Mayfair, Volume 26 Number 2, 1991

by Tony Conner

Here's a little quiz for all you car buffs out there: what do MGBs, Morgans and Range Rovers have in common?

Nope, it isn't that Mark Thatcher's got lost in all of them. To see the answer, you'd have to get all three vehicles together (and knowing what different types the owners are, that might be dangerous in itself) and have a look under the bonnet.

All three, despite their evident Englishness, come mightily equipped with the three and a half litre V8 built by Rover but designed by Buick many years ago. It's an old trick: drop a bloody great American V8 into a pretty, but pretty pathetic, European car, and you have yourself the fabled wolf in sheep's clothing.

It's not hard to see the logic behind this. Developing a new engine from scratch (a Ferrari V12,say, or a straight-6 Jag) costs a bob or two. It's easier to buy your power off the peg: American V8s may lack the finesse and elegance of the best European engineering, but they sure as hell deliver the power. There is, the say, no substitute for cubic inches - and who cares where you get them from?

This dodge was most popular in the 60s and 70s. Through such parts-bin raids the Iso Rivolta sprang from nowhere, the AC Ace took on board a 4.7 and then a 7 litre Ford engine and became the Cobra, whilst De Tomaso took a similar route to create the Mangusta (Italian for mongoose, and animal well-known for it Cobra-killing abilities). Around the same time the stylish but dramatically underpowered Sunbeam Alpine grew into the fearsome 200 horsepower Tiger.

The Alpine, based on the dull-as-its-name-suggests Hillman Husky, was good looking enough but far too puny to cut the mustard over in the States; the Husky was a dog, and even the stylish two-seater Alpine body couldn't hide the fact. Americans have always loved European styling but hanker after the easy power of their own big-block V8s, and driving the Alpine you can see why. In fact, looking back, it was probably the world's first hairdresser's car: with all the attractions of a traditional softtop, it nevertheless couldn't get up enough speed to ruffle even the most flyaway of wigs: all show and no go.

Clearly something huge had to be dropped between the front wheels to give the car some clout. A Detroit V8? Thank you, that'll do nicely.

In these pre-fuel crisis, pre-legislation days the sports car was king, but if you couldn't score in the American market you weren't worth the time of day. So Sunbeam's backroom boys got their heads down and quickly produced a prototype which mated the Alpine's good looks to a 4.2 litre Ford V8. The snarling Sunbeam Tiger was born.

The prototype was rushed into production and 1964 saw the public launch of the new car, the 4.2 litre being mated to a Borg-Warner four-speed and a heavy duty "live" rear axle. In this form, with the eight cylinders sitting in a 90-degree vee, it was good for almost 165 bhp, considerably more than your current 16-valve hot hatch can manage, despite a fairly rudimentary valvetrain and no truly radical technology.

The all-iron block was topped by twin iron cylinder heads, with two valves per cylinder operated by pushrods and rockers activated by a single camshaft mounted under the vee. Breathing was through one twin-choke Ford carb, and the power was transmitted through a simple single-plate clutch.

Rear-wheel drive, of course, it was a classic, if crude, configuration. But like so many of the simpler things in life, the damn thing worked.

The modifications were carried out by Jensen, no strangers to the high performance of American V8s, who made sure that the resulting engine transplant didn't simply produce a nose-heavy Alpine with overheating problems.

At the same time, the Alpine itself got a larger engine, but it was clear that as far as the power and the glory was concerned, Sunbeam had nailed their colours to the mast of the Tiger.

The Tiger raced well and sold well. The boy racers of the day queued up for a motor that looked sharp and gave heavyweight performance for a flyweight price. OK, it wasn't quit a Ferrari, but with a gung-ho wheelman it could give plenty of exotics a run for their money.

The car's popularity, not to mention the public's demand for increased power, saw the Mk II launched in '67. Far fiercer than the original and a real threat to the Cobra, the new car boasted 289 cubic engines (4.7 litres) and more than 200 bhp, but Sunbeam's parent company, Rootes, was in trouble and looked to Chrysler to bail them out.

Chrysler did just that, but along the way insisted that the company drop the rival Ford V8. Smart move, boys. Trouble was, they forgot to propose a replacement and so the Tiger died, as indeed - in time - did Sunbeam, one of the oldest names in the business. The loss, or course, was the punter's.

Tigers were fast, furious and affordable - and they still are. E-type, Healey and Aston prices have gone through the garage roof, Ferraris have shot into the stratosphere, and one particular Cobra recently fetched a gobsmacking 4 million pounds. For the same sum you could probably buy every Tiger ever built, and still have change left over.

Seriously, a good Mk I will cost you about ten grand, a basket case less than half that. They're not just cheap to buy, either: the Ford V8 is easy to work on, spare parts are relatively cheap, and while a Tiger will drink more than Greenpeace would like it'll still beat an E-type away from the lights. What more could you ask?

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