there was an unusual degree of tire scrub and, so owners have told us, the front was prone to swinging wider than you would expect when turning slowly. The mean turning circle of 37ft. 6in. between kerbs was over 5ft. more than for an ordinary Alpine
; this made the ratio on the Tiger (3·3 turns lock-to-lock) about the same as that of the Alpine (3·6).
For ride comfort the Tiger felt, thankfully, much like the Alpine. There was a good balance between firm control of the wheels for tidy handling and soft movements to absorb shocks. Certain types of rough surface could catch the back-end by surprise, especially on a corner when the tail would slip sideways a little. A Panhard rod was added to the Tiger to reduce this tendency, but better location of the axle by radius arms was needed - although who are we to argue with such a brilliant design.
Starting the engine from cold was always simple and immediate. Once the throttle was pressed to engage the automatic choke, the V8 would burst into life with a purposeful throb and would then idle smoothly. Unlike other cars of the era, no warming up period was necessary before the engine would pull strongly and without hesitation. Hot weather restarting could be delayed, and care then had to be taken not to pump the accelerator and flood the cylinders. According to the handdbook, water temperature should be between 85 and 100 deg. C. and owners have advised the normal operating temperature to be 95. This high reading on the gauge, which can creap up to 100 (not boiling because of the pressurization) during maxiimum speed runs, may cause some concern to lucky owners of today, but bear in mind the hot thermostat.
Fuel Consumption - What Price Do You Put On Fun?
Generally fuel consumption, with a fair amount of highway work, would be around 17 m.p.g. The corresponding estimated (DIN) figure (based on steady-speed measurements) would make that about 22·1. The Sunbeam Tiger was fitted with the usual Rootes "dead' reckoning" fuel gauge, with the scale marked in gallons (and liters) so there was never any doubt about the level in the tanks. Regardless, what price do you put on fun? Above about 80 m.p.h. road testers noted considerable wind roar with the (optional) hardtop in place. With the standard hood erected there was much more noise generally, but no flapping; and open trim buffeting was not unpleasant and there was a jet-like whistle above 60 m.p.h. Motoring with the car in these three different forms emphasized the near-absence of mechanical noise from the engine and the unusually subdued exhaust beat. Thats not to say it lacked the characteristic V8 burble.
The hardtop (which matched the car paint only if ordered with a new car - otherwise it was black) was easily taken off provided you could enlist a helper. It had opening rear quarter-lights which helped considerably in gettting a comfortable degree of ventilation, as the front ones on the doors were fixed. The twin sunvizors had to be removed before undoing the over-centre clips on the screen rail, and it was all too easy to break their pivot lugs when putting the roof back on.
Behind a hinged tonneau panel the folding p.v.c. hood was hidden out of sight, and once the knack was mastered, it was quick and simple to erect. It gave unusually snug and weather-tight protection, although the blind rear quarters sometimes made it diffiicult when trickling into a main road at an oblique angle.
Sharing Components With The Alpine
Tiger 260's brakes were identical with those of the Alpine, and coped extremely well with the extra performance (which says a lot for the engineering quality of the Alpine!). Front discs were 9·85 in. dia. The spare wheel and heavy-duty battery were normally hidden under the boot floor which lifted up or out as required and there was a vacuum servo to lighten the load. A not untidy 1·0g retardation was recorded by many road testers at the cars launch, and fade tests from between 70 and 80 m.p.h. showed little increase in pedal presssures. Given rigorous testing, it was possible to cause a slightly distorted disc, which would result in some juddering when the brakes got really hot, but no efficiency would be lost, and was really not a material weakness.
Accomodating the Ford V8
To accommodate the large Ford engine a few inches of toe room were lost, but this was barely noticeable to a driver of average leg length. All the adjustments of the Alpine were retained except the one for the pedal cluster, both seats being adjustable, for reach, cushion angle and hackrest rake. In addition the steering column had a telescopic range of about 3in. On the left there was a false toeboard for the passenger to brace their feet against. The seats had excellent contours and griped the hips well during fast cornering. The pedal arcs wer well planned and the 6mb clutch load was not overly heavy.
The Borg-Wamer synchromesh was powerful and faultless, although gear changes tended to feel notchy unless the clutch was right on the floor. In front of the driver and across the dashboard were all the instruments including a clock, and on the right there was a blanked hole for an optional ammeter. The heater had a two-speed booster fan which produced a warm draught round the lower regions when the roof was off in fresh weather. There were no independent cold air ventilators and even with everything switched off a good deal of engine and transmission heat was transmitted through to the footwells. Theoretically the heater ducts should have passed cold air with the water tap closed, but one of the common complaints (at least those that owned one in the '60's and '70's) was that warm air would always be circulating.
At night the headlamps gave illumination well up to the performance of contemporary cars, with long range on main beam and a good spread when dipped. A headlamp flasher (not available to so many American V8's due to US legislation of the time) was a standard fitting. The windscreen wipers had two speeds and used a double-bladed U-section rubbber which would give a better wipe and help prevent it lifting off the glass.
In Summary - All That Was, And Remains, The Best That Driving Can Offer
There is no doubt that the Tiger was somewhat misnamed, it had nothing of the wild and dangerous man-eater about it and was really only as fierce as a pussy-cat. Yet for the driver who loved power it had a fascination, because it did all that it could do without fuss, noise or effort. It had a certain surprise quality too, most onlookers dismissing the car as an underwhelming Alpine, only to enjoy watching the rear end of the car trail off into the distance. There was a big problem though. Parking the car would require mind over matter. Turning the ignition key to the off position great perserverence. A car like this is everything a driver of the 1960's, and today, could possibly enjoy. Who in their right mind would want to stop that.