Sunbeam Tiger Buying Guide

Think of it as a cut-price Cobra! While prices have shot up in recent years, this hot roadster still represents a performance bargain. Here's how to bag a healthy Sunbeam Tiger

How much to pay

• Project £10,000-20,000 • Good £40,000-60,500 • Concours £65,000-100,000 •

Practicality ★★★
Running costs ★★★
Spares ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★★
Investment ★★★★
Desirability ★★★★★

In 1962, Ian Garrad realised that the four-cylinder Sunbeam Alpine didn’t have the performance to be a big seller in the US, so he set about finding a solution. Garrad was Rootes’ US West Coast manager, and after the Riverside Grand Prix in October 1962 he got talking to Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss, who had been sharing an Alpine. They bemoaned the model’s lack of power, so Brabham suggested fitting a V8.

Garrad investigated this further and established that only a Ford V8 would fit, so he then tasked Carroll Shelby with engineering a high-performance Alpine. Within a month the prototype – codenamed Thunderbolt – was ready. Thanks to relatively minor changes being needed (to the steering, bulkhead, transmission and rear axle) the production car was ready in just nine months.

The result was a car that looked as innocuous as an MGB but had the performance – and soundtrack – of a fully fledged sports car. For years the Tiger has been criminally underpriced, but not any more as the market has latched onto what a fabulous machine it is. Here’s how to secure a good one.

Your AutoClassics Sunbeam Tiger inspection checklist

Engine

The Ford V8 is in a low state of tune here, so unless it’s been neglected there are unlikely to be any significant problems. The Tiger used to be prone to overheating, but you’re unlikely to find a car that stills features its original cooling system; uprated radiators are par for the course.

Similarly, although the factory-fitted Ford Autolite carburettor struggled to feed the V8, again you’re unlikely to find a car with one of these still fitted. Most have been converted to a Holley or Carter, while many 4.2-litre engines have been swapped for a 289ci (4.7-litre) or 302ci (5.0-litre) unit, thanks to poor parts supply for the former. These bigger engines are a straight swap as they’re from the same small-block family, and parts availability is far better.

As long as the oil is changed every 3000 miles, the Tiger’s V8 should just keep going. You’re unlikely to come across a neglected car, although sometimes the spark plugs aren’t replaced as frequently as they should be. Those at the back are awkward to get to, as they have to be accessed via a panel in the bulkhead.

Gearbox

Although the Tiger’s gearbox has to cope with the torque of a V8, it rarely gives problems. Sometimes selecting reverse is difficult because the linkage has worn (replacements aren’t expensive), but that’s the biggest problem you’re likely to face.

The propshaft universal joints wear, especially on cars driven hard, so listen for clonks as the drive is taken up. Clutches wear too; replacements are surprisingly costly, so check for slipping.

Some owners fit a modern Ford five-speed gearbox, which raises the gearing from 24mph per 1000rpm in top to 37mph per 1000rpm. It makes for much more relaxed cruising, but is an expensive transplant procedure.

Classic cars for sale now

Suspension and brakes

If a Tiger is driven hard, the primitive suspension struggles to cope, and in extreme cases the Panhard rod can be torn from its mountings. If it’s been damaged, fixing it is not a big deal.

The rack-and-pinion steering lasts well and should feel precise; check the condition of the tyres, though, as they get scrubbed easily, leading to premature wear.

The Alpine’s servo-assisted braking system was carried over, with the only likely problems being the obvious leaks or seizures. Because it’s conventionally engineered there’s nothing that should faze you; all parts are available and it’s easy to work on.

Be wary of any Tiger that’s fitted with wire wheels, as these will probably be too weak to cope with the torque if the car is driven hard. That’s why most cars are fitted with alloys.

Bodywork

You’re unlikely to find an unrestored Tiger, as poor rust protection ensured corrosion. Cars from the sunshine states won’t have suffered from this, but UK models are likely to have had plenty of panelwork over the years. This isn’t always done to a high standard.

Home in on the three-piece sills; these rot once water has got in because of a misplaced caulk seal between the inner wheelarch and the front wing. Once water has got in, it’s just a matter of time before the metal is holed from the inside out. The sill should have a convex profile to match that of the body line; cheap replacement panels are straight and look awkward.

Jack the car up to see whether the rear door gaps open up. If they do, the structure has been weakened by rot. Also look for a splash panel at the back of the front wheelarch. If it’s smooth here, a cover panel is fitted, which is almost certainly hiding rot.

Look for rust around the headlamps, along the base of the windscreen, at the back of the engine bay and under the master cylinders. Also check the bottom edges of the doors, the base of the wings (if a drain hole isn’t visible, it’s been bodged), the inner rear wheelarches and the rear corners of the boot floor. Finish by analysing the floorpans (lift the carpets in the front footwells to see these) including the area around the accelerator pedal and the seatbelt mountings.

Interior

The electrical system is straightforward, but age and heat can take their toll on the loom, connectors and some of the components. New looms are available, though, and they’re not hard to fit.

The Tiger’s trim is the same design as the Alpine’s but with better-spec materials. High-quality replacement trim is available off the shelf and it’s not expensive, so a complete retrim shouldn’t faze you.

The same goes for replacement soft-tops, which are easy to source and fit. You can also buy a hard-top, but these are rather more costly. The rear corners rust, which means you’ll pay plenty for a restored roof, although you might be able to find a project item for less.

History

  • 1959: Sunbeam Alpine goes on sale, with a 1494cc version of the Rapier engine, four-speed manual gearbox and Layock overdrive.
  • 1964: Tiger makes its debut at the New York Auto Show in April, and Jensen begins series production of the car in June. The first cars are available to US buyers only; from the outset the Tiger was developed for the American market.
  • 1965: Tiger goes on sale in the UK, with right-hand drive. Other than the steering wheel being on the opposite side, the UK-market Tiger is identical to Federal cars.
  • 1967: A Mk2 Tiger is marketed briefly, for export only; just 10 or 11 right-hand-drive cars are officially built, each with a 289ci (4727cc) engine pushing out 200bhp. In June, production ends after 6467 Mk1s and 533 Mk2s have been built.

AutoClassics says…

As Tiger values have risen ever higher in recent years, the standard of remaining cars has improved. There are few poor examples left (at least in the UK), and while the Tiger can be a handful, it’s a superb cruiser.

In the UK, right-hand-drive Mk2s are especially sought after, but these models very rarely come up for sale. As with any Tiger, when one of these becomes available it’s usually sold through word of mouth.

Fake Tigers are pretty much unheard of, largely because the engine, bodyshell, gearbox and back axle all have serial numbers. But you do have to watch out for a Tiger that’s been built with an Alpine bodyshell. If this is done correctly it’s fine, but the right parts must be used – and they’re sometimes not.

Although the US Tiger market is buoyant, cars are still being returned to the UK, where they’re converted to right-hand drive using an MGA or Midget rack or even a modified Aston Martin part. Dashboards, wiring looms and most other Tiger-specific parts can generally be sourced, so the conversion is easy and cost effective. As you’d expect, right-hand-drive cars carry a premium in the UK – especially if the car was originally sold here.

A few sympathetic upgrades are a good thing, with stronger brakes, improved cooling and power steering all being perfectly acceptable. In the case of the latter, an MX-5 rack is the most common fitment.

Specifications

Tiger Mk1
  Power 164bhp
  Top speed 117mph
  0-60mph 9.5 sec
  Economy 15mpg

Tiger Mk2
  Power 200bhp
  Top speed 122mph
  0-60mph 7.5sec
  Economy 13mpg

Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics

After that perfect Sunbeam Tiger for sale?

Have a browse through the AutoClassics classifieds for the ideal Sunbeam Tiger for sale

Classic Cars for Sale