Sometimes, he tells us, it feels like he belongs to a mental-health support group instead of a car club. “I always want to say, ‘My name is Mike, and I’m the owner of a Sunbeam Tiger.’”
This is not a conventional choice as a collectible car, and ownership is a little bit like pleading guilty, with an explanation. First of all, it’s a British sports car. But once you say that it has an American V-8 and that you can work on it in your home garage, people seem to understand. And when you tell them that you can get into a decent one for $30,000, they really understand. And when you tell them that Carroll Shelby helped engineer this Cobra-style package and that an auction price of $100,000 for a perfect one is coming very soon, people really, really understand.
As the 1960s began, the Rootes Group’s Sunbeam marque was eager to give its refined but wimpy Alpine sports car some authority under the hood so it would be more like a Jaguar, less like an MG. As the Shelby Cobra became popular in 1962, Sunbeam’s sales manager in Los Angeles measured the Alpine’s engine bay (with a yardstick) and sent his service manager to find an American V-8 that would fit. The 260-cubic-inch Ford V-8 looked good, and Carroll Shelby was commissioned to create a Cobra-style prototype in eight weeks for $10,000. What was dubbed the “white car” appeared in April 1963, and once readied for production with the bodywork of the Alpine Mk IV, assembly was subcontracted to Jensen Motors in Britain.
The car is very drivable, although every Tiger owner fears the smell of boiling coolant on a hot day, as does any owner of a British sports car.
The Sunbeam Tiger caused a big stir when it appeared at the 1964 New York auto show for the 1965 model year, but it lasted only until 1967, when Chrysler bought the financially distressed Rootes Group. In all, nearly 7,100 Sunbeam Tigers were built. The Tiger Mk I accounts for the majority of the run, some 3,800 cars, and this model features the 260-cubic-inch (4.3-liter) version of the small-block Ford V-8 and can be distinguished by roundcorner doors and lead-fi lled body seams. The Mk IA represents the next 2,700-plus
cars, and it also has the 260-cubic-inch V-8 but can be identifi ed by square-corner doors and unfi lled body seams. The Mk II, with more than 500 produced, is the rarest and most desirable model because it has not only a distinctive egg-crate grille but the 289-cubic-inch (4.7-liter) Ford V-8 and wide-ratio transmission.
Once introduced, the Sunbeam Tiger quickly acquired a reputation as a baby Cobra on the street. It also had a reputation as a baby Cobra on the road-racing track, although not entirely in a good way. (You can ask pro racer John Morton about the Tiger and its Miata-size wheelbase, as he now competes in vintage racing with the very same “white car” that he helped build as a young mechanic’s helper at Shelby American in 1963.) But after production ended, the Tiger met with disdain for decades, maybe because its mainstream identity came from its cameo role in “Get Smart,” a TV sitcom about spies that was broadcast from 1965 to 1970. One member of the Los Angeles-based car club that supports the Sunbeam Tiger found his car at a garage sale. Another restored his own Tiger with parts from an abandoned Tiger found next to a dumpster.
British charm: The style, grace, and comfort of a British sports car, only with the heart of a reliable Ford V-8. Why bother with a Jag E-Type?
Mike Michels did things the smart way by buying the best car offered for sale by a member of his local club of Tiger owners, and then he worked on this Mk IA in his garage to make it more usable and fun. (This is characteristic of Tiger club members, who are drivers, not bankers.) He exchanged his clapped-out 260-cubic-inch V-8 for a period-correct 289-cubic-inch V-8, swapped the close-ratio, four-speed manual transmission for the wide-ratio one, and then added the so-called Los Angeles Tiger (LAT) accessories created for road racing in the 1960s by the legendary Doane Spencer, who was the crew chief of a Tiger racing program run by Hollywood Sport Cars in Los Angeles. As a teenager in L.A., Michels would go to the famous Ferrari dealership just so he could see the Spencer-prepared Tiger.
Driving Michels’ car today, we find that like the best kind of British car, the cockpit is very livable. It includes a telescopic steering wheel, great seats, and enough space so you don’t rub elbows with your companion. The car is also very drivable, although every Tiger owner fears the smell of boiling coolant on a hot day, as does any owner of a British sports car. The difference is the power and reliability of an American V-8 mean that you can drive this British car on a modern freeway for hundreds of miles at a time, not just dozens.
Undiscovered no more: Tiger values are climbing quickly at auctions.
Though the Sunbeam Tiger is a Cobra-style package, the charm in this car is really British, not American. Michels tells us, “As they say, inside every Sunbeam Tiger that’s red, there’s still a car that yearns to be British racing green.”
- Engines 4.3L (260-cu-in) OHV 16-valve V-8, 164 hp, 258 lb-ft SAE gross 4.7L (289-cu-in) OHV 32-valve V-8, 200 hp, 282 lb-ft SAE gross
- Transmission 4-speed manual
- Drive Rear-Wheel
- Front Suspension Wishbones, coil springs
- Rear Suspension Solid axle, leaf springs
- Brakes F/R Discs/drums
- Weight 2,565 lb
- Number Built 7,085 (approx.)
- Original Price $3,425-$3,716 (NADA)
- Value Today $44,900-$68,300 (Hagerty)
Looks like a British sports car but drives like an American one, thanks to a stout Ford V-8, Mustang transmission, and Dana 44 differential. Sizable production numbers keep prices low. Rewarding as a garage project, with many sources for Sunbeam and Ford parts. Drivable enough to keep pace with modern traffic,
though inputs for unassisted steering, brakes, and clutch actuation are heavy. It’s British, so expect the scent of percolating coolant. Active clubs authenticate legitimate cars, as many clones exist. Racing heritage extends to many cars still competing in vintage events. Value likely to appreciate significantly because of the Carroll Shelby connection.