These days the Ford MK2 Escort has been making the news, what with Ken Block ripping around in one lately. That’s great! And it reminded me of another old, little rear-drive rally car that sounded incredible: the Sunbeam Lotus. And that idle brain wander had me realize that the little Lotus was weirder than I thought.
Again, it’s easy to understand the Sunbeam Lotus in contrast to the MK2 Escort, mostly because the Mk2 Escort is a very well-known car, and not too dissimilar from the Sunbeam.
The Escort was a rear-wheel-drive small family car based off of a design introduced in the 1960s that adapted well to rallying. Modified for race use with a screaming four-cylinder engine, the MK2 Escort came to dominate the rally scene for years. It stayed competitive longer than anybody imagined. Ari Vatanen won the World Rally Championship in a MK2 all the way in 1981. The brand-new Audi Quattro was around then, and it couldn’t top a car based off of a chassis introduced in 1968. Even now, Mk2s are still quick today.
Contemporary to the Mk2 was a car called...well, the name is a little confusing. Wikipedia lists it as the Chrysler Sunbeam, but it was sold as a Talbot Sunbeam, and the version we’re really interested in was called the Sunbeam Lotus, though it was campaigned by what was referred to as the Talbot team.
The confusing mix and match of names has a lot to do with this car’s history. Back in the late 1950s into the mid-60s, Chrysler started buying up a series of small European car manufacturers to better compete with Ford and GM’s European operations. Chrysler took control of Simca, an interesting French company whose expertise with front-wheel drive ended up saving Chrysler in the ‘80s, and Chrysler took control of the Rootes Group, a collection of staid British auto brands. Included in the Rootes Group were such thrilling names as Humber, Hillman, Talbot (that’s a hard, British T at the end there) and Sunbeam.
As I said, Simca that Chrysler acquired was an interesting and reasonably cutting-edge little carmaker at the time. The Simca 1204 was basically the progenitor of all modern front-wheel drive hatchbacks and it came out in 1967, seven years before Volkswagen made its own world-beating play on the format with the Golf. The Simca was the best-selling French car of its day, and gave way to the Dodge Omni and the Chrysler K Car that kept the littlest of the Big Three afloat in the ‘80s. Simca was innovative and important. The Rootes Group was, er, a bit more dowdy.
The first (and last) car that the Rootes Group developed during its years as part of Chrysler Europe was called the Hillman Avenger. It was sold under more names than any other car ever, a Chrysler, a Plymouth, a Dodge, a Talbot, a Hillman and a Volkswagen. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked.
The Avenger was a rear-wheel-drive family car introduced in 1970 that adapted itself well to rallying, much like the somewhat smaller Escort of the time. Sales were decent at first, but as the 1970s wore on, Ford kept updating their cars while the Hillman grew increasingly old time.
It was a bad period for the British auto industry as a whole, and the Rootes Group wasn’t doing a good job pulling itself out of the muck. As the hilariously focused Rootes-Chrysler.co.uk explains, Ford and GM’s operations in the UK saved themselves by importing cars from their more steady businesses in Germany, British Leyland saved itself (kinda) by going bankrupt and getting bailed out by the government, but the Rootes Group was kind of stuck on its own. Chrysler asked for money from the British government to keep the Rootes Group going, but British Leyland was sucking up most of the funds. Chrysler managed to squeeze a grant out of the Brits in 1975, but it was just to keep a factory going in an area where the government needed votes, and it was an election year. Nevermind that the factory was one of the worst car factories of all time, Chrysler needed something new to keep the plant going, and it needed something fast.
So it made kind of a British Gremlin. Just like how a then-struggling AMC chopped the butt of of its aging Hornet sedan into the Gremlin hatchback, Chrysler of Europe chopped the butt off of the Hillman Avenger and made a hatchback of its own, dubbed the Chrysler Sunbeam. Development took a frankly laughable 19 months. Most car companies take half a decade to design a new vehicle. But, then, the Chrysler Sunbeam was only sort of new. The Rootes Group chopped the Avenger’s wheelbase by three inches, stuck in an engine half of the car’s normal size and pretty much called it a day.
The styling looks a lot like the Dodge Omni of the time, so I always thought the two platforms were related, but I should have never doubted the skimpiness...er...make it work attitude of Chrysler at that time.
Sadly, this new hacked hatchback was even more poorly made than the already-kinda-crappy Avenger. The story of the car gets a lot messier when Chrysler got bored and peaced out of Europe in 1979, selling its operations to the only bigger sucker in the car world, the then-new Peugeot/Citroën mashup PSA. I don’t really want to go there, but the long and short of it is that PSA didn’t do anything but rebadge and rename the car the Talbot Sunbeam and sell it through 1981.
However, it was during this time that the Sunbeam had its moment of glory, at least as far as I am concerned. In 1978, the incorrigible Rootes Group decided that the Sunbeam needed a little extra something. Decent build quality? Better-than-average fuel economy? No! A sporty version. First the Rootes Group made its own model the Ti, with a 1.6 liter engine from the company portfolio with dual weber carbs and 100 horsepower, then tied up with Lotus to make the Sunbeam Lotus. The operation was filled with what now looks like bittersweet, national pride, as Talbot-Sunbeam.de recounts:
After the launch of the new developed medium sized car with the code number 424 in the autumn of the year 1977, the Chrysler sport manager Desmond O’Dell saw a proverbial „Sunbeam“ for the chipped car industry. The glory sporty times of Chrysler were many years ago and Des O’Dell wanted to start into the rallye business. He knew by the experiences of his Avenger times, that an engine with 1600 cc and 100 bhp wasn’t be adequate to be conquering in the rallye world.
O’Dell has won some championships for Chrysler since six years in fact, but from the end of the year 1974 it doesn’t work anymore. The glory times of the Hillman Imp, Hillman Hunter and Chrysler Avenger were so long ago. And now, there was a Sunbeam at the horizon again! Des O’Dell haven’t found an adequate engine for the Sunbeam in the Chrysler construction kit, so he needed some help from outside. In the January of 1977, he met some old friends of Lotus, that he knew from his Aston Martin times, as he was the test manager there. Lotus has developed a two-litres engine by this time, and so he made the deal.
In the April of 1979, were enough Sunbeam Lotus road versions for the homologation built and the rallye mangement in Paris gave their OK for the rallye car. Des O’Dell said at the time proudly: “That we have made by our own hands - one more Sunbeam for the car industry of the United Kingdom!”
Lotus stuffed in a 2174cc version of its old dual-overhead-cam 907 “torqueless wonder” slant four engine. Road trim of the engine made 150 horsepower, racing trim put out 238, per Talbot-Sunbeam.de. Torque was around 188 lb-ft, according to Racing Cars Technology. The car ran 0-60 in either just under or just over seven seconds depending on which magazine was testing it. To give a sense of just how much faster the Lotus version was than the model it was based on, the standard Sunbeam did the same in 22.
The specs sound astoundingly ancient to modern ears. The car weighed just about 2,100 pounds, had a five-speed ZF transmission, dual carbs and ran on a live rear axle holding up (for the road car) 13-inch wheels. However, it did get stiffer and better Bilstein shocks as well as a stiffer front anti-roll bar and drove like a beast, as Autocar wrote back in ‘79:
the way the engine delivers from comparatively low speeds is pure, rude satisfaction.
Most importantly, the car sounded freakishly, wonderfully good. Watch some period footage of the car, absolutely rung out by French driver Guy Frequelin and the up-and-coming Henri Toivonen (later killed in a Lancia Delta S4 ending the Group B era) and tell me it’s not a pure joy.
Here’s the ‘82 Manx rally, good for comparing car sounds:
Here’s the ‘80 RAC, good for hearing just how serious these motors sound, all intake bark and not much else.
While we’re at it we should watch how furiously Toivonen drove these extremely RWD cars. This is one of the most haggard slides ever recorded in the WRC.
And one more for good measure.
If you’re wondering why this car didn’t take off in sales and become an icon like, say, the Golf GTI, Jeremy Clarkson actually chimed in to explain why in one of his old tapes:
Basically, while the Lotus-tweaked car was fun and had the theoretical practicality of a hatchback shape, it was less than actually practical, as it was still a limited-production vehicle made by a pair of struggling low-volume British carmakers steered along by not one but two disinterested corporate overlords. The GTI, by contrast, was actually practical in that it had front-wheel drive, fuel injection and it didn’t break down all the time. Still, I love the carbureted, wild Chrysler/Sunbeam/Talbot/Lotus.
Now, while Ari Vatanen secured the driver’s title for the WRC in ‘81 in a MK2 Escort, it was actually the Talbot team that won the manufacturer’s title. The Sunbeam wasn’t just a fun-sounding oddball little race car. It was a winner, as good and as fast and as tough as anything of its day.
It was good enough to beat out all sorts of legends like the Quattro and is good enough to live in my heart forever. At least, the story of its weird upbringing and that perfect sound will not leave me anytime soon.
Correction: This piece initially stated that the Sunbeam was based off of the Hillman Hunter, not the Hillman Avenger. Don’t get your Rootes Group cars mixed up!