Not without merit, but vanquished by the Capri.
When one thinks of 1960s British coupés based on humble saloon underpinnings, the Ford Capri immediately springs to mind. Ford’s masterful repackaging of the Cortina Mk2 into the car you always promised yourself was an instant hit. Who cared that the Capri was largely a triumph of style over substance when the style was so appealing?
Ford was not, however, the only British mainstream manufacturer to market a stylish coupé based on its workaday saloon. A year before the Capri was launched, Rootes Group unveiled the Sunbeam Rapier, a two-door fastback coupé based on the platform and mechanical underpinnings of the Arrow range of mid-size saloons and estates. The Arrow was sold under various marque names(1), the most prolific of which was Hillman, where it carried both the Minx and Hunter model designations. The Rapier shared the Arrow saloon’s 98½” (2,500mm) wheelbase and was 4” (102mm) longer overall at 174½” (4,432mm).
The Rapier was styled by Roy Axe, design director of Rootes Group, who insisted that its similarity to the 1964 Plymouth Barracuda was entirely coincidental(2). Both the Barracuda and Rapier actually shared a distinctly Italianate influence from Ghia’s 1960 Fiat 2300 Coupé.
Despite some superficial similarities in frontal appearance to the Humber Sceptre, a luxury version of the Arrow, the Rapier shared no external body panels with the saloon. It was a fastback pillarless two-door coupé with frameless door windows and a broad reverse-rake C-pillar, behind which was a three-part panoramic rear screen. The style was rather more elegant grand tourer than sports coupé, an image accentuated by an abundance of brightwork, including aluminium sill finishers and rather fussy looking chrome-plated wheel covers.
Inside, the Rapier was equipped with a full complement of seven instruments behind a three-spoke steering wheel. This comprised a speedometer and tachometer flanked by four smaller gauges for fuel, water temperature, oil pressure and ammeter, and a large clock in the centre of the dashboard. The handbrake was positioned on the outboard side of the driver’s seat, maintaining a Rootes tradition in this regard. The seats were upholstered in perforated vinyl.
The Rapier was powered by Rootes’ long-serving 1,725cc OHV engine with a cast-iron block and alloy cylinder head, fitted with twin Stromberg carburettors. In this form it produced maximum power of 88bhp (66kW) and torque of 100 lb ft (136Nm). Transmission was via a four-speed manual gearbox, with overdrive(3) on the top two ratios, or an optional three-speed automatic.
Car Magazine published its first road-test of the Rapier in October 1968. The reviewer was surprisingly critical of the styling, which he described as “…an unhappy combination of the smooth and the angular which results in a feeling of heavy clumsiness.” He was particularly critical of “…the small and abrupt waistline kink which does so much less for the car than the proper GM coke-bottle line.” In a rather backhanded and sexist compliment, however, he conceded that “…we might condemn [the Rapier] as a styling disaster were it not that so many ladies of our acquaintance seem to like it so.”
The Rapier had good interior accommodation, to the extent that it could be regarded as a full four-seater as long as the driver and passengers were not unusually tall. The ride quality was good, being “agreeably well damped” and “feeling stiffer than the Sceptre, say, and yet very comfortable”. Noise suppression was also good, with the engine “well damped” and “less road rumble transmitted from the big radials than you might expect” while wind noise “only becomes significant at high speeds.”
The gearchange was heavier and required longer movements than many contemporary cars, but was precise and the synchromesh was unbeatable. Performance was good, with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 11.4 seconds and a top speed of 104mph (168km/h). Handling and roadholding were similar to the Arrow saloon, limited by low-geared recirculating ball steering, requiring 4½ turns from lock to lock, and an insufficiently well located live rear axle. The servo-assisted brakes were light, fade-free and almost too powerful, making it easy for the “ham-footed” to lock the wheels.
Overall, despite its wholly competent performance, the reviewer was unimpressed by the Rapier, which he described as “essentially a Humber Sceptre which handles a little better, is a fraction faster but…a bit less comfortable and perhaps a shade noisier.” He dismissed the different bodyshell as “a monstrous irrelevance” and not worth the £64 premium over the Sceptre’s £1,259 list price.
Ignoring this lukewarm reception, Rootes went on to expand the Rapier range in both directions. In order to burnish the car’s grand touring credentials, Rootes turned to Holbay, a Suffolk-based specialist engineering company, and asked it to tune the engine for greater power and torque. Holbay machined and polished the combustion chambers and ports, fitted larger valves, a high-lift camshaft and a pair of twin-choke Weber carburettors. The compression ratio was increased from 9.2 to 9.6:1. Together, these modifications increased the maximum power output to 110bhp (82kW).
Surprisingly, the car’s final drive ratio was also reduced from 4.22 to 3.89:1, negating any potential improvements in acceleration at lower speeds, but giving the car a much more relaxed feel at higher speeds. The 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time remained unchanged at 11.4 seconds and the top speed increased only marginally to 106mph (171km/h).
The new model was given the Suffix H120(4) and was distinguished by black bodyside stripes and wider 5” Rostyle steel wheels. The marginal gains offered by the H120 came at a steep price however, £1,634 at launch in 1969. Car Magazine tested the H120 in July and concluded that “When you consider the competition from Alfa, BMW, Lancia, Rover etc. at the same price or less [the H120 was] in for a rough time on the home market, while presumably in export markets it is a non-starter, like so many British sporting models.” This was indeed a bleak assessment of its prospects.
In 1970, Rootes introduced the Alpine, a lower specification version of the Rapier using a single-carburettor variant of the 1,725cc engine which produced 74bhp (55kW). This was good for a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 14.6 seconds and a top speed of 91mph (147km/h). The Alpine had less exterior brightwork than the Rapier. It lost the aluminium sill covers and vinyl covered C-pillar and was fitted with plain chromed steel hub caps from the Hillman Hunter. Inside it had a wooden rather than vinyl covered dashboard and centre console, and a reduced complement of instruments. Its list price at launch was £1,086, a significant saving over the Rapier.
If the Rapier was struggling to make a convincing case for itself, the arrival in 1969 of the Ford Capri instantly rendered it an irrelevance. While the Rapier was elegant in what was becoming a somewhat dated style, the Capri looked aggressively sporting and was exactly what the market wanted. It was also offered in a much wider range of specifications and engine sizes, from the humble 1300L to the high performance 3000GT. Moreover, Capri pricing at launch considerably undercut the Rapier, starting from just £899 for the 1300L model and rising to £1,088(5) for the 2000GT(6).
The almost moribund Sunbeam branding did not help the Rapier’s prospects either. Perhaps the model might have made more sense pitched as a flagship luxury GT, trimmed in wood and leather and carrying the Humber name? In any event, it remained in production until 1976(7) and a total of just 46,204 were sold over eight years. To put this number in context, the Capri Mk1 achieved sales of 1,172,900 over its five-year lifespan. The end of Rapier production also marked the demise of the Sunbeam(8) marque name.
(1) The practice of badge engineering, which is selling the same car under a number of different marque and model names, is most commonly associated with BMC, but Rootes Group sold the Arrow as a Hillman Minx and Hunter, a Humber Sceptre, a Singer Gazelle and Vogue and, in different export markets, a Sunbeam Arrow, Minx, Hunter, Sceptre, Vogue and Break de Chasse, the latter used on the estate version in Francophone markets.
(2) Rootes Group had been taken over by Chrysler, owner of the Plymouth marque, in 1967.
(3) Manufactured by transmission specialist Laycock Engineering Limited.
(4) The H120 suffix is something of a mystery. Was it an optimistic expectation of either the modified car’s power output or its top speed?
(5) Most Capri customers would pay rather more than these entry prices, tempted by Ford’s attractive range of option packages.
(6) The V6 engined 3000 was not launched until October 1969.
(7) The Alpine was discontinued in 1975, when the name was repurposed for the new Chrysler FWD five-door hatchback.
(8) Sunbeam was revived in 1977 as the model name for a stop-gap three door hatchback based on the Chrysler Avenger.
39 thoughts on “Blunt Sword”
Stunning look with go-fast image. The instrument cluster is akin to Corona 1600E
Good morning Daniel,
Nice to be reminded of this pleasant looking coupé that tends to be forgotten by many (me included).
In light of the completed takeover of the Rootes Group by the time the Rapier appeared, I find it hard to believe Roy Axe’s statement that the likeness to the first generation Plymouth Barracuda was entirely coincidental. Set side by side, they are not identical of course but there are striking similarities- mostly in the rear 3/4 view. Cost considerations likely precluded a one piece backlight as in the American car- but picture the Rapier fitted with one and the evidence becomes even stronger. Incidentally, Datsun borrowed the Rapiers C-pillar and rear side DLO treatment for their 120Y (B210) Coupé in 1973:
Hi Bruno. The likeness to the Sunny coupé never occurred to me, but your right, even down to the uptick in the DLO. Well spotted!
Hi Daniel. I think the author of the Car Magazine article you quote must have got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning as I think it’s a bit unfair to be quite so grumpy about the looks of the Rapier. It is somewhat old-fashioned for its time, but it has a genteel, raffish affability about it that’s not without appeal. The half-hearted notch to the base of the window-line behind the door is unfortunate, but the rest I could live with. The rear-side and rear window arrangement is smart and attractive, although it does remind me a bit of the Austin Montego (which Axe was too late in arriving at BL to rescue).
My junior school Headmaster, Mr Inglis had one of these in red with black stripes and Rostyle wheels. I thought it was rather spiffy at the time and quite racy for a teacher at Cherry Lane. There again I was only 8 or so at the time!
I always considered the ‘Arrow’ based Rapier unworthy of the name. In the 1950s the ‘Audax’ Sunbeam Rapier was a glamorous and desirable coupe with some competition pedigree as well. It had started as a twin carb evolution of the pre-Audax Hillman Minx Californian, and was trying to fill the shoes of the stylish Sunbeam Talbot saloons.
These do have a strong air of the early sixties about them; I seem to recall that they were based on the estate’s chassis, rather than the saloon’s. Are the rear lights from the estate? Despite the relatively small sales numbers, I recall seeing them often at the time. I’m surprised that they lasted until 1976.
Here are some pictures of the prototypes. On balance, I think the kink in the side helps – I think ‘genteel’ is a good way to describe the overall design, in the same way a Sunbeam Alpine is a bit delicate looking, compared with an MGB.
Good day, Daniel and thank you for this post about an (unfortunately) almost forgotten car.
The design of the Rapier is far from a disaster for me, for me it is one of the most beautiful British cars, especially in the Alpine version without the vinyl on the C-pillar.
I had to laugh when you called the (styling) compliment from the Car editors sexist. It reminded me of my parents. My father always paid for all our family cars, my mother chose the model, colour and equipment, end of discussion – and my mother would have preferred the Rapier/Alpine to the Capri.
The styling and performance of the Arrow based Rapier and Alpine leaves a lot to be desired, which stands in stark contrast to the similar sized Florian based yet Giugiaro styled Isuzu 117 Coupe, which was not only equipped with more powerful Minx-descended 1.6-2.0 SOHC/DOHC engines but also credited later with being the one of the first sporting cars to be available with a diesel.
Good morning Daniel.
My abiding memory of the Rapier was the opening side rear windows, something I had never seen before. Hitherto I had always associated opening a window with having a door to open it into and the idea of separating one from the other had something of the exotic for me. It does rather sound though that they was precious little if the exotic about the car otherwise.
The Car review was interesting, being as it was from an era when the more mainstream motoring press found it very difficult to criticise a car, especially a British one, and admitting that its export chances were pretty much nil was fighting talk for the time.
I remember first seeing one of these in the Summer of 1968 when I was 11 on a family holiday on the Isle of Wight. It was in a lovely shade of metallic green and I thought it was beautiful. I’ve always kept that affection for them.
It’s existence has to be seen in context with the relative success of the earlier Audax Rapier. It seems unlikely they would have brought a coupe out if they hadn’t already had an established clientele for that kind of car. Interestingly the earlier model sold slightly more than Ford’s previous Classic based Consul Capri had in 1961-4, though not by much.
The Mk 1 Capri was a more natural competitor to the Rapier, these cars were glamorous rather than pretentious like the later Capris .
Good morning all. I always rather liked the Rapier / Alpine, but never thought of it as a direct competitor to the Capri. Instead, “genteel, raffish affability” and “rather spiffy” sums it up perfectly, thank you S.V. and Andrew!
“In a rather backhanded and sexist compliment, however, he conceded that “…we might condemn [the Rapier] as a styling disaster were it not that so many ladies of our acquaintance seem to like it so.”” –
This sounds like an Archie Vicar kind of remark. I had a look at the 2300 Coupe and it has a lot of features that the Rapier shares, some years later. I am a splitter here: the Rapier is more like a borrowing from the 2300 Coupe and the Rapier is like something loaned the later Datsun. The Barracuda´s resemblance is less overt.
I´ve only seen one Rapier in the metal that I can recall; it happened to be a resident near my family address in Dublin. It was green-yellow and rather odd to my eyes.
Good afternoon, all. I don’t think I have ever seen this car, other than maybe a photo here and there. It’s a bit weird looking to my eyes, but not unpleasant.
Good afternoon, yes the rear lights were shared with the estate (and as I understand it boot floor explaining different length from saloon).
As a child I always thought the way the side windows disappeared into the C pillar was an interesting styling feature on Rootes cars. Renault used it on the 17 and Avantime as well.
Wasn’t the Sunbeam brand name the preferred choice for export Arrows and Avengers?
Good evening Hummel. You’re correct: Sunbeam was indeed the favoured marque name for export models. See footnote (1) above for a full list of the Arrow variants, including the Sunbeam export models.
Like my almost namesake Andrew above, I was rather taken by the Rapier as a child, and had no idea that it shared so much with our very staid (despite being a racy, for the time, Marina Green) Hillman Minx.
My grandfather’s previous two cars, in reverse order, were a white series V or VI Audax Hillman Minx, and preceded by a series IV Singer Vogue, so he was obviously a Rootes fanboy. These cars were all owned by him within four years (when I was between two and six), and I have no idea why there was such a quick turnover, though I would have been unlikely to know much about reliability issues at that age. The fact that he kept returning to Rootes would suggest that reliability wasn’t a problem, as would the ’69 model Minx lasting until ’87, when it was then sent for scrap.
THE SPOILER. Does nobody remember it?
Am I alone in wondering whether the H120-only bootlid re-skinning provided any drag-reduction or stability benefit?
The whole H120 exercise seems to have been a vainglorious attempt to add glamour to a product which was underperforming in both the sales and dynamic senses. Chrysler had sunk the promising V6, the OHC 180 engine was either out of bounds, NIH, or didn’t fit. So it was down to Rostyles and stripes, and a laboriously modified engine from a well-regarded racing engine builder little-known except to hardcore motorsport fans. Holbay never had the marketing cachet of Lotus, Brabham, Cooper, or Cosworth. Those extra 14 bhp and 13lb. ft of torque (DIN figures) were hard and expensively won. The Capri 3000GT had 31% more power, and cost around 10% less.
Things could have been different without the dead hand of Chrysler interference. The spirit which gave us the Sunbeam Tiger was utterly suppressed. It was left to Forward Engineering – better known for their work on Jaguar engines – to show what might have been:
“In 1969/70, a UK company, Forward Engineering, took two brand new Sunbeam Rapier Fastback bodies from the Rootes production line. The first was a standard Rapier trimmed and fully painted. The second car was a H120 shell which was supplied in primer. The first car was fitted with a standard Tiger II engine and gearbox with normal carburation. The H120 shell was fitted with a 271bhp version of the Ford 289ci V8. This engine had fully gas-flowed Weslake-Gurney cylinder heads, solid lifter cam and breathed through two Carter AFB 4-barrel carburetors. The engine swap was fairly simple, although Forward Engineering quickly realised that the standard production car’s front anti-roll bar would actually have to pass through the V8’s sump! In order to side-step this problem a new anti-roll bar was made and fitted. The Rapier’s steering box also caused a few problems and its position was altered without affecting the car’s steering dynamics. The bodyshells were stiffened with modifications to the bulk-head and frame that was purpose built. Fully strengthened front suspension units were specially built, and spring and damper rates were reset. This was necessary to counter the extra weight of the cast-iron V8. The rear of the shells were also reinforced around the spring mountings and provision was made for radius arms above and below the rear axle. The rear axles themselves were modified Aston Martin 4HA Salisbury units, both fitted with a 2.88 ‘Power-Lok’ LSD. Rear axle location on the first car was by Watts linkage, the second car was fitted with a Panhard rod. Front brakes on both cars were modified Tiger units, whilst rear brakes remained as standard Rapier drums, although harder linings were fitted.”
It all sounds like a thinking man’s Jensen Interceptor…
Finally, an odd H120 fact: The Holbay car had an oil temperature gauge in place of the regular Rapier’s ammeter. Bragging rights? Or was there a problem?
Robertas, the Ford V8 wasn’t going to happen after the Chrysler takeover and they’d investigated and dismissed the Chrysler V8 – the rear-mounted distributor meant it wasn’t going to fit in the Tiger and I assume would have been an issue for the Arrow/Rapier too. Chrysler V8-powered Humber Sceptre (& Sunbeam Venezia) were built and did not proceed, but I’m not sure about Arrow cars.
Hi Robertas. Whatever about its questionable aerodynamic benefits, the best thing about the revised boot lid / rear spoiler was that it eliminated the rather random strip of brightwork across the rear end between the tail lights on the standard model.
It’s worse than that: The Rapier had one strip, the Alpine had two, but half the depth.
Can you imagine the meetings where such things were decided?
Here are the three tail treatments together:
And this shows how Chrysler promoted Sunbeam as a superior brand, with a genuinely distinguished history.
If anything lets the fastback Rapier down visually, it’s the parts bin trim items – wheels, brightwork, handles, lights. It would not have taken much more money to come up with distinctive items which broke the connection to the Minx, Hunter and Sceptre.
That said, there seems to have been a missed opportunity in not making a four-door version of the Rapier, possibly in three-volume form, as a Sceptre and Vogue, but possibly not a Super Minx. Something similar happened in the pre-Arrow generations; the Super Minx, Vogue, and Sceptre sat on the same platform as the Minx and Gazelle, with wheelbase and track dimensions unchanged, but more imposing bodywork.
Hello all. Sorry for my long absence. The Rootes group is something of a mystery to me, since it ceased to be before I got consciously into cars and even when looking back, quickly gets subsumed by its partly shared history (or rather: end) with Simca, which is slightly more familiar. Probably the most abiding memory of Sunbeam is watching James Bond drive an Alpine in Dr. No (image: 007james.com):
Other than that, I’m slighlty fascinated by the truly excellent names they had: Tiger, Alpine, Hunter, Minx, Avenger. Strange to think that those names were attached to – especially in Rootes’ convoluted later years – decidedly average cars. Somewhat akin to US car and engine names in their hyperbole.
I also remember – speaking of “convolution” – the Talbot logo being sported on Peugeot dealerships long after the marque had been put to pasture. And on their rally cars, of course (which, given the provenance of Peugeot’s rally efforts lay in part with the Rootes Group, isn’t that far fetched):
“Genteel” seems to me a good way to describe the Rapier, another somewhat hyperbolic name – then again, naming workaday cars after upper class holiday desinations like Ascona or Capri isn’t much less hyperbolic. I like the Arrow saloons’ simplicity of design, which seems somewhat lost in the Rapier. The side and three-quarters front views are nice enough, if a little under wheeled (but that’s more to do with the era), the three-quarters rear view is a bit unhappy, making the car look narrow and bulbous in the wrong places. Needless to say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Rapier (or any other Rootes car besides perhaps the Alpine) in the metal.
Hello Tom. The Arrow series cars were designed to compete with the Cortina Mk2, but Ford quickly moved the game on with the Mk3, leaving the Hunter looking a bit staid and outdated.
It did have quite a nice Alfa Romeo-style dashboard, though, with deeply cowled main instruments and, on GT models, supplementary instruments in the centre console:
Ah, a car from the ‘side mirrors are optional’ generation… That is a lovely dashboard (again). Ford caught a lot of competitors flat-footed with the Mk3 Cortina. Even if I generally don’t much like that rotund Seventies’ style, the Cortina (and the coeval Taunus) look quite nice and does make the Arrow look dated.
Conversely, the change from the Datsun Bluebird 510 to the 610 is just… ugh.
Today’s random* fun fact: the upswept window line on the 610 180B Bluebird was called ‘the J-line’ and was a feature of that generation of Datsun cars.
* Weird stuff that lodges itself permanently in my brain, taking up space that might be more usefully employed.
And to think that generation Sunny popularised Datsun/Nissan in the UK…
I think DTW might as well call itself “Weird Stuff Lodged in the Brain Appreciation Society” 😉, so no worries there!
Another fine example of Datsun’s J-line style!
I’ve just been looking at a Hunter GLS online (far too late in the day for me to attempt to try to add an image via Imgur, and far too much rum has passed under the bridge), and they’ve very cleverly managed to make the GLS, introduced in 1972, look more dated than the original Hunter from 1966. How did they manage such a trick?
Here you go, Andy. A Hunter GLS in a great period colour:
And its predecessor, an early ‘Arrow’ Minx:
And its Iranian cousin, the Paykan:
The front end of the Paykan looks exactly like a modernised Hunter, had Chrysler been minded to update it to resemble the Alpine, as they did with the Avenger. I wonder if it might have been designed by Roy Axe, but never used?
The ’77 Paykan facelift also got an Alpine-style dashboard. It was probably considered well worth the bother, given how much Chrysler UK were making from royalties and component supplies to Iran Khodro. Not that the facelifted Paykan had much competition in its home market, unlike the aged and outclassed Hunter.
The 72-on Hunter GLS is an oddity – looks like a Sceptre, which still had four years to run – but with the costly to produce Holbay engine. The designation doesn’t even sound “sporty”. GTS would have been better, though bathetic. Perhaps there was some sort of inescapable contractual obligation to Holbay which wasn’t being fulfilled by Rapier H120 demand.
The end of days 76-79 Chrysler-badged Hunters, assembled in Santry near Dublin, also had the Sceptre grille and lamps and looked suspiciously like a bricolage of everything left on the parts shelves, or possibly still subject to supplier obligations.
It has to be said that Rootes did far better in the sixties, particularly compared with woeful Harriman-era BMC. Despite backing the wrong horse with the Imp, they managed to design and bring to production not one, but two ‘Marinas’, both far better than the British Leyland item, which was hardly off the drawing board when the Avenger went on sale in February 1970.
A mate owns two of these, one is restored and the other unrestored that we’ve used on a couple of forest navigation events (a decade ago now!)
My view is the main demerit of the styling, shared with the original Barracuda, that the floorpan/firewall/cowl was shared with the equivalent sedan; compared to the Mustang and Capri which had the firewall/cowl was moved back and lower in height giving better proportions and a lower profile. Neither Chrysler nor Rootes had the budget for that, and it wasn’t justified by the numbers produced.
There was a guy in Queensland running a Rapier in club motorsport with Hunter front sheetmetal.
Looking at the AROnline page with the prototypes the evolution of the styling from the prior Audax model (which resembled the sedan much more closely), although the Barracuda had debuted a few months before the date of the first model (1st April vs August 1964) even without any internal collaboration via Chrysler.
I don’t think it helped that Rootes still had a steering box instead of a rack, and also the car is fairly low-geared for the highway.
The Rapier H120 looks less “flash” than the Capri, and the fastback styling is very attractive. By contrast, the Capri GTXLR looks as if Ford’s design team ran out of time just behind the rear wheel, decided to droop the the styling line, whack on an Escort’s rear end, and cover up the surgery with fake vents, louvres, and a plastic spoiler. A huge success, but there’s no accounting for taste.
Hi Susan. I always thought the Alpine/Rapier deserved to do better, but Ford’s marketing power just swept it aside. A wider range of engines and a proper high-performance ‘halo’ model would certainly have helped its case. I’m not sure marketing it under the Sunbeam marque and employing two different model names for it were good decisions either.
It is a bit odd, the way all the character lines and such just disappear behind the rear wheels. Also, why produce a long-bonneted design (that screams “engine in the front”), then make vents to make it look like a rear engined car (other than what you mentioned, Susan)?
By the time I became aware of cars, the Capri had been on the market for a long time and was decidedly long in the tooth, so I never really cared for it. Where I lived, the plastic fantastic Opel Manta B (Vauxhall Cavalier Coupé) was much more popular – well, amongst a “certain” crowd…
The Capri’s so-called ‘hockey stick’ feature line was part of the design from early on, even before the DLO was finalised:
I rather liked the Capri Mk1, but without a vinyl roof. Here’s a facelifted 3000GT, identifiable by the smaller dummy vents:
That’s what I always had in mind but never could summon thoughts into words. Especially about capri’s rear end!!!