With perhaps the shortest gestation of any production car, 1977’s Chrysler/Talbot Sunbeam personified the term, ‘rush job’ – and it showed. But one variant burned brightly, courtesy of Lotus.
In 1977, the TV ad-breaks were awash with the mellifluous tones of Petula Clark, exhorting us all to put a Chrysler Sunbeam in our lives. I was around 11 at the time, so there wasn’t much I could do to obey the Surrey songstress’ siren call but since we did have an Avenger parked outside, my level of interest in Linwood’s newest offering was perhaps keener that it might have otherwise have been.
The Sunbeam was the result a neat piece of industrial blackmail on the part of Chrysler UK, the failing former Rootes car business, which under US management had merged with Simca but was struggling with a dated range of cars and a loss making production facility in Scotland making fewer of them than was economical. Faced with the plant’s closure, the UK government agreed to provide a generous grant for the development of a new small car to be styled and engineered in Coventry, but built in the troubled Linwood plant.
With the car sanctioned in early 1976, work took place with breathtaking speed. Essentially a short wheelbase, rebodied Avenger, the new car dubbed R424 was quickly developed. The neat, sharply tailored styling clothed a deeply conventional mechanical package. By 1977, a rear-wheel drive supermini was anything but cutting edge, but it wasn’t as though it didn’t have similarly configured rivals.
Apart from the smallest power unit, a modified all-alloy Imp engine, Avenger units of 1.3 and 1.6 litres were all that was initially on offer. But this was to change. Two years after launch, the Sunbeam Ti was launched with a 100 bhp version of the 1.6 litre Avenger Tiger engine with chassis and body changes to match. In this form the Sunbeam took the standard fare of approximate build integrity and lacklustre road behaviour, adding additional noise, harshness and heart-stopping flatspots from its twin Weber carburettors. They did prove popular with both boy racer and rally contingents however.
Further to this, Chrysler competitions Director, Des O’Dell shoehorned a 2.0 litre Lotus slant four engine into a rally-spec Sunbeam, which immediately put it in contention with the all-conquering Escorts. Gaining sanction from management, O’Dell got his rally weapon, once they could homologate it. Approaching Lotus, he found Mike Kimberley to be keen on the idea – with the axing of the Jensen Healey, Lotus had spare engine capacity, which O’Dell could utilise. However, on his insistence, Lotus enlarged the engine to 2172 cc, (which required a new block); this engine, dubbed series-911 also being used on Lotus’ own cars.
With twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and developing 150bhp at 5600 rpm through a 5-speed ZF transmission, the all alloy Lotus power unit propelled the 960 kg Sunbeam at hitherto unheard of velocities. Chassis-wise, the car was left largely stock, with uprated MacPherson struts, coil springs and a larger anti-roll bar up front and a stiffened four link coil sprung live axle at the rear. Suspension mounts were also strengthened. Thicker disc brakes were fitted at the front. Drums were retained at the rear. According to Car’s Ronald Barker, Lotus engineers were involved with the chassis set up, but you’d never tell. This remained a simple, no frills machine.
Bodily, the changes were all rather subtle. All early Sunbeam-Lotus’ were finished in black coachwork, with a broad silver decal (with a prominent Lotus emblem) across the flanks and alloy wheels of Lotus design. Oddly, unlike the Ti model, spoilers and matt black addenda was conspicuous by its absence. The rationale was that the Sunbeam-Lotus was to be marketed as a suave performance executive hatch. Yes, really.
Inside, the Sunbeam gained a pair of deeply bolstered velour trimmed chairs, and a three spoke steering wheel. Otherwise it was about as plush as a cooking Sunbeam GLS, meaning it wasn’t really. Allegedly all cars arrived from Linwood as semi-complete cars sans-engine and transmission, before being finished by Lotus, then shipped to Coventry for final inspection.
By the time the car came to market, the Chrysler name was no more and pretty much all were badged Talbot. Car put Steady Barker into an early version in late 1979 and while he found it to be a rather jittery and uncompromising companion, he concluded, “its very lack of sophistication in certain elements has an inverse effect on its charm, by adding spice to the sheer fun of managing it.” The ever contrary LJK Setright however, found the Sunbeam less to his taste the following April, when he drove it against a brace of rivals. Setright loathed the car, which he decried as ‘simply the nastiest’. In almost every respect, the Sunbeam met LJK’s ire, his stinging assessment suggesting it enjoyed only ‘intermittent contact with the road’.
Not that this mattered much on the rally stages for where the car was primarily intended. From 1978, O’Dell’s Sunbeam-Lotus’ campaigned the World Rally championships, winning twice in 1980 with Henri Toivonen at the wheel. The following year however, the Talbot won the championship overall, and breaking Ford’s domination. Sunbeams continued to be campaigned at top level until 1982, finally superseded by parent, Peugeot’s high tech four wheel drive 205 Turbo 16.
In all, around 2300 Sunbeam-Lotus’ were built, some way short of the 4500 originally envisaged. Talbot was asking a lot of money for what was a very unsophisticated, if very quick (in the right hands and under the right road conditions) motor car, but it was up against far better made and better engineered rivals.
The Sunbeam enjoyed a short life, with production ending in late 1981 with the closure of the Linwood plant by PSA. It was a huge blow to the region, but with a history of labour disputes and a reputation for shoddy workmanship, some argued it was somewhat inevitable.
The Sunbeam-Lotus meanwhile has become a rarity, most of them having ended up in hedgerows and other parts of the natural landscape as their drivers learned expensive lessons on the unyielding laws of physics. A bit of a bruiser then, but not without its ragged charm, which to be fair, is a good deal more than can be said for the remainder of the range.