The legendary motor journalist takes Petula at her word.
Original photos by Douglas Land-Windermere. Due to the poor quality of the originals, archive images have been used.
“The Rootes factory in Linwood is thrumming with activity. With the magnificent Imp a recent memory, and the stalwart Avenger in volume production, the factory now has a new task: Sunbeams, the building thereof”, wrote Archie Vicar in this review for the East Scotland Motoring Week in November, 1977.
The Sunbeam is a logical progression from the Imp. It’s a bit bigger, more refined and more spacious and it also offers the advantages of rear wheel drive but with the engine in the front. While other makers are caving in to demands of the bean-counters, Chrysler are staying true to rear-wheel drive with their new entrant to the small car market. Let’s take a short look at the fascinating history of the car before the usual test-drive.
First, in typical Rootes style, the development of the car has been fast and efficient. None of this eight year nonsense preferred by Mercedes and Citroen. The market is rapidly changing and Rootes have been nimble so as to respond to the challenge of the French and Japanese. The staff at Ryton carried out the extensive engineering work needed for a whole new car. Mr Roy Axe and his team of penmen in Whitley drew up the Sunbeam’s modern, simple and striking shape. Mr Axe is clearly one of this decade’s rising stars. Although Chrysler could have opted to use some components already existing and some of those used by Simca, they have properly decided to keep the car all-British and to avoid hasty compromises that would dilute the Britishness of this car.
You can see from the technical specification that Chrysler have tried to give the Sunbeam a family feeling: the Coventry Climax engine makes a reappearance and the wheelbase is only three inches shorter than the Avenger. A few items of interior trim are also now used by Simca, such as the steering wheel, instrument panel housing and the ashtray. And why not? It’s a good ashtray. Simca customers will not mind that their car has a little bit of England attached.
The sun beamed down, appropriately, when we started the test drive. The morning started at the Dryburgh Abbey Hotel where a fleet of Sunbeams shone on the gravel drive. Reflecting the economical side of the car´s role, we stayed not at the hotel but at a B&B nearby and had boiled sausages, fried eggs, chipped potatoes and instant coffee to break our fast. That did not dispel the cheerful mood of the introduction to the car.
One opens the doors which are very similar to other Chrysler doors; and why not? They are very good doors with good Chrysler door-handles fitted left and right (painted, no less). The style of the car is curvaceous and with good lines. It recalls a lot of Chrysler’s best cars such as the 180 and Avenger but with a hint of the American perhaps if one looks carefully. The headlamps are square and fit smoothly into the metalwork of the grille. At the back is a glass window which doubles as “hatch” to allow drivers to place suitcases and shopping into the commodious boot. Eventually a saloon and five-door car might be developed from this promising base. It would be far from hard to add some length to the wheel base and to make room for the Avenger’s engines too. As it is, the three-door “hatchback” is a good starting point and will appeal to most customers looking for this kind of thing.
I tested the best of the three engines fitted to the Sunbeam, the light alloy ohc 928 CC. The vehicle has a four-speed gearbox, a live-axle and, as I said, proper rear wheel drive. It seems the MacPherson strut factory is getting busier and busier as the Sunbeam has those up front: At the rear, trailing links and coil springs with servo-assisted discs and drums.
Having heard the presentation and started up the car it was time for lunch and I drove a hundred yards to the door of the hotel and went inside. That let the other cars head off in the opposite direction. I thus avoided a traffic jam at the hotel’s gate onto the main road.
In order to take some time to read the Chrysler information pack I had a good glass of Ben Wyvis 20 year-old malt and also ordered lunch of Jerusalem artichoke risotto, foie gras, lobster toast with a spinach bisque, Lowland beef brisket, highland steak Wellington, steam plaice, rice pudding and jam roly poly. The Sauternes (only a half bottle) finished it off nicely. Instead of cheese (all French) I had another glass of Ben Wyvis. After all that I stepped out and resumed the test-drive. The upholstery remained exactly as it was from before lunch: tartan and very like a pair of cheap nylon ladies’ socks.
Rather surprisingly the cars were still jammed at the gate. I drove down to see what had happened. The chap from the Daily Mail (as usual) had slid off the gravel driveway and had somehow crammed his car sideways between the two stout granite posts and no amount of nudging by one of the Sunbeams would dislodge it. I took a moment to study the map and reversed back to the hotel and followed a track leading out to the adjacent countryside. The car managed well, reaching 70 on the long hotel drive without any undue vibrations.
The gearchange showed us its better side and performed smoothly, more so than one finds in the front drive opposition. The Pirelli P3 tyres did as well as they could on the rough lanes behind the hotel and that is to say they did very well. The ride over the unmetalled tracks can be described as soft and resilient, very much like a Wolseley in fact. That live-axle set-up is terrifically accommodating, really.
It’s another thing with steering. I had to do a lot of this as I squirrelled around the hotel estate and there travelled a lot of kick-back (no surprise on a rutted road). I can’t say much about directional stability since I didn’t travel in one direction for more than a few feet. Whether or not the car is up to snuff on the motorway I will have to leave to another day. As I turned back, having run into a muddy field, I charged down the lane in full confidence of the Sunbeam’s capability only to find eight press cars heading at me: one of them must have seen me head off behind the hotel.
Not unlike the Red Sea for Moses, the group divided and allowed me to drive down the middle. A dramatic amount of understeer set in at the corner of the hotel’s main building and I slid on a hail of gravel onto the lawn. Not wanting to alarm the hotel I reversed as quickly as I could without the aid of the rear mirror which had fallen off. Had it not been in the footwell I might have seen the eight cars coming back towards me. Luckily none made contact with my Alpine White car but I did end up sliding on the gravel again, stopped only by the lower two of the hotel’s steps. Somehow the rear axle got itself jammed on the granite masonry and I was unable to get it moving; rather the wheels span until I turned off the engine.
Back in the bar, I reflected on the terrific achievement of Chrysler: a neat, efficient and modern car to put Britain back on the motoring map in these increasingly competitive times. Let’s raise a glass to that!