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Sunbeam Tiger Celebrates 50th Anniversary at Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion

The Sunbeam Tiger was popularized by the Television show Get Smart. Photo by Mike Michels.

The iconic Sunbeam Tiger turns 50 years old this year, and one of its highlights will be a large number of these nimble two-seaters racing in the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion this week. 

Before there was the Sunbeam Tiger, there was the Sunbeam Alpine, which was introduced in 1959. It was an attractive two-seat convertible that was equipped with a 1494cc, four-cylinder engine. It was an adequate road car, but suffered from under-acceleration compared to other racing sports cars from MG and Triumph.

Enter Carroll Shelby. Fresh off his success of transforming the AC Ace into the Shelby Cobra, the Rootes Group, owners of Sunbeam, asked Shelby what he might be able to do with the Alpine. After an initial meeting, an agreement was struck with Shelby who would be paid $10,000 for the engineering and a potential commission per car sold. Back in the States, ace hot rod fabricator George Boskoff and the legendary Phil Remington went to work on packaging a 260 cubic-inch Ford small-block into the engine bay.

The resulting modifications instantly propelled the Sunbeam onto the main stage, and with a new identity. Named for the world land speed holder of 1926, the Sunbeam Tiger was the least expensive way to have a Shelby-engineered, small-block, Ford-powered two-seat British roadster in the ‘60s.

On the race track, the Tigers were proving their determination. Rather than running against their previous four-cylinder counterparts, the ante was upped and were pitted against Jaguars and Corvettes…and winning. Most of the performance options available were called “LAT” options, which stood for Los Angeles Tigers, the ones out of Shelby Americans’ shop. Among the options popularized by dealer Hollywood Sports Cars were mag wheels, four barrel Holley carburetors on Edelbrock manifolds, limited slip diffs and traction bars. In 1967 there was an upgrade to the renowned 289 V8.

Later in Tiger production, Chrysler Corporation acquired the bankrupt Rootes Group and found itself selling Ford powered sports cars which were adorned with the Chrysler Pentastar on one fender.  

The Sunbeam Tiger was further popularized among American audiences by the ‘60s television show “Get Smart.”  A total of 7,085 Tigers were built between 1964 and 1967, and are highly sought after by enthusiasts who enjoy putting the cars through their paces in vintage racing events and road rallies.