Sun(beam) Up At 424

The dawning of a new car. 

1977 Chrysler Sunbeam. Image: avengers-in-time

John Riccardo, Chrysler chairman Diary entry October 29 1975: Hold press conference regarding corporation’s loss of £116M in the first nine months. Inform UK government Chrysler can be a gift or closed down – their choice. Rescue package of £55M from HMG plus £12M from US parent snatched up. Use wisely!

December 1975 was crunch time for Chrysler UK. Now propped up mainly by government money, a new small car was a must to keep the under-utilised and troubled Linwood manufacturing plant in Scotland open. The plant was originally established in 1963 to build the rear-engined Hillman Imp, a model which never met expectations. With sales dwindling the government wanted action.

Step forward Director of Manufacturer Engineering, John Haig, who offered grey faced and suited officials a brand new car on sale in eighteen months time, “after a night pulling numbers out of thin air. 

December 29th 1975: The new car’s profile completed by Graham Deeming, Line Manager – Product Planning. A hatchback was a must – however, FWD was out – there being no spare capacity for such re-tooling. In addition, research had proven in countries such as Germany, the Low Countries and Britain, such frippery was unnecessary. Ecce! A shortened Avenger.

January 6th 1976 – governmental approval.

Next day, the first co-ordination committee meeting was held to thrash out styling and remove internal clashes or politics. Norman Terry and Bob Matthews were the two senior designers tasked with reducing the Avenger’s form with refreshingly simple philosophy – buyers will be young, working families – nothing too serious.

Carry over parts included floorpan, scuttle and doors from the 2-door Avenger which in turn provided the project’s largest stumbling block. Adamant on a non-rising greenhouse line, both designers believed this would have created a heavier looking rear alongside a narrowing window, neither acceptable for a light, airy hatchback.

Engineering became unhappy too. As was, hatch aperture, seat belt anchor points and the corner sharpness meant for a weakened structure – they asked for a radius or break line. The impasse needed shifting but Norman and Bob were steadfast. A two-part pressing resolved the issue; initial press, corner nick removal followed by second press. 

Next came the rear glass. Another early decision was taken to incorporate a single piece of glazing with ideas of a frameless window discarded quickly but for eminently sales related issues. Using either a thin painted or chromed strip (dependant on trim level) conveniently hid the rubber seal. 

Thoughts turned inward; the bright, voulu metered out a check pattern with tight tolerances, “the back rest and seat squab had to line up,” according to Bob, adding, “the interior fell into place all rather nicely. 

Feasibility studies came courtesy of Geoff Wright and team in early January, too. Chopping three inches from an Avenger chassis, the Imp engine with a progression of enhancements including stiffened block, new pistons and rings, altered oil drainage (with the engine situated in the 424 being vertical) and different crankshaft seal being the order of the day.

The Avenger loaned its smaller sibling a clutch, water pump and flywheel. Electronic ignition(1) and carburettors required small modification. Scandinavian cold weather testing followed by aerodynamic work found adding a little more roof length to to original drawings reduced drag by twelve percent. 

Amidst this progressive activity came the clay styling buck and the import of (initially Deputy Managing Director, later MD & CEO) Canadian George Lacy who appeared as bright and breezy as the Sunbeam itself. Convinced having Linwood open was cheaper in the long run, the logistic map reads as a scintillating scotoma.

The cars were assembled at Linwood with the 1300 and 1600cc engines arriving from Stoke. However, the 930cc (derived from the Imp and uprated, as above) die castings began life at Linwood before heading to Stoke for machining with a further trip north of the border for eventual fitting. Linwood produced Sunbeam body panels, gearboxes and some suspension and steering assemblies, the remainder from the Midlands.

Transporting components this way is by no means a crippling expense,” offers Lacy, alongside “Ford have invested huge sums into its Fiesta, a whole new plant and power train. Ours is by no means old.” The 1300cc engine conveniently slotted into European tax laws regarding horsepower.

February 2nd 1976 – styling approval.

February 23rd – hardware approval, tenders sent out to suppliers that day.

March 22nd – trim approval.

April 6th – surface release date. Utilising the now completed clay buck, clear plastic Mylar’s were flown weekly to the states where information was transformed into computer tape for the milling machines to read in order to create the wooden master buck.

June 6th – master model completed. Sunbeam shape now fixed. Teething troubles found and ironed out, including (in no particular order) too much gearbox rumble, better rear suspension travel, thicker door seals reducing wind noise, front drag link bushings improved, engine mounts and crash testing. 

October 11th – first of six prototypes hit the roads. Two engaged fully in European type approval tests.

Mid October – twenty five master checking jigs and measuring devices delivered. Out of 3000 items of tooling, nearly 400 are required for body in white processes, alone.

January 6th 1977 – Linwood pilot line begins. Used to train foremen and supervisors.

April 8th 1977 – first Sunbeam built using production tooling – 367 days from final car skin drawings.

July 18th – the 424 Sunbeam is publicly announced. Linwood converted during holiday shut-down period to accommodate both Sunbeam and Avenger lines.

August 8th 1977 – the first Sunbeam’s roll from the Scottish production lines. Almost 200,000 examples would follow during the next four years. Chrysler UK, having the spare capacity to build the Sunbeam had convincing build sheets; Linwood alone producing some 2,800 cars per week (1,050 Sunbeams, Avenger the remainder) with a potential output bordering 3,500. 

(c) motorbase

However, Chrysler sold out to Peugeot in 1979. Sochaux quickly established the Linwood factory was obsolete – RWD models produced would be phased out. Both the Sunbeam and Avenger were rebranded as Talbots in 1979 but discontinued two years later when the Linwood plant was shuttered. Surprisingly, for its final year in production, the Sunbeam was given a facelift, utilising the flush headlamps from the Horizon in place of the recessed generic rectangular units previously fitted.

The Sunbeam was by no means a great car, but it did a vital job of maintaining employment, generating much needed sales and helping maintain some political stability for a while. Chrysler also exploded a myth in the time taken to bring a car to fruition. For that at least, it deserves to be remembered.

Data and photo* source: Motor: Chrysler supplement October 29th 1977. *(Unless where otherwise stated).

(1) From the launch advert, “Owing to an industrial dispute at suppliers factories, some early Sunbeams have been built without electronic ignition. As soon as supplies permit, the company at its own expense, will replace the existing ignition with electronic equipment.Research could not ascertain how many cars this affected, nor how much Petula Clark was paid to wear that outfit.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

28 thoughts on “Sun(beam) Up At 424”

  1. Good morning Andrew. A nice reminder of a tumultuous time, thank you. The Sunbeam was a tremendous achievement in the circumstances and allowed timescale. It was not great, but perfectly competent against competitors like the Chevette. As I recall from its launch road tests, the biggest complaint was that the seats were unsupportive and quite uncomfortable.

    The Lotus version was a bit of a minor cult car too:

    Thanks for giving Pet Clark an airing too!

  2. Morning Andrew, another interesting article, thank you. I knew a little about the Sunbeam woes but hadn’t realised it was conceived and on the road in 18 months, great achievement. I’ve never owned a Sunbeam but always liked the look of them. Never sure of the Imp engine, having owned one many years ago, but they did make major improvements. Loved the Lotus version and is sought after now, and good ones fetch good prices.

  3. It’s odd that there is no mention of Roy Axe regarding the Sunbeam because it so looks like one of his designs. It was a truly clever piece of ‘make-do’ design and engineering although that meant nothing to the average Joe not at all interested in such things. In this way, it reminds me of the MGF which, for me, was the archetypal ‘make-do’ piece of design and engineering. Both cars did very well considering.

  4. Many thanks for anyother interesting article.
    Back in the 70’s our next door neighbour worked at the main Chrysler dealer in Manchester. They always drove a succession of Chrysler cars (Chrysler 180, Simca 1501) and their son was restoring a 1950’s Riley RME in the garage.
    One night we were invited to the launch party for the Sunbeam in Manchester, drinks and canapés, dead posh! As a car crazed 13 year old I tagged along. I wasn’t wildy impressed with the Sunbeam, it was very neat and modern, but too cramped for our family. We thought the boot space under the funky glass tailgate was very shallow.

    What did impress me though was the Matra Simca Bagheera in the corner, but that’s another story!

    Keep up the good work.

    Regards
    Andrew

    1. Bonjour Alain. Je ne pense pas que Petula aurait été payée beaucoup. En 1977, elle était au crépuscule de sa carrière de chanteuse. Bon jingle quand même !

      Hello Alain. I don’t think Petula would have been paid a great deal. By 1977 she was in the twilight of her singing career. Good jingle though!

  5. A great article, Andrew – I had to look up what a ‘scintillating scotoma’ is – it made me laugh when I found out its meaning.

    Here’s a review from the ‘70s UK car programme, ‘Drive In’. As others have said, I didn’t realise it only took 18 months to be developed – that’s an amazing achievement.

    Its 10k mile service intervals and split rear seat were quite ahead of the game, too. It made me smile when the presenter said it’s ‘yet another hatchback’, in the same way that some of us now speak of SUVs.

    1. Give Alan Partidge a watch and you might have a different view 😉

  6. Hi Bernard. You’re right, but in fairness they were able to fit a different window frame, which was not possible with the 1800’s one-piece pressing. Losing the Avenger’s fixed front quarter-light and rounded upper corner made a big difference:

    The only remaining giveaway is the falling crease line in the lower door skin.

    1. @Daniel. I’ve pondered about “those doors”. The solution is to do like Jaguar did for the Mark I/Mark II transformation, simply cutting the door pressing in half on the shoulder line and attaching a new door upper/window surround. It worked perfectly for Jaguar, it could’ve worked for BMC though it would’ve costed them a little bit of extra work.

  7. Afternoon Andrew. An interesting piece. I wasn’t aware of Chrysler’s woes either but I did like my Hillman Imp as it was the first car I ever owned. Engine seemed ok but the doughnuts between the driveshafts were an absolute nightmare. Bang and you were immobile!
    I had no knowledge of “Mylars” either but have done some research on those too. Good stuff.

  8. Looking at that map it should be obvious for everybody that the Rootes business model was unsustainable.

    “Hey guys! Sure, you’ll get that brand new factory you so badly need but only if you build it in Scotland which means you’ll never make a profit because of the mad logistics! Hope you’ll sort it out, bye!”

    1. Hi Ingvar. We have a piece on the Hillman Imp coming up in the near future, which covers the political and logistical issues surrounding the Linwood factory. Stay tuned!

  9. “…a brand new car on sale in eighteen months time”. The same gestation period is claimed for the Morris Marina, Triumph 2000, and Borgward Isabella. Only the last was not compromised in reliability by over-hasty development.
    The Sunbeam had the benefit of being solidly evolutionary, and based on the decently-engineered Avenger.

    My recollections of the almost-new 1979 1.3LS office hack (in baby-sick orangey yellow) are of a shoddily-built car which could easily have been a lot better. I was used to front wheel drive sharpness, this car felt vague and not properly set-up. The best-designed features were the minor controls and instrument panel, patterned on the 1307 / Alpine design, and looking a generation ahead of those in my Renault 5. The glass tailgate with its high cill impressed nobody, although the rally boys loved the rigidity it gave and the possibility of replacing the glass with almost weightless Perspex.

    Indeed, the Sunbeam looked as if it had been designed as a rally car, with the shortened wheelbase and overhang, and ability to accommodate a variety of larger engines – I’ve seen one with a Volvo B6304 straight six, wish I could find the photos.

    As for the general-purpose Sunbeam, I could find little to admire. It wasn’t the sort of car I would ever have considered buying with my own money. My recollection was that a 5 Gordini or Golf GLS was beyond my reach, but I had notions for a Strada or Civic. Instead I chose post-graduate studies, and the R5 just about held together until I was settled in gainful employment.

  10. This issue of CAR brings happy memories for me:

    Nothing much to do with the Scamp, or Sunbeam as it became, but it was bought in mid-June 1976. Almost exactly 45 years ago. Exams were over, school was not just out for summer, it was out for ever.

    The world awaited, and it would even put a Chrysler Sunbeam in my life…

    1. There is huge entertainment and interest in those magazines. I have discovered Brexit has added zero kroner to the cost of ordering one from the UK, thank goodness. I am still reading my two 1991 editions, recently sent via the Bay of e. The Lancia and BMW ads left the biggest impression on me at the time. The Thema was still being sold under the tagline Carpe Diem. And BMW´s copy was exquisitely balanced with the Helmut Newton-type photography.
      Archie Vicar asked why there wasn´t a saloon version of the Sunbeam – it would have been so easy to do.

    2. That Car rendering of the Sunbeam is one of the magazine’s better efforts. I’m ploughing through my newly acquired archive and some of them are truly terrible, not because they’re inaccurate, but because they’re really badly drawn, with no sense of perspective.

    3. I’ve long held the suspicion Daniel that this was deliberate on Car’s part. A subtle means of saying we know what it looks like, but we’re not going to piss off the carmaker in question by revealing too much. Mind you, that argument falls apart on a number of occasions where they were off by a country mile.

    4. It’s interesting to see they were considering the “Scamp” nameplate, which had first been used as a two-door hardtop Plymouth Valiant on the 111″ Dodge Dart wheelbase, Chrysler-Plymouth dealers’ consolation prize for Dodge Division being given a version of their wildly popular 108″ wb Duster coupe (originally Dodge Demon – yes, you could get the original Demon with a Slant 6 and 3-on-the-tree – until the professionally-outraged complained about the Satanic imagery and it was renamed Dodge Dart Sport), from 1971 to ’76.

      Later the Scamp name was used for Plymouth’s one-year-only 1983 version of the Horizon-derived Dodge Rampage pickup.

    5. All true, nlpnt. The Dodge version had a period appropriate name,

      and the Scamp had this memorable advertising jingle:

  11. Could that be the campest picture in the history of automotive advertising?

    1. That’s a good question, Robertas…I’ll give it some thought!

  12. “Research could not ascertain how many cars this affected, nor how much Petula Clark was paid to wear that outfit.”
    I wonder if Petula was paid to get that awesome perm? LOL

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