The Sunbeam Tiger: Carroll's Other Shelby
Carroll Shelby is known mainly for his incredible work with American sports cars like the Mustang and his role in the dominance of the Ford GT40. But in the 1960s he had a hand in building the Sunbeam Tiger, a high-powered version of a roadster with its roots firmly implanted in British soil. The Tiger was a product of the Rootes Group, a UK automaker founded in 1913 by Sir William Rootes. The company’s history makes a fascinating story in itself. Known for making solid, dependable middle-class vehicles, it was a leader in Britain’s manufacturing industry during WWII. In the 1950s, the business did cutting-edge work with turbo diesel engines. The 1960s were rough times, and by the end of the 1970s, what was left of it was acquired by Chrysler, which went on to have its own issues soon after. Through the years, Rootes was the parent company for many notable UK marques, including Talbot, Hillman, Humber, Singer, and, among others, Sunbeam. PHOTOS: See More of the 1966 Sunbeam Tiger
Sunbeam made a splash in the US in 1959 when it introduced the Alpine, a sporty little ride with a 2.3-liter inline-4. Early feedback suggested that a more powerful engine would increase its appeal to speed-hungry Yanks, and Carroll Shelby was tapped to help with the upgrade. Shelby wanted the work done in his US facilities, but the Rootes suits (sorry, couldn’t resist!) settled on the company’s plant in West Bromwich, England.
The Tiger I made its debut in 1964. Equipped with a 260 cubic inch Ford V8 and Ford twin-choke carb, the car was capable of 164 horsepower in most versions. Some dealers offered an optimized model that could turn out 245 horses for an additional $250 (about $1,900 in modern currency). 1964’s base price for the Tiger was $3,499, or around $26,000 today. The Tiger II was released in ‘67 with a 289 cubic inch engine making about 200 horsepower.
The biggest challenge in building the Tiger was fitting a large American engine in a tiny UK-designed body. To accomplish this, the design team used rack-and-pinion steering and a number of other modifications considered exotic at the time.
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Unfortunately, like the company that built it, the Tiger had its share of problems as well as strengths. One was the 260 cubic inch engine’s tendency to commit suicide if it was pushed above 5000 rpm. While not perfect, though, the Tiger was a good little ride that deserves its place in automotive history. Carroll Shelby himself famously once said, “Why buy a Cobra, when you can afford a Tiger!” They are out there, if you know where to look– and you could score one of the great underrated sportscars of the 1960s.