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.