The dawning of a new car.
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.
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.