Norfolk Broad

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.

Image: copie-petites-observations-automobile

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.

Doors were carry-over Avenger items.

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.

Image: classic cars for sale

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.

Sunbeam in anger. Image: motorstown

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.

Later models were available with blue or silver paint finishes. Image: performance car guide

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.

Image: silverstone auctions

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

8 thoughts on “Norfolk Broad”

  1. As a homologation special the road manners should have been not so important.
    At least it was not as bad as its competitor, the Fiat 131 Rally Abarth.
    That was even more shoddily built and completely useless on the road as there was no synchromesh in the gearbox (the synchro rings came in a plastic bag in the boot) and it was equipped with the hopelessly underpowered front brakes from the 127.
    The Fiat was even more successful in rallying and equally dogged by labour disputes – Fiat once had to borrow cars from a privateers’ team because they could not get their own works cars out of the factory that was on strike.

    Without Des O’Dell’s experience with the Sunbeam, the Peugeot 205T16 would never have been so successful so quickly. It’s a pity the French purged Des from the car’s history.

    1. This is a very British story of fixing a mess. Presumably the performance versions got a lot of corrective attention along with the special parts added. Or did they?

    2. I don’t think that there was much more than the bodyshell and the engine block that was shared between road and competition cars (at least it was in case of the Fiat or the Escort RS). Even the bodyshell is relative as for competition use the cars invariably got a roll cage that took all the loads, rendering the painted bits more or less merely decorative.

      It’s fascinating that after a period of Alpine berlinettes, Fulvia HFs and Stratoses there were Escort RSs, Sunbeams, Fiat 131s and Ascona 400s fighting for the rally championship.
      That at least gave the world some interesting homologation special versions of cars that were otherwise utterly bland and mostly forgettable with the notable difference that the Brit cars sold in comparatively large numbers and the Fiat and Opel were strictly limited to the required 400 cars. All four homologation cars were quite crap as a road car but tremendously successful in rallying. The one that truly stands out is the E30 M3, as it is the only homologatoin special that was thoroughly developed and properly usable as a road vehicle. It also sold in the largest number by far with nearly 20,000 made.

  2. The second pic is remarkable for displaying no evidence of identifiable features whatsoever. A bit of Fiesta, a bit of generic Japan Inc., a bit of anonymous insurance advertisement car. If I didn’t actually know what it was, I would have serious trouble identifying which continent it was created on, let alone by which manufacturer.

    1. In fairness to its designers, the Sunbeam was a neat, well proportioned little car for its time, although admittedly it would never set your hear aflutter then or now. My dad had three Avengers over the 1976-1982 period. Each one was called something different – the first was a Hillman, the second a Chrysler and the last, a Talbot. It was one of those or an Escort, the company my dad worked for wouldn’t countenance anything else. The Avenger wasn’t a bad thing to drive – I unofficially drove it on many occasions underage (I never said that, you just imagined it) and one could fling it about without coming unstuck. Its live rear axle was a good deal better located than that of the Escort’s cart springs, although the Ford engine may have been lustier – I don’t know and never wished to find out.

      I can’t imagine the Sunbeam was massively different to drive, having the same chassis and mechanical specification, albeit on a slightly shorter wheelbase. But as I say, they were never going to set your pants on fire. What is apparent is that the bare minimum was done to beef up the mechanicals for the Lotus version, resulting in a rather uncouth beast. But as ostensibly a rally weapon, that didn’t really matter too much.

      O’Dell incidentally wouldn’t be the first engineer to have not been given his due. It’s a far more prevalent state of affairs than one might realise. History is written by those who control the narrative. Mostly.

    2. Eoin: the Avenger simply isn’t a car I’d imagine flinging around, ever. I detect an incipient admiration for the Sunbeam, do I?

    3. Oh I don’t know Richard, it was an awful long time ago, so I could conceivably be rose-tinting matters. I suppose what I was trying to say is that by the mainstream standards of the time – (Escort/Kadett/Corolla/Viva) – the Avenger really wasn’t that awful. By dint, I’m extrapolating (possibly in error) that the Sunbeam wasn’t all that terrible either. Adequate motor cars, if not especially well made. Mind you, our Avengers were assembled in Ireland, (certainly the last one was) so the fact that it needed a respray after a year says volumes.

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