Chrysler Sunbeam: rushed supermini to champion rally car


By 1975, the UK’s car industry was heading for implosion. Poor labour relations, continued strikes, and the invasion of the Japanese had all taken their toll on the domestic producers. Ford and Vauxhall weathered the storm by importing from mainland Europe, whilst British Leyland faced certain bankruptcy, and was only saved from certain oblivion by the government. The bail-out took the form of a huge cash handout and the protection of the National Enterprise Board. The resulting business plan—dubbed the Ryder Report—allowed British Leyland to stay in business, whilst continuing with its future model plans.

Chrysler, however could not import from its European subsidiary, as it had yet to implement a Europewide model policy (even though it had controlled Rootes and SIMCA since before 1967). SIMCA was already established as a minor player in the UK, and its first Pan-European car, the Alpine/SIMCA 1308, was still some months away. Chrysler UK needed a new car to take up capacity at the loss-making Linwood factory. The Ryder Report changed the UK landscape for Chrysler, and its management believed the UK operation deserved similar treatment.

With that, Chrysler's management approached the British government and offered them a stark choice: ‘give us state aid, or we close the UK operation.’ Although Chrysler would have liked to have benefitted from full NEB assistance, that organization had its hands full with British Leyland. In the end, it was announced that there would be a "joint declaration of faith" from the government and Chrysler's American parent company over the future of the UK operation. It received a state grant, with which it could fund the development of a new small car, to be engineered at Ryton, styled at Whitley, and built at Linwood. The government had little choice; an election was looming, and there were a lot of marginal seats in the West Midlands...

Project R424: desperate measures

Sunbeam project car R424
Conventionally handsome, the R424 evolved rapidly. From paper to production in
eighteen months was a seriously impressive achievement, in these pre-CAD/CAM times.

Once government funding was secured, the pressure was on the Ryton team to produce Chrysler's new supermini, and in January 1976, work commenced. Given the limited budget to work with, the new car - codenamed "R424" - needed to be as simple as possible, and use as many existing components as possible. The quickest and simplest way of arriving at a new small car, would be to base it on the platform of the Avenger, and take three-inches of length out of the wheelbase. In theory, all that would be required would be a to engineer a new body, and ensure that a modified version of the Hillman Imp engine could be installed simply. The question as to why the new car was based on the rear wheel drive Avenger, and not any of the front wheel drive SIMCA-based models is simple: technically, it would be easier to develop the Avenger-based car to use the existing ex-Rootes engines, which would need to remain in production for the forseeable future. That way, more British jobs would be maintained, no doubt pleasing the government no end.

The R424 made a compelling financial argument for Chrysler, but did mean that the company would be left behind by its rivals? Also, given that the front wheel drive Alpine/SIMCA 1308 was looming on the horizon, and beyond that, the C2 SIMCA 1100 replacement was two years away, was the UK operation being isolated by producing such a dated car? Whatever the arguments, one thing was clear: the R424 would be the final Rootes car, designed and engineered exclusively in the UK. With the details settled, development of the R424 commenced at a lightning pace: given the technical simplicity of the package and the fact that R424 comprised of almost entirely tried and tested components, there was little to slow down the design process. In fact, all of the development resources at Whitley were focused behind the new car, and everyone there was extremely keen to make the new car a success. Many, many components were lifted straight from the Avenger; even its new Alpine-like dashboard moulding would be shared with a facelifted version of the older car... and this allowed for an encouraging and extremely niggle-free development phase to follow.

Styling was a straightforward process, too. How the R424 would look rested with the Ryton team, initially headed by Roy Axe (before he left for Chrysler in the USA); and given the importance of the car to Chrysler, the team decided to take no risks with the styling. As can be seen from the accompanying sketch, the R424's look was set very early, and the cleverest thing about it, was the way in which it fit in with the rest of the upcoming Chrysler range. In fact, it could almost be mistaken for a three-door version of the upcoming car; interesting, given that the C2 was front wheel drive, and based on the SIMCA 1100.

For a good indicator of the cost pressures that Chrysler were operating under at the time, one only has to look at the headlamp/grille treatment of the finished car. Late on in the design process, it was found that the R424's large, flush mounted headlamps would not be available to Chrysler until at least 1977, the year of the C2's launch. So, rather than buying in new items, the Avenger's sealed-beam units were used, mounted in recessed bezels. The R424 would eventually receive the Horizon's headlamps, but later in its life, and well after the larger car was launched...

Naming the R424 was interesting: in order to maintain brand continuity, Chrysler's UK management wanted to market the car as a Sunbeam, and this may have made sense, given that the Avenger was still sold as the Sunbeam Avenger in many European markets. However, Chrysler wanted a pan-European range of cars, all to be sold as Chryslers, and that meant that the new car would be sold under the Chrysler umbrella. That being the case, there would be no problem in calling the R424, the "Chrysler Sunbeam".

Put a little Sunbeam in your life...

chrysler sunbeam cars on the road

The new car made its appearance on the 23 July 1977, and had a very clear shot at being proclaimed the car to have the quickest development programme ever (although some Standard historians might say that honour belongs to the Triumph TR2); having taken just nineteen months from project inception to public announcement. Impressive. The motoring press were largely kind to the Sunbeam, given its hasty development, and the fact that in effect, it amounted to Chrysler UK's "last chance saloon." There was mild criticism of the Sunbeam's lack of interior space and its high loading lip (it wasn't so much a hatchback, but a liftback), but in all, it was marked well for its pleasant handling, good looks and swift performance in the larger engined versions.

Chrysler Sunbeams

Three flavours: (left) Basic Sunbeam LS, (middle) mid-range Sunbeam GL, (right) top-of-the-range Sunbeam GLS.

In its test of the 1.6S version, MOTOR magazine rated it as a sold four-star car. The sum-up was largely positive: "First car - and a very important one - to be designed since the government's rescue of Chrysler UK. Conventionally engineered with a longitudinal power train. High-floored luggage deck and small rear door restrict its role as a load carrier. Engine harsh and noisy when extended, though peaceful when cruising at 80mph. Handling safe but uninspiring, ventilation poor." After testing the base model 1.0LS, the magazine's findings were largely the same, although the gearchange came in for much praise. Obviously, the Imp-derived engine was always going to struggle with the task of motivating this Avenger-based car, and a 0-60mph time of 22 seconds demonstrated that it lost the fight.

However, MOTOR still remained positive: "As an interim model to help Chrysler over a difficult period, it should have a reasonable future for the next few years, but we have no doubt that Chrysler can - and will - do better than this in models yet to appear which will have the benefit of a longer gestation period."

Chrysler knew that in order for the UK operation to retain its autonomy, the Sunbeam would need to sell in reasonable numbers. The company gave the Sunbeam a clear path to make an impression: the upcoming Horizon would be a five-door model only, and so, there would be no overlap there; the 2-door basic Avengers were also dropped; most importantly, the Sunbeam benefited from a memorable television advertising campaign, which had Petula Clark inviting us all to, "...put a Chrysler Sunbeam in your life." It worked, and early sales were strong, going some way to restoring a market share approaching that of the ex-Rootes Group, at the time of the death of Hillman in 1976. Given the opposition, Chrysler had half a chance too: Ford may have shown that the multi-nationals could put their weight behind the front wheel drive concept with its Fiesta in 1976, other giants remained unsure. Toyota retained rear wheel drive with the Starlet, General Motors similarly so with the Chevette/Kadett T-Car, and so, the Sunbeam really did not look that far out of place in 1977.

Chrysler Sunbeam rally success and terminal decline

1979 saw the launch of the Chrysler Sunbeam Ti; essentially an Avenger Tiger re-clothed. It went well, but not as well as the next fast Sunbeam to see the light of day.

The Sunbeam sold in reasonable numbers, but it failed to set the world on fire - how could it, given the sum of its parts? However, in 1979, things changed: the performance Sunbeams arrived on the scene, and showed the world that if a rear wheel drive layout did nothing for a supermini's practicality, it did an awful lot for its motor sport potential.

The first hot Sunbeam arrived early in 1979; called the Sunbeam ti, the new car was powered by the 1600cc Avenger Tiger engine, including twin Weber carurettors, and developed a healthy 100bhp. However, the Sunbeam ti was a stripped-out special, and made little sense as a road car, thanks to its noise, harshness and tempermental nature, especially in town driving. The rally crowd took it to their hearts though, thanks to a plethora of off-the-shelf tuning parts. The pragmatic WHAT CAR? magazine tested the ti, and were less than impressed. Admittedly, it was pitted against the Volkswagen Golf GTi and Vauxhall Chevette HS...

On handling: "We consider ordinary shopping Sunbeams to be safe if a trifle dull handlers, and were looking forwards to the ti in the hope that Talbot (car tested in November 1979, after the marque change over) have given the car a little more agility. They haven't. It still feels stodgy and unexciting." Performance was acceptable - 0-60mph in 9.9seconds, maximum speed 111mph - but the magazine allowed the ti's lack of driveability overshadow its verdict of the car:

"...we suffered near accidents at traffic lights with both cars (the Chevette HS being the other) thanks to fouling of the plugs - the cars will pull away from the lights only to stutter and near die, causing heavy braking from behind. The only answer is to rev the engine high and drop the clutch as if doing a standing start at the test track, no wonder fuel consumption was high (18-19.7mpg on test) and looks from other drivers disdainful..."

Sunbeam-Lotus Lotus developed the Sunbeam-Lotus for Chrysler's entry into world rallying. Lotus managed to shoehorn its own 2174cc 16V slant-four engine under the bonnet of the Sunbeam, and the result was an absolutely superb road and rally car. 2308 were produced. (Picture: Autocar magazine)

The next sporting Sunbeam was something much more special. In 1977, the Competitions Manager at Chrysler UK, Des O'Dell, began to look around for a replacement for the Avengers Tiger and BRM, and could not fail to notice that the once dominant Ford Escort RS was beginning to see some serious competition in the shape of the Vauxhall Chevette HS. That car's recipe for success was clear for all to see: a 2.3-litre 16V engine, mated to a short, stiff three door body and rear wheel drive. The Avenger Tiger's replacement was the Sunbeam ti, whilst the BRM would be more difficult to replace, but in the end, he hit upon the idea of approaching Lotus for its slant-four 16V engine...

Lotus were happy to supply engines and assist in the development of Chrysler's new rally weapon, and in 1978, the first 2-litre prototype appeared - to be raced competitively by Tony Pond. No great shakes in terms of reliability, it was nevertheless fast and agile. Lotus supplied an enlarged version of its engine for use in the Sunbeam (which later appeared in its own models), and the reliability followed. The agreement was made to put the Sunbeam-Lotus into limited production (in order to satisfy FIA homologation regulations) and in at the Geneva motor show in April 1979, and amid talk of post-Peugeot takeover crisis, it was unveiled to the public. Resplendent in its black-with-silver-stripe coloyr scheme and Lotus alloy wheels, it looked fabulous - and understated compared with the ti. One does wonder if the product planners mixed up the exterior schemes of the extrovert ti and subtle Lotus, though...

The Sunbeam Lotus' production process was an interesting one, and it is obvious why only so few were made. Each car started life at Linwood as a 1.6GLS, but received stiffer springing and damping, along with a 10 per cent larger anti-roll bar, stiffer suspension mounts and tougher gearbox casings at the factory. The cars were then shipped to Lotus at Hethel in Norfolk for the installation of its engine and ZF gearbox, before being shipped to the Stoke works in Coventry for final pre-delivery inspections.

It may have been a convoluted production process, but the end result was a stunning road car. Performance was rapid; Autocar tested the Talbot Sunbeam-Lotus (which ironically carried Chrysler and Talbot badges) in the autumn of 1979 and could not stop themselves from raving about it:

Of course, for its size, the Sunbeam isn't a space-efficient miniature car, but one doesn't associate the magnificent amount and spread of sheer brute urge with anything smaller than the now dying tweaky American V8s. Once it's warm - that doesn't take too long after the unusually easy start using the usual Weber acelerator pump technique (three sharp prods of the throttle pedal) - the way the engine delivers from comparatively low speeds is pure, rude satisfaction.

Motor pushed the Sunbeam Lotus from 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds, and did 0-100 in a mere 19.8 seconds. Autocar did not do quite as well but still got respectable numbers, with 0-60 in 7.4 seconds and 0-100 in 20.4 seconds. Gas mileage was high compared with V8 muscle but not brilliant, with Motor getting 21.9 mpg and Autocar getting 17.4 mpg.

Autocar magazine loved the Sunbeam Lotus, concluding that, "for pure performance, it is hard to deny the Talbot its crown; it does go extraordinarily well, but is let down by its curious handling behaviour. You pay for that performance in an arguably high price in petrol, and it is also not a refined car." Motor could not fault the performance either, but had similar reservations: "When all is said and done, it is still a Sunbeam and while that may be no bad thing if you seriously want to go rallying there are better ways of spending £7000 on a road car. But if performance is what you want and you are prepared to make sacrifices in other areas, then there is precious little else at the price that will give you so much".

But rallying was the Sunbeam Lotus's forté, and it led a glittering, if short career: it performed admirably in the hands of Henri Toivonen, to win the 1980 Lombard-RAC rally, ending Ford's string of successes. Talbot won the manufacturers' title in the 1981 World Rally Championship, with Toivonen, Guy Frequelin and Stig Blomqvist driving, winning Group 2 on every event entered that season, with many second places overall and one outright victory (Argentina). 1982 was the 'wind-down' year, with the cars only taking part in UK events, finishing with another class win on the RAC Rally (Blomqvist and Frequelin driving). [Thanks, Graeme Lawton, chair, Sunbeam Lotus Owners’ Club.]

The legacy of the road car would live much longer, and even if it proved to be a slow seller when contemporary, the Sunbeam-Lotus would become a legend as the years passed.

The 1981 Sunbeams looked a lot better for their flush headlamps.The Sunbeam range itself fell into decline quickly after a brisk start. Following the sporty Sunbeams of 1979, the rest of the range received a minor facelift in 1981 (gaining those flush Horizon-style headlamps and better integrated bumpers), but the end was nigh. Despite the government assistance, which saved Linwood from closure, the PSA led process of rationalization following the 1978 takeover, led to the inevitable: Linwood would close, and that would signal the end of the two ranges produced there: the Avenger and Sunbeam. So, in the middle in 1981, Talbot announced the Sunbeam's impending death, a mere four years after its introduction. Given the hasty nature of its conception, perhaps four years was long enough in production, but the closure of Linwood had a terrible effect on the Scottish economy.

A production run of 200,000 cars in its life was an acceptable performance, and the Sunbeam did manage to maintain Chrysler's presence in the all-important supermini sector. Once PSA were in control though, was this a supermini range too many? At the time of the Sunbeam-Lotus's rallying successes in 1980, PSA could already boast the presence of the Citroen Visa and LNA and Peugeot 104. That did not stop the company from drawing the obvious conclusion, and it ended up developing another hastily conceived supermini: the Talbot Samba.

Period interior shot shows off the contemporary dashboard and 1970s interior color scheme. Rear legroom looks tight, even though the driver's seat is pulled well forward.

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